Five Interior First Nations governed by the Nkala'pamux Nation Tribal Council signed an agreement Wednesday with the province giving them a seat on a new decision-making board involving business in their territory.
The agreement underscores a shift in how First Nations, the provincial government and industry in B.C. are approaching resource and revenue sharing in recognition of the difficult and slow-moving treaty process.
First Nations people are moving away from the militant tactics of yesteryear to gain a voice when they have an issue, said Grand Chief Robert Pasco, who represents the council.
"We've had our day, we've had our issues, but we're at a better place," he said before a delegation of chiefs gathered in Vancouver.
"We've moved. People recognize there's a better way, a different way that business can be done. And they've jumped out of the woodwork to help make it happen."
The chiefs unanimously hailed the 18-month pilot project, which will first involve decisions connected to the Highland Valley Copper Mine, owned by Teck Resources (TSX:TCK.A), that's located within the Nlaka'pamux territory.
The agreement was hammered out with the province in the two years since an initial framework was created in March 2012. If successful, the board will broaden its mandate to include other mines and companies in the road and forestry sectors.
The deal is a historic milestone, said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
"It reflects the vision of our ancestors," he said, "who since the beginning have always harboured a vision of sharing the land and sharing the resources in a good way."
More than 200 business agreements have been negotiated between the provincial government and First Nations across B.C. since 2005-06, with more in the process, said John Rustad, minister of aboriginal relations.
Although the province continues to pursue the treaty as the "greatest form of long-term reconciliation," Rustad said that government recognizes it's not of interest to all First Nations and treaties take much more time.
"We want to be able to make sure benefits can flow over a period of time," he said when asked whether these kinds of deals replace the treaty process. "This is one of those types of agreements that helps to build our relationships and build toward long-term reconciliation."
Including First Nations in resource projects helps to secure their communities more economic stability and "ultimately, it helps to solve some social inequity in the reserves," Rustad added.
Liberal politician Jackie Tegart said that collaboration and partnership with First Nations is important for business not just in her Fraser-Nicola riding, but across all of the province.
"I'm sure all of the communities in the area will be looking at this agreement and thinking 'Yes, this is the way forward.'"
Teck Resources didn't initiate the agreement and is currently negotiating its own relationship with the Nlaka'pamux council, but the company's Peter Martell said Teck believes working together in a formal way is "long overdue."
The company has run the Highland Valley mine for about 30 years but only started engaging local First Nations within the past five years, he said.
"I know the philosophy in the mining industry is changing, and I think, (the) same thing with the province, where they're seeing it's important to involve First Nations," Martell said.
"Everybody definitely agrees things need to change."
The province is investing $550,000 in the pilot. The Nlaka'pamux has already worked out an agreement for 37.5 per cent of mineral tax revenue coming from the Highland mine, to be divided amongst the member communities.
Chief Janet Webster, who represents the Lytton First Nation, said it was a challenge to reach the deal but now it's done she feels emotional.
"We've been taken advantage of and we don't benefit from those resources," she said. "I think it's about time everyone, all those resources coming in, say 'Yes this is your land' and 'Yes we will share' and 'Yes we'll share decision-making with you.'
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