[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 -- In newspaper columns and radio spots, television ads and door-to-door brochures, British Columbians are being bombarded with promotional information about the Nisga'a land claims treaty. Within weeks, the New Democratic Party government's $5-million communications strategy will move into the province's classrooms with the aim of giving school children "the facts" about the historic Nisga'a treaty.
But seven weeks after the start of an aggressive, taxpayer-paid promotion campaign, it is the inability to agree on what the facts are that is creating controversy and giving some British Columbians pause for concern.
Critics say the government ads are political, one-sided, misleading and contain half-truths. A 17-minute video, now being sent to churches, community groups and almost anyone else who wants one, is a case in point: After establishing the history of native abuse in the province, the video relentlessly promotes the deal. Featuring two long time NDP supporters -- Forest Alliance chairman Jack Munro and environmentalist David Suzuki -- the $100,000 video makes only one mention of Ottawa's contribution and makes only fleeting references to criticism of the deal.
At least two critics of the treaty -- the B.C. Fisheries Survival Coalition and the B.C. Liberals -- are challenging the government in court, demanding that all British Columbians be allowed to vote on the deal before it is finalized. The fisheries coalition claims the treaty formally establishes a commercial fishery based on race. The provincial Liberals say the agreement creates a new order of government, thereby amending Canada's Constitution.
Even treaty supporters are being turned off by the government's taxpayer-paid, pro-Nisga'a advertising campaign. Progressive Democratic Alliance leader Gordon Wilson, who endorses the agreement, says it can stand on its own merits without requiring a $5-million government campaign to promote it. "The more you try to over-sell the deal, the less likely it is that British Columbians will buy it," he said this week.
Here, in brief, are some of the key positions the government and its critics have taken:
Provincial government: The treaty establishes a new relationship between the Nisga'a and Canadian and B.C. governments. It resolves longstanding land claims and puts the Nisga'a on the road to greater self-reliance and less dependence. Resolving land claims through negotiation avoids costly litigation and creates economic certainty for investors.
THE NEED FOR A TREATY
B.C. Liberals: The Liberals support "workable, affordable treaties that will provide certainty, finality and equality." The Nisga'a treaty, however, does not provide enough finality, does not do enough to encourage investor confidence, creates greater inequalities between natives and non-natives and establishes a dangerous precedent for the 50 or more land claim settlements to come.
Rafe Mair, radio show host: Canadians, he says, went into negotiations with the Nisga'a with a profound sense of guilt "and thus made practical decisions for sentimental reasons." Treaties are important, but this deal is seriously flawed for a number of equality, race and constitutional reasons. Also, he says, there hasn't been any planning to assess the economic or social consequences of the deal.
David Black, publisher of about 50 community newspapers in B.C.: While he doesn't want to be alarmist, he says, the Nisga'a deal is a disaster that will forever entrench racism and inequality. "This treaty establishes apartheid throughout British Columbia forever," Black wrote in a recent newspaper article. "It also sets up 50 to 60 communistic territories within British Columbia forever."
Provincial government: The Nisga'a people will be subject to all provincial and federal taxes. After a 12-year phase-in period, the Nisga'a will pay all income and sales taxes.
B.C. Liberals: The government statement is misleading. The Nisga'a government will not have to pay property transfer taxes, income taxes, mining taxes, petroleum taxes or tree cutting royalties, known as stumpage. The Nisga'a government won't pay taxes on its capital or wealth. In addition, there is a loss in provincial revenue because the Nisga'a people will not have to buy certain permits such as those for hunting and fishing.
Mel Smith, lawyer and former constitutional adviser: In addition to the previous exemptions articulated by the Liberals, the Nisga'a government will not have to pay the goods and services tax. Currently, B.C. municipalities have to pay about half the GST.
Provincial government: The Nisga'a will govern themselves much as municipalities do. The Canadian Constitution, the Charter of Rights and the Criminal Code will apply to Nisga'a people. There will be a central government and four village governments. The central government can make laws governing culture, language, public works, transportation and land use. The Nisga'a will be subject to federal and provincial laws relating to the environment, resources, conservation and other laws.
