Small Tsawwassen band takes giant step to self-government

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TSWWASSEN, British Columbia – The longhouse was jammed. More than 500 people had gathered to celebrate the treaty that gives the Tsawwassen First Nation something it has long yearned for – self-government.

Speeches were made, laws enacted, songs sung and a feast devoured. Many speakers, including non-Native political heavyweights such as British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell, and Federal Minister of Indian Affairs Chuck Strahl, described the historical significance of April 3.

This may be the most significant Indian treaty in Canada in the past century. By brokering a landmark deal with the province of British Columbia and the federal government, the tiny Tsawwassen First Nation, with a population of only 372 and one of the smallest reserves in Canada (725 acres), has acted like a giant.

As Chief Kim Baird stated, “The Tsawwassen (pronounced tuh-WASS-en) people will no longer be tethered to the archaic Indian Act – an act which has failed all of us. We no longer have to have our aspirations subject to a legion of bureaucrats purporting to have our best interests at heart.”

Under the treaty, the Tswwassen Nation becomes a democratic nation, but with Canada having higher power in some areas, such as international affairs. It is a unique situation where the Twwassen people will control its land, development projects, fisheries and other activities. Individuals will be able to own their own land and will eventually pay sales and income taxes. The reserve will disappear and tax exemptions will end. As Baird stressed, it gives her nation control of their own destiny. It recognizes that aboriginal people are capable of governing themselves and it acknowledges that their culture is unique and special and should be preserved.

In addition, the treaty gives the Tsawwassen (meaning “land facing the sea”) Nation $20 million and an additional 835 acres, more than doubling their land holdings. With the reserve located in the southwest corner of British Columbia, just south of Vancouver and only a few miles north of the U.S. border, this “giveaway” of prime land, some of it taken from the protected Agricultural Land Reserve, has angered many non-Natives.

The agreement is also significant because it is the first urban land claims settlement in British Columbia, where more than $1 billion has been spent in negotiating treaties. Little progress has been made and currently the treaty situation in the province – 48 treaties are being negotiated with about 200 First Nations – is an expensive and often bitter quagmire.

The treaty has not come easily. The idea was born in 1990 and the Tsawwassen band formally entered negotiations in 1993. Baird has been involved since the outset. “All those long years at the negotiating table have been worthwhile. This treaty achieves reconciliation. ... it shows that modern society can correct the mistakes of the past.”

One of the most difficult tasks was convincing band members to support the initiative, for many feared losing their tax exemptions and worried about the changes to their lives that would follow. In the end, 72 percent voted in favor.

“With the chance to determine our own future, I can see a lot of our people coming back to our land to live,” former chief Tony Jacobs said. As Baird, who received a standing ovation at the celebrations, pointed out several times during the day, the treaty is not a free ticket to a prosperous future and much hard work lies ahead. The band’s progress in bettering the lives of its members will be closely watched in the coming years.