Canadian Treaty Albion Monitor /News

[Editor's note: As these negotiations were concluding in British Columbia, 24 members of the Stoney Point First Nation were charged with "forcibly entering and detaining a park" at Ipperwash, on the shores Lake Huron. They face a maximum of two years imprisonment.

For background on the many recent conflicts between Natives and the Canadian government, see "Oh, Canada..." in an earlier edition.]

Milestone Canadian Treaty With Natives

by Stephen Dale

Offers the Nisga'a land near Alaska, a $150-million cash settlement, and a new native government and court system

(IPS) OTTAWA -- A milestone treaty settlement between the Nisga'a Indians in the Canadian province of British Columbia and the federal and provincial governments promises to mitigate bitter tension between the region's native and non-native peoples.

The tentative resolution of the Nisga'a Indians' claim represents British Columbia's only succesful land claims negotiation in recent memory. It is seen by many as a crucial step in calming frustration at the slow pace of negotiations which last year led to a number of road blockades in British Columbia and to the armed occupation of a ranch at Gustafsen Lake.

Last week's agreement, marking an end to a century-long process of slow and painful negotiations, offers the Nisga'a 2,000 square kilometers of land near Alaska, a $150-million cash settlement, and a new native government and court system in the area.

"The journey our forefathers began well over a century ago ended this morning," said the Nisga'a chief Joseph Gosnell on the day the deal was signed. "I'm very pleased with the results of the work we've done."

Fear that political opponents of the settlement may try to scuttle it

As the only province in Canada not to have signed treaties with native peoples during colonial times, British Columbia is now dealing with 47 other land claims by native nations. The challenge of addressing these claims has become even more complicated as a result of the provincial elections, expected to take place soon, and the fear that political opponents of the settlement may try to scuttle it.

For example, both the opposition British Columbia Liberal Party (which is currently leading in the polls) and the provincial Reform Party, have expressed disapproval of the Nisga'a treaty and have threatened to kill the deal if they form the next government.

Even the governing British Columbia New Democratic Party (NDP), responding to public pressure, has promised to hold public consultations on the treaty.

Despite such threats, a spokesman for the First Nations Summit, a coalition of Aboriginal organizations in Vancouver said that since the authority of British Columbia's treaty commission is protected by law, it will be difficult for politicians to completely derail the negotiation process. They can, however, "throw up a number of roadblocks which will make things much more difficult for our people," the spokesperson said.

Ed Bianchi, national co-ordinator of the Aboriginal Rights Coalition, a church-supported non-governmental organization based in Ottawa warned that despite the Nisga'a's committed pursuit of a non-violent resolution to the conflict, "there's going to be some kind of backlash if it appears that the opposition parties will take the process back to square one....You have to expect that things will get worse."

The official also expressed concern that arguments against the Nisga'a treaty "have taken on very racial overtones" and inflamed public opinion.

For example, much of the opposition to the Nisga'a settlement has centered on the idea that it creates two classes of citizens, placing natives above non-natives.

The Reform Party has been campaigning with the slogan "one law for all British Columbians" while Liberal candidates have threatened to cancel the deal.

Popular right-wing talk-radio host Rafe Mair said such treaties will create "a state where in large areas race counts for everything."

Bianchi said that he hoped the provincial NDP government would stand by its relatively new-found commitment to native peoples in the province and defend the deal by pointing to the importance of recognizing their rights.

Only in 1991 did the provincial government begin negotiating for the first time

Institutional recognition of native people's rights has been a relatively recent phenomenon in Canada and in British Columbia, in particular. For instance, in 1927, the federal government outlawed native people from even discussing land claims.

It took another five decades for the federal government to commit itself to the treaty-negotiation process.

The impetus for a change in policy came only in the 1970's, after the Supreme Court split on the question of whether inherent Aboriginal rights (such as the right to traditional lands) are recognized by Canadian law. Meanwhile, it was only in 1991 that the provincial government agreed to enter into negotiations.

Many Canadians, however, dismiss arguments against granting rights to native peoples as being uninformed. In an editorial, the influential Globe and Mail newspaper asserted that "it is absurd to paint (the) deal as a threat to equality in Canada" since "natives have held a special status in Canada since the first days of European settlement. Early treaties recognized various native groups as distinct peoples with a special relationship to the British Crown."

Those treaties, the legitimacy of which were reconfirmed in a new Canadian constitution enacted in 1982, acknowledged the rights of native peoples to control territory they occupied before European settlement.

Proponents of the treaty also defend the provision allowing the Nisga'a to self-government, pointing out that they would still be functioning within the authority of Canadian law.

Vancouver Sun newspaper columnist Vaughan Palmer said that although the new government may include powers over marriage, adoption, environmental protection and language and culture, "the Nisga'a laws do not override those of the province or national government." The Globe and Mail added that "this is not a nation within a nation" since the criminal code and Canadian charter of rights will still apply.

"Our position is that if the Nisga'a people are comfortable with the deal, that is what matters," the official said. "There are aspects of the deal that won't be good for other communities, but its settlement is going to be different."

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Albion Monitor March 10, 1996 (

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