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Treaty Talks in British Columbia: Building a New Relationship 3rd edition

By Christopher McKee

November 4, 2013

Review By Brian Egan

The onset of modern treaty negotiations in British Columbia, in 1993, was greeted with a good measure of optimism. The treaty process, it was hoped, would resolve the long-standing “Indian land question,” meeting both First Nations’ demands for a just allocation of lands and resources in their traditional territories and the Crown’s desire for “certainty” on the land base. For the members of the BC Claims Task Force, the initial architects of the treaty process, the land issue was only one of many that needed to be addressed. Thus, they argued, treaty negotiations should be comprehensive in nature, addressing not only questions about lands and resources but also concerns about governance, culture and heritage, intergovernmental relations, capital transfers, fiscal relations, and taxation. Once finalized, modern comprehensive treaties would set out in great detail the rights, responsibilities, and obligations of the three negotiating parties: Canada, British Columbia, and First Nations. Finally, the process of negotiating and finalizing treaties, it was hoped, would help produce a “new relationship” between the parties, one based, as the Task Force report put it, on “mutual trust, respect, and understanding.” [1]

A considerable amount of this initial optimism has now dissipated as treaty agreements have been few and far between and as negotiations at most of the four dozen treaty tables across the province remain stalled in various stages of disagreement. In addition, many First Nations across British Columbia continue to opt out of the treaty process altogether, unconvinced that it will yield the kind of results they seek. Indeed, in light of recent developments outside the formal sphere of treaty negotiations (e.g., various kinds of agreements that the provincial government and private resource-development firms have negotiated with individual First Nations to provide for the sharing of revenues and decision-making control over lands and resources, the recent proposal for a provincial “Recognition and Reconciliation Act”) the treaty process seems increasingly inflexible and irrelevant. 

In Treaty Talks, Christopher McKee documents progress, and the lack thereof, towards treaty making in British Columbia over the past seventeen years. The first edition, published in 1996, provides a concise overview of the treaty process – including some historical context as well as a description of the structure of negotiations and the key issues to be negotiated – and assesses the challenges that had emerged at that point. In the second edition, published in 2000, McKee adds new material, focusing on key developments between 1996 and 2000 (e.g., the Delgamuukw decision, the Nisga’a treaty) and highlighting new and continuing challenges to treaty making. The third edition of Treaty Talks is augmented with a postscript, co-written with Peter Colenbrander, which summarizes the ups and downs of the treaty process between 2000 and 2009, including the divisive treaty referendum of 2002, important court rulings and policy changes, and the small number of treaty agreements – final agreements with the Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth, and interim agreements with the Tla-o-qui-aht and Klahoose – completed during this period. This latest edition also includes a brief description of achievements outside of the treaty process, particularly those that have emerged out of the province’s New Relationship initiative.

Written for a general audience, Treaty Talks provides a good introduction to the modern treaty process in British Columbia. It covers much of the essential material – the origins, objectives, structure, challenges, and achievements of the treaty process – in a well organized and concise manner and in language that is highly accessible. For those who have followed the treaty process more closely, the latest edition serves as a useful reference: with the accumulated material from all three editions collected in one volume, the text gives a sense of the ebb and flow of negotiations over the life of the treaty process and the persistence of core challenges. The book’s strength, its concise coverage of a highly complex, contested, and geographically differentiated process, is also its chief weakness. Such an approach limits the depth of engagement with some of the most fundamental and challenging issues that continue to limit progress at the treaty table (e.g., the six key issues discussed at the Common Table meetings in 2008) and how they play out at different treaty tables across the province. 

It is precisely these issues (e.g., how to balance the recognition of Aboriginal title and rights with the Crown’s desire for certainty, how to provide First Nations with real opportunities to be meaningfully involved in the management of their larger territories) that require more attention if treaty negotiations are going to go beyond the current impasse. The appearance of the third edition of Treaty Talks highlights the need for a much more in-depth and critical examination of the treaty process and a closer look at the issues that hinder progress towards both treaty making and improved relations between the Crown and First Nations. Given the importance of the issues at stake – the control over critical ecological and economic assets, the establishment of new forms of Aboriginal governance, the coming to terms with colonial histories and geographies – and the theoretical richness of this terrain, the scope for further useful work in this area is large. 


[1] Report of the British Columbia Claims Task Force, 28 June 1991. http://www.bctreaty.net


Treaty Talks in British Columbia: Building a New Relationship
3rd edition
Christopher McKee
Vancouver and Toronto: UBC Press, 2009. 177 pp. $29.95 paper