Students join First Nations in urging referendum boycott

Published in The Martlet newspaper | April 11, 2002 | Circulation 17,000

More than two million B.C. voters have now received their ballots.

The province’s controversial referendum on treaty negotiations arrived in mailboxes over the past few weeks. Citizens are being asked to register their opinions on eight treaty-negotiating principles regarding land use, property, governance and tax issues. Voters have until May 15 to return their ballots to the province’s elections commission.

The University of Victoria Student Society (UVSS) is opposed to the referendum and is urging students to boycott the referendum by bringing their ballots to the Student Union Building (SUB).

“It’s an illegitimate process,” said Troy Sebastian, incoming chair of the UVSS and fire keeper for the Native Students Union. “The questions are so ambiguously worded – intentionally. They’re there to guid people to a Yes vote.

“The veil’s pretty thin on this one,” he said. “You don’t have to dig too deep to see the interests of an elite minority in the government.”

Sebastian said the UVSS is following the lead of major First Nations organizations in the province in advocating a boycott. A collection box will be set up in the Resource Centre of the SUB, where students can bring their ballots, instead of sending them to the government. These ballots will join the province-wide boycott campaign.

Both aboriginal and non-aboriginal groups have expressed outrage at the treaty referendum.

“This little piece of paper has created the biggest controversy that British Columbia has ever seen,” said Chief Judith Sayers of the Hupacasath First Nation. “It is creating anger, it is creating racism, it is creating fear. This government does not know what it has unleashed.”

The BC Liberals believe the referendum will unleash only positive forces and improve the quality of life for First Nations in B.C. by improving the treaty process.

“We’re trying to give the people of British Columbia direct input into the principles the province should have to follow for treaty negotiations,” said Attorney General Geoff Plant in an interview. “We have put together a set of principles that would help the province. We support those principles. That’s why we encourage people to vote Yes.”

But some critics consider such statements hypocritical.

“For him to presume that he’s helping out aboriginal children is total B.S.,” said Sebastian. “With all the cuts to welfare and treaty negotiations – the truth is this is a process to limit negotiations.”

While referendum opponents talk about human rights, the government is also thinking about rights – private property rights. Commenting on one of the referendum questions about land expropriation, Plant said, “Expropriation is expensive and means taking people’s rights away.”

At an April 4 press conference, Chief Judith Sayers and several other First Nations leaders burned ballots in protest. Several weeks ago the Hupacasath First Nation successfully sought an injunction to block the mailing of the ballots. They argued that the referendum’s principles were illegal and would undermine the treaty process. A constitutional challenge is also planned.

“What’s the next referendum going to be held on?” asked Allan Weselowski, chief of the Ulkatcho Indian Band and chair of the Carrier-Chilcotin Tribal Council. “It could be you. Today it’s me.”

Weselowski said the burning of the ballots was merely symbolic and urged British Columbians to participate in an “active boycott.”

“What we’re suggesting is they simply don’t just throw the ballot in the trash bin like a lot of people might be inclined to do.”

Plant said he disagrees with the boycott tactic.

“A boycott is a political statement that doesn’t move us forward,” he said. “I’m not denying that people have the right to do it. But a more constructive activity is to vote.”

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