Revisiting the Lessons of the Nisga’a Land Deal

Ilana Mercer, July 9, 1999

  The North Shore News
  July 9, 1999

Of the 197 British Columbian (BC) First Nation Bands, 42 are presently embroiled in the treaty consultation process. A considerable number of these bands have already entered an advanced stage of negotiations whereby a Framework Agreement has been reached. The various bands consist of anywhere from 291 people, as in the case of the Burrard Band, to 10,000 people, as in the case of the Tsimishian Tribe. All are laying claim to vast swaths of land or cash. None is likely to settle for less than what the Nisga’a people have settled, since the treaty is said to be a template for future agreements.

It is too late to halt the Nisga’a treaty. As the BC legislature plodded through the lengthy document, Premier Glen Clark decided to invoke closure, that seldom-used Parliamentarian procedure intended to end a debate. At that stage, only 11 of the treaty’s 22 chapters had been debated. The Nisga’a people were slated to hold their annual convention in Terrace later that month, and the Premier wanted the photo opportunity that would go with his delivering a signed treaty to the band.

Still, the treaty is controversial and the leader of the opposition party, Gordon Campbell, has filed a Statement of Claim in the Supreme Court of BC, on the grounds the Nisga’a authority would “prevail over federal and provincial laws,” in contravention of the Constitution and the Charter’s derogation of powers. Of course, this kind of devolution of power would ordinarily be most desirable, but not when it is funded by Canadians at large, and predicated on native special privilege. The treaty also denies non-Nisga’a living on Nisga’a land the right to vote for or participate in the Nisga’a government.

While the press generated a fair amount of discussion over the treaty and radio talk shows buzzed with listeners’ indignation—the government remained eerily impervious. At the same time those in official circles appended the label racist to anyone who piped up and pointed to the treaty’s flaws. Purveyors of so called objective data like pollster Angus Reid also took to using the racist ad hominem to stem debate. And the referendum, a sometime effective tool to ameliorate the tyranny of democracy was framed as a means to oppress minorities. Strange times indeed.

The government did its best to ingratiate the treaty on British Columbians, and it stepped up its pamphleteering efforts by way of a point form information sheet telling British Columbians how great the treaty was. Soon the propaganda was jettisoned into our living rooms, and television screens were flooded with soft-focused sentimental images of the noble Nisga’a. A handsome ancient face with milky eyes, blinded by age looked into the Nass Valley horizon. He might be blind, blared the subliminal subtext, but he has vision—in case you failed to decipher this kitsch. The New Democratic Party’s machinery then turned to the schools. But the school-slated video, which was replete with pro-Nisga’a propaganda, raised the ire of teachers and students alike. Give us a well-rounded debate, they protested, but spare us this sophistry. Naturally, we were all picking up the tab for these efforts.

This coming spring, the Nisga’a treaty will be ratified by the Canadian House. This will be done before the higher courts have had the opportunity to adjudge the merits of the Statement of Claim before them. It is too late to do anything about the Nisga’a, but before another 42 treaties are thrust on this tired and bankrupt province, we ought to recount the lessons of Nisga’a and commit them to memory. Because in the attempt to correct the historical wrong that was committed against natives, new wrongs are being dealt to both natives and ordinary Canadians. In the process of turning natives into a distinct privileged class, a huge schism is opening between those with tax exemptions, free tertiary education and affirmative action job entitlements, and between ordinary Canadians who pay for this inequity.

An aside: I hail from a community which lost millions of its members during the Holocaust; a community that suffered perennial pogroms in East Europe not too long ago; a community against which quotas in university admissions were a not too distant reality. Other minority communities like the Japanese community have suffered a great deal. In the absence of the psychologically crippling effects of special status, communities like our own have triumphed. Japanese, Chinese and Jews have pride of place in most arenas of achievement.

Presently, aboriginal organizations derive their incomes from fiscal transfers from government, land claim settlements, taxation of mostly non-Indians, or gas and oil royalties. As long as native communities depend for their livelihood on “revenue that is not earned by working for it,” in the words of U of Calgary Prof. Tom Flanagan, they will exhibit the corrosive effects of dependence.

Yes, the Nisga’a treaty represents a slight departure from the paternalistic Indian Act. But on the whole, it imposes on generations to come the blight of a closed society, where political rights are vested in group-membership. The treaty, says Gordon Gibson, senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, enshrines collective property and collective choice. Future Nisga’a will be born into the remote and economically unviable Nass valley. By what right, asks Gibson, do we impose such a scheme on people yet unborn? This, of course, cuts both ways: By what right to we impose such a scheme on ordinary Canadians and their unborn?

CATEGORIES: Canada, Native Americans