The BC Treaty Referendum

This is What Democratic Expression Looks Like

Sunday 2 June 2002, by Nadine PEDERSON

British Columbia’s Liberal government recently held a referendum on aboriginal treaties in British Columbia. It was met with widespread opposition.

Only 34 per cent of voters returned their ballots by the May 15 deadline, while across the province ballots were ignored, turned into artwork, voided, spoiled, or handed to First Nations to be burned at public events. Referendum critics accused the Liberal government of "polarizing" British Columbians, of being racist and not understanding the treaty process. Premier Gordon Campbell claimed the referendum was "all about helping to bring legitimacy to the treaty process through a democratic expression of the people of this province."


"I won’t be voting in Premier Gordon Campbell’s referendum," wrote former judge Thomas Berger in the Vancouver Sun. "Not because it is a hollow exercise, a waste of time and money. It is in my view a serious, not a frivolous matter. Serious because the referendum is subversive of the rule of law."

Berger explained that in 1999, when Campbell was the leader of the province’s official opposition, he launched a constitutional challenge of the Nisga’a Treaty, the first modern-day aboriginal treaty to be signed in BC. Campbell argued that First Nations do not have the inherent right to self-government under the Constitution, but can only be delegated certain powers by the provincial and federal governments. The BC Supreme Court judge who oversaw the case ruled against his claim.

As Berger explains, "The key question in Campbell’s referendum is ’Aboriginal self-government should have the characteristics of local government, with powers delegated from Canada and British Columbia. Yes or No?’ But Campbell himself has already obtained an answer to this question."


The rights of First Nations to control their own territories and be self-governing in British Columbia was established long before Campbell ever went to court - making the $9-million referendum seem to many like a waste of money. A Royal Proclamation signed in 1763 ceded all of BC to the Indians. The Calder case in 1973 and the Delgamuukw decision of 1997 further recognized the existence of aboriginal title and the right of natives to be self-governing.

Furthermore, the province is not even required at the negotiating table. Only Canada may conclude a treaty with a First Nation, and the province has no power to legislate in relation to aboriginal people or their territories. Asking British Columbians whether they would like to see First Nations given only municipal-like powers - which could then be revoked by Canada or BC at any time - is a pointless exercise.

The question about governance was not the only question on the ballot. All seven others were also contentious, not only because of their content, but because of the way they are formulated and because the government has said it will be bound to a "yes" vote but not to a "no" vote.

"Government always has the right to determine how to give best implementation to the outcome of a referendum vote," explained BC’s Attorney General Geoff Plant. "And we are talking about principles. We can’t promise an outcome on the referendum vote - there are three parties in the treaty process - but the referendum questions answered by people will give the government a binding mandate to move forward."

According to pollster Angus Reid, the questions are "motherhood statements" designed to evoke a "yes" answer for the government’s own purposes. For example, the first question on the referendum reads, "Private property should not be expropriated for treaty settlements. Yes or No?" While this implies that First Nations can take privately-owned land, aboriginal leaders are scrambling to point out that nowhere in BC is private property on the negotiating table and it would go against a principle of treaty negotiations that was agreed to in 1993.

Clumsy Process

"The referendum is playing on the uninformed majority about the constitutionally enshrined and judicially recognized Aboriginal title and rights that exist in this province," said Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the British Columbia Indian Chiefs. "Democracy is much more than ballots being burned in protest, democracy is the recognition that the rights of the minority cannot be subjected to the majority in an ’amateurish’ and clumsy process based on ambiguous questions with a preconceived outcome."

While the treaty has garnered support from some British Columbians - including an organization called White Pride that claims the referendum "will go down in Canadian history as enabling the most fundamental symbolic expression of White unity since racial pride went out of style almost 40 years ago" - the level of protest against the referendum has been tremendous.

Groups as varied as the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, the Council of Canadians, the Anglican Church, the NDP, the Muslim Canadian Federation, the Canadian Jewish Congress, and the Association of Chinese Canadians have all spoken out against it.

Results from the referendum will be released on July 3, 2002.

Nadine Pedersen, Vancouver, Alternatives

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