VICTORIA – There were high hopes and harsh words in 2000 when the provincial and federal governments signed Canada’s first modern-day treaty with the Nisga’a people of northwestern B.C.
The four villages are now governed by the Nisga’a Lisims government, which holds broad authority transferred from the federal and provincial governments. While Canada’s financial support continues to flow, the Nisga’a Nation is nearing the stage where it must begin to collect taxes and become self-sustaining.
A new study by the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy offers a unique look behind the scenes of this remote experiment. And judging by the hostile response of the Nisga’a government to the findings, it may be the last one for some time.
Is the Nisga’a Nation ready to support itself? The short answer is no, according to polling data and extensive interviews with “key informants” who are not identified.
Co-author Joseph Quesnel told me he interviewed 15 influential people, both supporters and critics of the treaty, since he first visited the region last fall.
A larger phone survey by COMPAS Research found that more people trust the Nisga’a government compared to the old Indian Act regime. But divisions remain, particularly over giving up aboriginal tax exemptions.
Quesnel said he met people who have left the Nisga’a villages for nearby Tsimshian communities, before sales and income taxes take effect in 2013.
According to the study, a culture of dependency that grew up during a century of colonial-style rule remains pervasive. The authors report many of the same problems that plague Indian Act reserves, such as willful damage to housing, accusations of nepotism and failed business investment.
“More than one key informant observed that old attitudes and mentalities persist regarding public services,” the report states. “Expectations at the local level that the village government will provide everything are still rampant.”
Quesnel said the Nisga’a Nation’s recent move to allow fee-simple ownership of municipal-style lots is a key step towards self-sufficiency. But the land title system is still in development and it’s too soon to see results.
The study notes that economic conditions in Nisga’a territory have become worse since the treaty. Quesnel agreed with my suggestion that this has more to do with the decline of forestry and fishing than any failure of governance.
Nisga’a Lisims President Mitchell Stevens issued a statement rejecting the report’s findings, citing two factual errors and denying that he had participated.
Quesnel, a Quebec Metis with a background in journalism, said he was welcomed on his initial visit and was even invited to attend a Nisga’a Lisims executive meeting. But he said Stevens and other officials “stopped responding” as the project progressed.
In his statement, Stevens described the code of conduct for Nisga’a officials and the complaint process people can use to hold them accountable for decisions. The president dismissed the “colourful commentary” of a few “key informants” who didn’t expect to be quoted.
Quesnel says that despite the slow progress, he remains convinced the Nisga’a treaty is a positive step. Now investors have only one government to deal with, and the region has electricity, mining and gas development on the drawing board.
And there are lessons to be learned by other aboriginal communities, such as tackling dependency and addiction problems before a treaty is signed, and bringing in outside experts to set up businesses.
“Mitchell Stevens, when I spoke to him, was optimistic about the ability to reduce transfers, even eliminate them,” Quesnel said. “Without financial independence, I think political self-government is really an illusion. Ultimately, you're still dependent.”
Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com