First nations look to the environment

Deals made on economy, resource management have achieved more than B.C. treaty process

The best building blocks for first nations prosperity, environmental sustainability and, ultimately, treaties are local economic and environmental agreements, not the never-ending B.C. treaty process.

Over the next 30 years this approach will build a stronger future for Central, North Coast and Haida Gwaii first nations and for British Columbians.

As someone who's been involved in the B.C. treaty process -- first as a B.C. treaty commissioner and then as a first nations negotiator for over a decade -- I find it apparent that coastal first nations communities have achieved more in five years through economic and environmental agreements than they have in two decades of treaty-making in B.C.

After two decades of treaty negotiations and a billion dollars of debt, a mere two treaties have been signed.

By contrast, coastal first nations, through an alliance of nine first nations on B.C.'s Central and North Coast and Haida Gwaii, has reached more than 40 agreements with the province, the federal government and the private sector. They form the building blocks that have brought us closer to becoming self-sufficient and self-governing communities while at the same time protecting our lands and waters. These agreements have generated approximately a quarter of a billion dollars for our communities, including $80 million from outside Canada.

Specifically, some of the agreements we've entered into include:

- Coast Opportunity Funds: $120 million.

- Land use planning: $10 million.

- Marine use planning: $10 million.

- Shellfish aquaculture agreements: $3 million.

- Forest and range agreements (FRAs): $25 million.

- Resource benefit agreements: $40 million.

- Resource revenue sharing: $25 million.

All these lay the foundation for a sustainable economy.

The $120-million Coast Opportunity Funds will be used for economic opportunities and the management of our lands and resources in our communities. The funds, from philanthropic foundations, British Columbia and Canada, will allow us to restore and implement responsible land, water and resource management methods in our communities, while also jump-starting a new conservation-based economy. With most of our communities having unemployment rates as high as 90 per cent, no group of B.C. citizens faces a more urgent economic crisis than we do.

Forest and range agreements bring $5 million to our communities through annual revenue-sharing. These agreements also provide first nations with access to timber that will result in increased first nations participation in the forest sector. Communities are also in the process of negotiating significant control over forest licences.

Our leaders know our well-being is connected to the well-being of our lands and waters. They know that we must respect and care for our lands and waters so they can support our economies, cultures, communities and families. For this reason we base all our agreements on the principle of ecosystem-based management (EBM).

EBM is the new way to manage resource developments, such as logging. It respects the connection between people and the land. It also respects local knowledge. EBM is a modern term which describes what we have always done: We use our knowledge and wisdom to look after our lands, waters and communities and they will look after us.

Each of our nine communities has signed a land use plan that gives us more say in how our lands and resources are used. Coastal first nations communities protected in excess of 2.5 million hectares from clearcuts and extractive development through our land use agreements. The land use plans describe the broad vision we have for how our lands will look in the future. They provide guidance about the appropriate land uses and development patterns for our lands. Finally, they will lead to the creation of strong local economies through new opportunities and jobs.

While the road from planning to implementation has indeed been long, we are well on our way from changing a weak coastal economy to a strong thriving one.

Fishing is deeply rooted in first nations history and tradition. However, many of our traditional fish stocks have been severely depleted. We had a choice. We could miss the boat and watch development dollars and markets go to other stakeholders and other countries or actively promote the development of a strong, diversified and environmentally sensitive shellfish aquaculture industry. We chose to act.

Three million dollars have been invested to create a shellfish industry. Communities have wholeheartedly embraced this shellfish-aquaculture opportunity. Pilot sites were chosen, tenures applied for, more than two million scallop seeds planted, equipment upgraded and community members trained. Over the past five years, relationships have been forged with multinational and international corporations to move the project from what some believed was an impossible goal to a reality that will include nine farms and a hatchery.

Our communities are at the forefront in determining how ocean and resource management are to be used. The first nations and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans agreed to a planning process that will create a model for how the oceans are used and managed. The model allows us to work with government and stakeholders to address our community interests and advance a marine use plan that provides for environmental sustainability as well as the economic well-being of our communities and people. This process is bringing another $10 million to our communities.

Alternative energy and marine-transportation resource-benefit agreements will bring $50 million to communities.

These initiatives will see between 500 and 600 new sustainable job opportunities in our communities. Our many accomplishments to date could not have taken place within the confines of the two-decade-old treaty process. Working outside the process has allowed us to play a leadership role in bringing together a range of interests on the coast to address the unsustainable policies and practices that have damaged the environment and devastated coastal economies and communities.

New partnerships have been developed with environmental groups, the federal and provincial governments, municipal leaders, industry and other interests to begin our move to a new conservation-based economy. Empowered first nations communities can develop win-win partnerships with surrounding economies, leverage resources and build strong networks for increased economic opportunities.

We face complex social, economic and environmental problems. Strong first nations governments are integral to constructing a sustainable economy. Through this building-block approach we are building accountable, strategic and effective governments. By working outside the treaty process with different partners, we open new sources of information, unite with others in a shared sense of purpose and increase the possibility of finding sustainable solutions.

Through these building blocks we have greater control over our lands and how they are used. By building strong governments and capacity we will create a new economy on the coast. Decades will pass before people know if conventional treaties have improved the well-being of first nations and increased our ability to govern effectively. In the meantime, our communities are making concrete progress that we are able to measure on a day-by-day basis.

The building block approach will form the new basis for treaty-making without incurring huge debts associated with the current B.C. treaty process. In 30 years, the wisdom of our way will be clear.

Art Sterritt, the executive director of the Coastal First Nations, provides leadership in the implementation of the Coastal First Nations vision for a sustainable coastal economy