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Making History: The Nisga'a Treaty





Counter Point


The Nisga'a Treaty is historic for many reasons. Treaty negotiations have been monitored by a variety of human rights watchdogs worldwide. It is noteworthy that it comes so closely on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It was a proud day for Canada. It is worthy of international attention, because although Canada is a nation known for its peacekeeping activities, and its role as a champion of human rights, it has rarely been able to come to the world with clean hands regarding aboriginal rights. I believe that has now changed. I believe the Nisga'a Treaty is a triumph for Canada.

This Treaty also represents a major breakthrough in the shameful and brutal relationship between aboriginal peoples and the descendants of Europeans in North America. To understand why this is, one has to understand something of the history of Canada and its relationship with the many nations which called Canada home for thousands of years before white people came among us.

The Treaty itself represents a hard-fought compromise. Under the Treaty, we will no longer be wards of the state. We will no longer be beggars in our own lands. We will own our own lands, which now far exceed the postage stamp reserves that were begrudgingly set aside for us by colonial governments. We will once again govern ourselves by our institutions, in the context of Canadian law. We will be allowed to make our own mistakes, to savour own victories, to stand on our own feet.

Clause by clause, the Treaty emphasizes self-reliance, personal responsibility and modern education. It also encourages, for the first time, investment in Nisga'a lands and resources, and allows us to pursue meaningful employment from the resources of our own territory, for our own people. It gives us a fighting chance to establish legitimate economic independence, and to prosper in common with our non aboriginal neighbours in a new and proud Canada.

For the past six years, Canada has topped the list of the world's nations on the UN human development index. Canada may boast that its people enjoy the highest standard of living of any country in the world. But it is also true, according to a study published by the Canadian government itself, that the same human development index, applied to Canada's aboriginal communities, reveals a standard of living that is at Third World levels. The UN's human development index measures percapita income, education levels and life expectancy. Applied to Canadian Indian reserves, these measurements show that our aboriginal communities rank alongside some of the poorest countries in the world.

I cannot pretend that the Nisga'a Treaty does not have its detractors. The commitment by the present governments of both Canada and British Columbia to complete the long overdue negotiation of treaties with the aboriginal nations west of the Rockies, remains under constant attack by an influential segment of public opinion. But that segment of the settler population is in a minority, and we must hope they are fading away. Time and again, public opinion polls show that most Canadians, and most British Columbians, understand that treaty-making is the right thing to do.

Despite all this, there may be some who wonder why the Nisga'a Treaty is so important.

The Nisga'a Treaty is the result of a hard-fought compromise. Even though generations of Nisga'a people waited in vain for it, and a generation of Nisga'a men and women has grown old at the negotiating table, still, to the Nisga'a people, a treaty is a sacred instrument.

A treaty represents an understanding between distinct cultures, a covenant that declares respect for different ways of life. It stands as a beacon of hope for indigenous people throughout a divided, fractious world.

We are showing the world that reasonable people can sit down and settle historical wrongs, despite a legacy of unspeakable pain, suffering and despair. I would hope that the successful conclusion of the Nisga'a Treaty negotiations proves that modern societies can indeed correct the mistakes of the past, and can ensure that the rights of minorities are willingly respected.

It is my sincere hope that far beyond Canada's borders, the Treaty sends a powerful message of hope and reconciliation around the world.

Now, the Nisga'a can go forward with dignity.

Chief Joe Gosnell

Whether knowing or unknowing of government policy I am certain that the general upbeat feelings expressed over the Nisga'a Treaty are genuine. As a leader I am mandated to protect Aboriginal Title, at the same time to explore avenues to settle the outstanding land question between the Federal Crown and Indian Nations fairly and justly through a solution which practically accommodates our Peoples within the state of Canada. But we, that is Native and non Native people, have begun to really understand what is being done politically, economically and socially in the so called "land claims" negotiations. The truth will have a shocking impact upon our various Nations, indeed all fair minded people should be dismayed when they learn that the agenda is more than creating certainty for the economy.

Treaties and their certainty provisions are really about "taking out" (extinguishing) the Indian Nations, changing Nations to mere delegated village council or federal municipalities. In some parts of the world it is now called "ethnic cleansing". It is practised to a much more subtle level upon our people but it is still genocide. The most deplorable fact in this case is that they expect us to provide our consent. Genocide may seen harsh terminology, but this treaty once and for all alters the reality of Indigenous Nations. We are being asked to give our consent to eradicating or renouncing that we are distinct Peoples, with distinct identifiable territories, with our own governing systems, with our own distinct languages and histories.

We are being asked to use our power of consent to deny to our future generations the benefits of Title from their homelands. The traditional leadership, along with ordinary Indigenous People, have been usurped by neo-colonial leaderships that are working with the settler government to bring this aberration of settlement to a final conclusion. The thinking seems to be that if we give consent to such anagreement it cannot be seen as genocidal. The rest of us are being held in reserve ghettos until we capitulate to giving up our priceless homelands for a few hectares of settlement land which will soon be too small to be of benefit. Much like the Indian reserves are now.

Nations as we will be forced to surrender to Canada our territorial integrity and all the riches that that represents. Furthermore, the governance system which emerges from this deal is defined by the settlers, authorized by the settlers and to serve the settlers. Our traditional Indian governments are replaced by the delegated authority of a third order of government sanctioned by the Federal and Provincial Governments.

This is not self determination, this is permission to be self-administering Canadian laws and systems. What are the division of powers going to mean and are they going to be real division of power? Will such an agreement really mean self-determination for our Nations? We shall also be distracted by involvement in another colonial quagmire of internal renting of what is left of our lands and resources. Our hereditary and elected leadership will have to deal with the resulting socioeconomic fall out. This is the stage which has been set for us.

Nowhere in any of the media is it seriously reported that law suits have been filled by Nisga'a hereditary chiefs and ordinary citizens against the apparent neo-colonial administrations that have been negotiating these treaties of surrender and capitulation. There seems to be a deliberate policy of hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil, therefore report no evil. The Gitanyow people have experienced firsthand the dishonour of the Crown as demonstrated in the land overlap issue. This has exposed the Canadian treaty policy of first come, first served.

In this way other communities or Nations are being strategically forced to the treaty table or as in the Gitanyow case to the court to defend their infringed upon Title. One must conclude that this is just another reason not to be involved in this sham of a scheme. In retrospect, to paraphrase a saying after the Holocaust of Jewish people: Where were we when they took the lands of the James Bay Cree? Where were we when they took the homeland of the Yukon Peoples? Now that they are coming to take a Nation's land and resources in our own back yard, where are we?

Saul Terry

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