Sunday, September 14, 2014

Aboriginal Title may be corrupted by the BC Government and First Nations

Old growth tree near a summit considered sacred by aboriginal people

A Supreme Court decision in June 2014 granted Aboriginal title to the Tsilqot'in Nation. Since that time there has been much comment suggesting that the decision gives aboriginals increased power over resource development and land use.

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark has stated that the ruling can't be ignored signaling a need to make accommodations for aboriginal title.  What will become of aboriginal title when the BC Government and First Nations come to some accommodation?

Aboriginal title is being discussed frequently in the media without clarification that it is a very different kind of land title. When most of us think of land title, we think about a piece of land owned by an individual. It is a legal provision to protect ownership of land first developed by the Romans to prevent the big guy from taking land from the little guy. Aboriginal title has a different purpose. It is a communal title, not an individual title, designed to protect and sustain the use and benefits of the land for future generations of the community. It is a more advanced concept than individual ownership. It is a communal trust to sustain the land and its values for future generations.

Since technological prowess is now available, aboriginal title will require some institutional arrangements to sustain the land, its forests and values. This will require some forest and other professionals to manage the land to ensure sustainability for future generations.

The Assembly of First Nations are seeking recognition of aboriginal title and there seems to be little thought about the arrangements to ensure sustainability of the land for future generations. Revenue sharing from resource development seems to be the priority. Premier Christy Clark wants to use the supreme court ruling to work together with First Nations. Both parties seem to think that the ruling will take matters out of the courtrooms into new relationships through negotiations. The negotiations, it seems will be about the size of the cheque for revenue sharing.

Revenue sharing has already been a big corrupter of sustainability intentions in BC. Aboriginal title is a progressive communal sustainability title or trust concept. BC public forests were also intended as a societal trust for sustainable stewardship of most of the forest land in BC. The BC Government was supposed to be the trustee and would manage the forests for inter-generational economic and social benefits. The Forest Service was originally intended as the independent professional forest management institution for public forests. The BC Government decided to share forest management responsibilities with forest companies. Private rights to harvest timber were granted and the Government shared revenue from forest harvesting. This revenue sharing effort worked well for all concerned as forest companies gorged on BC's virgin timber. It has hit a few major bumps in the road now that the best virgin timber is long depleted. Revenue sharing from resource exploitation has not proved to be a good vehicle for sustainability.

First Nations want to join the BC Government is becoming bad trustees of BC's forests through the mechanism of revenue sharing. Most BC residents would like to see the prospects of First Nations people much improved. Unearned income revenue sharing from BC forests is not the best way to employ forests to service the needs of First Nations. First Nations and the rest of us will be best served if we have institutions that ensure sustainable stewardship of our forests. The BC Government and First Nations need to think about what kind of institution will ensure sustainable use of land and forests for the long term benefit of communities. This is an issue for all BC communities.

Aboriginal title is a communal trust to ensure the sustainability of a local area of land and forest. The BC Government already has this trust for all public forests but has not exercised its responsibilities to ensure sustainability. Aboriginal title is therefore little more than a devolution of responsibility. If responsibility for forests and land are devolved we need to ensure that there are good local or communal institutions to ensure sustainability. Local forest trusts with an elected board and professional forest management staff are an ideal institution. These could be applied to all communities, not just First Nations.

Local forest trusts would exercise sustainable stewardship responsibilities of local landscapes for benefit of communities. They would operate as businesses and promote sustainable economic use of timber and non timber products as well as nature based opportunities. Earned income will be the main economic benefit to communities. Depending on geography and population some local forest trusts would be entirely aboriginal, while others could involve a mix of aboriginal and other communities represented on a ward system. All forest trusts could promote forest employment for aboriginal people and provide for greater economic improvement of aboriginals than just aboriginal title areas alone.

A British Columbia Forest Trust Assembly governed by delegates from local forest trusts would audit and support local forest trusts to ensure that the ideals of inter-generational sustainability for the benefit of communities can be realized. This outcome is necessary for all communities. In British Columbia we can all benefit from the progressive concept of aboriginal title. We should not allow the BC Government and First Nations to corrupt this progressive opportunity with a backward concept of revenue sharing.  

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