[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.]
VICTORIA -- The B.C. government's communications machine has kicked into high gear and is now expected to spend at least $5 million promoting the Nisga'a land-claims deal -- more than double the initial budget, sources say.
With a large number of British Columbians still undecided about the historic agreement with the Nisga'a people of northwestern B.C., the government's special communications wing is aggressively working to get out its message. But after six weeks of radio and newspaper advertisements, along with promotional brochures for every household, at least 20 per cent of British Columbians are still undecided about the agreement.
To reduce that number, a five-part television commercial series will hit the airwaves next week. The television airtime alone will cost B.C. taxpayers $700,000. "TV is the most effective way to reach the most number of people," a government official said. "This needs to be in the living room of every British Columbian."
An expensive television ad campaign wasn't planned last spring when the agreement was reaching its final stages. But back then, no one figured British Columbians would be slow to support the $500-million agreement between the Nisga'a and the federal and provincial governments.
Now, with Premier Glen Clark staking his political future on the success of the agreement, sources say the crunch is on to ensure British Columbians support the agreement before a free vote among MLAs, expected this fall.
But provincial sources say their promotional work is being hampered because the deal is being sold by Clark, whose battered government rates only 18 per cent in popularity polls. "The unpopularity of the government is hurting," one official said.
That, in part, explains Clark's trip to Ottawa and Toronto this week on which he made a direct appeal to Prime Minister Jean Chretien to help him convince British Columbians to support the land-claims agreement. "I just encouraged him to speak out a little more aggressively on the subject," Clark told reporters this week, saying Chretien and the federal government have been too quiet on the agreement. In the most recent public opinion poll, Chretien and the federal Liberals enjoyed 47 per cent support among Canadians -- support that B.C. New Democrats hope can be transferred to the Nisga'a debate.
In July, Clark said the campaign to promote the Nisga'a agreement would cost B.C. taxpayers $2.3 million, stressing the importance of communicating the deal to all British Columbians. On Friday, provincial officials blamed much of the additional spending on increased public demand for government-produced literature on the historic agreement. "There has been an overwhelming response from the public," senior communications official Don Zadravec said Friday.
At least 100,000 copies of the agreement have been sent out, there have been 6,500 calls on the government's toll-free line and there have been 70,000 hits on the Nisga'a website.
To further reduce printing costs, some of the glossy documents are now being photocopied. But adding to those costs is one of the largest communications teams anyone can remember being assigned to manage a single issue. There are 50 officials managing the public-relations campaign on the treaty -- 35 full-time and 15 part-time. But not all of their salaries are included in the over-all communications budget.
Several senior officials have been seconded from -- and are still being paid by -- government ministries and Crown corporations. For example, B.C. Hydro communications director Shawn Thomas and B.C. Ferries official Clay Suddaby are both working on Nisga'a communications but are still being paid by their Crown corporations.
In addition to the promotional campaign, Education Minister Paul Ramsey announced this week that schools across the province will begin receiving Nisga'a resource materials that can be taught to students in Grades 4, 9, 10 and 11. The resource materials are being prepared now by educators, without political involvement. He said criticism of the treaty will be included in the resource package. "Teachers are there to open up debate, not stifle it," Ramsey said in an interview this week. "I wouldn't ask teachers to present a one-sided view of anything."