The vocal opposition to the proposed Nisga’a treaty comes as no surprise to the president of the Nisga’a Tribal Council.
“Whenever aboriginal people try to improve their lot, there have always been opponents to this,” said Joseph Gosnell, Sr.
British Columbia’s opposition parties have criticized the agreement reached in the summer. The Liberals are challenging in court the NDP government’s refusal to put the deal to a province-wide referendum. Community newspaper owner David Black has also been a vocal opponent of the deal and has forbidden editors of his more than 50 papers to write in favour of the deal.
“They believe the Nisga’a Nation has been provided with too much power under the agreement, has been provided with too much money and has been provided with too much land,” Chief Gosnell said.
Conversely, some Natives believe the Nisga’a gave away too much.
About 90 per cent of the Nisga’a are Anglican, the rest are members of the Salvation Army, said Caledonia Archdeacon Ian Mackenzie.
The Anglican Church and other religious communities have supported the agreement. More than 50 faith leaders in B.C. endorsed the treaty in a joint statement.
The Diocese of British Columbia endorsed a resolution at its October synod supporting the treaty and encouraging members of the diocese to express their support to politicians.
Archdeacon Mackenzie has been a voting member of the Nisga’a council since 1979 and has also been a member of the negotiating team for 20 years. He was not surprised at the criticism of the treaty either.
“There are vested interests who are opposed to any just treatment of Native people,” who prefer to see them assimilate with the rest of the population, he said.
Archdeacon Mackenzie fears if the treaty is defeated in the provincial legislature – where it must pass after the Nisga’a ratify the treaty as expected in early November and before it heads finally to the House of Commons – “it may stop progress on land claims for the next century. The results would be catastrophic … People forget this province was brought to a standstill by road blocks throughout the province. That’s the alternative.”
Chief Gosnell is unwilling to make the same dire prediction, noting that any such decisions will be made by members of the Nisga’a First Nation. “We’ll have to wait and cross that bridge when we get there,” he said.
The agreement between the Nisga’a and the provincial and federal governments includes:
- almost 2,000 square kilometres of land in the Nass valley of northwestern British Columbia, on which the Nisga’a will own all resources, an area equal to about eight per cent of their land claim.
- a cash payment of $190-million.
- Nisga’a will set up a central government and four village governments.
- Nisga’a can make laws covering their citizenship, language, property rights, justice, social services, employment and traffic.
- Nisga’a will be responsible for their own policing, courts and correctional services and will be granted the powers to tax citizens on their lands.
- Nisga’a will still be protected by the Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Criminal Code will continue to apply as well.
- <Nisga’a will begin paying income and sales taxes and give up all future claims on the federal government.
Both men oppose the idea of a province-wide referendum, with Archdeacon Mackenzie suggesting it would involve the majority voting on an issue of minority rights. If there must be a referendum, it ought to go nation-wide, he added, since most of the cash will be coming from the federal government. “The costs of the referendum would be greater than the agreement.”
“We have opposed the referendum idea from day one, recognizing that aboriginal issues dealing with Native rights will always be voted down by the majority of Canadians,” Chief Gosnell said. “Then the monumental amount of time and energy that’s gone into the treaty will be for nought.”
He believes the opposition parties may try to amend the agreement in the legislature. “I say No to that. There will be no further changes or amendments to the contents of the treaty … That would be negotiating in bad faith.”
“The Nisga’a are giving up a whole lot more than they’re getting,” Archdeacon Mackenzie said. “This is a benefit to all B.C. and Can-adians.”
B.C. is the only Canadian province in which no treaties have been signed with the vast majority of aboriginal people. The Nisga’a have been seeking recognition of their title to lands and treaty negotiations for more than 100 years.
The agreement offers the Nisga’a a way to rebuild a relationship with the Canadian people and governments “that is currently tattered,” Chief Gosnell said, adding that the Nisga’a are not going away.
“We call upon all Canadians to join and walk with us on this journey of rebuilding this relationship.”