Trust–First Nations relations need fixing

This is an abbreviated version of GIA representative Graham Brazier’s presentation to Islands Trust Council at their quarterly meeting in March, 2014, on Hornby Island.

Throughout its forty-year existence, jurisdictional tussles have been a way of life for the Islands Trust. If it wasn’t one provincial ministry or another it was likely some arm of the federal government claiming higher standing in the jurisdictional pecking order.  Nevertheless, late last year, Islands Trust Chief Administrative Officer, Linda Adams, acknowledged she was ‘surprised’ by a declaration that the K’omoks First Nation intends to assert its aboriginal right to practise aquaculture in an area where it has been prohibited by duly passed by-laws of the Denman Island Local Trust Committee. While it is self-evident that this claim is of a profoundly different order than the Trust has faced in the past and we at the Gulf Islands Alliance agree that reconciliation of the gross injustices inflicted on the aboriginal people of the province must be among the highest of priorities of our provincial and federal governments, we nevertheless encourage the Islands Trust to take all measures consistent with its mandate to advance its case on behalf of the preservation and protection of the natural environment of the islands in the Trust Area.

We believe that the Treaty Process, which has been under way without any involvement of the Islands Trust since 1992, offers the best forum for the assessment and evaluation of what may be competing interests within the Trust Area.  Furthermore, we believe the Trust is bound by its legislated mandate to insure that its interests are fully considered as this process moves toward a settlement with the numerous First Nations of the Salish Sea. In this connection it is important to note that the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation “recognizes that communities must be consulted and informed if treaties are to be successful”.We, at the Gulf Islands Alliance, urge the Trust, as representatives of the communities of the islands, seek active involvement in this process or, at the very least, obtain assurances from provincial negotiators that community interests will be vigorously represented throughout the process. Furthermore, in our view it is also essential that these interests be fully represented when, as was the case of the K’omoks First Nation, Interim Measures Agreements involving aquaculture were negotiated following the acceptance of an Agreement-In-Principle; also without the participation of the Trust.  

In the meantime, we feel it may be instructive to ask how the ‘surprise’ element, which was evident in the recent announcement, might be minimized in the future. The answer, of course, is that relations between First Nations of the region and the Islands Trust need to attain some measure of formality.  As the Islands Trust enters its fortieth year of existence inside a geographic area where thirty First Nations groups have had longstanding interests it is noteworthy and disappointing to observe that formal protocol agreements exist between the Trust and only two of those nations. Clearly, a 7% success rate suggests there is work to be done.

As recently as 2010, local governments in the Comox Valley (including the Comox Valley Regional District, the City of Courtenay, the Town of Comox and the Village of Cumberland) signed a protocol agreement with the K’omoks First Nation that established “a positive government to government relationship”.  We are bewildered to note that the Islands Trust was not among the signators of this agreement.  

Consider further that since 2009, groups able to speak authoritatively about First Nations interests in the Trust Area have appeared before Trust Council twice (once in 2012 and once in March of 2014) while, over the same period of time, groups representing San Juan County in Washington State with no direct relevance to Islands Trust issues, have made six formal appearances at Trust Council. No offense to the folks from San Juan, but this seems incongruous to us at the Gulf Islands Alliance. 

While it’s encouraging to note that the current Islands Trust Strategic Plan states that strengthening relations with First Nations is a goal of the present term of Trust Council, the agenda for the meetings on Hornby Island at the beginning of March for this year are the only substantive evidence that energy is being directed toward this critically important goal. In this connection, it seems that recently Trust Council took a step backward when it chose not to fund a “First Nations Engagement Strategy” advanced by staff. We urge you to reconsider this decision.

As it seems to us at the Gulf Islands Alliance, engagement with First Nations appears to either slip through the cracks or get relegated to a back burner, we believe it may be worthwhile to consider some administrative or structural changes to insure that progress is made on this front.  To begin with, it seems evident that an annual up-date on treaty negotiations with an opportunity for dialogue would fill a useful information gap at one of Trust Council’s quarterly meetings.

Perhaps, more importantly, it may  be worthwhile to consider creating a standing First Nations Relations Committee on a par with the Local Planning Committee, the Programs Committee and the Finance Committee with its own staff person with an archive and library of material relating the forty year history of relations between First Nations and the Islands Trust.   Such an adjustment in addition to a commitment to continue the archiving of Islands Trust documents would enable individual Trustees to conduct independent research and keep up-to-date on First Nations issues without any commitment of time on the part of staff.

In closing, we would like to remind you that, as First Nations have demonstrated over the course of the last 160 years, if a strategy is to be successful, “perseverance” must be its cornerstone.