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Sunday, 7 April, 2002, 10:53 GMT 11:53 UK
Aborigines protest at Canada land vote
Government officials and Nisga'a sign 1998 treaty
The government has been negotiating treaties for years
A controversial referendum in western Canada is asking the voters of British Columbia their views on how the authorities should proceed in dealing with aboriginal land claims.

It follows years of mostly failed attempts to draft treaties with indigenous people.

It's not likely to produce an outcome which will be helpful in the relations with 'First Nations' people

Bishop Michael Ingham
The provincial government says the answers to the eight questions will be used to "guide its participation in treaty negotiations" with dozens of aboriginal groups.

But the referendum has met with condemnation from various quarters, ranging from indigenous groups themselves to the Anglican church.

Some argue that human rights issues should not be put to a majority vote and that a series of court judgements oblige the government to negotiate treaties.

Aboriginal leaders appalled

The postal ballot, which is costing the equivalent of US $6m, is part of a promise by the Liberal Party government made during last year's provincial election campaign.

Referendum questions include:
Should private property be expropriated for treaty settlements
Should hunting and fishing on Crown land should be guaranteed for all
Should Aboriginal self-government have the characteristics of local government
It says the issues surrounding aboriginal land claims are so important that everyone should have a say.

But Aboriginal leaders have condemned the process and some publicly burned their ballots in protest.

They allege that the vote is designed to secure specific answers that will stack further negotiations against them.

A 'No' vote is also being urged by the Anglican church, which views the referendum as inappropriate and unlikely to lead to good relations with aboriginal people.

Talks impasse

Despite almost 10 years of talks, the province's treaty process has failed to yield a single settlement with the dozens of aboriginal groups or First Nations.
Canadian forest
The ownership of much publicly-held land is contested

Although the first treaty of the modern era was reached with Nisga'a aboriginals of north-western British Columbia in 1998, it was negotiated outside the current treaty process.

Most of the existing treaty settlements date back to the mid-1800s.

Last month, Haida Indians began a major court battle in pursuit of their claim to all of the Queen Charlotte Islands - an area rich in timber as well as offshore oil and gas.

Most legal observers say they are likely to win and change forever the way governments share land and resources with Canada's native groups

Under provincial law, the referendum results will be binding on the government, although Attorney General Geoff Plant said there would be some flexibility in interpreting the results.

Ballots must be returned by 15 May and results should be known by 3 July.

See also:

07 Mar 02 | Americas
Battle for oil-rich Canadian islands
30 Oct 01 | Americas
Canada to settle Indian abuse cases
24 Oct 01 | Americas
Quebec Indians agree dam deal
20 Jun 00 | Americas
Canadian natives sue churches
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