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Column - Righting Historical Wrongs In BC Is Not Always Easy

By Jim Stirling

Trying to right historical wrongs has never been easy, and it has frequently proven impossible to appease all parties. The treaty negotiation process with British Columbia's aboriginal community is proving to be no exception. The problems began when the first Europeans encountered the native population. Since then, natives have been culturally and spiritually emasculated, shunted off onto reserves and treated like second-class citizens. While there's no doubt about the injustices suffered, it's equally clear the remediation process is causing considerable harm to the economic growth of the province. 

That's the very economic growth in which natives say they want greater participation. In the meantime, BC is on investment hold. And that, in part, is because of the uncertainty and slow pace of the treaty/rights negotiation process. Who wants to invest in a place which can't decide who owns what? It should be duly noted, their political masters aside, that the actual nose to the grindstone negotiation process is characterized by conscientious and sincere people on both sides of the table. But the slow pace reveals fractures within the native community, which, like any other constituency, contains radical and conservative elements. The frustration spills out in blockades, threats of blockades and other acts of civil disobedience. 

The forest industry is the usual target because land use and access to resources are keys to the rights natives want recognized. Native blockades made the headlines again during the summer of 2000. The Takla First Nation, for example, first blockaded BC Rail's transportation of logs about 300 kilometres northwest of Prince George before turning attention to a forest service road to object to a herbicide and pesticide spraying program. (By the way, what does this five per cent of BC's population want to be called these days? First Nations, aboriginals, natives, Indians? British Columbians?) Blockade type actions are designed to get attention and they do. But the results of the attention are not always favourable. It comes down to the old question of where the right to protest steps over the legitimate rights of third party interests. In the Takla case, the forced stopping of timber harvesting meant logging contractors and truckers couldn't work.

 No work means no pay. Thoughtful native leaders see the wisdom in building bridges between the aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities, and through that process help the population at large better understand the issues of inequality spurring the treaty process. But it's easy to see how that focus would become hazy for the non-aboriginal contractor who's suddenly denied access to his livelihood by native activism. The longer blockades last, the more the effects filter down to the supply and service people- and the more people get ticked off. Dispute solving mechanisms rarely seem to move quickly; they're frequently inter jurisdictional. In BC Rail's case with the Takla, it was unable to negotiate while the blockade remained. No one but lawyers like taking issues through the court system. 

But costly, time consuming and imperfect as it undoubtedly is, the court remains an arena to assess what's acceptable behaviour in our society and a forum through which fairness and responsibility can be reasonably adjudicated. Until ruled otherwise, the Crown still has legal title to public land in BC. But having said that, the squeaky wheel theory works just fine in BC. The Westbank First Nation-a veteran of blockades and illegal logging-has received a timber allocation and money to persuade it to return to the treaty process and quit being a pest. 

The frustration spills out in blockades, threats of blockades and other acts of civil disobedience. 

The news didn't get much play in the press but it sure perked up interest in the aboriginal community, as it should within the forest industry. There's some big time precedent setting here. If it's okay for Westbank, just wait for the "me toos" to surface. The Westbank deal, described as an interim measure with more negotiations to follow, involves the Ministry of Forests, the federal government and industry. The band will get 40,000 cubic metres, lopped from the annual allowable cuts of seven area licensees, and 15,000 cubic metres from the Ministry of Forests. 

The licensees will also purchase the timber Westbank harvests. It's interesting that the Westbank people have no qualms accepting a timber quota when they have objected fundamentally and strenuously to the right of the Crown to allocate timber resources. The licensees involved gain some short-term stability from the deal and still get to process the timber. It's unclear whether the traditional log contractors and truckers will have jobs as contractors to the band. The stability may be short lived because the provincial government has been known to change its mind. And many predict the present government won't be around next year to maintain any policy. To add interest, a native political party is in the development stage. 

The tentatively named First People's Political Party aims to field candidates in selected ridings during the next provincial election. Apparently, the ridings are selected to harm the NDP. The natives are upset with the party's slowness in having aboriginal title and rights recognized. According to its spokesman, the First People's Political Party has few delusions about winning many seats. It is more interested in making a statement that things have to change and getting the native voice heard in public debate. While its efficacy remains to be seen, the party proposes working legally within the system. This initiative appears to be a more positive strategy, perhaps, in a treaty landscape overfilled with confusion, contradiction, disruption and damage. 

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