Many of us liken the situation of Palestine to that of Bantustans in apartheid South Africa. Israeli journalist Danny Rubinstein and others have described “autonomy” for Palestinians as being “the autonomy of a POW camp”. Edward Said recently wrote that Israel is engaged in a “current all-out colonial assault on the Palestinian people”.
In another part of the world, a man described by a local trade unionist as a “jackbooted thug”, ruling a territory based on land theft, dispossession and genocide has initiated a referendum to serve the powerful political and economic interests that benefit most from extinguishing the rights of the rightful owners.
Strangely enough, most of the world behaves as if this place is a progressive democracy, a humanitarian state, a shining example to other countries.
Promising a “new era of hope and prosperity” for all, Campbell was elected as BC Premier last May when his BC Liberal party won a landslide victory over the “social democratic” New Democratic Party (NDP) which had ruled the province for ten years.
But Campbell’s government has hatched a plan to try to extinguish indigenous title through what he claims is a “democratically accountable” process.
Under International and British law, the lands now defined as “British Columbia” are Indigenous lands subject only to Indigenous jurisdiction. Successive provincial governments have claimed that BC is “terra nullius” and that Indigenous title had been extinguished, even though this argument has been rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada.
That is exactly what previous BC governments, and now Campbell’s have done.
The government’s starting point was the mistaken premise that it owned the land. It did not recognise the title and rights of Indigenous Peoples. It insisted that no privately owned lands would be available for settlement of the lands and resource rights of the Indigenous Peoples living within the borders of British Columbia. Under five percent of the total lands in BC would be available for settlement.
Indigenous Peoples who dared to defend a sacred Sundance site from ranchers at Gustafsen Lake on unceded Shuswap territory in the summer of 1995, were met with Armoured Personnel Carriers, landmines (remember Canada’s international stand against the use of landmines?), and heavily-armed paramilitary police SWAT teams, ordered in by the NDP government. Like the Israeli Defence Forces, the RCMP blocked media access to the area while they laid siege.
Cree lawyer and scholar Sharon Venne reminds us, “Canada, the great peacekeeping nation, must maintain its international image because its treatment of Indigenous Peoples makes its human rights record as black as the record of white South Africa. After all, the legislation to keep blacks down in South Africa was modelled upon legislation drafted and used in Canada against Indigenous Peoples.”
These and other questions were already set as parameters in the BC Treaty process, and completely ignore the fact that Indigenous Peoples in BC never released, extinguished or ceded their lands to the settlers. On what legal basis can private property rights be said to exist in BC? And by what authority have leases and licences been given?
This is the same sort of logic that the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other multilateral financial institutions use when pressuring “debtor” countries (many of which share the same Pacific Ocean with coastal BC) to “reform” traditional land tenure systems.
There has been widespread opposition and condemnation of the BC referendum from Indigenous leaders and communities, churches and other religious communities, trade unions, opposition parties, women’s groups and others.
Chief Sayers now co-chairs a movement to promote an active referendum boycott which calls for unsigned ballots to be sent to a local Indian band office, labour council or church in protest. These will then be presented in protest to the BC Government or disposed of at a public ceremony.
In her submission to the UN Commission on Human Rights of April 15, she says that school authorities in the small town of High Level in neighbouring Alberta have warned principals and teachers to be aware of bullying and violence in schools due to the increased tensions in BC caused by the referendum.
Chief Stewart Philip of the Penticton Band and the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs is also calling for an active boycott. He says:.”The referendum questions seek a self-serving mandate to perpetuate an outdated, economically racist and colonial relationship, of which many features have been repudiated by the Courts.
In November, Taiaiake Alfred wrote: “Distracted by the on-going ‘war on terrorism’ south of the border, it seems that we have forgotten about the war on us. Remember that one? The war that was so important in the days before 9.11, the one for the environment, for our homelands and our rights? …. The enemy is still after our lands and our resources, and sad but true, they are winning the fight.”
Recent mobilisations in Washington, DC and other cities around the world have linked issues of corporate globalisation with the war on/of terror and Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine.
Canada will soon get another chance to showcase its “democracy” to the world when the ski-resort of Kananaskis in Alberta hosts the June G-8 summit.
Global justice movements must subject governments like those of British Columbia and Canada’s federal government to the same kinds of condemnation and pressure that people have brought against Suharto’s Indonesia for the genocide in East Timor, apartheid South Africa, and Israel.
In our global struggles for justice we need to do whatever we can to shine such a light.