By Lorraine Passchier
Conflicting viewpoints surrounding B.C. treaty negotiations came to the forefront last Friday night as more than 250 people attended a townhall meeting hosted by Reform MPs Herb Grubel and Ted White at the International Plaza.
Reform aboriginal affairs critic John Duncan predicted settlements will cost $8.5 billion and accused the government of being too generous. The MP for North Island-Powell River said the province will end up paying about $6 billion for what he labelled a federal responsibility.
"Something else the government has not told the public is that they operate on a target settlement number in negotiating treaties. In the Nisga'a example the number is $97,000 per person.
"In light of the offer to the Nisga'a, you can expect a similar movie to come to a theatre near you. Once the Nisga'a agreement is signed, you must know that future options will be limited because the precedent will be set," Duncan said.
But while Duncan and MP Mike Scott (Skeena) contended treaty settlements would give aboriginals special status and privileges which they termed racist, the panel was challenged by alternate viewpoints from the floor.
"From our point of view it is not a question of equality or racism. What we are faced with here is the tyranny of the majority — that's the issue in these negotiations," Squamish Nation Chief Joe Mathias said.
"We are outnumbered in terms of economic power, political power, legal power and people. That's the issue, the tyranny of the majority. Understand that concept, you understand where we are coming from."
Mathias noted the meeting was being held on land belonging to the Capilano Indian Reserve and estimated the Squamish First Nation pumps $20 million into the North Shore economy annually. He said his people could no longer survive on good intentions.
The Squamish Nation's traditional territory extends into Whistler, and Squamish Nation is expected to be one of the first aboriginal groups to reach a settlement. Fee simple lands are excluded from the negotiations.
Panel member and legal consultant Mel Smith said the 43 land claims now being considered represent 80 to 90 per cent of B.C.'s land mass and negotiations should be limited to sustenance and ceremonial issues as defined by the courts.
Smith called the landmark Gitksan Wet'suwet'en case, which is now being appealed in the Supreme Court of Canada, the "mother of all trials" and said it clearly demonstrated land ownership, resources and self-government were not up for grabs.
But lawyer Graeme Bowbrick argued case law did not belong in treaty negotiations, pointing out this position was also favoured by the courts. "The nature of litigation is there is a winner and a loser. There is no compromise in litigation."
NDP MLA David Schreck also said treaty negotiations should be resolved outside the courts. "The reasons we are in negotiations is the governments of B.C. and Canada do not want to take the risk of having the courts determine our fate."
The strongest rebuttal of the evening came from resident Meharam Sugrim, who said aboriginal people have suffered at the hands of the government as their land and culture were unfairly taken from them.
"They were sent to residential schools where they were supposed to be civilized, but they were raped and brutalized and sodomized by their rich uncle," he said before being allowed to continue.
"If there were 12 squatters in your back yard and you were the only one, and those 12 people said they had a right to squat in your back yard and they passed the legislation to give them that right, would you agree with that sir? That's basically what happened to the Indians."
The townhall meeting was one of a series of eight held by the Reform Party throughout the province over a 10-day period.