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Sechelt Indian Band plans land claim referendum

The Sechelt Indian Band is planning a referendum of band members to decide how to pursue its long-standing land claim. The band is considering following the Haida example by going to court.

The Sechelt Indian Band is planning a referendum of band members to decide how to pursue its long-standing land claim. The band is considering following the Haida example by going to court.

On March 3, the band held a closed-door meeting at the SIB community hall. In an interview before the meeting, Chief Garry Feschuk said the band is considering three approaches to its land claim.

"The options are political strategy, legal strategy or assertion strategy," said Feschuk.

Feschuk said the band has been exchanging letters with the B.C. Treaty Commission, discussing a possible return to the negotiating table. Feschuk said he expects a response soon from government treaty negotiators, which will determine the band's next move.

In 1999, the Sechelt Indian Band became the first band in B.C. to reach an agreement-in-principle through the treaty commission. That deal included $42 million cash, $1.5 million for economic development and almost 1,000 hectares of land. The Sechelt Indian Band agreed to gradually give up its tax exemption rights under the Indian Act.

The Sechelt agreement was widely hailed as an historic breakthrough when then premier Glen Clark and then Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart signed the deal with Feschuk. But in 2000, the band reversed its position, and Feschuk walked away from the treaty deal, citing a long list of objections: not enough land, the loss of tax exemptions, no share in the timber from Crown land and unacceptable limits on aboriginal rights and land title.

Robert Joe, the band's land claim coordinator, said the band has been researching the legal case for its land claim since then, and going to court seems like a promising approach.

"It's looking good to go to litigation," said Joe.

Two prominent B.C. native leaders were guest speakers at the March 3 meeting: Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, and Guujaaw, the elected president of the Haida nation. Phillip and Guujaaw both sit on the steering committee of the Title and Rights Alliance of B.C., a new group formed in the fall of 2003.

Phillip said the formation of the alliance, which includes many native bands that had been negotiating through the treaty commission, is "an indictment of the failure of the B.C. treaty process."

Since the Sechelt rejected their groundbreaking agreement, several other bands have signed agreements-in-principle negotiated through the treaty commission, including the Sliammon band located near Powell River. But Phillip described the Sliammon deal as "shaky" and said none of the agreements have solid support from their communities.

After more than 10 years of negotiations, said Phillip, there are no treaties signed, native bands have piled up crushing debts to pay the costs of negotiation, and "there is still a growing economic uncertainty throughout the province of B.C." because of unresolved land claims.

One example is the Haida lawsuit seeking title to all of the Queen Charlotte Islands and surrounding waters. That suit, filed in B.C. Supreme Court in 2002, could derail the B.C. government's plans to open up offshore oil exploration.

Guujaaw said the government would love to start drilling for oil and gas, but "we're not interested in that."

Feschuk said he asked Guujaaw to speak about the Haida court case.

"Our issues aren't any different from theirs," said Feschuk.

Guujaaw said the Haida aim to prove they have title to the islands and the British had no lawful authority to claim the land. The Haida, like the Sechelts and many other B.C. bands, never signed a treaty with any government.

"I'm not here to give advice, but basically to tell our story," Guujaaw said. "They [the Sechelts] will decide what they have got to do."