A land-claims referendum could derail key negotiations with B.C.’s natives
Time for amends
A land-claims referendum could derail key negotiations with B.C.’s natives
With the prospect of a referendum on aboriginal land-claims issues, British Columbians are faced with a dilemma. The overwhelming electoral mandate Premier Gordon Campbell received on May 16 places him in a strong position with respect to the negotiations—a critical issue in British Columbia. It would be dangerous, however, if the B.C. Liberals ignored the Supreme Court rulings of recent years and the spirit of the treaty negotiation process under way for almost a decade now. The vote will very likely threaten an already fragile truce between aboriginal and nonaboriginal neighbours in communities throughout the province. As well, the resulting confrontation would create greater uncertainties for the provinces resource industries, many of which would be on aboriginal lands under negotiation.
As a son of an immigrant, I am keenly aware that our collective Canadian heritage is built on the backs of our ancestors. Yet we have been reluctant to accept that aboriginal heritage plays an important part in our history. During a recent visit to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, I had the opportunity to learn some of the history of the residential school on the island, which is just off the northeast coast ofVancouver Island. Incredibly, apartheid-like conditions did not end until the 1970s. While no words can describe the heartbreaking stateand church-sanctioned practices that tore a people apart, as a Canadian, I recognized my moral responsibility to help First Nations become whole again. If we are ever to reconcile two clashing cultures, we must recognize and make amends for the serious shortcomings of our past. Treaty negotiations are a part of that important process.
First Nations in B.C. were not accorded the opportunity to negotiate treaties until very recent times. Indeed, the govern-
ments of Canada were reluctant to do so and it was not until the Supreme Court ruled in 1990 on the aboriginal rights case of Ronald Sparrow, who had been charged with illegal net fishing, that the province of British Columbia agreed to join the federal government at the table.
The rebuilding of aboriginal cultures can be seen as an evolutionary process. Some First Nations, such as the Squamish, Burrard and Nisgaa, are much more advanced in governance, in the promotion of education and health care, and in the development of entrepreneurship. Many
others will continue to require substantial support and are a long way from becoming self-reliant. To that end, the federal government continues to provide resources, particularly in the areas of selfgovernment and reserve infrastructure.
Non-aboriginal British Columbians also have a major role in this process. Our universities—the University of Northern British Columbia, the University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University—have been reaching out to aboriginal communities, as well as providing aboriginal curricula for the greater community. The negotiating parties, recognizing the long-term nature of treaty negotiations, have entered into more than 50 interim measures. Some of these agreements protect designated resources such as fish and set aside some of the claimed land in advance of a formal treaty. As well, First Nations have signed numerous private commercial agreements relating to agriculture, real estate and forestry. Similarly, both sport and commercial fishing industries have reached operational co-operative understandings. As treaty negotiations continue to the next stage, other sectors of the economy, such as catde ranching and mining, will enter into the process. Delays caused by a referendum would add to First Nations’ legitimate fears that their traditional lands and sea will be stripped of their wealth before the claims are setded.
The negotiations’ apparent minimal progress has caused many to doubt whether the treaty process can ever be successful in reconciling the differences that exist in the broader community. In the context of societal progress, there have been significant changes, as quickly as the laws of the land allow. Inherent Aboriginal rights were entrenched in the Constitution Act of 1982, and the historic landmark court case Delgamuukw v. British Columbia in 1990 clearly oudined the inherent rights of First Nations. Beginning in the B.C. Supreme Court, this case proceeded to the B.C. Court of Appeal in 19921993, and then to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997, which rendered its historic outcome in 1998.
While I am not a legal expert, I question whether the use of a referendum would be appropriate in seeking the opinions of British Columbians, or other Canadians, on treaty matters respecting the rights of
First Nations. In some jurisdictions, such as California and other American states, referendum decisions are binding. The complexity of the issues in British Columbia, however, could easily result in the tyranny of the majority on the rights of an important minority—without any reference to the Constitution or numerous Supreme Court rulings.
Critics of the negotiations say there’s a lack of transparency in the process in British Columbia and that a referendum might bring the issues direcdy to the people. I’m sure that communications with the public could be, and should be, improved. In examining this apparent shortcoming, however, I have discovered that there are three committees representing various parts of the broader community, including the Treaty Negotiation Advisory Committee, which has approximately 33 members representing industry groups.
In 1992, subsequent to extensive studies, the federal and provincial governments and the First Nations agreed to a six-stage negotiation process. At no time was the use
of a referendum proposed—nor was it ever contemplated. In good faith, First Nations have accrued debts of over $150 million dollars in the negotiating process to date. Both the federal and provincial governments have spent at least as much, an investment that will be at risk if the talks fail. The introduction of a referendum at this late stage could constitute a serious breach of trust in the entire negotiating process.
The economic benefits to British Columbia should interest all Canadians. It is anticipated that financial setdements will come from Canadians as a whole, represented by the federal government, while the land portion of any setdements would come from the province. In 1995, the accounting firm KPMG provided a detailed analysis of the potential economic impact of land-claim settlements. It said the province can expect about a three-to-one return for every dollar spent. KPMG estimates the net financial benefit to British Columbia would be between $3.9 billion and $5.3 billion over 40 years. With continued uncertainty, however, the realization of this benefit remains remote. History, as well as the Supreme Court rulings, tells us that aboriginal Canadians have inherent rights which descendants of immigrants do not have. I, for one, accept this fact. Hopefully, we all respect and embrace the diverse heritage of all Canadians.
Milton Wong is chancellor of Simon Fraser University and chairman of HSBC Asset Management Canada Ltd.
He is also chairman of the Vancouver-based Laurier Institution, an independent, non-profit organization studying the social and economic impact of cultural diversity in Canada.
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