Native leaders spurn right-wing hard-liners
They say it doesn't matter who you vote for because the government always gets back in, but for British Columbia's aboriginal people, the upcoming federal election really does matter. It matters a lot.
It's not just because what hangs in the balance is a 10-year, $5.1-billion deal that Prime Minister Paul Martin and Canada's 13 provinces and territories struck with aboriginal leaders at a historic meeting in Kelowna last month.
It's that the Conservative party's current crop of B.C. candidates looks a lot like a reunion of the Reform party's aboriginal-hysteria zealots of the 1990s, and a Conservative victory threatens to revive old land-claims battles, rekindle the dormant politics of "rights based on race", and scuttle several years' worth of fence-mending. As a result, an increasing number of B.C. First Nations heavyweights are openly backing the Liberal party.
One-third of Canada's 600 native bands are situated in British Columbia, and already Vancouver Island's First Nations leaders are explicitly backing the Liberals. Hupacasath Chief Judith Sayers says the risk of a Conservative win is too great: Stephen Harper can't be trusted on fishing rights, environmental protection, or the past month's Kelowna commitments.
The Liberals have been winning converts among B.C.'s aboriginal communities for several years. Even Gordon Campbell's B.C. Liberals, who disgraced themselves by harnessing a rural anti-land-claims backlash in 2001, have been working overtime to win the trust of First Nations communities. The Campbell government was a pioneer of the tripartite Kelowna accord, which seeks to close the gap between aboriginal and nonaboriginal graduation rates, improve reserve housing and infrastructure, fund land-claims talks, invest in economic development, and seed a variety of health initiatives.
But all that could come to an abrupt halt if next month's polls allow even a minority-government victory to Stephen Harper's reconstituted Conservatives.
"All of that will disappear with a Conservative government," Doug Kelly, a member of the provincial executive of the First Nations Summit, declared during a recent conversation. "If we end up with a Conservative government, it will be a government of angry white men who long for the day when they were in the driver's seat."
Kelly, 45, is a Sto:lo grand chief, and he's all too familiar with some of the angry white men among B.C.'s Conservative candidates.
John Cummins, the party's MP for Delta-Richmond East, has spent much of his 12 years in office crusading against aboriginal fisheries, from Burnt Church in New Brunswick to Barkley Sound on Vancouver Island's west coast. Cummins, a former commercial fisherman, has been particularly vociferous in his opposition to the Sto:los' on-again, off-again "pilot sales" fisheries along the Fraser River.
Now, Cummins's soul mate-in-struggle, Phil Eidsvik, head of the Fisheries Survival Coalition, is running for the Conservatives in Newton-North Delta, right next door to Cummins's riding. For more than a decade, Eidsvik has been fighting aboriginal-rights court cases, counselling civil disobedience, and spinning the news media in a crusade that continues to deeply divide aboriginal and nonaboriginal fishermen. Famous for his inflammatory rhetoric, Eidsvik once described the Nisga'a treaty as "the worst type of Alabama racism in the history of Canada".
Meanwhile, another anti-treaty crusader from the 1990s, John Weston, is running for the Conservatives in West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky. Weston, a Fraser Institute favourite, led a failed constitutional challenge to the Nisga'a treaty, and he was an early advocate of the ruinous provincewide referendum on treaty negotiations that Campbell's Liberals initiated after winning office in 2001. Those Liberals have done a "180-degree turn" from those days, Kelly maintains. But Weston still opposes the inclusion of any lands in treaty settlements.
Another anti-treaty crusader from the 1990s, former Skeena Reform MP Michael Scott, is running again. Scott campaigned hard against the Nisga'a treaty, calling it grossly expensive, undemocratic, unconstitutional, overly generous, and discriminatory. (Scott also distinguished himself during the 1990s' gun-control debates by arguing that an "armed citizenry" is necessary to keep government from getting too big.) After four years with more mainstream Conservative Andy Burton, the redistributed riding of Skeena-Bulkley Valley sent New Democrat Nathan Cullen to Ottawa last year.
Against the spectre of a Conservative win, aboriginal support for the NDP is evaporating, and Kelly says it hasn't helped that on fisheries questions, lately, the NDP sounds eerily like the Conservatives.
During this year's salmon season, angry commercial fishermen, backed by Cummins and Eidsvik, threatened civil disobedience in their demands for fishing openings in the Fraser while the gravely endangered Cultus Lake sockeye run was migrating home. NDP fisheries critic Peter Stoffer joined Cummins in backing the fishermen, saying there was no conservation problem-it was just Ottawa trying to drive the fishermen out of business.
For thousands of years, the Cultus sockeye were the lifeblood of the Soowahlie tribe, the Sto:lo community that Kelly comes from. In 1950, Cultus Lake produced a run of 280,000 Cultus sockeye. By the end of the 20th century, the run had been reduced to 50 spawners.
"When the NDP and the Conservatives are standing together like this, well, the NDP should know better," Kelly said. "It troubles me."
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