Opinion: First Nations getting 10%, up from 5%. A chief suggests 50% would be a fairer number

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VICTORIA — The New Democrats this week more than doubled the share of forest revenues going to First Nations, saying it was only an interim step toward a more generous split in the future.

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The provincial payout will total $131 million this year, up from $59 million last year, said the announcement Wednesday by Forests Minister Katrine Conroy and Indigenous Relations Minister Murray Rankin.

The $72 million increase includes $63 million from provincial royalties (stumpage) on the timber harvest by tenure holders, the rest from direct sales through BC Timber Sales.

“I want to stress that this is very much an interim arrangement,” said Rankin. “We are moving away from the short-term transactional approach in the past towards a new fiscal relationship, one that recognizes, respects, and supports Indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination.”

Asked how the province came up with the increase of $72 million, Forests Minister Conroy said “we wanted to show commitment that we are serious about this.

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“We felt that it was a good initial commitment. In the coming time, we’ll talk about how we will work this into a permanent number.”

Some 184 of the province’s 204 First Nations are eligible to share the $131 million total funding, though only 126 have signed a revenue-sharing agreement so far, according to Conroy.

“We will be reaching out to all nations,” said the forests minister.

“The ones that have the existing agreements, we will be ensuring that they get a letter saying how much their agreement will be increased by.

“We will also be reaching out to (the others) just to say this is what we’re doing, and would they be interested now in signing an agreement?”

Several First Nations leaders who attended the announcement said the funding would be spent on a range of priorities, including resource management, governance and reaching out to members living in urban centres.

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“Today’s announcement will allow our leadership and administration team to fill gaps in numerous funding areas,” said Chief Nicole Rempel of the K’omoks First Nation on Vancouver Island.

“The increased revenue sharing for resources taken from unceded territory will allow us to fill gaps in governance, education funding and to continue our push in the protection of archeological sites, to help fund our guardian programs, protection of groundwater in our territory.

“While the increase is not what some may say is sufficient, it does help close the socioeconomic gap.”

Rankin said the funding distribution would be similar to what was done in 2019 when the province committed to share seven per cent of provincial gambling revenues — an estimated $3 billion over 25 years — with First Nations.

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“There is a limited partnership consisting of a gaming commission co-chaired by two Indigenous leaders,” explained the Indigenous relations minister.

“There is an audit of how much money is represented by seven per cent of gaming in a particular year, and then the money flows to the limited partnership who are responsible for and accountable for how that money is distributed.

“There’ll be something akin to that, I suspect, in this arrangement. … There will be an audit, I can tell you that.”

This week’s commitment already represents a greater share of forest revenues than the gambling split of seven per cent.

Conroy said the target was sharing up to 10 per cent of revenues.

But the recent provincial budget targeted a significant drop in forest revenues, from $1.847 billion last year to $1.121 billion this year.

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If the lower projection holds (and it is only an estimate), than the payout to First Nations would equal about 12 per cent of the provincial total.

Either way, it is only the beginning.

The commitment to sharing forests revenues emerged from BC’s endorsement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by unanimous vote in the legislature in November 2019.

The enabling legislation promised an implementation plan.

The version released earlier this year includes commitments “to co-develop with Indigenous peoples a new fiscal relationship that supports the operation of Indigenous governments and frameworks for resource revenue sharing,” said Rankin.

“A new fiscal relationship is about creating space within British Columbia and Canada for Indigenous peoples to exercise their inherent right to self-determination,” the minister continued.

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“Over the next two years our goal is to co-develop an entirely new fiscal relationship which, of course, will include revenue sharing in the forestry sector and elsewhere.”

By “elsewhere,” I assume he means sharing provincial revenues from mining and other resources as well.

How far is the province prepared to go?

Rankin declined to be drawn into a discussion about the provincial position on a permanent revenue-sharing agreement.

But as the media conference wrapped up Wednesday, Rempel volunteered her view of what would be a fair revenue split.

“We’ve spent so long watching our resources being stripped away from our communities and having breakdowns in communication with the province over the years. So, I’m encouraged by this increase,” she said.

However, she emphasized, quoting the two ministers, “this is an interim increase while we continue negotiations.”

Was it a 50-50 split that we should be expecting? asked a reporter.

“I believe 50-50 would be the accurate number, for sure,” replied the K’omoks chief.

“Parting shot,” interjected Rankin, trying to play down the comment.

Parting shot?

Sounds more like the First Nations’ opening position in the coming negotiations with the province on resource revenue sharing.

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