05/28/2012 05:44 EDT | Updated 07/28/2012 05:12 EDT

Cummins expresses old-world view on aboriginals, says B.C. premier

VICTORIA - B.C. Conservative Party Leader John Cummins is trying to drag aboriginal relations back 40 years with his suggestion that treaty negotiations should start with the assumption that aboriginal title doesn't exist and the provincial government is the landlord, B.C. Premier Christy Clark says.

Clark, the Opposition New Democrats and one of B.C.'s top aboriginal leaders were quick Monday to pounce on comments Cummins first made on the weekend, suggesting the province doesn't have the right to give away land and resource rights to aboriginals.

"The province is owned by the people of British Columbia," Cummins said Monday. "The government of British Columbia doesn't own it. It's not the premier's to give away to anyone. They're there as caretaker, not as owner."

He said treaty negotiations are a federal matter, but after 20 years of talks in B.C. at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, the province should approach treaty negotiations as if it was the landowner representing all British Columbians and not just aboriginals.

"The starting point has to be from a legal perspective that aboriginal title does not exist and that's where you start these negotiations," Cummins said.

"If bands had veto power over development, then what's the role of the provincial legislature?" he said. "It's meaningless. There's no need for a minister of mines or forestry. The decisions are going to be made by the people who own the land and had title to it, the aboriginals."

After a career as a federal MP first elected for the Reform Party, Cummins took over last year as leader of the upstart B.C. Conservatives and generated little attention until byelections earlier this year.

The party managed less than 10 per cent of the popular vote in the last provincial election in 2009, but during the byelections, the Conservatives' support surged, peaking in some polls at over 20 per cent and raising the spectre of a split on the political right.

In the end, the Conservatives placed third in both byelections. Despite one Liberal MLA crossing the floor to become the party's only sitting representative, support for the Conservatives in recent polls appears to have levelled off.

Still, Clark repeatedly urges Liberal supporters to remain faithful and not run the risk of splitting the right-of-centre vote.

She immediately jumped on his treaty remarks Monday.

"He's expressing a real old-world view about where we've been rather than where we are," said Clark. "He's living in the past. My message to John Cummins would be, join the real world."

She said B.C. aboriginals are seeking to develop economic partnerships with governments that will benefit all British Columbians, not just aboriginals.

Clark highlighted the attempts by northwest B.C.'s Haisla Nation near Kitimat to work with government and business to develop liquefied natural gas projects and other developments on their traditional lands.

First Nations Summit spokesman Chief Douglas White said Cummins is creating divisions over an issue that has crippled the province since non-aboriginals first arrived in British Columbia.

"It's a very retrograde and ugly development in one of the most important issues that face our country, certainly our province," he said.

"To hear what he has to say is really disturbing. I think he's wrong as a matter of law, he's wrong as a matter of fact, he's wrong as a matter of conscience. He's just simply ignorant of the history of this province and the future of this province."

White said if Cummins's views gain traction, they will only entrench the sense of injustice aboriginals face daily and could ignite conflict.

Aboriginal relations and reconciliation minister Mary Polak said British Columbia, the federal government and First Nations are involved in treaty negotiations because courts and the Constitution say aboriginals have the right to hunt and fish, but the issue of title to the land should be resolved through negotiations.

"The process that Mr. Cummins is describing is one that would bring us back to the day when resource development was blocked in B.C. by litigation that is costly, that is time consuming," she said. "It's not something that industry wants and it's not something the public wants."

Polak rejected Cummins's suggestions that aboriginals should technically only own the land that currently comprise their reserves. She said the reserves were "arbitrarily decided by a colonial government."

NDP aboriginal relations critic said Cummins appears to be courting political support from people who don't support aboriginal rights.

"I can only speculate Mr. Cummins has a certain political constituency he is trying to appeal to," he said. "That's not what mainstream British Columbians believe. They want reconciliation."