Published in The Martlet newspaper | April 11, 2002 | Circulation: 17,000
When Leonard James left a therapy session for First Nations residential school survivors in Duncan, he never expected he’d be walking all the way to Victoria to oppose the BC Liberals’ treaty referendum.
James, a Cowichan First Nations man who survived the Catholic-run Kuper Island residential school, joined non-Aboriginal church supporters for a week-long trek to the Legislature buildings in Victoria, on April 5, where they burned referendum ballots in protest of what they consider a racist referendum.
The trekkers were met at the Legislature by an alliance of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal supporters.
“If this treaty referendum goes through, the last ten years of treaty negotiations is gone,” said Rose Henry, an activist with the Capital Region Race Relations Association who spoke at the rally. “We’re talking millions and millions of dollars. This referendum is going to make a huge difference to us. To me this is a subtle form of genocide.”
Nearly 150 people formed a circle on the Legislature steps, holding hands. They were joined by a group of Nuu-chah-nulth drummers from Ahousat. Several First Nations people set fire to their referendum ballots, hoping to send a strong message to the government.
The week-long trek started in Nanaimo on Monday, April 1, and was organized by Aboriginal Neighbours, an Anglican Church group which opposes the treaty referendum. The trekkers met with Indigenous people along the way, who were invited to join them for the walk.
Gloria Cope, an Anglican Church member who helped organize the walk, says that now is the time for non-Aboriginal people to stand up for Native rights.
“The government should get back to the treaty table,” Cope said. “We’re offended by this game they’re playing. It’s an insult to First Nations. And it’s an insult to me as a human being that my brothers and sisters should have to endure this. We’re going to walk side by side and stand up with them.”
The B.C. government has already mailed out referendum packages to 2.2 million B.C. voters, despite a recent court case challenging that the referendum is unconstitutional. The ballots are to be returned by May 15, and ask voters whether they agree with eight principles of treaty negotiations.
According to the Referendum Office, a ‘yes’ vote will be binding on the government, but a ‘no’ vote will not be binding.
“The question asks, ‘Do you agree or disagree that these should be guiding principles?’” said Kate Thompson, with the Referendum Office. “The yes vote is binding on the government in that they will use them as guiding principles. A no vote means they don’t necessarily have to follow those guiding principles.”
At an April 2 press conference, Attorney General Geoff Plant urged British Columbians to vote yes.
“If people want to move forward beyond the failed Indian Act model, they should vote yes,” Plant said.
But it is not only First Nations groups who oppose the referendum. A growing number of Christian churches are taking a stand on the referendum issue alongside First Nations people. For many, it signals a new direction for churches that ran residential schools and aided colonization.
The arrival of the Trek for Treaties in Victoria coincided with the release of a historic letter from B.C. leaders of the Anglican Church of Canada, which was read out on April 7 in all Anglican churches in the province. The letter urged supporters to oppose the referendum by voting no or spoiling their ballots.
The United Church of Canada, another major Christian denomination in B.C., also opposes the treaty vote.
“This is where the church needs to be. This is our faith,” said Tanis van Drimmelen, president of the United Church’s B.C. conference. She said the church must stand with those who are often voiceless and left vulnerable. “First Nations people have been walking this road alone far too long,” she said.
Opponents of the referendum are proposing different strategies for voters. They range from voting no to the questions to returning ballots spoiled to the government and rejecting the referendum. Other groups are urging voters to oppose the vote altogether by sending ballots instead to First Nations groups, to be counted and publicized in protest. The UVic student society, for instance, is collecting boycotted ballots in the Resource Centre in the SUB.
While there is disagreement over tactics, opponents believe the message is the same. “We are all saying the same thing,” said van Drimmelen. “This referendum is ill-devised.”
For Snuneymuxw elder Rose Scow, who joined the Trek for Treaties in her wheelchair, the referendum is a reminder that colonization continues every day.
“It’s a big no. You can’t do this kind of thing all the time,” she said. “I want my peace. I want to say no sometimes.
“All my life, I wasn’t able to say no sometimes,” Scow said.
The presence of church groups in opposing the referendum means a lot to Aboriginal people like Leonard James, who spent over four years in a residential school and is just beginning to heal.
“It really seems to me that they are here to support us now, and not to put us down,” James said. “That’s what blows me away. We’re being helped, not subjected to abuse. It’s like a dream coming true.”