PRINCE RUPERT, British Columbia - Drawing upon a 20-year career as a
negotiator for the Haida, Miles Richardson has decided to take his skills
to a bigger platform.
Nominated as the Liberal candidate for the Skeena-Bulkley Valley electoral
district, Richardson is running to be the region's Member of Parliament
(M.P.) in Canada's federal election. Most recently as the Chief
Commissioner of the British Columbia Treaty Commission for the past five
years (a position he stepped down from in order to run for political
office), Richardson was President of the Council of the Haida Nation for 12
years, the youngest person to have held that position. (There are 5,000
Haida, about half live on the Queen Charlotte Islands, locally known as the
In a three-way race with the incumbent Andy Burton of the Conservative
Party and Nathan Cullen from the New Democrat Party, Richardson will look
to his ability of building bridges between different interest groups as a
strength in his campaign. A well-known voice for his people, his efforts
were instrumental in establishing the $65 million (Cdn.) Gwaii Trust, an
endowment for economic diversification. With an extensive history of
dealing with numerous governments and private sectors, Richardson desires
to take this background to Ottawa.
"I've come to believe the most durable and constructive solution to federal
issues like treaties involve and include everyone," Richardson said,
reflecting upon his service to the Haida. "I'm a strong, forceful
representative of my constituents."
The ruling Liberals have been in power since 1993 under then Prime Minister
Jean Chretien and since his retirement in December, Paul Martin, who held
the Finance Minister's portfolio for nine years, now leads the country.
Divided into 308 electoral districts, averaging about 100,000 per region to
constitute the country's population of 31 million, the party that captures
the most seats forms the government and chooses the Prime Minister. In
recent weeks, including the first half of the 36-day campaign, the Liberals
have slipped in the polls and predictions are for either a Liberal or
Conservative-led minority government that will form coalitions in the House
One of the geographically largest districts, Skeena-Bulkley Valley
incorporates almost 127,000 square miles of northwestern British Columbia,
an area equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom. In addition to this
vastness, its distance from eastern Canada and Ottawa makes this riding
also one of the more isolated where an M.P. can serve. Included in the
district are several villages tucked among the fiords dotting the
province's coastline plus the jurisdiction entails the revered Charlottes,
which are a six-hour ferry ride west of the mainland.
Skeena is troubled with an unemployment rate double that of Canada's
average. Hovering at 15 percent joblessness, those numbers are even more
inflated in the district's smaller towns and First Nations villages. Thus,
frustration with the local economy was the prime motivation for Richardson
deciding to throw his hat into the ring.
"We live in one of the most awesome parts in the world with an enormous
natural wealth and so we should be strong," he said.
In recent years, federal restrictions on fish harvests, the closure of
smelters and the continuing trade dispute on softwood lumber with the
United States have wreaked havoc on the work force dependant on extracting
"It's difficult to solve fundamental issues when we're economically
depressed," Richardson said.
Besides hoping to earn a position in Parliament with the victorious
Liberals, Richardson believes his political voice would be heard, in part,
because of his previous accomplishments though probably more so because
he's Native. High on the social agenda as outlined in the party's promises
is the pledge to improve the quality of life for First Nations and other
Two months ago P.M. Martin chaired the inaugural Cabinet Committee on
Aboriginal Affairs that included leaders from various First Nations
communities and two dozen Cabinet leaders (M.P.s with additional
portfolios). From social services of adequate housing and clean water to
improved access to education and health care, Richardson paraphrases Martin
about how the present leader will self-critique his mandate.
"He's ashamed as a Canadian of the relationship between indigenous peoples
and Canada and he's committed to changing that," said Richardson who added
this Liberal vision is compatible with his own. "If in his time as P.M. he
doesn't resolve the issue of Aboriginal-Canadian relations, he'll consider
it a failure."
Of Skeena's approximately 65,000 eligible voters, the riding is one of only
a handful across the country where the Native ballot carries a lot of pull.
With 12 reserves, there are 18,000 First Nations who are registered to vote
in a district up for grabs. In the 2000 election, M.P. Burton won with
17,000 votes against the Liberal candidate's 10,000 and the NDP's 6,700.
Given the overall low turnout four years ago plus a traditionally abysmal
voting record by First Nations' citizens in the riding, hovering around 8 -
10 percent, Richardson thinks there's lots of room to move up, even without
subtracting from hardcore rightwing voters.
