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B.C. committee recommends 16-part referendum question on aboriginal treaties

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    B.C. committee recommends 16-part referendum question on aboriginal treaties TERRI THEODORE Canadian Press
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 1, 2001
      B.C. committee recommends 16-part referendum question on aboriginal treaties

      TERRI THEODORE Canadian Press
      Friday, November 30, 2001

      VANCOUVER (CP) - A 16-question referendum ballot laying out principles of aboriginal treaty talks could be mailed to B.C. voters next spring, fulfilling a controversial election promise by the new Liberal government. The referendum would ask voters to approve everything from who should have a say in treaty negotiations to what assets are on the table and what form of government First Nations should have.

      A legislature aboriginal affairs committee of Liberal MLAs recommended the approach in a report released Friday.

      The committee, chaired by Chilliwack-Sumas MLA John Les, also recommended a "process of reconciliation" with aboriginal people, including an "expression of regret" from the B.C. government about their troubled lives since the arrival of European cultures here.

      The report is another step by the Liberals to keep a promise made in their election campaign last May to hold a referendum on the treaty process within a year of taking power.

      In an interview, Les said the committee wants the mail-in ballot in the hands of voters by May, or sooner if possible.

      The referendum, previously estimated to cost $9 million, would give the government its marching orders, said Les.

      "For this to be a legitimate process, clearly we have to commit to it being binding and it will be," he said.

      The report was quickly condemned by the B.C. First Nations Summit, made of aboriginal groups already involved in treaty talks, as "patronizing and colonial."

      "It confirms our worst thoughts about this whole process," said summit executive member Kathryn Teneese.

      "We don't agree with an approach like this, where the rights of a minority are being placed in front of a majority, and in this case a relatively uninformed group of constituents who are going to be asked some questions without any information."

      Teneese said some of the questions address aboriginal rights already affirmed in Canadian courts and Section 35 of the Constitution.

      She wondered whether the province would use the referendum as a way of backing out of the existing treaty process altogether.

      Treaty talks involving four dozen First Nations and the federal and provincial governments have been underway since 1991 but no treaties have been signed yet. The 1998 Nisga'a Agreement was negotiated outside the B.C. treaty process.

      In opposition, the Liberals criticized the slow pace of talks, as well as the cost and lack of results. They also argued non-native British Columbians should have a say in the process.

      The 16 yes-or-no questions proposed for the referendum ballot ask voters to rule on motherhood principles such as whether negotiations should be as transparent as possible and whether local governments should continue to participate.

      Questions on property and interest issues spell out the non-negotiability of private property unless it's voluntarily offered, guarantees of provincial control of parks and protected areas, access for hunting, fishing and recreation and compensation for disruption of commercial interests.

      Another series of questions defines the limits of aboriginal government power, while several address economic factors, including whether aboriginal people should lose existing tax exemptions.

      The report was prepared after the committee held 15 public hearings throughout the province and sifted through almost 800 written and oral presentations. Les said about 10 per cent came from aboriginal people.

      A formal reconciliation process and expression of regret, similar to ones used in Australian and New Zealand, are essential parts of treaty-making, the committee decided.

      "The history of aboriginal people in British Columbia post-contact (with Europeans) has been very difficult," said Les. "Let's acknowledge that. It seems self-evident."

      Les stopped short of calling it an apology for past treatment of aboriginal people. Average British Columbians today don't feel responsible for these problems, he said.

      "This is a process that would have us say yes, we recognize that many aspects of the past relationship were unfortunate, unproductive and impacted very negatively on aboriginal people."

      Teneese dismissed the olive branch.

      "Unless there's some sincerity associated with those kinds of words, don't bother saying them," she said. "We want action; we don't need patronizing words."

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