Jul 15/98: Nisga'a 'treaty' hype: "the route to success"


[S.I.S.I.S. note: The following mainstream news articles may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. They are provided for reference only.]


Canadian Press
July 15, 1998
Dirk Meissner

TERRACE, B.C. (CP) - British Columbia's Nisga'a aboriginals, who have shaken hands with government officials on a treaty, found negotiations - not court - the route to success. That makes them modern-day trail blazers and an example for other groups, says a spokesman for Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart.

Negotiators for the Nisga'a, the province and Ottawa finalized details Wednesday on a land claim with roots dating back more than a century. The deal signals to other aboriginal groups that talking gets results, says Malcolm Bernard. "The Nisga'a have blazed a trail. I would hope that it doesn't take that long for any other First Nations group."

Fifty-one other B.C. aboriginal groups are involved in treaty talks with the province and Ottawa. The Nisga'a deal will influence other negotiations, Bernard said. "It does provide an example. This is sort of the leading edge."

Hamar Foster, a University of Victoria aboriginal affairs expert, said the Nisga'a deal is an amazing achievement, but it will not stop all aboriginal groups from taking their claims to court. "A lot of aboriginal groups, frankly, feel they want much more."

Joe Gosnell, chief Nisga'a negotiator, said the agreement shows people with great differences can reach an understanding through negotiation. Gosnell said he felt "absolutely great" about the deal, though the Nisga'a didn't get everything they wanted. "In negotiations one never does. Negotiation is based, I think, on compromise, and that's what the three parties did."

An official treaty-initialling ceremony is scheduled for Aug. 4 in New Aiyansh, a Nisga'a village in the remote Nass Valley in northwestern British Columbia. The deal also has to be ratified by all three parties.

No details of the agreement - a first in modern-day B.C. - were revealed Wednesday. But the 1996 tentative agreement was based on providing the Nisga'a with $190 million and 1,930 square kilometres in the Lower Nass Valley.

The 5,000 Nisga'a, more than half of whom live outside the remote designated territory, were also to receive fishing and forestry rights and set up their own government, policing and courts.

Gosnell told a room of chanting and drumming aboriginals Wednesday that their futures are linked with past leaders who never gave up on a treaty over the last 111 years. A delegation of Nisga'a leaders arrived in Victoria in 1887 - 16 years after B.C. joined Confederation - to discuss land ownership, only to be rebuked by provincial representatives. Official Nisga'a treaty talks began 23 years ago. The three sides reached an agreement-in-principle in February 1996 covering land roughly one-third the size of Prince Edward Island - about one tenth the size the Nisga'a initially sought. "I recall all of our chieftains who have gone before," said Gosnell, "our matriarchs, those that led the struggle to enable us to reach the day that we are enjoying here today. It is now up to you."

Premier Glen Clark, who arrived in Terrace for the conclusion of marathon talks that went on for more than 24 straight hours, said his NDP government will ensure the legislature ratifies it. "This is a critical juncture in terms of reconciliation with aboriginal people in B.C.," said Clark, who has promised a free vote on the treaty in the legislature. "Its an important template for future negotiations. This is for all the marbles, so to speak."

The agreement faces opposition from aboriginals and non-aboriginals. The 2,000-member Gitanyow Indian band says the Nisga'a talks involve 84 per cent of their traditional territory. The band failed in a court bid this week to force the Nisga'a to settle with them before reaching a treaty deal with governments. Other critics, who want the deal put to a provincewide referendum, say a treaty gives the Nisga'a powers like a third order of government. Opposition Liberals and the federal Reform party have said all British Columbians must be treated equally, no matter how well-intentioned a land claim deal.

Most B.C. aboriginals were left out when treaties were signed by natives in other parts of Canada.


The Associated Press
July 15, 1998

TERRACE, British Columbia (AP) - After trying for more than a century, the Nisga'a Indians of northern British Columbia reached agreement with government negotiators Wednesday on the details of a precedent-setting land-claims treaty.

Federal and provincial officials hope agreement on the first modern land- claims treaty in British Columbia will clear the way for similar deals with dozens of other Indian communities in the province. Unlike Indians elsewhere in Canada, British Columbia's tribes never gave up their land and resource rights in treaties.

Government and Nisga'a negotiators reached an agreement-in-principle in February 1996 after more than 20 years of on-again, off-again talks. Since then, negotiations on the details of the pact have continued.

The final treaty is expected to be similar to the agreement-in-principle. It provided the Nisga'a with $128 million and about 770 square miles in the Lower Nass valley.