While there is a belief First Nations will vote "for one of their own,"
historically the Native vote in Canada has been cast for the NDP. Cullen
recognizes the challenge of running against Richardson but said local
tribes don't forget their history. Citing the reference of a previous M.P.,
Frank Howard, who worked hard to get Indians the right to vote just 44
years ago, Cullen is critical of how the Liberals, and previously the
Conservatives, have been slow to come to the negotiating table with First
"There's been no sense of urgency in getting these treaties solved and
there's a commitment of letting talks go on (using) monies borrowed against
the eventual settlement," Cullen cited about his views of what's happening
If the NDP is looking for Native support based on past relations, there is
little evidence of that in Richardson's hometown of Skidegate, a reserve of
about 700 on the Haida Gwaii. Along with the neighboring Queen Charlotte
City, the area appears unanimous for its local candidate as no other
campaign signs were visible nor were there any scheduled visits by any of
Richardson's four opponents vying for the Skeena seat.
Chief Councillor for the Skidegate reserve, Willard Wilson, notes how
pleased his band is in having Richardson potentially winding up in Ottawa.
If Skeena as a district is far removed from federal and provincial
politicians' ears, Haida Gwaii feels just as distant within the region, so
to have an islander campaign, besides one as politically astute as
Richardson, said Wilson, is beneficial.
"It would be a good change to have an M.P. on the governing side so we
could have a direct contact with Ministers with our areas of concern,"
Wilson said who cited 25 years of opposition M.P.s representing the riding
has dulled Skeena's influence in Ottawa.
One of the overriding concerns for the Haida, most First Nations bands and
the economic climate of the province in its entirety is the treaty process.
Unlike the rest of Canada, lands in British Columbia were never settled by
treaties and so, into the 21st century, all levels of government need to
consult Native opinion and, more importantly, come to agreements regarding
territories still in dispute.
Such question marks over ownership has, in part, led to an financial
malaise in most parts of the province because private sector industries
involved in bigger projects such as natural resources have shied away.
Wilson mentions should Richardson be elected as part of a ruling Liberal
government he would be in a strategic position to assist the Skeena riding.
"This has to be guided right in terms of companies wanting to do business
because of the uncertainties (about treaty lands)," said Wilson.
To stir up the region's moribund economy, there are talks about oil and gas
exploration in the waters off the province's coast, an idea that excites
some while terrifying others. Presently moratoriums from both Ottawa and
British Columbia have prevented any exploration within the Hecate Strait,
the channel separating the Queen Charlottes and the mainland.
While the prospect of drilling for another natural resource might provide a
stimulus, the QCI have been referred to as the "Canadian Galapagos
Islands." An environmentally-sensitive area that's only now being
discovered for its eco-tourism, there are more than three dozen floral and
animal species only found there and nowhere else on the planet.
Taking a neutral platform that's in line with the Liberal approach to
politics, Richardson has neither ruled out exploration nor endorsed its
potential. Before any drilling can occur, he listed the three obstacles
that have to be cleared. First, there needs to be a social license that
residents realize the risks involved and give their overwhelming
Secondly, Aboriginal rights and titles need to be resolved. The Haida
Nation claims the entire Haida Gwaii as theirs, a position that presently
is within the Canadian courts. Finally, a clear determination as to which
branch of government oversees the water has to be determined.
"Both the federals and province have to clarify who's in charge; let alone
First Nations, and industry is saying 'settle this' before they come," said
The NDP position on off-shore drilling is more concise.
"The Haida have spoken clearly, the Nisga'a have spoken clearly and with
people (who live nearby) it's crystal clear, they don't want it. Not now
and not in the future," said Cullen.
However Richardson estimates even if all three criteria are met, 2020 would
be the earliest any construction and drilling occurred.
"People are getting all riled up and presently we don't have enough
information to make a decision and we don't know how much is there or even
where it is," Richardson pointed out.
Nationwide, there are 29 Aboriginal candidates who are either of First
Nations, Inuit or Metis heritage, including three incumbents. With more
than 1,600 people running for a seat in Parliament (the Greens are the
fourth national party with candidates in all districts while the Bloc
Quebecois, serving the interests of the French-speaking province Quebec,
has 75 in the running), the percentage of Natives seeking office is
slightly below the 3.3 percent, or 975,000 indigenous people, of Canada's
Now with issues that are of direct interest to Aboriginals, unquestionably
the Skeena Liberal candidate believes the Native vote will count in this
"You can bet your bottom dollar," Richardson said with conviction about why
First Nations will be a force with the viable options they have.