Slow motion governments undermine land claims, says former premier

The First Nation land claims debate began more than 500 years ago, so be patient if treaty implementation takes a few more years, says a former Yukon…

The First Nation land claims debate began more than 500 years ago, so be patient if treaty implementation takes a few more years, says a former Yukon premier.

“What we are dealing with here is very old — some of the same debates we had (in the Yukon) are 500 years old,” Tony Penikett, Yukon premier from 1985-92, told a crowd at the Yukon College Tuesday afternoon.

Asked what the Fentie government and the feds could do to speed up implementation of the final agreements, Penikett said, be patient.

“Don’t judge right away,” he said. “It took a long time to get people to the table. We should have the wisdom that implementation make take decades. It took 20 years to negotiate the settlements.”

Penikett spoke about his book. Reconciliation: Treaty Making in BC, to audiences over two days in Whitehorse before driving to Dawson City on Tuesday.

His book grew out of his experience negotiating land claims in the Yukon.

His government initiated and substantially negotiated the first four deals with Yukon First Nations.

Now living in Vancouver, Penikett is a self-employed mediator, a job that takes him across Canada and the world.

Previously, he was deputy minister of Labour, then deputy minister of Aboriginal Negotiations in BC.

Patience may be a virtue for governments and First Nations’ leaders bogged down in implementation talks: Ottawa is too tight with its purse strings, said Penikett.

That’s a costly problem.

The longer that governments wait to properly fund and meet their obligations to First Nation land claims, the more those claims will cost, he said.

“The longer you postpone the working out of these issues, the more difficult and expensive resolution becomes — for both parties,” said Penikett in an interview on Tuesday.

“If all the trees are gone, or all the fish are gone, what’s left for us to negotiate? All the money in the world isn’t going to buy us more fish.”

Agreements may be signed, but it’s what happens after that is the biggest problem, said Penikett, citing a United Nations report on treaty implementation in aboriginal communities across North and South America.

“The one consistent failure of treaty-making in the Americas has been the reluctance of colonial authorities to deliver what they promised in treaties,” said Penikett.

A recent battle between Ottawa and Inuit in Nunavut highlights problems of Ottawa’s failure to live up to treaty obligations, said Penikett.

When the Inuit asked the feds for an arbitrator — a provision allowed under its treaty — to settle their dispute over lack of funding for implementation, Ottawa simply refused to comply.

Only after the Inuit people started a lawsuit did Ottawa allow an arbitrator into negotiations.

It’s a significant problem when governments simply ignore provisions in final agreements, said Penikett,

Canada is a just society, and if people begin to believe the 20th-century treaties signed by governments are not working, then “it would be internally and internationally embarrassing,” said Penikett.

“Canadians would not be happy with what was wasted,” he said.

At two talks — at the Whitehorse Public Library, then the college — Penikett began his reading with history lessons from Christopher Columbus’s descriptions of the first aboriginal people he saw in the Americas.

Knowing the full 500 years of European and First Nations relations is just as important as knowing the history of treaties, said Penikett.

“Unfortunately, a lot of young people seem to think these treaties were pulled out of thin air,” he said.

The Yukon Umbrella Final Agreement set a number of precedents for other negotiations in Canada, he said.

This was the first treaty in Canada that wasn’t signed just to pave the way for an economic mega project.

“It was settled as social policy,” said Penikett.

Negotiations included a territory or province as a full participant for the first time. And it is the first that created a separate quasi-government for First Nations.

While the kinks of final agreements in the Yukon are still being worked out, the agreements themselves set an example for aboriginal people across the world, said Penikett.

“What we had in the Yukon was imperfect, but I didn’t know of a better model,” he said.

“What was beginning to emerge in the Yukon … are models and ideas that could benefit the world. We may have something to teach the world, but only if we accurately implement what we committed ourselves to do.”