[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.]
VANCOUVER (CP) -- Aboriginal disputes were last summer's burning issue in British Columbia but cautious political leaders are cool to them during the election campaign.
Opposition parties seized on a month-long armed standoff at Gustafsen Lake eight months ago to attack the NDP government for indecision. Now, most won't say clearly how they'd handle another dangerous conflict.
Questions about treaties, land claims and blockades may simply be too hot for party leaders, says political scientist John Ekstedt. Better to avoid them than risk dissension in the campaign for Tuesday's election.
But Ekstedt, a former deputy attorney general, warns a new government could face an early confrontation, especially if the harder-line Liberals or B.C. Reformers win.
"The general rule is that they'll test it," says the Simon Fraser University professor.
Aboriginal leaders say blockades are a last resort, used to protest encroachments on native-claimed territory -- most B.C. First Nations never signed treaties turning over their land.
But for many non-native residents they're a law-and-order hot button that triggers resentful mutterings about special treatment.
As the province holds treaty talks with more than 40 bands, the Liberals and Reform call for more public involvement.
Reform wants referendums on any deals and leader Jack Weisgerber said Wednesday he'll demand one on the tentative Nisga'a agreement signed this year if he holds the balance of power in a minority government.
That is sure to irk aboriginal leaders, some of whom say it doesn't much matter who is in power.
"Nobody listens to us," said Chief Saul Terry, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, a group not part of the treaty process which says it represents about half the province's aboriginal people.
"None of these parties have policies that are acceptable. History has taught us that when (politicians) say something in one context and then find themselves in a real situation, they tend to forget about what they promised."
The NDP, Liberals and Reform all say they won't tolerate illegal blockades. But what would they do if faced with a barricade guarded by armed men in bandanas and camouflage jackets?
Only B.C. Reform answers unequivocally. Weisgerber, a former Social Credit aboriginal affairs minister, says his government would get a court injunction and tell police to bring down the blockade. Reform might also use a law that allows it to take up to five per cent of reserve land for roads or rights-of-way.
Weisgerber used the law in 1990 to take land on the Mount Currie reserve north of Vancouver. That triggered a four-month blockade ending in a cloud of tear gas and 50 arrests.
Weisgerber says he would remove blockades quickly even if there were no threat of violence because delaying only raises the stakes.
"Blockades are not an acceptable form of protest and they won't be tolerated."
Liberal justice critic Linda Reid is less clear.
"Our policy would be to be there on Day 1 and evaluate the options that are before us. "Can I predict today how we'd respond to it? No."
The NDP's Ujjal Dosanjh calls the hard-line positions misleading. The B.C. attorney general says he can't order RCMP to end a blockade without first jumping through proper legal hoops.
"I think those are issues that we have to determine as a society," he adds. "Whether we want our police forces to move in at the slightest incident and remove people, or we want to deal with those issues patiently so there's no violence."