Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Referendum running into major problems
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Two very bad things happened to the Liberals in the early days of their treaty referendum.
Lots of unpleasant things happened. The Anglican Church called on people to vote no. The B.C. Federation of Labour and other groups representing seniors, women and environmentalists called for a boycott. Attorney General Geoff Plant had trouble making the exercise sound in any way meaningful.
But two really bad things happened.
First, pollster Angus Reid offered his views on the referendum's legitimacy. Reid is no special interest axe-grinder. He is arguably Canada's most respected pollster.
Reid got his referendum package last week, and chose to offer his assessment in the Vancouver Sun.
"The British Columbia aboriginal referendum is one of the most amateurish, one-sided attempts to gauge the public will that I have seen in my professional career. Though we can be justifiably concerned about the cost of this initiative, its deeper harm comes in the false picture it will give of the true state of attitudes on this complex question and, even worse, its pretense that this kind of flimsy exercise is a legitimate way to divine the public will," Reid wrote.
In his polling career, Reid went on, groups had often asked him to do polls on questions that were constructed to produce the desired answer, not find out what people really thought about an issue. "How can we take this exercise seriously when the government distorts the ballot in such a way that the answers they are looking for all involve placing an X beside the "Yes" box?"
It was a devastating critique that portrayed the referendum as an amateurish con.
Reid was also among several observers who raised the issue of the Quebec referendums on separation.
Their questions have become so twisted that in the last vote more than 30 per cent of the people who voted 'yes' thought they were voting for a continued place in Canada; so twisted that the Canadian Parliament passed laws to ensure future sovereignty votes would be based on clear, simple questions.
How would B.C. Liberals react if the Quebec government ran such a twisted referendum and used it to justify breaking away from Canada?
In Quebec, at least a no vote has meaning, even if the result is simply to force the Parti Quebecois to wait a few years until they try again.
In the B.C. referendum, citizens can't tell the government no. Plant has been clear. A yes vote to any of the referendum's eight questions would mean the government will adopt that principle as a starting point in negotiations.
But what if the public says no? What if, to consider one question, the public says no to the principle that First Nations self-government should be restricted to the same kinds of powers that a B.C. village of 900 people wields?
That doesn't mean the government will accept that result, says Plant. The Liberals don't believe in self-government that offers other First Nations the same powers the Nisga'a negotiated. It won't be bound by the referendum if the public has a different view.
Binding if it suits them, not binding if it doesn't. Not a particularly fair hand.
The best result is still a no vote. Take the time to fill out the forms and mark no for all eight questions, sending the message that the referendum is a sham and all three governments should get on with the real work of negotiating treaties.
The referendum has simply delayed treaty-making a year, created more division and deprived all British Columbians of needed economic opportunity.
Vote no. Then tell your MLA you want your government to make an honest effort to reach a fair deal on your behalf.
Because ultimately, that's all we can do.
Paul Willcocks can be reached at

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