07/01/2014 04:00 EDT | Updated 08/30/2014 05:59 EDT

Relationship-building with B.C. First Nations start small, but can lead to big results, says minister

VICTORIA - Attempts by the B.C. government to build long-lasting relationships with First Nations across the province have taken on even greater importance with the historic Supreme Court of Canada ruling that makes it easier for aboriginals to establish title over their traditional territories.

Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad said B.C. will continue negotiating hundreds of side deals with First Nations and holding land-claims treaty talks, despite the court ruling granting the Williams Lake-area Tsilhqot'in Nation title to more than 1,750 square kilometres of lands.

Aboriginal leaders are hailing the court decision as the big equalizer in government-to-government relations, but Rustad said he's not retiring the government's start small, think big approach when it comes to forging ties.

"Eight or nine years ago, the province had virtually no agreements with First Nations," he said. "Today, we probably have, just on the resource side alone, over 200 significant agreements and another 100 or 200 minor agreements. That doesn't include all the other types of agreements we have in education, health and social services."

More than 20 years of negotiations have yielded four final treaty agreements among B.C.'s more than 200 First Nations. Many First Nations in B.C. have yet to settle treaties other than about a dozen agreements on Vancouver Island that date back to pre-Confederation. The Treaty 8 First Nations in northeastern B.C. signed a treaty in 1899.

The Nisga'a of northwest B.C. negotiated a modern-day treaty in the late 1990s after more than 100 years of attempts.

Building relationships with First Nations in B.C. often starts with small gestures, Rustad said.

Such efforts have amounted to big payoffs, he said, with hundreds of protocol meetings the result. Billions of dollars in potential revenues are at stake in plans to develop liquefied natural gas and other resources on some lands First Nations consider their traditional territories.

It takes time and effort, but the present-day land deals, economic arrangements and environmental protocols will stand as examples of what could be available once final treaties are negotiated, he said.

"Our goal is not litigation," said Rustad. "Our goal is through negotiation. Over the years there's been lack of trust. ... You start by taking small steps. It's been a process that has built over time and has a lot of momentum at the moment."

In May, five Interior First Nations governed by the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council in the area between Hope and Cache Creek signed an agreement giving them a seat on a new decision-making board. The deal includes Teck Resources-owned Highland Valley Copper Mine, located within their territory.

Two years ago relations with Nlaka'pamux Nations were rocky, but once they were offered decision-making opportunities on developments on their territories, things became smoother, Rustad said.

Even the often-fractious Union of B.C. Chiefs president Stewart Phillip is seen smiling in a group photograph flanked by First Nations leaders, Rustad and Steve Thomson, forest, lands and natural resource operations minister.

"It reflects the vision of our ancestors, who since the beginning have always harboured a vision of sharing the land and sharing the resources in a good way," Phillip said at the signing ceremony.

Rustad said the agreements offer First Nations limited shares of their future treaties.

The Lake Babine Nation of Burns Lake saw the province transfer four pieces of pre-treaty settlement land to support forestry and eco-tourism initiatives, and $100,000 to develop the opportunities.

Rustad said First Nations can share mineral tax revenue on new mines and major mine expansions.

The groups that have reached these agreements include the Williams Lake Indian Band, who will receive a share of tax revenues from the expanded Mt. Polley mine, and the Cranbrook-area Ktunaxa Nation.

Rustad said a recently announced LNG initiative represents the government's aspirations for gaining aboriginal support for future LNG developments.

He said the stewardship initiative seeks First Nations, government and private industry input on the environmental management of LNG lands and projects. Rustad said the project is unique to B.C., and likely Canada, in that the government is seeking input as opposed to support.

Former Vancouver Island chief Judith Sayers said she senses the government is only interested in developing relationships with First Nations rich in resources or LNG potential. She said the government resists power sharing.

"There hasn't been a willingness to push the big items that are stopping development," she said. "I think the priority of the First Nations have been being able to exercise their rights and title without negative impact."

Sophie Pierre, B.C. Treaty Commission's chief commissioner, said she does see signs the government understands that strong relationships with First Nations benefit the entire province.

Nonetheless, for every step forward there's also two steps backwards, she said.

"That just isn't going to get us very far."