SPECIAL STATUS/SELF GOVERNMENT
B.C. Liberals: The Nisga'a government will have special status and can only loosely be compared to a municipal government. Although there will be local elections and governments, its powers will be much greater than a normal B.C. municipality. It will have the power to create some laws that are superior to provincial or federal regulations and it will be able to pass laws over such things as adoption and advanced education, affecting Nisga'a who live on and off Nisga'a land. The agreement will also mean non-Nisga'a living on Nisga'a land can be taxed and regulated by the Nisga'a but will not be able to vote in local elections.
The treaty creates a new third order of government which constitutes an amendment to the Canadian constitution. The Liberal lawsuit, filed this week, claims the treaty gives the Nisga'a a form of self-government that is unconstitutional, and calls for a B.C.-wide referendum.
Nisga'a Chief Joseph Gosnell: The treaty is a triumph and for the first time places the Nisga'a on an equal footing -- not a privileged footing -- with non-natives. "Under the treaty, the Nisga'a people join Canada and B.C. as free citizens -- full and equal participants in the social, economic and political life of this country."
Provincial government: The deal must be ratified by a referendum of the Nisga'a people followed by ratification by the B.C. legislature and Canada's House of Commons. In B.C., there will be a free vote of MLAs, meaning they do not have to vote along party lines. There will be no referendum vote by non-Nisga'a residents because the Nisga'a treaty is one of basic minority rights.
WHO SHOULD DECIDE
B.C. Liberals: All British Columbians should be allowed to vote on the principles guiding the Nisga'a treaty -- the same principles which will guide other land claim negotiations. In the hope of forcing a referendum, the Liberals are taking the issue to court, claiming the treaty amends Canada's constitution and therefore must be put to a referendum under provincial law.
Gordon Gibson, former B.C. Liberal leader and political columnist: The process is flawed because neither the federal nor provincial governments has a detailed mandate from their constituents establishing the principles for land-treaty settlements. Canadians had a referendum on the Charlottetown constitutional accord and Newfoundlanders recently had a referendum on a change in their education system. "The principles of the Nisga'a treaty are more important to B.C. than either of those examples were to the people holding them -- yet we are to be denied a vote."
Mel Smith: A free vote in the B.C. legislature is unworkable because MLAs will feel compelled to vote along party lines because the government -- with only a slim majority -- has staked its political future on the agreement.
Provincial government: According to a promotional brochure delivered to B.C. households, the Nisga'a will receive $312 million over 15 years. B.C. residents will pay less than a fifth of the cash costs, with Ottawa picking up the remainder.
B.C. Liberals: The provincial government is telling only part of the story -- the cash part. British Columbia will be responsible for the huge land contribution. The treaty's total cost, including land and cash, is $490 million. Of that, British Columbians will be responsible for nearly half.
Mel Smith: In addition to the nearly half-billion dollar treaty costs, taxpayers will be responsible for ongoing costs of about $32 million a year. The treaty imposes "a perpetual obligation on senior governments to financially backstop Nisga'a government and its public programs.
In addition, there will be unknown losses to taxpayers because of forgone stumpage, fees and tax revenues.
Provincial government: The Nisga'a have a right to stewardship of the Nass River fishery. The Nisga'a will receive an annual allocation of salmon that will comprise about 17 per cent of the Canadian Nass River total allowable catch. The tribe will receive $11.5 million for the purchase of commercial vessels and licences.
B.C. Liberals: It is the creation of a race-based commercial fishery. The Nisga'a have an aboriginal entitlement to a food or ceremonial fishery but not to a commercial fishery. A race-based commercial fishery is unfair to both non-natives and the environment.
B.C. Fisheries Survival Coalition: The treaty enshrines a fishery based on race that is not fair to non-natives. "It's a breach of the public trust to allocate fish from the public domain to one group, the Nisga'a," says coalition spokesman Phil Eidsvik. Allocation of Canada's fish should be based on conservation, equality and should make allowances for aboriginal food, social or ceremonial purposes. But allocations for the commercial and sport fisheries should not be based on race. If the Nisga'a people want to harvest and sell fish as a commercial business, they should buy boats and licences and compete fairly with non-natives.