Wednesday, May 26, 2004

First Nations learn from enviro campaigns, target Olympics

VICTORIA - So I was driving down to the legislature, radio a little too loud, when the call came. Forest Minister Mike de Jong would be available in 15 minutes to talk about agreements with First Nations.
I'm always glad of an easy story. And once I arrived, I got an email about a First Nations' protest outside the legislature at noon. That meant there should be a hook for the story. So down to de Jong's office I went, along with a fair crush of the media pack.
it was a pre-emptive strike. De Jong announced a forestry deal with the Bonaparte Band that should be worth $1.8 million, the forty-eighth such agreement. The government and First Nations have been working together well, he said.
Not a bad message. But then - and this is a character trait of this government - de Jong went too far.
But what about the Title and Rights Alliance protest, asked a reporter? "It's sad that there are people who seem more content to continue to engage in inflammatory statements than actually getting down to the tough work involved in moving forward," the minister said. "A group has always found it more attractive to yell and scream and shout rather than sitting down and negotiating difficult deals." First Nations leaders who didn't sign these deals were betraying their people, de Jong suggested.
It seemed, even at the time, to be foolishly provocative. Why pick a needless fight if things are going so well with most First Nations?
But I bought it. First Nations' politics are complicated (like all politics). And there are some leaders - Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, for example -who can be counted on to be usually irate.
Then noon came around, and I made it out a little late through the front door of the legislature. I was trapped in a crowd of people in red t-shirts on the steps of the legislature, but climbed over a small wall and made it down to the bottom of the steps, where the TV guys were clustered around the speakers.
And there was Phillip. But beside him, among other leaders, was Ed John of the First Nations Summit. Up on the steps was the chief of the Bonaparte Band - the people de Jong had pointed to evidence that everything was working. Judging by the way he was drumming, the chief was not as convinced.
It's a singular achievement, to bring together B.C.'s often divided First Nations. And de Jong's comments looked both provocative and wrong.
The Liberals had appeared to be making good progress with First Nations. Four treaty agreements in principle, several hundred deals offering economic benefits, generally a stable relationship.
But the protest, part of a caravan to Victoria organized by the fledgling Title and Rights Alliance, indicated that could all be unraveling. The First Nations claimed the governments have been refusing to negotiate, presenting take-it-or-leave-it proposals.
The governments should be, as the young people say, freaked.
United First Nations will be a huge problem in the next year for the Liberals.
Especially united First Nations that are prepared to take lessons from the various enviro groups that have figured out how to steer B.C. policy The alliance is taking advice from veteran environmental campaigners who have experience in cranking up the pressure on a wide range of fronts.
Speakers talked about showing up at forest company annual meetings to raise concern about harvesting on land that's part of treaty talks. They threatened consumer boycotts and international campaigns.
And they pointed to the Olympics as a rare opportunity to take their case to the world (and put a considerable squeeze on the federal and provincial governments). The enviros have shown that it's easy to get Americans and Europeans all riled up about issues they don't really understand with the right symbols. The protest could be highly effective.
The governments need to find a way to head off this protest, or risk serious damage.
Footnote The alliance is getting technical support from the Dogwood Initiative's WIll Horter, a long-time forestry campaigner formerly of Forest Futures and the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, and advice from other veterans of environmental campaigns. It's a support group with a track record of effectiveness in getting issues before the public.

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