Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Fantastic Topographies: Neo-Liberal Responses to Aboriginal Land Claims in British Columbia

Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Fantastic Topographies: Neo-Liberal Responses to Aboriginal Land Claims in British Columbia

Article excerpt

Introduction

In the spring of 2002, the Government of British Columbia (BC) issued a multi-question referendum on First Nations treaty/land claim negotiations. Premier Gordon Campbell had made such a referendum part of his campaign platform several months earlier. The justification for the exercise was that the treaty process as then constituted was far too expensive, took too long and had yet to produce final and stable outcomes. It thus needed reinvigoration through the demonstration of a strong mandate from the public for a set of negotiating principles. A referendum, it was argued, would be a start towards a renewed certainty in the economic life of British Columbia. The ballot questions ranged from a proposal to end Aboriginal tax exemptions upon treaty agreement to suggestions that private property located within claimed territories be taken off the negotiating table. According to the government, voters were being given the opportunity to lay the foundations for any and all future treaty negotiations in the Province. The proposal immediately sparked conflict.

Proponents of the exercise, including members of the BC Liberal Government, associates of right-wing 'think tanks' such as the Fraser Institute and neo-liberal newspaper columnists, claimed that citizens had the right to be consulted on such a major issue as treaty negotiations. Alternately, detractors such as the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, members of the Anglican Church and left-of-centre media commentators argued that minority rights should not be put to a vote of the majority and encouraged a boycott of the referendum. Further animating the debate were the usual Canadian concerns over federal-provincial jurisdiction and constitutional soundness. Ultimately, slightly more than 35 percent of the province's registered voters returned a ballot. Although critics charged that the questions were phrased in such a way as to guarantee support for the government's agenda, Campbell claimed the exercise to be a success, as the results for each question showed the voters to be in overwhelming agreement with the Liberal position.

Our own sense of this episode squares with those who have argued that minority rights should not be subjected to the will of the majority. We write from the position of the non-Aboriginal people we are and seek only to speak for the ways in which we would like to see relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples addressed. Our stance is rooted in a deeply held conviction that the country's federal and provincial governments have a legal, and indeed, moral obligation to negotiate treaties in good faith with Aboriginal peoples. In this paper, we advance a critical perspective on the BC land claims referendum that differs substantially from those offered to date. We argue that underpinning this referendum is a neo-liberal political--economic discourse that aspires to recast Aboriginal citizenship in British Columbia in such a way as to render the historical geographies of colonialism that frame it irrelevant and to instead envision First Nation's full inclusion in BC society as centred on participation in the 'free' market economy. Rooted in the assumptions of those who have argued that we have witnessed the end of history (Fukuyama 1992) and geography (O'Brien 1992), this is a discourse that posits the post-industrial, networked world as freed from 'the shackles of geography' (Hamel and Sampler 1998) and history and identifies the emergence of a post-national, post-political, global market. In this light, Campbell's insult to the First Nations inhabiting British Columbia can be read as one part of a larger campaign aimed at situating the province to participate unimpeded in the global (specifically Asia-Pacific) economy. (1)

Thus, the referendum serves as a point from which to launch a discussion of what Cindi Katz has neatly labelled the 'topographies' of neoliberalism (Katz 2001a; see also Katz 2001b). …

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