The Nisga'a - more than half of whom live outside the remote designated territory - were also to receive fishing and forestry rights and set up their own government, policing and courts.

Joe Gosnell, chief negotiator for the Nisga'a Tribal Council, said he felt "absolutely great" about the deal, although the Nisga'a didn't get everything they wanted.

British Columbia Premier Glen Clark had high hopes for the deal, saying his government will ensure the legislature ratifies it. "This is a critical juncture in terms of reconciliation with aboriginal people in B.C.," Clark said. "It's an important template for future negotiations. This is for all the marbles, so to speak."

The deal has its critics. Provincial opposition parties say the treaty gives the Nisga'a powers and rights not enjoyed by other British Columbians.


Canadian Press
July 15, 1998
Greg Joyce

VANCOUVER (CP) -- The time may come when Nisga'a becomes synonymous with persistence, for dogged but peaceful perseverance. On Wednesday, the Nisga'a agreed with governments on details of the first modern-day treaty in British Columbia history, an event significant not only for its legal importance, but because it marks the final chapter in a quest that began soon after the arrival of Europeans.

The Nisga'a inhabit the ruggedly beautiful and still remote Nass Valley in northwestern B.C. They're fond of saying they've lived there, primarily in four small villages, since "time immemorial." Even today, only about 100 non-natives make their living in the bountiful area of vast forests and snow-capped Coast Mountains.

The first recorded contact between Europeans and Nisga'a occurred in 1793 when British naval Capt. George Vancouver sailed into the area as he mapped the West Coast. Almost from that time, the Nisga'a have pressed their land claims. Governments, however, paid little attention for almost 200 years.

British Columbia entered Confederation in 1871 and 16 years later a delegation of Nisga'a chiefs made a fruitless trip to Victoria to press their case. But a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Northwest Coast Indians did visit the Nass Valley that year -- 1887. During that visit, an old man reportedly said to the inquiry: "I am the oldest man here, and can't sit still any longer and hear that it is not our father's land. Who is the chief that gave this land to the Queen? Give us his name. We have never heard it."

By 1890, Nass Valley residents established the Nisga'a Land Committee, but it was largely ignored and encroachment by the white man continued. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier toured the province in 1910 and met with Indian delegations in Prince Rupert and Kamloops. He seemed sympathetic, but his Liberal government was defeated the next year by the Conservatives of Robert Borden.

Still, the Nisga'a persisted. In 1913 they sent a petition to the British monarch, outlining their grievances and citing the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that had been followed east of the Rockies by other provinces that signed treaties.

For several years, the Nisga'a hoped in vain for recognition of their petition. But it too went nowhere and the next several decades were discouraging for natives and their goal of title, treaty and self-government.

The federal government decided in 1927 to adopt an article of the Indian Act that prohibited Indians from organizing to discuss land claims, a law not repealed until 1951. Four years later, the Nisga'a Tribal Council, the body that today governs Nisga'a affairs, was formed. In 1960, Indians got the right to vote in federal elections.

Perhaps the turning point for Aboriginal Peoples of the province occurred in 1969 when the Nisga'a took the land question to court -- the now-famous Calder case. They hired a young lawyer named Tom Berger, who later went on to become a B.C. Supreme Court judge for a brief time. They sought a court declaration that aboriginal title had never been lawfully extinguished. The Supreme Court of B.C. ruled that there was no title because the Royal Proclamation didn't apply. The decision was upheld by the B.C. Court of Appeal. The Nisga'a instructed Berger to take it to the nation's highest court, where it was heard by seven justices.

Finally, in 1973, the Nisga'a got the breakthrough they had so long sought. While one justice ruled against the Nisga'a on a technicality, the other six were split. Three ruled that the Nisga'a had pre-existing title, while the other three said that title had been implicitly extinguished. The result was a three-three tie, a loss. But the province had effectively lost the argument over pre-existing title and took a battering over continuing title.

The decision led to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau changing the policy on land claims in 1976 and the federal government began talks. British Columbia refused to join, saying it was a federal responsibility. Victoria finally relented in 1990 after it became clear the issue wasn't going away and several other court decisions went in favor of aboriginal rights.

Premier Bill Vander Zalm agreed to settle land claims and talks with the Nisga'a begin that October. Under the NDP government of Mike Harcourt, the B.C. Treaty Commission was established in 1993 to settle land claims with dozens of First Nations in the province.

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