ESQUIMALT, B.C. - Chief Ron Sam smiled as he held a thick treaty document in both hands and raised it above his head in triumph, sparking a rousing cheer from hundreds of people who gathered in a community hall minutes from downtown Victoria.
After two decades of negotiations, five southern Vancouver Island First Nations signed an agreement-in-principle Thursday on a modern-day treaty that includes land, cash and a route away from the Indian Act and towards self-government.
Sam said his triumphant gesture was meant to honour past First Nations leaders who believed that negotiating self-government and land ownership rights leads to a prosperous and independent future.
"The signing of this agreement will finally give us the opportunity to talk about some serious land," he told reporters immediately following the ceremony. "This will give us the opportunity to really sit down and put some land on the table."
Sam said he expected it would take at least one year to reach a final treaty with the federal and B.C. governments.
The treaty agreement comes at a challenging time for B.C.'s treaty-negotiating process, which dates back to the early 1990s.
There are more than 200 B.C. First Nations and only about two dozen have treaties, some of which date back to the mid-1800s when B.C. was a British colony.
Premier Christy Clark has said the current process that has yielded four treaties in more than 20 years is too slow and expensive. Her government recently refused to appoint former Liberal cabinet minister George Abbott as B.C. Treaty Commissioner, deciding instead to review the negotiating process before appointing a commissioner.
Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt recently received a report that suggests treaty talks face institutional barriers, inefficiencies with the process, poor accountability and a lack of urgency.
The report said Ottawa must take charge of the process and decide which talks should move forward and which should be abandoned.
Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon MP Mark Strahl, who attended the ceremony on behalf of the federal aboriginal affairs minister, said the current treaty process has challenges, but Ottawa is committed to negotiations.
"We realize there are obstacles to the process, but this (ceremony) is a reminder that through patient negotiations we can achieve these milestones," said Strahl.
The agreement-in-principle between the Te'mexw Treaty Association, which represents the Vancouver Island First Nations, and the federal and B.C. governments includes provisions to provide the First Nations with 1,565 hectares of Crown land and about $142 million once a final agreement is reached.
The agreement also includes 27 chapters covering issues including governance, taxation and land.
Sam is the elected chief of the Victoria-area Songhees First Nation, one of the few bands to have signed the so-called Douglas Treaties in the mid-1800s.
The other First Nations signing Thursday's agreement are: Beecher Bay, T'Sou-ke, Malahat and Nanoose first nations.
An emotional Beecher Bay Chief Russ Chipps said his community has chosen the path of change that includes economic development, social responsibility and environmental protection.
"For that, I'm so proud of my community," he said.
B.C. Aboriginal Relations Minister John Rustad said it may have taken 20 years, but the result is "momentous."
"What we are doing today is laying the foundation of self-governance and economic independence," he said.
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