Canada

BACK TO THE LAND

THE B.C. LIBERALS SCORE BIG, BUT THE TREATY ISSUE TARNISHES THEIR ELECTION WIN

CHRIS WOOD May 28 2001
Canada

BACK TO THE LAND

THE B.C. LIBERALS SCORE BIG, BUT THE TREATY ISSUE TARNISHES THEIR ELECTION WIN

CHRIS WOOD May 28 2001

BACK TO THE LAND

THE B.C. LIBERALS SCORE BIG, BUT THE TREATY ISSUE TARNISHES THEIR ELECTION WIN

BY CHRIS WOOD in Lillooet

Cold wind blows down from the snowfields, pulling smoke away from the fire. From the shelter of a blue tarpaulin, Brian Grandbois squints at the weather. His grey-streaked hair is pulled into a pony-tail and tucked into his camouflage jacket; brown and white feathers flutter from his hunting cap. He says he is a St’af imc—a member of the First Nation claiming this southwestern B.C. mountain pass as its own. The day after the provincial election, Grandbois is one of the few British Columbians who does not know that Gordon Campbell and his Liberal party have carried the province in an electoral victory worthy of the history books.

But the St’at’imc keep their own history. In it, one white government is very much like another. And none is likely to be good to the 3,000 or so St’at’imc in their ruggedly beautiful mountains northeast of the jet-set playground of

Whistler. Grandbois himself did not cast a ballot. That would admit to being a Canadian, a treason against his peoples claim to sovereignty over the Lillooet, Camelsfoot and lower Chilcotin ranges. But he knows the Liberals want all British Columbians to vote within a year in a referendum on native land claims, which cover most of British Columbia’s landmass. “They’re riding the redneck, racist, anti-native sentiment,” Grandbois says when informed of the election result. “White people in the province fear losing their land. He’s playing on that.” What the premier-elect is really thinking of in terms of the promised referendum is a mystery. But of the many commitments Campbell made on the way to his epic win, this one was the most puzzling—and politically unnecessary. For months, the election result seemed like a foregone conclusion: long out of patience with watching

incomes shrivel and services decay under the New Democrats, British Columbians finally gave the Liberals 57.5 per cent of their ballots on May 16, and 76 of 79 legislative seats—including the one held by NDP Premier Ujjal Dosanjh. As voters on the left drifted to the Greens (12.4 per cent) and Marijuana Party (3.2), the NDP was cut to three seats—too few even to qualify for party status.

In victory, Campbell promised again what most voters clearly felt is long overdue in British Columbia: “A thriving economy, a superb health system and an education system second to none.” Yet of all his undertakings—numerous enough to be itemized for voter convenience on his party’s Web site—none risks more political disaster for less gain than the commitment to put the native treaty process to a vote. No group is clamouring for such a referendum. The idea is below urbanites’ radar, and opposed by resource companies. Even among the one-quarter of British Columbians who live outside major cities, where the notion was originally aimed at shoring up the Liberal right, it is at best deeply divisive.

It is also the one issue most capable of bringing all of the rest of Campbell’s agenda to a bloody standstill.

To understand why, one must look beond the VancouverWhisder axis that deanes much of the B.C. image. Forty minites north of the world-famous party town, just past Pemberton, a roadside sign declares: “Entering Stl’atl’imx Territory.”

Overhead, a banner advises that this is the home of “Sutikalh, the Winter Spirit,” and commands, “Respect our land.” From here, it is an hour of low-gear grades, hairpin turns and vertiginous drop-offs to Grandbois’s roadside shelter. The lean-to is part information booth, part sentry post for an encampment of about 20 people—native and non-aboriginal—blockading a sideroad near where Canada’s skiing sweetheart Nancy Green, and her husband, Al Raine, want to build a $500-million ski resort.

Thirty minutes more bring you to Lillooet. The former Gold Rush town on the Fraser River is now home to about 2,800 people—mostly non-native forestry workers. Mountains surround the town, while three all-season roads snake through to the outside world. All have been closed at times by native blockades. “We’re caught

in the nutcracker,” says Mayor Kevin Taylor. “We were cut off completely for over two weeks in the [1990] Oka crisis.” Even when the roads are open, Lillooet isn’t booming. For-sale signs outnumbered election posters last week, amid the worst economic times in 30 years. “It’s 70 per cent due,” says Taylor, “to the native issue.” Campbell insists that only a provincewide vote on treaty negotiations—and the underlying, prickly issue of special status for aboriginals—can lay the basis for settling the claims of British Columbia’s 160,000 natives with “equality, certainty and finality.” From here, it is hard to see how. Natives

consider those to be code words for undermining their sovereign rights to land and self-government.

(The great majority of B.C. native bands never signed treaties with the provincial government, which until 1990 refused to negotiate them.) In any vote between competing native and non-native interests, moreover, natives are outnumbered 23 to one. Just by raising the idea, one tribal leader warned Campbell in March, he courts, “what happened to Custer.”

Taylor fears a vote will place Lillooet under siege again. But after a decade of fruitless talk about land claims, he is also running out of choices: “There is a high level

`IF IT GETS RIGHT DOWN TO IT, IT COULD BE BLOODSHED,' SAYS ONE 1ATIVE LEADER

of support to go to a referendum,” he says, “just to settle something.” But down the street, Wendy Fraser disagrees. Born and raised here, she edits the Bridge RiverLillooet News—and doesn’t want her community put at risk for a vote she believes will settle nothing. “Campbell’s plan,” she wrote earlier this month, “is fraught with danger, playing to extremists and militants.” She urged him to drop the idea. “Nobody,” she tells Macleans, “wants a long, hot summer.”

But many, in and outside of town, think it may now be inevitable. Farther up the hairpin turns east of town, a white couple in a neat home on a pretty lake say they voted Liberal for the same reason everyone else did: to get rid of the NDP. But they fear how both sides will react to a treaty referendum. “We’re just waiting,” the woman confides, “to see whether it’s a native or a white who gets shot first.” With emotions running high, they also ask not to be identified. Houses have been burnt. The RCMP is an hour away. “We have to live here after,” she says.

A few miles more along the mountain blacktop, tribal council chairman Robert Shintah of the Lillooet band, St’at’imc nation, offers little comfort. Like Grandbois, he did not vote in what he considers a foreign election. He says Canadian law, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, means nothing in St’at’imc territory. Treaties mean even less. White government, he says, should simply withdraw and leave the mountains to Sfiat’imc rule, “lock, stock and barrel.’’And if that rule emerges from the barrel of a gun, Shintah will not be surprised —or much perturbed. “If it gets right down to it,” he says over coffee in his large new home, behind a store where he sells crafts, groceries and fuel (the last, tax-free to natives), “it could be bloodshed. We really don’t care anymore. It’s like that all over Indian country.”

That is to say, over pretty much all of British Columbia beyond Vancouver and its suburbs. It’s an attitude that will take more than 76 out of 79 seats, more even than referendum ballots, to change. CD