With the announcement last week by the opposition Liberals that they will mount a court challenge to the controversial July 15 agreement with the Nisga’a of northwestern British Columbia, the pressure on Premier Glen Clark’s NDPgovernment intensified. But the New Democrats, currently running at 20 per cent in opinion polls compared with 48 per cent for Gordon Campbell’s Liberals, are also under fire on other fronts, including British Columbia’s declining economy (the provincial finance department forecasts indicate growth of no more than 0.5 per cent this year). Clark recently met with Maclean’s editors in Toronto. Excerpts from that interview:
Maclean’s: The Nisga’a treaty is generating a great deal of debate in British Columbia. How are you going to defend it?
Clark: What’s taking place in British Columbia is not a debate about the Nisga’a treaty—it’s a debate about whether or not there will be a treaty. Almost all of the native people in British Columbia never signed treaties. That’s very different from the rest of Canada, where aboriginal people are arguing that the treaties aren’t functioning well, they weren’t lived up to, they were inadequate, the negotiation was unfair, all that stuff. In British Columbia, they never signed—and they’re making spectacular progress and victories in the Supreme Court of Canada. And the victory is based on the fundamental premise: they never agreed to extinguish their rights, they never signed anything. So, I believe we have an obligation, both legal and moral, to negotiate land claims. But even though the polls have said consistently that people believe aboriginal people deserve better understanding, it has been an abstract concept until now. While people say they’re in favor of negotiations, we’ve actually concluded one—and that means the debate is far different: people are now saying, ‘We knew you were doing something, but why are you doing this?' We are asking British Columbians to ask themselves how we resolve this fundamental question and whether this is the right way to resolve it. It’s a very important debate for British Columbia for economic, social and political reasons. And I think it has huge ramifications for the rest of the country because this treaty will be seen by almost every aboriginal group in the country as a new model for modern-day treaties that will include not just land and resources or some cash, but self-government, self-determination for aboriginal people.
Maclean’s: Why not go to a referendum? Clark: It is dangerous and improper to subject minority rights to the will of majority.
The Nisga’a people are exchanging their legal rights to assert their minority rights —a treaty right codified in a document, and I think it would be profoundly problematic to have a referendum. I am completely confident we would win a referendum on this question in British Columbia—but I won’t have it.
Maclean’s: But there is a strongly held argument that this particular treaty has created a new set of rights that haven’t been recognized before. Isn’t that a legitimate concern?
Clark: Yes—but first of all, the foundation of the Nisga’a claim is not on race, it’s on property rights. And that is an important distinction because it stems from ownership of the land at the time of contact. The foundation of their government structure is based on ownership, not on the fact that they happen to be of a particular race. And there are very few non-aboriginal people there and there are very few third-party interests at stake, so let’s just be up front about that. But we grappled with this question: how do we deal with the rights of the minority? Number 1: the Nisga’a government cannot tax non-Nisga’a, there can be no taxation without representation, so the few non-native people there pay tax to us. Number 2: it’s a municipal-style government, and in the treaty it says that nonaboriginal people who are essentially consumers of a service must have representation on the governing structure of the organization. So we believe that we’ve done a reasonably good job of protecting the rights of non-aboriginal people through non-taxation without representation and by requiring representation on any body that affects them in the territory.
Maclean’s: British Columbia’s economy is in rough shape. How will it recover?
Clark: If you don’t mind my being presumptuous, there are some, I think, interesting stories on the economy. Each month, I’m assuming that we’re going to
see a huge drop-off of employment—and each month the employment numbers go up, and they have been every single month since January. The film industry is booming—unbelievable, low Canadian dollar, outstanding crews and a massive tax break which we did in British Columbia and Ontario did as well. The high-tech sector can only be described as booming. The tourism industry, notwithstanding the Japanese crisis, has increased by 6 per cent. Manufacturing employment is up 12 per cent in British Columbia in the space of a very short period of time—anybody exporting to the United States is making money and there is a chunk of the economy doing that. We have a radically more diversified economy than we had even a decade ago, but it’s concentrated in Vancouver, the Okanagan and southern Vancouver Island. Where we have the bigger challenge is in the resource communities of the province, which are in
serious crisis, both socially and economically. Maclean’s: So what is your strategy ?
Clark: First of all, we’re going to retain my commitment to education and to health care. Secondly, we will be continuing to look for savings in government and for cuts there. We will be cutting taxes for the fourth consecutive year, two per cent a year since I became premier. We’ve cut small-business taxes by 22 per cent over two years. We’ve cut stumpage [taxes charged forestry companies for the right to log on Crown land] by $600 million—the first stumpage reduction in the history of British Columbia, by the way. We cut taxes on the oil and gas industry by 50 per cent and we’ve cut taxes on the mining industry for exploration. So we have sectoral strategies to try to deal with some of the chalen lenges they face. We I are also investing in I significant public infra| structure, such as the £ Trade Convention Cen| tre in Vancouver—$750 S million. I’ve never seen an industry with such job numbers as the convention business in Vancouver, an obvious market niche and one where the costs are concentrated and the benefits are diffused, a classic case for government support. So we will proceed with a massive construction project on the centre, with or without federal government participation, which will cost us money but which will lead to a lot of job growth. And we’re going to pursue Sky Train development around Vancouver to deal with some of the serious traffic congestion problems we have. Those two construction projects alone are big—a couple of billion dollars—in the Lower Mainland in the next three years. They’re not going to solve our economic problems but they are important public investments that lay the groundwork for growth. I think we are going to be in for a rough ride for another year, but British Columbia has inherent strengths, and I think we will see a recovery next year. □
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