Conference Highlights Treaty Issues

Mon. May. 14/12
Conference highlights treaty issues
Leaders, scholars, politicians at VICC
Tamara Cunningham

A landmark conference on Vancouver Island's Douglas Treaties is a "good start" to making sure treaty rights are respected and recognized, says Snuneymuxw chief Douglas White.

The Pre-Confederation Treaties of Vancouver Island Conference opened Thursday morning with more than 300 Canadian Aboriginal leaders, scholars and politicians converging on Nanaimo.

The two-day conference, hosted by the Snuneymuxw First Nation and Vancouver Island University, is aimed at triggering discussion about the 157-year-old Douglas Treaties and what they've come to mean for Vancouver Island.

First Nations leaders say they hope the in-depth conversations create greater political respect for the treaties and help people understand just why the rights are fought so fiercely for.

Nanaimo residents have seen the Snuneymuxw First Nations take on government and industry twice over the last three years.

The band has plans to take the City of Nanaimo and Harmac to court this year over a brewing water-sharing agreement for Nanaimo River, which they fear will be signed without the consent of the Snuneymuxw.

The First Nations have rights to the water under the Douglas Treaty, which was signed in 1854. It recognized Aboriginals' title to village sites and enclosed fields and confirmed protection for their fisheries and hunting, but governments have ignored and dismissed the promises over time, according to White.

Fourteen treaties were signed in B.C.

"These treaties have been validated and there are a half-century worth of Supreme Court cases as context," White said. "That they are not being recognized or respected is a problem we need to address."

The conference invited speakers from across Canada to educate people on all sides of the treaty issue, including Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, B.C. Regional Chief Jody Wilson Raybould and Grand Chief Konrad Sioui of the Huron Wendat Nation in Quebec.

VIU president Dr. Ralph Nilson said the university is aiming to be relevant and innovative by holding conferences on controversial social issues and the event has been well-received.

"This the place to have safe dialogue, where people can ask difficult and controversial questions and bring opinions forward," he said, adding he hopes the university holds similar conferences in the future.

"I think we really need to have these conversations (about treaties) and get informed."

Snaw'Naw'As band manager Brent Edwards attended and said Thursday he thought the forum was putting the Douglas Treaties into perspective.

Treaty issue need to be addressed now, so the struggles having rights recognized are not inherited by the next generation, he said.