Historic deal awaits federal, provincial ratification
[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.]
New Aiyansh -- Members of the Nisga'a nation have voted strongly in favour of a landmark treaty that would massively expand their land base and profoundly change their relationship with the rest of Canada, according to unofficial returns.
Sources indicated yesterday as many as 75 per cent supported the comprehensive, 252-page treaty, the first negotiated in British Columbia since the province entered Confederation in 1871. Nisga'a living both on and off their reserves cast ballots in the vote on Friday and Saturday.
"There's a real sense of excitement here," said Eric Clayton, 34, an unemployed logger in this modest native village that serves as the headquarters of the Nisga'a region, in northwestern B.C.
"Our people are really tired of waiting. We don't want to see another three or four generations of leaders getting old at the negotiating table. This is for my children and my grandchildren."
After approval by the Nisga'a, the treaty must be ratified by the federal and B.C. governments. It would give the Nisga'a nearly 2,000 square kilometres of land, a huge increase from the 61 square kilometres they now occupy on reserves.
As well, the 6,000 Nisga'a would receive a straight cash payment of $191-million, plus other financial packages, salmon and logging rights, and the most advanced form of self-government of any aboriginal people in Canada.
The treaty also removes them from the jurisdiction of the federal Indian Act, which has controlled almost every aspect of native life across Canada for decades.
Still, many Nisga'a thought their negotiators gave up too much of their ancestral lands, which include about 10 times the area they receive under the treaty. "That's the land our ancestors wanted for us," said one woman, who would not give her name. "They said it was ours, lock, stock and barrel. The treaty gave up too much."
Nisga'a leaders, nervously awaiting the outcome, were less and less sure of the results as polling day neared.
"We have overcome so many hurdles over the years, it's still possible, even at the very last moment, our own people could throw in a monkey wrench and stop everything clear in its tracks [by voting No]," said one worried native official.
Final returns were delayed by an unexpectedly large turnout of unregistered voters who had to have their Nisga'a credentials carefully checked before their ballots were counted.
But sources said about 75 per cent of the estimated 1,900 registered voters had supported the treaty.
Voting took place at the four Nisga'a villages on reserve land and in the urban areas of Prince Rupert, Terrace and Vancouver. In fact, the largest voter registration took place in Prince Rupert, indicating the strength of economic forces that drive natives away from their homes to find work.
In New Aiyansh, with their future at stake as never before, Nisga'a were appearing at the polls from the moment they opened early Friday morning. Even as the doors prepared to close at 8 o'clock Saturday night, there was a flurry of last-minute arrivals.
Few were more determined to vote than Charlena Clayton, 22.
The young mother had waited fruitlessly all day for a baby-sitter. Finally, with the clock ticking toward closing time, she rushed to the polling place, cradling her two-year-old son in her arms. She made it with minutes to spare.
"I had to vote. It's for my kid's future," Ms. Clayton said, heading home with a bright smile on her face.
While the veteran tribal leaders of the Nisga'a have been in the forefront of most treaty coverage, there was a strong sense among younger voters like Ms. Clayton that the treaty was more about them than about the past.
"I want to get rich like everyone else," said Marvin Guno, 21, who also made it in the door just in time.
"I'm hoping this will mean more job opportunities for us. We're finally getting something we should have had a long time ago. It's time."
"It felt good to vote," a 19-year-old shouted back as she rode off into the dark on her mud-spattered mountain bike, long hair flying out behind her.
Peter McKay, on the other hand, made sure he voted early.
"As long as we're under the Indian Act, there's almost nothing we can do ourselves," said the shy 21-year-old arts student. "Soon, we will have our own laws and we will be able to teach our children the way we want."
Mr. McKay is a vivid illustration of what is happening to the Nisga'a as they rediscover their heritage and culture in anticipation of powerful new treaty rights.
Once a week, the young student takes time out to teach native dancing to a group of rambunctious kids who can barely keep still.
"The treaty inspires me to do this," he said. "This is our Nisga'a culture and we have a duty to keep it alive. A large part of our spiritual life has disappeared. Now, at least some of it will come back."
Mr. McKay is already steeped in Nisga'a artistic traditions, weaving cedar bark and drawing the renowned, intricate, multidimensional forms of B.C.'s coastal natives. When he has finished his degree, Mr. McKay wants to become a teacher in his native village.
Once the Nisga'a ratification is completed, the treaty moves to the non-native arena, where legislation approving the deal must be passed by the federal and B.C. governments before it becomes final. The federal Reform Party and opposition B.C. Liberal Party have attacked the treaty as giving too much power to the Nisga'a.
The heavy vote in favour of the treaty by the Nisga'a, particularly the reported high turnout among eligible voters, is expected to spur treaty talks covering more than 50 other native groups elsewhere in the province.
B.C. is the only province in Canada where the vast majority of natives were shunted onto reserves without treaties.
Text of the Nisga'a agreement: http://www.aaf.gov.bc.ca/aaf/treaty/nisgaa/docs/nisga_agreement.html