IN DEPTH: ABORIGINAL CANADIANS
B.C. treaty referendum
CBC News Online | July 02, 2004
In 2002, British Columbia held a province-wide referendum on First Nations treaty negotiations. B.C. Attorney General Geoff Plant called it a chance for ordinary British Columbians to have a say in the treaty process.
When the results were announced on July 3, they showed overwhleming support for the B.C. government. At least 80 per cent of those who responded voted "Yes" to all eight proposed principles to guide the province in treaty negotiations, according to Premier Gordon Campbell.
However, the referendum was controversial from the outset. Critics, including native and church leaders, called the plebiscite "stupid," "immoral," "amateurish," and "racist." By the May 15 deadline, only about one third of the mail-in ballots were returned. Many ballots were burned. Others were turned into paper airplanes, cut into snowflakes, even toilet paper.
The mail-in ballots featured eight principles. The ballot asked whether the government should adopt these principles as part of its negotiations.
Plant called it an experiment in direct democracy.
"I think, when people receive their ballots, they will recognize that they have been asked to participate in how we're governed, and people will be excited about that," said Plant before the ballots were mailed out.
But political academics have called the referendum a mockery of democracy. And native leaders have called it divisive and said it could spark anti-native racism in the province. They have called for a boycott of the referendum, encouraging voters to spoil their ballots or send blank ballots to native bands for disposal.
Gordon Campbell and the B.C. Liberals brought up the idea of a referendum on native treaty negotiations during the provincial election campaign in May 2001. They promised a plebiscite on the treaty within a year of being elected.
"We think that for too long the people of B.C. have been shut out of the treaty process," said Plant. "The referendum is going to give the people of British Columbia a direct voice in the principles that should guide the province's treaty negotiations.
"The government takes a position on these questions. We would answer yes to each of them," said Plant.
Critics of the referendum said that's one of the problems with the referendum: that the principles have been tailored to elicit a 'yes' response.
Some principles, such as "Parks and protected areas should be maintained for the use and benefit of all British Columbians," are phrased so broadly and in such a "motherhood" way, so that 'yes' responses are virtually assured, the critics said.
One principle, "Private property should not be expropriated for treaty settlements," is phrased in the negative, which critics called confusing. (Does answering 'no' mean "No, private property should not be expropriated" or "No, private property should be expropriated"?)
Angus Reid, a veteran in the polling business, called the referendum "one of the most amateurish, one-sided attempts to gauge the public will that I have seen in my professional career."
Political scientist and author David Laycock called the results of the referendum a foregone conclusion.
Critics also said some of the principles on the ballot, such as whether natives should continue to be exempt from taxes, are beyond the power of the province to negotiate.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects "aboriginal treaty and other rights," and recent Supreme Court decisions have upheld such rights as exemption from taxation.
Even the mechanics of the referendum have been called needlessly complicated.
The ballot itself is to be placed in a "secrecy envelope," and a declaration must be signed and placed in another envelope. Both those envelopes are then to be placed in a third envelope and mailed back.
And unlike the anonymous ballots used in voting, the referendum ballots are sealed in envelopes with the person's name, address, birth date and social insurance number.
Under the province's Referendum Act if more than 50 per cent of the valid ballots give the same answer to a stated question, the result of the plebiscite is binding, regardless of how many people cast their ballots.
The cost of the referendum itself has been estimated at $9 million. Guujaaw, president of the Haida nation, has predicted the referendum could cost the B.C. government $400 million to $500 million in lawsuits and appeals.
Native bands in B.C. say their land was taken from them without treaty, negotiation or payment. Native groups have therefore claimed most of the province as their ancestral home.
The negotiations for modern-day treaties started in 1992, but that process has produced no agreements. The Nisga'a nation entered a treaty in May 2000, but that was the result of an older treaty process.
Several religious and political groups have backed a native boycott of the referendum. The Anglican Church, the United Church, the Presbytery of New Westminster, the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Canadian Muslim Federation have all condemned the plebiscite. So have the B.C. Federation of Labour, the Council of Senior Citizens and the David Suzuki Foundation.
1. Private property should not be expropriated for treaty settlements. (Yes/No)
2. The terms and conditions of leases and licences should be respected; fair compensation for unavoidable disruption of commercial interests should be ensured. (Yes/No)
3. Hunting, fishing and recreational opportunities on Crown land should be ensured for all British Columbians. (Yes/No)
4. Parks and protected areas should be maintained for the use and benefit of all British Columbians. (Yes/No)
5. Province-wide standards of resource management and environmental protection should continue to apply. (Yes/No)
6. Aboriginal self-government should have the characteristics of local government, with powers delegated from Canada and British Columbia. (Yes/No)
7. Treaties should include mechanisms for harmonizing land use planning between Aboriginal governments and neighbouring local governments. (Yes/No)
8. The existing tax exemptions for Aboriginal people should be phased out. (Yes/No)
A Yes vote means the government will be bound to adopt the principle in treaty negotiations.
A No vote means the government will not be bound to adopt the principle to guide its participation in treaty negotiations.