Wednesday, April 4, 2007
The troubles with treaties
by associate news editor Rodney Venis
For pretty much the past eight months -- ever since the B.C. Teachers' Federation declared a temporary ceasefire in its labour wars with the province -- the B.C. Liberal juggernaut has been rolling merrily along.
That was until last weekend, when the Liberals hit a Prince George-sized pothole -- and a wheel came flying off the wagon.
The wheel in question is the Lheidli T'enneh treaty. It was a key component of the Liberals' recent success. With one hand, Premier Gordon Campbell could placate core supporters leery of his softer line on First Nations issues by pointing to the document as a example of, at least, the economic certainty a completed treaty brings; with the other, he could roll it up and use it as a cudgel to thump the NDP for failing to complete a similar agreement.
The treaty was a tangible symbol of this government, helping turn what would be a traditionally weak issue for the Liberals -- relations with aboriginal people -- into a bona-fide strength. That was until last weekend when members of the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation rejected the agreement by a massive 53 per cent margin -- well shy of the required 70 per cent majority.
Now, even though they're staring at the axle and watching 14 years of B.C. treaty process negotiations spin off down the road, the Liberals aren't outwardly panicking. Mike de Jong, B.C.'s minister of aboriginal relations and reconciliation, told the Canadian Press the government is all but writing off the Lheidli T'enneh for the conceivable future when it comes to treaty and will be forging quickly on, courtesy of a deal with the Tsawwassen First Nation that goes to a similar vote this summer. It's a piece of typical hardball Liberal strategy: walk away from the Lheidli T'enneh, secure another deal quickly to keep the treaty process moving -- and put out a tacit warning to other bands that no votes like last weekend's will get them shuffled to the bottom of the pile.
Nevertheless, the Liberals must have some serious worries about treaty negotiations now. Stakeholders in the Lheidli T'enneh deal saw two major shortcomings of the process -- rank-and-file members felt they weren't being listened to and one negotiator feared the sheer size of the treaty, 350 pages plus appendices, was simply too cumbersome to sell -- and they're both difficult problems with few solutions. There's also the question of strained patience, on the part of a federal government that's shown First Nations aren't a priority and a non-aboriginal public that's probably -- and unjustly -- wondering how a deal containing $13 million and 4,000 hectares of land isn't enough.
Then there's the fallout in the treaty process itself. Will the Lheidli T'enneh vote make other bands skittish about taking their deals to their people? How will they react to the Liberals pretty much declaring the deal unsalvageable despite so much progress? And how will investors looking at the province respond after the first deal of the B.C. treaty process disintegrated in everyone's hands?
From a political standpoint, it's left the Liberals extremely vulnerable to the NDP. Opposition critic Scott Fraser blasted the government for portraying the ratification as a done deal -- and it's hard not to wonder if the perception the Liberals were treating the vote as a formality played a part in the weekend defeat.
Bottom line, it looks like the Liberal juggernaut is off kilter on three wheels. It will be interesting to see how quickly Gordon Campbell can whip on a spare.
-- Associate news editor Rodney Venis
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]