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OTTAWA, Aug 6 (IPS) - The Canadian government has signed a landmark treaty deal with the Nisga'a First Nation of northern British Columbia giving Indians self-government and control of a huge area of forests and mountains.
The agreement, the first one reached this century between native communities in Western Canada and the federal government , grants sweeping powers to the 5,000-member Nisga'a First Nation. It also gives the Nisga'a outright ownership of 2,000 square kilometres, USD 171.6 million in cash, and a large number of native artefacts held in major Canadian museums.
Under the deal, no non-aboriginal settlers will be forced from the territory that the Nisga'a will control, but they will not have the right to vote for the councils that will govern the region. The treaty must still be ratified by the Canadian parliament, the government of British Columbia, and 70 per cent of the adult members of the Nisga'a first nation.
Ratification by the governments is a formality, but Nisga'a leaders will need to ensure a large turnout by Nisga'a voters to ensure the treaty passes.
In recent federal and provincial elections, the Nisga'a turnout has been around 80 per cent. Nisga'a leaders believe an even higher percentage of voters may cast ballots on an issue that's so important to the future of the Nisga'a.
"It still breaks my heart to see young men and women sentenced to a life of seasonal dead-end jobs, to see the despair and disillusionment on the face of my people," Joseph Gosnell, President of the Nisga'a Tribal Council said at the treaty signing ceremony Tuesday.
"We intend to live in this land forever, with our neighbours, and I believe, under the treaty, we will flourish. I believe this treaty represents a monumental achievement for the Nisga'a people and for Canadian society as a whole."
Gosnell said the success of the negotiations over the Nisga'a land claim, which took in vast territories along the Pacific coast near the Canada-Alaska border, proves that Native claims can be settled non-violently. "It shows that reasonable people can sit down and settle historical wrongs. It proves that a modern society can correct the mistakes of the past and ensures that minorities can be treated fairly. As Canadians, I believe, we should all be proud."
In 1887, Nisga'a leaders travelled to the provincial capital, Victoria, to ask the government of British Columbia to guarantee their rights to their lands. Instead, the government rejected their pleas and set out to destroy the Nisga'a nation and to take its land.
Negotiations between the surviving Nisga'a and the Canadian federal government began in 1973, with then-Indian Affairs minister Jean Chretien representing Canada. Chretien is now the country's Prime Minister.
In 1991, the British Columbia government joined the negotiations, along with municipal officials and business executives from the non-native communities on the fringe of the Nisga'a territory.
Despite support for the treaty among Canada's governing politicians, there is vocal opposition to the deal from right-wing political parties. Opponents say the Nisga'a are getting too good a deal. There also are critics among British Columbia First Nation leaders, who say the Nisga'a have settled for only about 10 per cent of the territory originally claimed.
Neighbouring native groups also maintain the Nisga'a are being compensated for some land that belongs to other tribes.
"We will have detractors to this treaty, nay-sayers and politicians who say our interests should continued to be ignored. Those who say Canada and British Columbia are giving us too much. Then there are others, particularly in our own aboriginal communities, who say we have settled for too little," Gosnell said.
"I believe our detractors do not understand, or are practising a wilful ignorance and do not want to understand, or, worse, using carefully coded language, they are updating a venomous attitude so familiar to first nations around the world.
"They are very wrong. By playing politics with the aspirations of aboriginal people, they are blighting the promise of the Nisga'a treaty, not only for the Nisga'a, but for all Canadians."
Gosnell said the treaty must not be amended by the Canadian parliament or the British Columbia legislature when it comes up for ratification. "No longer beggars in our land, we now go forward with dignity, equipped with the confidence that we can make important contributions, social, political and economic, to Canadian society," he said.
Money from the treaty will be used by the Nisga'a to build better roads, schools, and recreation facilities. Money will also be spent to upgrade local hospitals, a need sadly underlined on the day of the treaty agreement when a plane carrying several Nisga'a from a hospital outside the tribal territory crashed. Five people, including a nine-year-old boy, died when the float plane crashed while trying to land on a river near an isolated Nisga'a village.
The tribe also plans to invest in local aboriginal small businesses.
Jane Stewart, Canada's federal minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, said, "No partner got everything they wanted, but that is the nature of negotiation. We have worked together to build a consensus, a treaty that is fair to all, and provides us all with important benefits.
"The agreement...is truly history in the making," she said. "It will become British Columbia's first modern-day aboriginal treaty. It will become the first treaty in Canada that deals with land claims and self-government together. It is a treaty that six generations of Nisga'a people have anticipated with great hope and which we now all realise is an example of how the wider Canadian federation works to reflect the needs and aspirations of all of its citizens."
Stewart said the economy of the region will improve because of the treaty because it ends uncertainty over land ownership. The deal opens up land ceded to the provincial and federal governments to mine prospectors and loggers, who are now sure that governments can grant clear titles to resources.
The treaty will allow the indigenous Nisga'a to run most of the social and economic activity in they area they will control. They will set and collect taxes and determine how the revenue is spent, while agreeing to eventually give up the exemption from some sales and income taxes they have had. (END/IPS/mb/mk/98)
[c] 1998, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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