Wednesday, April 03, 2002

Best referendum bet is a careful no vote
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - I hadn't really thought how I'd respond to the treaty referendum until last week, sitting in a Victoria courtroom. The details don't really matter. There will be other attempts by First Nations to challenge the referendum.
But the ballots are landing in peoples' homes right now, and it's time to start trying to figure out what to do.
I'm a pragmatist, with experience in labour negotiations. That wasn't always fun, but it was educational.
One lesson was that a clear, simple mandate for negotiators worked best. If my masters said get a contract that allows work flexibility and doesn't add more than $2 million to costs, then I had room to meet the union's concerns. If they tried to define every detail of a contract, then things would likely go badly. And as a pragmatist, that's one of the reasons I think the referendum is a bad, destructive exercise.
Attorney General Geoff Plant says the referendum will be binding on government, sort of, maybe, not really. The referendum asks for support for principles, he said this week. A commitment to being guided by those principles would be binding on the government. But actually acting in accord with them isn't required, Plant said.
And I can't help but think like a negotiator. Right now, if a First Nation wants a couple of acres carved from a park, negotiators can offer that at the table.
But the Liberals' referendum asks for support for the principle that "Parks and protected areas should be maintained for the use and benefit of all British Columbians." If that becomes binding, then negotiators would lose the ability to offer even a tiny plot of land from a park, sort of, maybe.
And for what purpose? Is there anyone who really thinks that negotiators don't know that handing over Pacific Rim National Park to the Nuu-chah-nulth would be cause problems?
Other questions are less benign.
After last week's court hearing Hupacasath Chief Judith Sayers said the referendum could end negotiations. If voters support the principle that "Aboriginal self-government should have the characteristics of local government, with powers delegated from Canada and British Columbia," then First Nations will walk, she says.
First Nations believe their legal right to self-government is clear. If the province, guided by the referendum, refuses to acknowledge that, some First Nations will end the talks, leading to more economic uncertainty and court cases.
There are limits to the governmental powers that can be ceded to First Nations, and a need to ensure equality of all citizens. But negotiators were able to resolve those issues while giving the Nisga'a powers that go beyond any municipal government. Plant confirmed that if the public vote yes, the government would be bound - sort of, maybe - to reject future treaties based on the Nisga'a model.
First Nations are boycotting the referendum. Some opponents have proposed bundling up ballots and sending them off to First Nations. Others plan to spoil their ballots as a protest against the whole process. Details of those plans will become clear.
But there's a strong argument for voting no to all eight propositions, sending the message that the principles that have governed negotiations so far - and the freedom to find creative solutions at the bargaining table - should be maintained.
The treaty process hasn't worked well.
But a yes vote to the propositions put forward by the government will make things worse, ending negotiations and leading First Nations to try to exert economic and legal pressure.
It's tempting to boycott the referendum, or send in a spoiled ballot. (That process takes care - only signed, properly spoiled ballots will be counted.)
But what's needed is strong no votes as a message to government that British Columbians don't want arbitrary, vague questions to lead to a deadlock.
Paul Willcocks can be reached at

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