May 9, 1999
Women, Natives, francophones, anglophones, homosexuals, immigrants —what do these groups, among others, have in common? They’re all minorities, according to one standard or another.
Though a respect for minority rights is necessary if a democracy is to prevent itself from sliding into majoritarian tyranny, one has to wonder if in Canada the matter hasn’t gone to the opposite extreme—creating a “tyranny of the minorities,” in which influential special-interest groups are allowed to impose themselves on the majority. Then again, we must remember that we live in post-democratic times.
Let’s take minority Native rights. The odour of political expediency surrounding the Nisga’a Treaty is noxious, yet the citizens of British Columbia who complain are told that the smell doesn’t exist—it’s an olfactory illusion propagated by “racists.” The Nisga’a and their government spokesmen, on the other hand would have us believe that the treaty has a lovely fragrance and the sooner it’s sent to Parliament the better.
I suppose if you can learn to distrust your senses, you can convince yourself of anything; however the best proof that the odour of minority interests wafts strongly through the corridors of power, comes courtesy of one of the treaty’s staunchest defenders.
On May 4, Nisga’a Chief Joe Gosnell spoke to parliamentarians with the hubris and monarchical diktat one would normally associate with the Stuart Kings of England.
“For the Nisga’a nation there is no need for amendments to be made of any kind. If there is to be amendments taking place in the House of Commons, why should we even bother sitting at the negotiating table? It is finished. It is complete. Period.”
In other words, federal politicians can talk about the treaty, they can sing its praises in the House, and they can ask for minor tweaking of points, but they may not engage in anything that could possibly resemble meaningful debate. As far as Gosnell is concerned, parliamentary approval is a purely symbolic charade.
The last time I checked, Parliament—the House of Commons, the Senate and the Crown—was the highest lawmaking body in the country, and the legislative branch of government was responsible to the executive, not the Nisga’a. Furthermore, the House of Commons is the embodiment of the public will, seeing as how we, the voters, put the bums in the seats.
How is it possible, then, that a spokesman for a minority group can arrogate to himself the right to tell Parliament what to do? Of course, that calls into question the very nature of a negotiating table, but then why worry about semantics when the time for words has passed and acquiescence is all you demand.
To be fair to Gosnell, though, he has a lot at stake with this treaty, so a bit of attitude is understandable. Truly disturbing, however, is that Parliament is ready to roll over and play dead just like he wants.
Now, bearing in mind that the Liberals have a majority government and that the House hasn’t even begun to discuss the treaty, Jane Stewart, Emperor Chrétien’s Courtier for Indian Affairs, offered this piece of mindless happy talk: “The treaty is something that we can boast about and that we must boast about. It is unique because it effectively deals with self-government. As a result of that, finally, the Nisga’a are going to again feel the satisfaction of self-reliance.” Stewart couldn’t sign the damned thing fast enough, much to the understandable consternation of Reform MPs.
Anyone who has followed this seeming endless debate knows that the treaty is rife with constitutional contradictions, and that other Native groups (the Gitanyow and the Gitksan) have overlapping claims. If nothing else these themes must be thoroughly discussed, but what are the odds of that happening? The fix is in. Just look at the cheesy pics of a grinning Gosnell with the various federal and provincial politicians.
The treaty became corrupted the minute Glen “di capo” Clark and his NDP gang latched onto it. Amid the budgetary, gambling and fast-ferry scandals, the Nisga’a Treaty was the only positive accomplishment Clark could point to. Consequently, he invested so much political capital in the treaty that it became impossible to determine where the Nisga’a stopped and NDP government began. As a result, the treaty couldn’t be allowed to fail, which meant that it had to be forced through the legislature without proper debate, and that uncomfortable questions of constitutionality had to be denied.
Speaking of improper debate, the federal government should have been in on the negotiations from the beginning. As it is now, it has been presented with a fait accompli and is under great pressure to pass it before it implodes under the weight of its own inadequacy.
The interests of a handful of Nisga’a have become the interests of the majority of Canadians, whether they want it or not. If the public mood is any indication, they don’t.