12/10/2012 03:33 EST | Updated 02/09/2013 05:12 EST

10 B.C. First Nations renew partnership deal, puts development ahead of treaties

VICTORIA - Ten British Columbia First Nations signed an extension to an agreement Monday with the provincial government that puts the pursuit of economic development ahead of land-claims treaties.

The Nanwakolas group of First Nations, from northern Vancouver Island and B.C.'s mid-coast, said it views the renewed strategic engagement agreement — first signed in 2009 — as the blueprint for their future.

The agreement covers about 4.5 million hectares on northeastern Vancouver Island and the mainland coast, of which much of that area is currently part of ongoing, but unresolved treaty talks.

Nanwakolas Council Society spokesman Dallas Smith, who attended a signing ceremony at the B.C. legislature, said the renewal agreement ensures smoother and faster permitting and regulatory approvals between government, First Nations and industry.

"This is talking about the future of resource development within our territories," Smith said. "The turnaround time on referrals has been cut in half for a lot of the forest developments in the area."

Smith said the Nanwakolas believe economic development on their territories will eventually spur treaty settlements, but currently the First Nations are interested in showing their people economic results rather than huge treaty negotiation legal bills.

"You've seen an economy grow within the treaty process, and there's a lot of people comfortable with the lack of results in it," he said. "To these chiefs, that just simply wasn't acceptable to them anymore. They had borrowed money to engage in the treaty process in 1993 and most of them are $2.5 million in debt with nothing to show for it."

The B.C. Treaty Commission reached its 20th anniversary this year. Of the more than 200 B.C. First Nations, the federal, provincial and First Nations negotiating process has resulted in two final treaties.

About 20 other B.C. First Nations have treaties that were negotiated in the mid-1800s when the province was still a British colony.

Smith said Nanwakolas communities have started to achieve economic benefits from the strategic approach.

"If we could do our job properly through the strategic agreements, the treaty process (becomes) a bit more of a formalization where you dot some i's and cross some t's and build that long-term vision," he said. "But if you don't have a foundation like the strategic engagement agreement, it's a really a tough task."

Smith said the Nanwakolas are currently negotiating a memorandum agreement with the B.C. forest industry that includes, jobs, revenues and protection of culturally significant sites for the area First Nations.

Rick Jeffery, president and chief executive officer of the Coast Forest Products Association, said the renewal agreement allows the industry and First Nations to negotiate a deal that offers forest companies land certainty and the First Nations economic development.

"It's co-operative," he said. "It's very hard for us to go into capital markets and raise money to rebuild mills or fund operations if you don't have any kind of certainty on the land base because of First Nations issues."

Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Minister Ida Chong said the renewed deal streamlines sometimes difficult approval processes by permitting government and industry to negotiate directly with several First Nations at once.