The View from the Aboriginal Rights Coalition
by Waldemar Braul
The Coalition and the Nisgaa
The Aboriginal Rights Coalition of British Columbia (ARC-BC) has enjoyed a 25 year relationship with the Nisgaa in Northwestern British Columbia. The Nisgaa Tribal Council and the Coalition first joined efforts in the early 1970s to block the dumping of mine waste in Nisgaa territory.
Since then, ARC-BC has often pushed government to settle the century-old Nisgaa land claim. A Nisgaa agreement, we argued, would be a symbol of hope and a much-needed gesture of reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities. Finally, on August 4, 1998, the Nisgaa and the two levels of government signed the Nisgaa Agreement, the first modern-day land claim agreement in British Columbia.
We now find ourselves in the Agreements critical ratification phase. Where do we stand? Our view can be summarized in the following three principles.
Principle #1: A Provincial Referendum Should Not Be Held.
The federal Reform Party and the provincial opposition call for a provincial referendum on the Nisgaa Agreement.
ARC-BC strongly objects to such a referendum. Here are some of our reasons:
BCs provincial opposition leader Gordon Campbell recently stated his intention to challenge the governments refusal to hold a referendum in court. ARC-BC intends to intervene in the litigation.
Principle #2: The Nisgaa Agreement Deserves Civil Public Debate.
Unless a referendum is called, the provincial decision on whether to ratify the Agreement will be made by a free vote in the legislature, likely in late 1998 or early 1999. The equivalent federal decision is also expected at that time. The Nisgaa ratification vote will be held in early November, 1998.
The coming months will see a highly charged debate over whether the Nisgaa Agreement should be ratified. ARC-BC does not fear the inevitable criticism of the Agreement, and in fact looks forward to this debate. It is the lack of public debate which has fostered fear about land claims. Public dialogue will show that modern day treaties are, for all Canadians, a far better way than the Indian Act paternalism.
ARC-BC will not unequivocally approve or disapprove of the Agreement until the Nisgaa membership holds its ratification vote (in November). Once the Nisgaa make a ratification decision, we will stand with them regardless of the outcome; to do otherwise would be to betray our longstanding friendship.
ARC-BC plans to be an active participant in the upcoming public debate. For example, we will hold a public meeting with Nisgaa Chief Joe Gosnell (September 17 at the University of Victoria), host a series of seminars on the Agreement, survey and meet with BCs provincial and federal politicians, and consult with the business community.
Principle #3: The Nisgaa Agreement is not a Template.
ARC-BC has had a long history not only with the Nisgaa, but with other aboriginal groups, notably the Gitksan and the Sto:Lo. We have come to realize that different First Nations have very different perspectives. In BC, First Nations differ on critical matters such as whether the provincial government should have any role in treaty negotiations and how "sovereignty" should be reflected in a treaty. We recognize that some First Nations do not support the Nisgaa Agreement model.
The differences should come as no surprise. British Columbias First Nations have vastly different cultures, land bases, and historical experiences with the Crown. Unfortunately, these legitimate differences do not appear to be reflected in the one size fits all negotiation process used by the federal and provincial governments. Our current advocacy work seeks to realign the current negotiation process to make it more responsive.