Nov 6/98: Ottawa rejects BC's hard sell on Nisga'a deal



The land-claims agreement is tremendously important to the federal government, but Ottawa Liberals fear Glen Clark's approach is turning the issue into a political football

Vancouver Sun
November 6, 1998
Peter O'Neil

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

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Jean Chretien would seem to be an ideal ally in the B.C. government's election-style campaign to promote the $480-million Nisga'a Treaty. Chretien, who has always been popular in B.C., is also an honourary Nisga'a citizen -- a title he earned as Indian affairs minister in the late 1960s thanks to the compassion he showed for the Nisga'a cause.

"He feels strongly about it and I just encouraged him to speak out a little more aggressively on the subject," Premier Glen Clark said after meeting Chretien here last month.

But the federal government's relative silence in the weeks following that request reflects Ottawa's vastly lower-profile approach to the deal, as well as its unease with the B.C. government's tactics. There are fears here that Clark's $5-million sales strategy, which includes TV advertising, new teaching materials for B.C. schools and emotional Clark speeches, echoes the ill-fated 1992 strategy to aggressively sell the Charlottetown Accord.

The federal government prefers what it calls an informational rather than a politically-charged sales campaign for the treaty, which provides the Nisga'a people in northwestern B.C. near Terrace about 2,000 square kilometres of land, a $190-million cash settlement and another $100 million in transfer of services over 15 years. The federal government is picking up 70 to 80 per cent of the cash costs while the B.C. government is forgoing Crown land.

"I feel very strongly that these issues should not be political," says Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart, who arrived in B.C. Wednesday for public meetings on land-claims issues. "The undertakings here pre-date my government, they pre-date his government, and what we're talking about here is settling the longstanding constitutional and legal obligations between the provincial and federal governments, the Crown, and this particular first nation."

The federal government doesn't necessarily oppose political advertising, given that its own pro-conservation salmon ads in B.C. over the summer helped defeat Clark's campaign against Ottawa's salmon management policies. But Stewart believes the signatories should get on with the agreed-upon process -- the Nisga'a referendum Friday and Saturday and subsequent ratification in the provincial and federal legislatures. "I think the process has to be followed, that we move to expeditiously as possible."

Stewart attended the Aug. 4 signing ceremony with Clark in New Aiyansh, a Nisga'a village in the Nass River Valley. She spoke again at the B.C. federal Liberal convention in Whistler this month, and will speak in Prince George, Terrace and Cranbrook during her visit this week. She will also return to B.C. Nov. 18-20 and is considering a higher profile address in Vancouver on native issues. She has been supported by B.C. Liberal MPs holding public meetings, as well as by the activities of lead negotiator Tom Molloy, who has held about 30 meetings with business, labour, community and media groups since the Aug. 4 treaty signing.

While B.C. officials say they have seen evidence of more willingness by Ottawa to speak out since Clark's visit, Stewart said her government hasn't altered its communications strategy to suit the premier. Neither she nor Chretien's officials have indicated that Chretien, whose most prominent involvement was during an open-line radio program in Kelowna during the summer, will speak out before a parliamentary debate on the legislation. "I think that the role the federal government will play is making sure that the legislation gets introduced in this Parliament, that it gets debated fully and that we get the agreement that we want, that we initialled."

For Clark, the hard-sell campaign can be explained by the fact that Nisga'a represents a faint hope of political salvation. The deal is more popular with British Columbians than his government is, and his aggressive promotion has been seen as a skilled tactic in dividing the provincial Liberal Opposition and providing at least a modest distraction from B.C.'s economic woes. The Clark government believes the treaty can increase confidence among domestic and foreign investors by offering hope that claims against B.C.'s land base will be settled without resorting to courts or native radicalism.

But Nisga'a also has enormous importance to the Chretien government. The treaty is a crucial first step in proving both in Canada and overseas that the government's policy of correcting past injustices to aboriginal people works.

