A First Nation treaty once hailed as an example of "unprecedented momentum" in negotiations has been rejected by one of its participating bands.
The Douglas First Nation voted to discontinue its involvement in the In-SHUCK-ch Nation on Jan. 30, with a minority of members voting overwhelmingly to leave a process that has been working towards a treaty for 17 years. Of 231 members 67 voted, with 55 opting to leave the process.
Douglas initially joined negotiations in 1993, alongside the Samahquam, Skatin and N'Quatqua First Nations. Douglas continued its involvement after N'Quatqua withdrew in 1999.
Now, however, the Douglas First Nation is profiting from a series of run-of-river hydro projects in its territory and carrying on with treaty could have hampered that.
A Jan. 30 news release announcing the referendum results pointed out that the In-SHUCK-ch Nation rejected resource revenue sharing as part of a final treaty agreement - a move that could have "severely" limited future economic benefits for the Douglas First Nation.
"We believe in 'power to the people' including the power to change our future through economic and political means," Darryl Peters, Douglas's business development manager, said in the news release. "And we are able to have members participate in those decisions respectfully."
Douglas Chief Don Harris previously indicated in an interview with Pique that a referendum was being held to ensure that treaty negotiations were meeting the best interests of members but he never said it had anything to do with the projects.
Reached on Monday during a council meeting, Harris said the band government is working on finding out what happens next. That may involve partial repayment of a $15 million loan that the In-SHUCK-ch communities took from the federal government to participate in treaty negotiations.
Harris isn't so sure that Douglas will have to pay it back.
"We're reviewing that issue now," he said. "It's going to be a matter of whether or not we do actually owe that, that's what we're discussing."
The referendum was announced just before documents came to light that showed the Governments of Canada and B.C. were offering $34.697 million to the In-SHUCK-ch Nation as part of a final agreement. About a third of that total would go to paying down the First Nations' debts.
Now the Douglas First Nation can't take advantage of that and it could be back to the drawing board for the whole treaty.
In-SHUCK-ch Negotiator Gerard Peters said in an interview that he's waiting for a formal indication from the Douglas Council that it wants to withdraw from the treaty process. He also said that the Samahquam and Skatin bands, both of whom are still involved with negotiations, have to determine how they wish to proceed.
"Ultimately we're going to have to consider what to do in the circumstance," Peters said. "That's all evolving and developing, as soon as there's something concrete I'll advise you."
As for the debt, Peters said Douglas could be on the hook for about $4.5 million - 30 per cent of the total loans the In-SHUCK-ch communities have had to take out. As Peters tells it, each First Nation has made a loan agreement directly with the federal government and is thus personally responsible for the money.
Although Douglas has sent a signal that it wants to withdraw from negotiations, it doesn't mean they can't be involved in future.
"I'm going to make it my business, assuming that the other groups wish to continue, that there is provisions for Douglas to join at some later date," Peters said, adding it makes "no logical sense" to him that they want to withdraw.