[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.]
NEW AIYANSH -- Amid accusations of dirty tricks and concerns for their financial future, Nisga'a head to the polls today to vote on whether they will approve or jettison B.C.'s first modern land treaty. At the same time, they will also be asked to vote to accept a new Nisga'a constitution, which Joe Gosnell, president of the Nisga'a Tribal Council, has refused to make public.
Nisga'a in the main Nisga'a community of New Aiyansh seemed blase about the vote, with most of them saying they had not made up their mind on whether to accept or reject it. Alex Guno, 44, said he is undecided and concerned that the average Nisga'a will not see the benefits from the land and cash-rich treaty. His apathy was echoed by Sybil Woods, 37, who said she won't make up her mind until she is in the voting booth. Her cousin, Eric Grandison, was horrified when he heard what she said. He is the public-relations guru for the Nisga'a Tribal Council and has been trying to explain the treaty to his people.
The treaty, which about 1,700 registered Nisga'a will vote on today, has been in public hands since July when it was finalized. It would cede about 2,000 square kilometres of Nass Valley lands to the Nisga'a -- about one-eighth of the 25,000 square kilometres they had claimed. And it would give them $190 million in cash. Other costs and benefits mean it will cost about $480 million to implement, with the majority of costs being paid by the federal government. It must be approved by 50 per cent plus one of all the Nisga'a who legally registered to vote in order to pass.
But the constitution which the Nisga'a are also voting on requires 70-per-cent approval to pass. Gosnell insisted Thursday it is an internal document until the Nisga'a vote to adopt it, though the question is placed on a referendum fully funded by the federal government.
And referendum commissioner Corinne McKay said the council kept the fact there was a separate question on the constitution under wraps because it did not want other Canadians to confuse it as a vote on the Canadian Constitution.
But Nisga'a Tribal Council member Frank Barton, who opposes the treaty and earlier went to court to try and prevent it from being signed and going to a referendum, said band members only received copies of the complicated 45-page constitution in the mail last week. He is concerned Nisga'a will be voting on a lasting document that they do not understand the implications of, though Gosnell says it simply outlines Nisga'a rights and freedoms.
A copy of the constitution obtained by The Vancouver Sun shows it also includes the Declaration of the Nisga'a Nation and establishes both the governing principles and the composition of the Nisga'a government.
Barton has accused the Tribal Council of questionable procedural dealings regarding both the adoption of the constitution and the process.
"We don't trust it because of who is looking after the voting boxes," he said. "It's other members of Joe Gosnell's family and they want this treaty."
VANCOUVER (CP) - As the polls on the landmark Nisga'a land-claim treaty closed Saturday night, band leaders hoped the doors would open to a new future for their people.
Chief negotiator Joe Gosnell was confident that the treaty, giving the Nisga'a ownership of almost 2,000 square kilometres of land in the Lower Nass Valley of northern British Columbia, would be endorsed by band members. "From a personal standpoint, I'm very optimistic the treaty will gain passage," Gosnell said in a telephone interview. "I do not anticipate rejection by our people."
Voter turnout was high as band members cast ballots Friday and Saturday on the treaty initialled last August with Ottawa and the B.C. government. About half of eligible voters had voted by Saturday afternoon and referendum commissioner Corinne McKay expected many more would turn out before polls closed at 8 p.m. "We still have some people coming out of the woodwork," she said. "I know there's an awful lot of excitement over it." About 1,900 Nisga'a were eligible to vote as of Thursday but at least another 140 people had enrolled as eligible voters, said McKay.
Official results are not expected until Wednesday, although early results may be released sooner. Polls were open in four Nass River communities, as well as Terrace, Prince Rupert and Vancouver. Early voting was held Oct. 30 and mail-in ballots have been received.
"This has been going on for a long time," said Bessie Blackwater, a mother of five from New Aiyansh who cast her vote early Friday. "I believe it is a good deal...and this is just the starting point for us." Blackwater also seemed confident the treaty would be approved. "Most of the people I know have voted already," she said Saturday. "I don't know for sure but I think its been positive." Blackwater said there was a lot of public debate over the past few months on the treaty, which also gives the Nisga'a some self-governing powers similar to municipal governments.
Under the treaty, the Nisga'a gain greater control over health care, education and justice, but the Criminal Code, Constitution and Charter of Rights continue to apply.
Band members give up their tax-exempt status but the community will receive about $500 million in the form of cash, grants and program funds.
The Nisga'a also give up their right to any future claims in exchange for the treaty.
