No time to ignore aboriginal issues

We in the Lower Mainland tend to be oblivious to the fact we’re essentially occupiers on never-surrendered First Nations land.

Real estate values keep climbing, highrises soar ever higher and the aboriginal presence is mostly confined to art and ceremony, coupled with higher-than-average poverty and addiction.

After a century of denial, successive B.C. governments have sought to reach treaties to resolve outstanding native claims that cover 90 per cent of the province.

Few, however, have been signed.

Outgoing Premier Gordon Campbell – who initially fought treaty-making before becoming one of its biggest champions – lists the failure to achieve a broader accord on aboriginal reconciliation among his top regrets.

New signs increasingly suggest this should not be ignored as a problem confined to B.C.’s rural hinterland.

One Interior band has had some success challenging the approval of a regional landfill expansion at Cache Creek, citing government’s failure to adequately consult them.

That may determine whether much of Metro Vancouver’s garbage is buried inland or incinerated locally in new waste-to-energy plants that are widely opposed downwind in the Fraser Valley.

Interior aboriginals are also fighting a $700-million power transmission line B.C. Hydro intends to build from Merritt to the Lower Mainland to keep the lights and computers on in increasingly power-hungry Vancouver.

Regulators with the B.C. Utilities Commission likewise agreed the bands had not been duly consulted, setting the project back.

Aboriginal bands also aim to block the controversial Enbridge Gateway oil pipeline across northern B.C. to Kitimat. If they succeed in defeating it, rival firm Kinder Morgan may have a better chance of expanding its oil pipeline to Burnaby, increasing oil tanker exports through Burrard Inlet.

If more treaties are to be reached in the Lower Mainland, where Crown land to put on the bargaining table is scarce, other properties may end up in play.

Victoria might allow aboriginal groups to remove more urban farmland from the  Agricultural Land Reserve for unfettered development (as happened to secure the Tsawwassen Treaty) and from Metro Vancouver regional parks (as happened when part of Pacific Spirit Regional Park was turned over to the Musqueam to settle a court dispute.)

Meanwhile, First Nations like the Squamish and Musqueam show little interest in pursuing conventional treaties because they see more return in developing their reserve lands along waterfront and other lucrative parts of Metro Vancouver outside treaties.

Their initiative is to be applauded – business ventures of the sort planned by those groups as well as others such as the wine-making Osoyoos Indian Band promise a quicker path to create aboriginal jobs and greater prosperity for their people.

But no treaties may mean no long-term certainty in their vast traditional territories.

And neighbours of band-led projects on reserve may be in for a surprise when they find out the condo towers springing up next to them are not subject to regular municipal rules or taxes.

The lesson?

You can try to ignore First Nations in B.C., particularly in urban areas that seem far from the mines, working forests, gas fields and pipelines that generate both jobs and controversy in rural regions.

But don’t be surprised when the impacts start to hit closer to home.

Our new premier should sustain Mr. Campbell’s focus in this area.

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