When a minor NDP cabinet minister deliberately rises to machinegun a socialist Sacred Cow during Question period, you know something is up. Last week's attack on the BC land claims and treaty process by Aboriginal Affairs Minister Dale Lovick was no random act of violence. This was an ideological contract killer at work, following the logic of the American general who destroyed a Vietnamese village in order to save it. We often do things differently in this Province. As columnist Michel C. Auger wrote in Le Journal de Quebec last week, we are (my translation) "the unpredictable BC - the Frank Sinatra of the federation that insists always on doing things MY WAY."
That said, Mr Lovick's astonishing escapade makes sense only if you accept a plea of temporary insanity - or are cynical enough to believe that Glen Clark is abandoning principle to reposition himself on line with public opinion on our toughest political issue. To set the stage, since 1992 British Columbia has had a BC Treaty Commission (BCTC), established jointly by the federal government, the provincial government and the Summit, an entity that represents 70 per cent of BC Indians. The job of the commission is to facilitate negotiations on aboriginal land claims that cover most of the province, seeking to resolve them honourably and finally by treaty.
The process has been arduous, but about 50 BC bands were making progress in negotiations. (The best known and most advanced claim, that of the Nisga'a, is outside the BCTC's mandate). Six months ago the consensus estimate was that when all deals were done, the total cost would be something like 5 per cent of the land mass of BC and $10-billion. Then the Supreme Court judgment called Delgamuukw last December destroyed the existing process, and vastly increased native expectations of entitlement. Would it now be 25 per cent of the land and $50 billion? (BC's timber lands alone, for example, are worth about $30 billion based on recent transactions.) No one knows how the Supreme Court judges would treat future litigation, and, of course, they spend other people's money.
The BCTC encouraged a major series of closed meetings in April to cope with the new uncertainty. The provincial government introduced a totally new plan. Instead of continuing with the current band-by-band negotiations, which also included the issue of self-government, the BC government wants to set that aside for now, and proposes that the three parties agree on a global figure for the total amount of land and cash required to solve everything. Further discussions, especially between bands, would then divide up that total pie. Indian negotiators were uncomfortable. That approach would not only cap aspirations forever, but would pit band against band. Moreover, and this may be the hidden Glen Clark agenda, it would put two huge numbers - hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of land and tens of billions of dollars - right there in the window to terrify the taxpayer. This is the very opposite of the incremental "salami slice" stealth approach to settlement.
The feds, paralytically non-committal, weren't any happier, since the fine print of the proposal would load them with much higher costs. The hoped-for consensus began at once to unravel. Then Alec Robertson, the chief commissioner of the BCTC was turfed: His reappointment was rejected by Victoria only seven days after BC's Aboriginal Affairs Minister had explicitly agreed to it with Ottawa and the Summit. Mr. Robertson wrote a powerful departing letter last Wednesday, describing the situation, stating that the commission was now more necessary than ever, and accusing the province of "bad faith". And so questions were directed to Minister Lovick in the legislature.
Mr. Lovick had this to say about the existing situation: "If I were to carry on with the approach that has been taken thus far and taken historically, we would probably, at a conservative estimate, still be negotiating a hundred years from now. Also, we would bankrupt the province in the process." Say what? This "approach" was fathered by the NDP, as being absolutely essential for progress. Now that Sacred Cow is dead. This is an amazing reversal.
Meanwhile, the Clark government is making every effort to deliver a final treaty with the Nisga'a. (The Nisga'a leaders have stated that a deal is a deal, and Delgamuukw will not reopen the agreement-in-principle they achieved in 1996.) That first modern treaty would be presented as proof that Glen Clark is always ready to make a fair settlement. Failure in the negotiations covering the rest of the province must therefore be the fault of the courts, the feds, the Summit, whoever. If the treaty process elsewhere in BC were to blow up, anger would take over, and the landscape would soon be littered with litigation, injunctions and a summer of blockades and potential violence. In this chaotic scenario Mr. Clark could suddenly morph into the champion of law, order and the taxpayer, seeking a mandate to have Ottawa come down hard to solve the problems fostered by its remote court, at no cost to BC. This would be finishing in troubled waters indeed - surely as unlikely as, say, starting a war with Ottawa and Washington over salmon?