VICTORIA (CP) - The handshake on British Columbia's Nisga'a treaty is barely three days old, but it's already provoked a political fist fight.
"What we have here is the number one issue for the next two or three years in B.C. politics," says Norman Ruff, a political scientist at the University of Victoria. "It's almost like (Premier Glen) Clark's Northern Ireland. He's trying to rewrite history's injustices and prejudice."
Clark has said he'll do whatever it takes to ensure this week's deal with the northwestern B.C.'s Nisga'a is ratified as the provinces first modern-day aboriginal treaty.
The New Democrats admit to setting aside $2.3 million just to fund a publicity campaign promoting the deal, unique because it combines a land claim with self-government provisions.
Opponents seriously question the Nisga'a deal, although they say they generally support settling treaties with aboriginals. Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell said the treaty was negotiated behind closed doors and British Columbians are being asked to support a package without seeing the fine print. "The people of the province deserve at least to know what's going on," Campbell said Friday.
Details of the treaty are expected to be made public Aug. 4 at an official initialling ceremony at New Aiyansh, a Nisga'a village. But it's thought to involve about 2,000 square kilometres in the Lower Nass Valley, forestry and fishing rights, and Nisga'a powers akin to a municipal government.
Campbell said the deal appears to entrench inequality by giving the Nisga'a different rights in the remote area than non-aboriginal citizens, who will be subject to Nisga'a laws but wont be able to vote. "I would be surprised if the people of B.C. will say: Yes, lets go ahead with a deal that entrenches inequality..." He also questioned the original treaty cost of $190 million, saying he already added up more than $300 million.
In the final hours of negotiations, B.C. promised a reported $40 million to pave Nass Valley roads and Ottawa agreed to pay $30 million of Nisga'a legal costs. The total cost must also be calculated in 1998 dollars because the original estimate was done three years ago.
Nisga'a have been seeking a land-claims agreement with Canada for more than a century. The deal Wednesday was a result of more than 20 years of talks between Ottawa, Victoria and the Nisga'a. An agreement-in-principle was reached in February 1996.
Michael Prince, University of Victoria political scientist, said the Nisga'a deal is a "creative bundle of tradeoffs. I'm comfortable with the interim agreement." He rejected Opposition calls for a public referendum. "If you want to make sure nothing happens, then you call a referendum and cloak it around saying you're being democratic."
Clark, who's opposed to a referendum, said the legislature will hold a free vote instead.
Prince and Ruff say the think B.C. voters will take the high road with Clark and support the treaty despite any doubts. "For the past 30 years, British Columbians have tended to reward can-do politicians," Ruff said. "It's the kind of proactive get-things-done style that has usually helped politicians in B.C."
Even before an extra $70 million was poured into the deal to get a settlement, the party council was looking to the next election
VICTORIA - While negotiations on the Nisga'a treaty went through the final stages, Premier Glen Clark and the New Democratic Party were making plans to capitalize on it politically. The premier told a recent meeting of the NDP's governing council that a major treaty on a native land claim would allow his government to pull together the party's traditional coalition of supporters among environmentalists, social activists and other groups on the left. According to the party's official account of the June meeting, Mr. Clark "characterized the anticipated Nisga'a treaty as...an opportunity to work together with our traditional allies in progressive, environmental and community groups across the party."
Party president Bruce Ralston agreed that a Nisga'a treaty could help galvanize New Democrats who might not be enamoured of the government for other reasons. Ralston explained that work to prepare for the next provincial election has already begun and noted that the challenge of the Nisga'a initiative will help mobilize party activists for the remainder of the mandate," according to the account of the meeting that has been put out by party headquarters.
The two-day council meeting included an extensive, three-hour presentation on the subject, including a history of the claim and details of the settlement. Party members also got an advance look at "features of the proposed treaty," the official account of the meeting says.
British Columbians who aren't members of the provincial council will get their summary of the features of the proposed treaty starting today, the final documents having being initialled by federal, provincial and Nisga'a negotiators shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday in Terrace.
With the announcement in hand, the premier and his government wasted no time in launching the campaign to persuade supporters that the treaty is -- as an article prepared for publication in the current edition of the party newspaper put it -- "A Cause Worth Fighting For." The official release from the provincial side and a speech in the legislature by Aboriginal Affairs Minister Dale Lovick put the emphasis on the "historic" aspect of the occasion, much as had been the case at the signing of the original agreement in principle with the Nisga'a under premier Mike Harcourt's leadership 29 months ago.
But British Columbians who are more inclined to consider the contents of the treaty rather than the glowing rhetoric of the premier should be aware of three points that were glossed over in the press releases and accompanying speeches. First, as the premier admitted to reporters, on the last day of negotiations the Nisga'a managed to sweeten the settlement by $70 million, an increase of about one-third on the $190 million that was promised in the original agreement in principle. Of that, $30 million will come from Ottawa, neatly matching the amount the Nisga'a say they've spent on legal costs in years of negotiations. And the rest will come from the province, in the form of an agreement to pave the highway into the Nass Valley, the Nisga'a being no less interested in blacktop politics than any other hinterlands constituency. Second, from the premier's description of the final agreement, it sounds as if the treaty will provide the Nisga'a with a form of government that is more powerful than a municipality and may -- on matters of resource management -- approach that of a province. Third, and most important, the treaty is being presented to British Columbians as a "take it or leave it proposition," as Mr. Lovick conceded Wednesday.
Liberal leader Gordon Campbell was on the wrong track when he told the house his party "will make recommendations for improvements." No such recommendations will be accepted, said Premier Clark, who answered "yes" when a reporter asked: "Is this a done deal?"
Mr. Clark is surely right in believing his own supporters will rally around this treaty. Gordon Wilson of the Progressive Democratic Alliance has indicated he will probably go for it as well. The provincial Liberals were saying Wednesday that they want to see the final text, but their past positions suggest they'll be voting against it when the treaty comes up for approval in the legislature this fall.
I'm not sure the Liberals will be able to push their opposition very far with the public. Because this process has dragged on so long with so much uncertainty, I'm guessing that British Columbians will decide to give the treaty a chance. It is a done deal, as the premier says, and after 25 years of negotiations there's nowhere else to go.