THE KITSUMKALUM and the Kitselas are about to take a crucial step toward negotiating land claims treaties with the federal and provincial governments.
Negotiators for all parties are close to initialing agreements in principle setting out general terms covering land, cash and self government powers taking in everything from resource development to taxation.
Once signed off by negotiators, the agreements will still need to be approved by Kitselas and Kitsumkalum members and by the federal and provincial governments and only then will become the basis to negotiating final treaty details.
The Tsimshian First Nations of Kitselas and Kitsumkalum, with a combined population of more than 1,500 people, lay claim to thousands of hectares of land surrounding Terrace and Thornhill.
Their treaty efforts date back to the early 1990s with a statement of intent to negotiate submitted in late 1995. Actual negotiations began in late 1997.
Although the Kitsumkalum and Kitselas will have separate treaties, the vast majority of their content will be the same, says Gerald Wesley, the chief negotiator for the Tsimshian First Nations Treaty Society, an umbrella group taking in the Kitsumkalum and Kitselas.
“I can tell you they will be two distinctly similar agreements,” he said.
The two treaties will be the first in the northwest to be negotiated under the auspices of the BC Treaty Commission which acts as an impartial referee.
The Nisga’a Final Agreement of 2000 was negotiated outside of the treaty commission.
While optimistic of an imminent initialing of agreements in principle, Wesley hesitated to give an actual date, saying there remained a few details to finalize.
He did acknowledge that he and another negotiator, Mel Bevan from the Kitselas First Nation, met with provincial aboriginal relations minister Mary Polak two weekends ago at an event celebrating the signing of an agreement in principle for the K’omoks First Nation on Vancouver Island.
“We’re very, very close,” Wesley added.
If Wesley was reluctant to provide a date, Kitsumkalum and Kitselas treaty negotiations employees are gearing up for a busy summer, preparing pamphlets and other information for the run up to a ratification vote by the two First Nations.
A statement posted on the BC Treaty Commission website speaks of a “vote this year on a comprehensive agreement in principle.”
Polak is also expecting an initialling of the Kitsumkalum and Kitselas agreements in principle very soon.
“We’re getting to the point where there could very well be a handshake,” she said last week.
Polak was also hopeful the two agreements in principle will continue what has been a faster pace toward treaty settlements.
Since the conclusion of the Tsawwassen final agreement in 2009, the first one for the treaty commission, three final agreements have either been completed or about to be completed and one agreement in principle, the K’omoks, has been completed.
Once initialed, the two agreements must be ratified by the provincial cabinet as well as the federal cabinet to ensure the provisions conform to directions given the government negotiators, said Polak.
Although the Kitsumkalum and Kitselas have lacked formal treaties, both have been making substantial steps toward developing economic foundations for self sufficiency.
Both, for example, have forestry revenue sharing agreements with the provincial government and both have economic development corporations.
The Kitselas and the City of Terrace also have a commercial arrangement in place tied to the expected development of the Skeena Industrial Park just south of the airport and BC Hydro has negotiated business deals with both First Nations tied to the Northwest Transmission Line.
Polak said commercial or business agreements leading up to fully-fledge settlements demonstrate progress and what’s possible when involving First Nations.
“Treaties can take so long the First Nations communities can lose that sense of momentum,” she said of lengthy periods of negotiations.