SPOTLIGHT ON
ABORIGINAL RIGHTS - BC Treaty Referendum

PERSPECTIVE
May 7, 2002
by Jody Paterson
Columnist, Victoria Times Colonist

( Posted here with the writer's permission)

Whatever you might think about the inherent rights of B.C. aboriginals, here's the thing: The fight is over. The courts have made their rulings many times and they've all said variations of the same thing, which is that the country owes land, resources and a measure of respect to First Nations.

The $9-million treaty referendum that wraps up next week is just another costly distraction from that point, as has been the flawed treaty-negotiation process that has so far burned through $500 million in nine years. Like it or not, the right of aboriginals to some of this land beneath our feet is absolute.

I only recently grasped that. It let me quit worrying so much about the damage the referendum will do to First Nations and worry instead about the tremendous amount of taxpayer money that's going to be wasted by dragging this issue out any longer.

Say, for instance, that a majority of British Columbians vote yes to the eight referendum questions. The province is just one voice at the treaty table, where it negotiates alongside the federal government and the First Nations.

The worst that can happen for First Nations after a "yes" vote is that the province takes its hardline stance into negotiations and talks fall apart for good, leaving aboriginals no choice but to seek court-ordered settlements.

Unfortunately, that's just about the worst that can happen for taxpayers, too. We'll be paying the bill round for years of lawsuits, not to mention the $150-million bailout First Nations will need when their treaty-talk loans come due without the settlement they were counting on to pay them. And that's not even counting the costs of making good on whatever the courts order if the First Nations winning streak continues as expected.

Read last fall's report from the B.C. Treaty Commission, Looking Back, Looking Forward (www.bctreaty.net/annuals/Review.pdf) and prepare to weep at the money, time and hopefulness frittered away over the years in treaty talks. Not only has there been little commitment for real progress from the province since long before the Liberals, but the process is hopelessly mired in rules, restrictive procedures and a constantly changing cast of players.

"Terminate it. Let's take the lessons we've learned from it and develop a new process," suggests Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs president Stewart Phillips, who estimates that fewer than half the 49 First Nations at the treaty table are actively negotiating (and no one is negotiating right now, as talks have been effectively on hold for the past 18 months due to a federal election, a provincial election and the referendum).

We've been throwing money into the wind long enough. Treaties are coming one way or the other, and the price for stalling any longer will be staggering.

- - -

Speaking of the referendum, former pollster Angus Reid has noted in his criticism of it that it's easy to manufacture the illusion of support for a specific view by asking questions a certain way. Two polls done three weeks ago by Ipsos-Reid, his old company, make that point.

One asked British Columbians how they planned to vote on the referendum, and reported that two-thirds would vote Yes. "This is good news for the Liberals," observed Ipsos-Reid vice-president Daniel Savas. "Should these survey results hold as voting continues, the government will be able to move forward with some confidence that they have the support of the B.C. public."

The second poll -- done over the same period and released the same day -- asked people whether the referendum would have a positive or negative effect on treaty talks. Fifty-two per cent said "negative," and 60 per cent declared the referendum a waste of money.

"The B.C. public clearly has some doubts about this referendum -- what it means, whether to hold it, and what it's trying to achieve," commented Savas.

Point taken, Angus.

jpaterson@times-colonist.com

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PERSPECTIVE
March 28, 2002
by Jody Paterson
Columnist, Victoria Times Colonist

( Posted here with the writer's permission)

The treaty process is effectively over in B.C., its fate sealed by the B.C. Supreme Court ruling Wednesday dismissing a Port Alberni band’s attempts to stop next week’s treaty referendum.

The provincial government will no doubt argue otherwise, at least publicly.

They want us to see the referendum as democracy in action, an invitation to the citizenry to participate in the treaty process. But consider, first, that negotiation is the very essence of anything going by the name of “treaty,” and that there will be none of that once government uses its referendum results to limit what will be put on the table.

Aboriginals will inevitably boycott the process. Consider also that the government has structured the referendum in such a way that it gets what it wants no matter which way the vote goes. If, for instance, a great number of us choose to protest by not voting or spoiling our ballots, no problem. The ones who share the government’s sensibilities will vote. And a simple majority, regardless of voter participation, is all it takes. And if we do vote, the outcome could be similar regardless of which side wins. Voting yes to the eight principles outlined on the ballot will support the Liberal position, which is for agreements that disregard the notion of inherent aboriginal rights to self-government and confer municipal status on First Nations. Voting no, however, means only that the government isn’t “bound to adopt the principles,” not that it won’t.

The eight principles themselves are sufficiently vague and misleading as to be used in whatever way the government chooses. We’re being asked on the mail-in ballots to affirm that private property isn’t up for negotiation, when in fact it never has been as far as the province is concerned. We’ll be asked whether parks and protected areas should be maintained “for the use and benefit of all British Columbians,” with no idea of how a vote for that motherhood issue could be twisted at the treaty table.

And on the matter of municipal-style government for aboriginals, what does it mean if we vote no? Does our “no” vote mean that we support something more significant than simple municipal status for aboriginals, or that we’re against any self-government at all? The direction of treaty negotiations in B.C. under a Liberal government has been clear since Gordon Campbell hired former Citizens’ Voice on Native Land Claims executive director Martyn Brown four years ago as his chief political adviser. Brown, who previously worked with Socred and Reform politicians, has held strong and inflexible views for many years on what’s required to settle land claims. Much of it involves having aboriginals give up their passionately held belief in their inherent right to self-government and settle for municipal-style powers.

Campbell’s own views, not nearly so rigid in his early days in provincial politics, were in sync with Brown’s soon after the two men became a political item. The prospect of a busted treaty process may hardly seem cause for alarm in a province that took a century to sign its first (and only) treaty, the two-year-old Nisga’a Agreement. Dozens of other treaties are still dragging through the process, despite eight years of negotiating and $500 million in federal and provincial expenditures. But the referendum represents something considerably more threatening to First Nations than the usual treaty foot-dragging.

Hupacasath First Nation Chief Judith Sayers, who launched this week’s court action, made it clear Wednesday that aboriginals will be playing hardball from this point on. She predicted a new era of “maximum economic uncertainty,” in which Indians will play whatever hand is available to them to make it a little harder to do business in B.C. Blockades will bloom, court challenges will proliferate — a new one is being filed next week — and the development process will slow to a crawl in regions where aboriginal input is mandated.

Sayers thinks the Liberals’ goal from the outset has been to derail the treaty process, something that Nisga’a negotiator Joe Gosnell also suspected of Martyn Brown’s now-defunct Citizens’ Voice group.

Thus the referendum, sure to bring a halt to treaty talks while letting the government put the blame on the Indians. But while Sayers may have lost her bid for an injunction to stop the referendum, the fight for treaties will not be given up so easily. “This is just a battle,” Sayers said of Wednesday’s ruling. “We still have the war.”

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