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Law may redefine native rights

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VICTORIA—A proposed B.C. government law that would recognize the legal rights and status of aboriginal people has the potential to force Ottawa to re-examine its relationship with aboriginals across Canada, said Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

The law proposed by the province’s Liberal government, and endorsed yesterday by the members of the largest aboriginal organization in British Columbia, would recognize that aboriginal people have long lived throughout British Columbia and no longer would have to prove as fact that they inhabited the area prior to colonialization.

It would recognize aboriginal rights and title, offering shared decision-making and revenue-sharing for First Nations.

Fontaine said the proposed B.C. law eventually could move the federal government to fully acknowledge historic aboriginal rights.

“I’m sure that every government in the country is looking at this very carefully, and I know that the federal government will be under considerable pressure if this particular proposition receives significant support from the chiefs in this province and makes it through the legislature,” said Fontaine.

B.C. Aboriginal Relations minister Mike de Jong told the First Nations leaders his government hopes to introduce and pass the new law before a May provincial election.

“The presence of the national chief [Fontaine] is indicative of just how much attention there is here,” said de Jong. “It is unprecedented. It has not occurred elsewhere in the country.

“I think the country’s watching,” he added.

The proposed law also includes a potentially controversial plan to reduce the numbers of aboriginal nations in British Columbia from more than 200 to 30 aboriginal governments.

Grand Chief Doug Kelly of the Sto:lo Nation in B.C.’s Fraser Valley suggested aboriginals will resolve that issue among themselves.

And the law has provisions to ensure shared decision-making and revenue-sharing between the government and First Nations.

Kelly said the leaders of the First Nations Summit voted yesterday to support a draft proposal of the legislation at a gathering in Victoria.

“It’s historic,” he said. “We’re very pleased.”

But Kelly said aboriginals don’t want to forget that past relations between themselves and B.C. governments haven’t always been rosy.

Last month, the B.C. government announced in its throne speech it will develop a Recognition and Reconciliation Act that will establish in law a new relationship with First Nations.

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