Mar 8/98: Clark sees "firestorm" over Nisga'a land


Victoria Times Colonist
March 8, 1998, p. A2
Ian Bailey (CP)

[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.]

Vancouver - Premier Glen Clark is predicting a political firestorm in British Columbia as his government rushes to meet a self-imposed deadline of clinching a land-claims deal with the Nisga'a tribe within a year. Clark told the NDP's annual convention Saturday he will have a deal with the Nisga'a by the party's 1999 convention despite the likelihood of a fight over the issue between the forces of the left and right in the province. "This will be a fight, the likes of which I think we have never seen before in this province," Clark told about 800 New Democrats from across BC.

"It's going to be a lot of challenge. It's going to be a lot of fun. But it is going to be a tough debate." A deal to resolve the grievances of the Nisga'a - most living in a remote valley near the Alaska panhandle - could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but also be the model for at least 48 other land claims being negotiated across the province. Clark has often said uncertainty over land claims has been a drain on the BC economy because it discourages investment, a view backed by BC business leaders. The Nisga'a are in the spotlight on the issue because they became the first in BC to agree with Ottawa and Victoria on a land-claims accord in 1996. However, talks to draft a final treaty are still under way.

As Clark spoke Saturday, 37 of the 38 other members of BC's embattled NDP government stood behind him on a stage in a downtown hotel ballroom. Clark's emphatic land claims pledges were an unexpected twist in a fiery speech largely focused on defending the record of the NDP, re-elected in 1996 after a tough campaign. The third NDP premier in BC history has been under fire over BC's lagging economy. Growth is down and unemployment up relative to the rest of Canada. The government is behind in opinion polls. Clark promised to protect health care and education in the coming NDP budget, which will grapple with the deficit, and possibly offer tax breaks to spur economic growth.

He also promised to continue NDP efforts to bring pay equity to the public sector - an effort that has already cost about 1.4 billion since the NDP returned to power in 1991. The timing is ironic. Public sector workers are seeking wage hikes the government may not be able to afford. On Saturday, however, Clark seemed especially passionate about staking out an NDP position on the land claims issue. "It will be debated up and down British Columbia. It will be controversial. At the end of the day, people will have to make a judgment on our government, and on the issue of whether or not to move forward," he said.

"We're not afraid of this issue. It's long overdue. We have to solve it." Clark later said he would not hold an election or referendum on land claims, but agree to a free vote for the 75 members of the provincial legislature, where the NDP have a three seat majority. The initial deal includes 2,000 square kilometres of land, $200 million, fishing rights and broad self-government powers for the Nisga'a.

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