Not all Nisga'a want the treaty to be approved.
Frank Barton, a member of the Kincolith band now living in Vancouver, cast his ballot against the deal. And if the treaty is passed, Barton said he will go to the Supreme Court to have the vote overturned, saying Nisga'a living outside the Nass Valley who will be adversely affected by the deal were not given the opportunity to vote.
"A cousin went down to vote (Friday)...and she wasn't on the voters list," he said. "People are not being allowed to vote."
Barton sought an injunction in B.C. Supreme Court earlier this year to stop the treaty settlement.
The provinces Opposition Liberals are already challenging the treaty in B.C. Supreme Court, saying the deal requires a provincewide referendum because it changes the Constitution.
The treaty must go before the B.C. and federal governments for approval before taking effect. The federal Liberals plan to introduce legislation next year. B.C. Premier Glen Clark has promised a free vote in the legislature later this month.
Terrace, BC -- A British Columbia Indian band that votes today on an historic treaty involving millions of dollars and unprecedented autonomy for Canadian aboriginals made $1-million worth of irregular welfare payments to its members, according to documents obtained by the National Post. Officials at the Department of Indian Affairs were so concerned about "irregularities" within the Kincolith band's social assistance programs that it launched an investigation, threatened to cut off funding and demanded the return of improperly allocated cash, according to the documents.
The Kincolith band is one of the four that make up the Nisga'a Tribal Council, which is the first aboriginal group in BC to sign a comprehensive land-claims treaty. Although there are an estimated 6,000 Nisga'a people, only 1,800 were registered to vote as of yesterday. If the treaty is approved by the Nisga'a in a referendum ending tomorrow, it goes to the provincial and federal governments to become law.
The problems in the band administered welfare program date to 1996 and '97, but they raise questions about the band's ability to manage its money and its own affairs. The treaty grants the Nisga'a tribe $190-million, as well as the most far-reaching self-government powers in Canada, including the right to run its own courts. A Department of Indian Affairs investigation found there was no evidence that the more than 100 band members collecting welfare in the remote coastal reserve were actually eligible. It also found the amount of welfare payments was being set by a committee that included welfare recipients.
Among those receiving welfare were members of the band council, the families of band government employees, students and people claiming to be handicapped, although not one had any documented proof. One band welfare program, which paid people to help care for the elderly, was described in an Indian Affairs report as designed to allow those running it to work the minimum number of weeks needed to qualify for unemployment insurance. "This is not the intent of the program," it adds. The problems were so serious, they generated dissent within the band over the way its affairs were managed. In a "to whom it may concern" letter dated June 1997, an elected member of the village government called for the resignation of the staff and band councillors involved, accusing them of "breach of trust to our people. "What we have allowed to continue has put the affairs of our people in jeopardy," John Stevens wrote.
"I believe that by not dealing with this when it first came out, we will have caused future hardship for our people." Jane Stewart, the Indian affairs minister, was in this logging town south of the Nisga'a villages yesterday to promote the deal, which she called unique in Canada because of the broad self-government powers it allows the tribe. "We are making good on our constitutional and legal obligations to the Nisga'a people," Ms Stewart said in a luncheon speech. Turning to Chief Joseph Gosnell, president of the Nisga'a Tribal Council, she wished him good luck in the tribal referendum.
The leaked documents show that while the Indian Affairs Department was negotiating the treaty with the Nisga'a, it was aware that one of the bands involved was experiencing serious problems administering cash and a fairly straightforward social assistance program. According to a series of leaked letters, the issue arose in the fall of 1996, when the Indian Affairs department wrote to the band regarding, "allegations in respect to social assistance irregularities" and told the band to hand over its files. In January 1997, the department sent the band a report that concluded the welfare program was "not meeting minimum programs standards." It demanded repayment of $80,000 for one month's welfare overpayments, and ordered a review of payments for the whole year.
"The administering authority did not establish general or financial eligibility for any recipients on social assistance in October 1996," said the report. The amount to be repaid, was increased to $984,000 following an audit of the entire program. The band's funding has been lowered until the money is recovered. An Indian Affairs official said yesterday the problem had been dealt with and is not a reflection of the ability of the Nisga'a people to govern their own affairs.
"Treaties and their certainty provisions are really about 'TAKING - OUT'
(extinguishing) the Indian Nations. Changing Nations to mere delegated
village council or federal municipalities. In some parts of the world it is
now called "ethnic cleansing". It is practised to a much more subtle level
upon our people but it is still genocide."