05/07/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 07/06/2012 05:12 EDT

Ottawa should offer exit strategy to bands bogged down in treaty talks: report

VICTORIA - Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan is reviewing a report that examines offering First Nations in British Columbia a flexible exit strategy from slow-moving treaty negotiations.

The report was prepared by Duncan's own B.C. treaty representative, former Campbell River, B.C. mayor James Lornie, who recommends Ottawa needs to loosen up the current treaty exit strategy.

Lornie's report does not advocate dropping treaty negotiations in B.C., but recommends allowing frustrated and debt-challenged First Nations to leave treaty tables without facing huge immediate bills.

It states that B.C. First Nations, who have little to show for 20 years of talks, need the option to leave the negotiations without feeling intense pressure to pay off their debts.

"It is my view that the accumulated debt burden of the First Nations in the B.C. treaty process, amounting to more than $420 million today, has become an insurmountable and unsustainable barrier to progress and a disincentive to completion of agreements," Lornie's report states.

"The options I propose are based on my belief that it is vital that this situation be addressed, and that future liabilities must be aligned with progress in the treaty process," the report states.

It adds that First Nations who exit treaty talks should be permitted to return to negotiations at a later date.

Lornie submitted the document to Duncan last November, but it was only made public last week.

"I consider that the single most important response that the federal government can make is to re-commit to treaty-making as a federal priority, and to commit to that priority at every level of the federal system," stated Lornie in the report.

Duncan could not be immediately reached for comment, but his office issued a statement, noting the minister, department and treaty-process partners are reviewing the report.

"Canada will continue to explore concrete, specific ways to address many of the issues and recommendations raised in the report through existing initiatives," said a statement from Duncan's director of communications Jason MacDonald.

B.C. Aboriginal Relations Minister Mary Polak said Lornie's report does not advocate dumping the current treaty process, but includes a thoughtful analysis of obstacles facing settlements.

"If a treaty table is at a point where progress is not being made, and perhaps progress hasn't been made for some time, there's no capacity on the part of the First Nation to even take a pause in the negotiations," she said. "If they do that, then their bill for negotiations immediately comes due."

Polak called on Ottawa, the B.C. government and First Nations to "come up with a better and more sustainable way for First Nations to engage in negotiations while at the same time not being held hostage by the costs of those negotiations to their eventual (treaty) cash settlement."

There are more than 200 First Nations in B.C. and there are fewer than 20 treaties, with the majority of the treaties dating back to the mid 1800s when the province was still a British colony.

In the past 20 years, B.C. treaty negotiations have produced two treaties.

Lornie's report also recommends giving federal negotiators more leeway to accept proposals at their local negotiating tables without seeking approval from Ottawa.

Other recommendations address fisheries issues, aboriginal revenue policies and cost-sharing arrangements.

The B.C. Treaty Commission's chief commissioner, Sophie Pierre, said in a statement that Lornie's recommendations, if implemented, will improve the prospects for treaties.

The commission overseas the federal, provincial and First Nations government-to-government negotiation process that has been in place since 1991.

Pierre said Lornie's report recommends more flexibility when it comes to fisheries issues other than sockeye salmon and relaxing of federal financial deduction rules of First Nations revenues as two major changes that will speed up and ease treaty talks.

She said fish negotiations in treaties are severely limited while the Cohen Commission of inquiry examining the collapse of Fraser River sockeye salmon stocks continues.

Pierre said First Nations want negotiations on fish issues other than sockeye salmon to continue.

Chief Douglas White, of the First Nations Summit, B.C.'s largest aboriginal organization, said Lornie's report means a government appointee has formally told the federal aboriginal affairs minister what Ottawa needs to do to fix the treaty process.

He said many First Nations have borrowed millions to participate in the endless treaty talks and some are now looking for a way out.

"Many First Nations felt they could stomach the costs for five or six years, but after 20, it's getting to be a bit much," said White.

"For First Nations, we've been put in a situation where we've had to borrow money to participate through loan funding in these negotiations," he said. "It's a real issue that needs to be addressed. It's certainly one that gets in the way of a proper exit strategy."

White said he's concerned recent federal government budget cuts will further impact federal treaty negotiations.

The majority of First Nations are willing to stick it out "because of a trust and belief that Canada is coming with a proper mandate to negotiate in an open way," said White.

White said Lornie's recommendations, if implemented, will send the message that Ottawa has listened and is more interested in negotiating treaties than exit strategies.

"We're pushing 20 years now and the summit is very concerned now about a lack of substantial progress," he said. "We expect action to be taken at this point, and there has been no substantial action since the report's been released."