BC still trying to help businesses ousted by Aboriginal title, says minister

Written By Rob Shaw

“A fund was made available to the Tsilhqot’in for property acquisition … but it appears that they weren’t interested in all of the tenures.”

–Murray Rankin

The B.C. government still wants to find a way to compensate Chilcotin guide outfitters displaced by the Tsilhqot’in First Nation court case, says a top cabinet minister, despite problems getting such a deal approved inside the government.

Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Murray Rankin said he understands the frustration of four guide outfitters who’ve spent years waiting for some sort of resolution, after losing access to hunting land they had certificates for following the Tsilhqot’in court ruling on Indigenous title a decade ago.

Last week the outfitters went public, saying after six years of negotiations for a settlement they were informed by an associate deputy minister in the government that their compensation package had been rejected by treasury board.

“The finality that they seemed to suggest is not the case,” Rankin said in an interview. “The point remains we are still trying to actively work on this and find a way forward.”

“We are still trying to actively work on this and find a way forward.”

Murray Rankin

The case has rippled across the province, tapping into a larger fear from ranchers, hunters, anglers, eco-tourism operations and farmers worried they could lose access to public land as part of future Indigenous reconciliation agreements — potentially without compensation, like guide outfitters.

Rankin said the most recent development in the Chilcotin was a misinterpretation of a phone call between a government official to guide outfitter Doug McMann, who has been leading the case negotiations with the province.

“The fact remains there is still an effort to find a solution,” said Rankin. “Active discussions are taking place now.”

Government relied on nations to compensate tenure holders

The Supreme Court of Canada ruling 10 years ago gave Tsilhqot’in the first declaration of Indigenous title in Canadian history, and set a new legal bar for inherent rights and title of traditional territory for Indigenous nations.

The provincial and federal governments eventually crafted nation-to-nation agreements with the Tsilhqot’in, which included a variety of funding.

“A fund was made available to the Tsilhqot’in for property acquisition, including some tenures and so on, but it appears that they weren’t interested in all of the tenures provided,” said Rankin.

One of the Tsilhqot’in nations bought a lodge, but not others, he said.

That’s left the province trying to craft a different deal.

“There are other compensation plans,” said Rankin.

Guide outfitters hopeful for resolution

Scott Ellis, CEO of the Guide Outfitters Association of BC, said despite several years of disappointment for his members, he’s still hopeful the province will step up.

“I have a lot of time for Minister Rankin, I think he’s incredibly intelligent and very wise,” said Ellis. 

“But I don’t know where he’s going to get the money, if it’s not coming from treasury board.”

“I have a lot of time for Minister Rankin… but I don’t know where he’s going to get the money.”

Scott Ellis

Nonetheless, he said his association is willing to work with the province to come to a resolution.

“If Minster Rankin says he’s got a plan, I’m excited to see it.”

Land title decisions fuel controversy

The Tsilhqot’in guide outfitters case is one of several controversies related to Aboriginal land title currently playing out in the province.

Dock owners in Pender Harbour on the Sunshine Coast have been upset at restrictions levied upon them as part of an agreement negotiated between the province and local First Nations. 

Mayors and residents in the province’s northeast say they were blindsided by a new 2,000-square kilometre provincial park announced last month, which will help protect the endangered Caribou but also displaces land and mineral tenure holders, and which was negotiated in private between the province and West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations.

More than 100 people in Ladysmith on Vancouver Island turned out to greet BC Conservative leader John Rustad last week to air concerns about how the Ladysmith Community Marina was turned over from the local maritime society to the Stz’uminus First Nation, under a reconciliation agreement that locals say failed to take their concerns into account.

And a variety of businesses raised alarm bells at restrictions to public land use that would have occurred under a change to B.C.’s Land Act earlier this spring that the government ultimately paused.

“Reconciliation needs to be borne on the shoulders of all British Columbians, not a handful,” said Ellis.

Land use agreements are outliers, says minister

Rankin said those examples are all outliers, and that B.C.’s modern treaty process and consent-based declarations under DRIPA have enshrined levels of consultation with affected tenure holders.

“The big reconciliation approaches that this government is trying to follow, reconciliation agreements, foundation agreements, modern treaties, there is ample opportunity for individuals to be involved and they are involved on the ground,” he said.

Rankin also laid some blame on the feet of BC Conservative leader John Rustad, who was the minister responsible for Indigenous relations under the then BC Liberal government when the Tsilhqot’in court decision occurred.

“I know it’s difficult for the guide outfitters, no question,” said Rankin. “We’ve been scrambling to deal with this situation over 10 years ago on the court case we lost, John Rustad lost, and we’re trying to figure out how to move forward with the federal government and all the other local government players.

“We’ve been scrambling to deal with this situation over 10 years ago on the court case we lost, John Rustad lost.”

Murray Rankin

“I’m stressing the uniqueness of the Tsilhqot’in situation, and contrasting that with how guide outfitters were treated on the Maa-nulth treaty, on Vancouver Island, where they were fully consulted.” That treaty was signed in 2011 under the Liberal government.

As guide outfitters warn their businesses are collapsing after years of curtailed operation, there is also another ticking clock on the issue.

Rankin recently announced he is not running for reelection, which means his ability to make major decisions involving expenditures will begin to wane as we get closer to the election writ drop on Sept. 21 — after which, if he has not finalized a deal, the issue will be passed on to the next minister, and likely years more of delays.