Christian leaders in British Columbia – including the bishops of all Anglican dioceses in the province – are urging parishioners to vote against or protest the Liberal government’s referendum on native treaty negotiations.
As referendum ballots were mailed out in mid-April, Anglicans bishops sent a pastoral letter to be read in the province’s 200 parishes on Sunday, April 7, noting that a church task force recommended Anglicans vote no to the referendum’s questions or send in a blank ballot as a protest.
“We ask all Anglicans to study and learn about the complexities of treaty claims and negotiations ? We believe the dominant political, social, economic and justice issue in the life of British Columbia for the next 10 years will be the relationship of aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples and cultures,” read the letter.
It was signed by Archbishop David Crawley, Metropolitan of British Columbia and Yukonand diocesan bishop of Kootenay and the Central Interior, Bishop Barry Jenks of the diocese of British Columbia, Bishop Michael Ingham of the diocese of New Westminster and Bishop William Anderson of the diocese of Caledonia. (An entity known as the Parishes of the Central Interior has replaced the former diocese of Cariboo.)
Leaders of the Presbyterian and United churches in British Columbia also criticized the vote.
The referendum seeks input by British Columbians on what policies the government should follow in treaty negotiations with aboriginals. Land claims lodged by native bands cover more than 100 per cent of the province’s land mass, due to overlapping claims. The referendum asks eight questions that cover the issues of whether private property should be expropriated for treaty settlements, whether existing tax exemptions for aboriginals should be phased out and whether hunting, fishing and recreational opportunities on provincial land should be ensured for all British Columbians.
Archbishop Crawley, in an interview said some of the questions are ambiguous and deal with areas outside provincial jurisdiction, such as federal income tax exemptions. He also objected to the very concept of the referendum. “It is wrong for the rights of a minority to be decided by a vote of the majority. Native rights are enshrined in the constitution. Treaties by nature are negotiated, not decided by a referendum,” he said.
He noted that the provincial government has been promising such a referendum since it was elected last May. “It is a political act. The provincial Liberal party expected to win the previous election, but the conservative vote was split between the Liberal and the B.C. Reform party. Reform had indicated it wanted a referendum. In order to ensure the vote was not split on the issue, the B.C. Liberals promised there would be a referendum,” Archbishop Crawley said.
Government reaction to the church’s move was cool. In Victoria, Attorney-General Geoff Plant told The National Post newspaper, “I think the leadership of the Anglican Church is as much a special-interest group as any other group like that in British Columbia.” (More information on the referendum is available at www.elections.bc.ca.)
After Archbishop Crawley, along with Bishop Ingham, appeared at a news conference to announce the pastoral letter, reaction was mixed. The diocese of New Westminster received about a dozen calls the day after, said spokesman Neale Adams.
“One caller said, ‘The church should only speak after it atones for its sins, otherwise (it should) shut up,'” said Mr. Adams, who kept notes on the calls. Another caller said the bishops’ stand violated the separation of church and state, and one other said the Anglican church was joining the tyranny of the minority, he added.
Voters must return the ballots by May 15 and the vote results are scheduled for completion by July 3 and then announced.