The romance of the Nisga'a quest for justice -- their ancestors paddled by canoe to Victoria in 1887 but were rejected on the steps of the B.C. legislature -- has resulted in heavy media coverage all over the world. Domestically, the treaty is the first comprehensive land-claims settlement involving a federal and provincial government since the Canada-Quebec James Bay Treaty of 1969, and is the first agreement that incorporates the government's recognition of the inherent right to self-government.

If the Nisga'a treaty withstands the legal and political challenges from B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Campbell and the federal Reform party, it stands as a model for up to 40 similar comprehensive land claims expected in the province in coming years. Federal negotiator Molloy said it also offers hope for other First Nations seeking settlement, such as the Inuit of northern Quebec and the Algonquin people of Golden Lake, Ont., who claim much of the Ottawa Valley, including Parliament Hill.

So rather than see Nisga'a as a short-term political event, the federal government views the treaty as a smaller part of a much larger puzzle. The public relations strategy, therefore, is to play it with a much lower profile rather than allow each treaty to become a major political football. "What we want to do is have a sustainable process," Stewart told The Vancouver Sun.

Reform aboriginal affairs critic Mike Scott (Skeena), who represents the Nisga'a area and who opposes the deal, said the federal government's low-ball strategy is far more likely to succeed than Clark's approach. The public, particularly in large urban areas, remains unaware of all but the most basic details of the treaty. Scott says most British Columbians support settlement of aboriginal issues just as they initially wanted -- but subsequently rejected -- the Charlottetown Accord that proposed to settle Canada's unity woes in 1992. He predicted people are more likely to object when taxpayers' dollars are used for one-sided ads, for educational materials put in schools and for promotional trips across the country. "What he [Clark] is doing is stirring up public interest, and I think the public doesn't appreciate having some politician spoonfeed them some idea and tell them it's good for them."

University of Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff says Clark, who has promised a free vote and has only a thin legislative majority in the legislature, is risking failure by portraying Nisga'a as "a Glen Clark deal. "Charlottetown was defeated partly because opponents successfully portrayed it as "the [Brian] Mulroney deal," Ruff said. Since the Clark government's support is at a record-low 18 per cent -- in large part because of the province's economic troubles -- "it's not that good a thing for it to be identified as Clark's deal."

Clark's close identification with the deal has also removed any likelihood he'll get help from Ottawa, given that he has called the federal government traitorous only a few months ago over Canada-U.S. Pacific Salmon Treaty negotiations. "Clark has personalized it so much that there's no one in Ottawa disposed to be seen holding hands with him," Ruff said.


- The land settlement includes 1,930 square kilometres of Crown land and 62 square kilometres of Indian reserves.

- The Nisga'a agree to "release" B.C., Canada and anyone else from all future land claims.

- The Nisga'a will receive, over 15 years, a cash settlement totalling $190 million. Canada's share is $176 million, B.C.'s $14 million.

- The Nisga'a government will have the power to make laws governing: Nisga'a citizenship; language and culture; property; public order, peace and safety; taxation of Nisga'a on Nisga'a lands; employment; traffic and transportation; solemnization of marriages; child and family, social and health services; child custody, adoption and education.

- Federal and provincial laws continue to apply to Nisga'a citizens and Nisga'a lands. But in some cases, such as culture, where there is a conflict, the Nisga'a law will prevail.

- The federal fisheries minister retains authority for management of fisheries and fish habitat. Federal and provincial laws concerning the sale of fish, health and safety, transport, inspection, processing, storage, export, quality control and labelling fish will apply.

- The B.C. minister of environment retains authority for wildlife. The Nisga'a government will make laws concerning environmental assessment and environmental protection, but they cannot conflict with federal or provincial laws.

"The government is now making treaties because it wants to end all legal challenges to its legitimacy and authority. Its aim was, and always has been, to destroy us as sovereign nations, to dismantle our societies, to kill our spiritual ways. From genocidal wars to the Indian Act, from the band council system to the residential schools, from the theft of Native children to the use of military/police force against our peoples, to this - the treaty process - the government has attempted to assimilate us into a system that offers nothing to us but despair, suicide, prostitution, cocaine, poverty and hopelessness."

- Native Youth Movement

Letters to the Vancouver Sun:

Back to SIS