“It will be politically binding,” but “it won’t necessarily be legally binding.” That’s what Attorney General Geoff Plant had to say about his government’s referendum on B.C.’s native land claims.
Let me translate that into plainspeak. To suggest that the results of a referendum are politically binding is like suggesting that the results of a opinion poll are politically binding. They are binding only to the extent that the government wants to listen to them.
To say that the results of a referendum are not legally binding is unnecessary, except to dispel notions that some voters may have that we live in a direct democracy. Ours is a parliamentary democracy based on representation. The government has the legal duty and responsibility to govern, not voters. This includes making laws.
If the results of the referendum are not politically or legally binding, why spend $9 million to hold it? Because the B.C. Liberals made the referendum such a big issue in the last election, that’s why. They are determined to hold this referendum come hell or high water.
Referendum on not, there are good reasons to resolve legitimate native land claims. Lost revenue due to uncertainty of land claims costs our province an estimated $1 billion annually. Sun Peaks alone lost about $1 million in potential development during the Neskonlith protests during the Much Music televising of their festival.
And the treaty process in B.C. seems to be going nowhere. Provincial and native representatives have invested half a billion dollars in research and negotiations in the last decade with nothing to show. Exactly zero agreements have been concluded. Well OK, one agreement in principle has been reached, but the Sechelt Nation has decided to shelve it in favour of litigation.
A referendum will muddy the waters, not make them clearer. Despite what John Les, chair of the government’s Aboriginal Affairs Committee, says. “We have been extremely clear right from day one this is not a referendum on aboriginal rights,” Aboriginal rights are already entrenched in the constitution, he adds.
Aboriginal rights may be clear in chairman Les’s mind. But many British Columbians will see the referendum not only as a vote on aboriginal rights but as a way of chastising natives. “The natives are acting like a bunch of spoiled children,” says E.A. Drinkwater of Kamloops in his letter to the editor (November 3, 2000). “It’s long past time they quit their crying and joined the rest of society,” Drinkwater continues.
What if the mocassin were on the other foot? What if B.C.’s natives had held a referendum on the “immigration problems” they faced in 1871, when British Columbia joined Canada? At that time natives outnumbered immigrants.
One question might have been “Should immigrants be allowed to own land contrary to our tradition of communal ownership?” Others might have been “Should immigration be limited to ensure that they are always in a minority?” and “Should immigrants be placed on reserves of land for their own protection and to preserve our environment and natural resources?”
It didn’t happen that way. The immigrants unwittingly released a biological terror — smallpox and other viral diseases — on natives, decimating their population. The immigrants proceeded to dismantle Indian society through the Indian Act of 1876 in which Potlatchs and Sun Dances were outlawed.
Most importantly, the immigrants brought the concept of land ownership and free trade. If Indians would just sell their land, trap as many beavers as possible, kill so much game that they would become extinct, everyone would be better off. As we know from the promises of modern free trade, it’s just colonialism by another name.
The song of colonizers is always the same, although the tune may change. Today’s version of song is called globalization. “Dismantle your social programs and we will wipe every tear from your eye,” croons the World Bank to third world countries. “Sell your goods at the lowest price and you will prosper,” they serenade.
Since the B.C. Liberals are so keen on privatization, let them contract a polling firm to conduct a survey on native land claims. A privately run opinion poll could save us a lot of time and money. And it would have as much legal and political weight as a referendum.