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British Columbia Gropes for Long-Overdue Treaties With Indians

March 30, 1996

NORTH VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) _ A century late, British Columbia is venturing forward on a hazardous mission: negotiating treaties with its long-aggrieved Indian peoples.

The task could scarcely be more daunting. On one side, militant Indians prefer confrontation to compromise. On the other, white hard-liners say the treaties will spawn reverse-racism homelands that give Indians special rights.

To complicate matters, the province must hold a legislative election before the end of the year, and the treaty process has become a political issue further weakening the left-of-center New Democratic Party government.

Opposition parties are demanding that the one pact already negotiated should be subject to a referendum or legislative vote. If that happened, and the hard-won treaty with the Nisga’a tribe collapsed, the 47 other tribes signed up for talks would likely lose faith, and militants might resort to their past tactics of roadblocks and armed standoffs.

``There are warriors out there,″ said Gibby Jacob, a negotiator for the Squamish people who have laid claim to Vancouver and a prized chunk of land to the north.

``Right now the warriors are being held down. But if the government backtracks, the bands that are more radical, they’ll just shut the roads down.″

There are 160,000 Indians among British Columbia’s 3.2 million people. While many native groups in other provinces signed treaties in the 19th century, Indians in British Columbia were allocated lands for reserves without negotiations or a formal granting of any rights.

The Nisga’a began lobbying for their land claims 100 years ago, but only in 1976 _ after decades of government see-sawing and complex court rulings _ did treaty negotiations begin.

The talks finally bore fruit this year. Nisga’a, provincial and federal negotiators initialed a treaty Feb. 15 that would give the tribe ownership of 745 square miles in the Nass Valley, plus $150 million, fishing rights and broad self-government powers.

In return for the cash and the land _ only 8 percent of what the tribe originally sought _ the Nisga’a agreed to forgo any future claims and gradually eliminate their exemption from sales and income taxes.

The treaty’s drafters hoped their efforts would serve as a model for the other tribes that are supposed to negotiate individually on sometimes overlapping land claims.

But Philip Halkett, the province’s deputy minister of aboriginal affairs, said treaty supporters were taken aback by the vehemence of the criticism after details of the Nisga’a deal were unveiled.

A conservative news weekly, Western Report, said the treaty created ``constitutionally entrenched apartheid.″

Vancouver Sun columnist Trevor Lautens heaped scorn on the negotiators: ``Welcome to the first of dozens of Canada’s 21st century PCBs _ Politically Correct Bantustans. Such treaties will give lawyers and bureaucrats prosperous employment for as long as the sun shall shine.″

Halkett confronted 100 treaty critics at a meeting in the northern town of Prince George and chided them for evoking the imagery of South African apartheid.

``I told them, `Watch out for that language. It’s fundamentally inaccurate.′ ″ Halkett said in an interview. ``The Nisga’a will be fully integrated into B.C. society. They will no longer be wards of the federal government.″

The criticism of the Nisga’a deal bodes ill for the long-term future of the treaty process. The Nisga’a have a reputation as one of the province’s most moderate, patient tribes, and their land claim involved a scenic but remote mountain valley not far from the southern tip of Alaska.

Tribes in more developed areas, like the Squamish, face a much more complicated task.

Now allocated 23 tiny reserves totaling 11 square miles, the Squamish plan to open their negotiations by claiming 2,600 square miles, including all of Vancouver and extending northward past Whistler, Canada’s premier ski resort.

The 2,800 Squamish actually do not expect to gain jurisdiction over any private land, rural or urban. But they want cash compensation for lost territory, plus ownership over enough publicly owned land to provide them with resources that can end a cycle of poverty.

``We want to get on with our lives and improve the economy of our people,″ said Harold Calla, finance director for the Squamish. ``It’s not a race issue _ it’s about ownership.″

He bridles at treaty opponents who say the Indians should not be encouraged to set up separate governments along racial lines.

``They want assimilation, but they’re not going to get it,″ Calla said in an interview at the Squamish council headquarters in North Vancouver. ``Economic cooperation, yes. Assimilation, no.″

The governing New Democrats, already trailing in polls because of financial scandals and other problems, contend treaties will benefit all British Columbians by ending uncertainty over access to natural resources.

The government has set a target of 5 percent of the province’s territory to be transferred to Indian ownership. It commissioned a study estimating total compensation payments at about $4.5 billion, mostly paid with federal funds.

The centrist Liberal Party, which leads in the polls, says the Nisga’a treaty should be subject to a vote in the Legislature, and it wants provincewide public hearings.

``British Columbians want to have input, and they don’t want to be labeled racist for questioning the terms of an agreement that will form a model for future settlements,″ said Mike de Jong, the Liberals’ designated Indian affairs expert.

The conservative Reform Party wants a referendum on the treaty.

``Instead of moving us closer to the goal of one country, one people, one law, the Nisga’a blueprint will permanently cleave us into a nation defined and divided along racial lines,″ said Reform’s provincial leader, Jack Weisgerber.

Joe Gosnell, leader of the Nisga’a, vows to reject any changes in the treaty.

``Give me your best shot,″ he declared after initialing the pact. ``I am not prepared to change one dot or cross one T that isn’t there.″

Halkett said there is a division among British Columbia’s tribes, with some prepared to emulate the Nisga’a by spending years in negotiations and others far more impatient.

``If non-aboriginal society rejects the Nisga’a deal, the blockade crowd will be empowered,″ he said. ``It will reinforce those who see roadblocks and vicious language as the tools of the trade.″

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