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World: Canada Signs Historic Treaty With Native People

Ottawa, 7 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - A Canadian Indian tribe has reclaimed land it lost nearly 200 years ago to "the white man." And, the agreement is being hailed as "a template" for land claims by other Canadian aboriginals. It is the first land claim settlement between Canadian governments and native people in this century.

The Government of Canada and the Nisga'a Indian Nation signed a deal on Wednesday that gives the native people not only money but land -- meaning valuable natural resources, including timber, minerals and fish -- in their mountainous homeland in Canada's Pacific coast province of British Columbia. As well, the deal allows them to pass their own laws and operate their own legal/court system.

Under the treaty, the Nisga'a -- who first laid claim, in 1887, to the land on which the provincial capital of Victoria is located and who have lived in the area for a documented ten thousand years -- will give up any future land claims in exchange for 2,000- square kilometers of land and a cash settlement of just over $100 million over 15 years. The agreement is only one-tenth of the original claim made by the Nisga'a.

As well, the Nisga'a have gotten powers of self-governance which are equivalent to the powers that a municipal government has in Canada -- along with control over natural resources. Normally a right reserved for the federal or provincial governments and the right to retrieve cultural artifacts from museums.

In exchange, the aboriginals are giving up their right for tax exempt status and exemption from the Criminal Code of Canada.

Until now, native people have not had to pay income tax and, if arrested for crimes, are subject to a different set of laws and penalties than other Canadians.

The Nisga'a Indian Nation has about 5,500 members - more than half of whom live in four northern British Columbia villages.

A celebration planned to mark the historic treaty was canceled when five people died in a plane crash at one of the Nisga'a villages. On board were the pilot, a nurse, two women and a young native boy who had been flown from his remote village to see a doctor.

Canadian Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart said the treaty was "a good agreement for the Nisga'a and for Canadians...we're not talking about costs here - we're talking about investments."

The Nisga'a have until November 10 to accept or reject the treaty. It must also be approved by the provincial and federal governments.

Nisga'a Chief Joe Gosnell said, at the signing ceremony, " in 1887, Nisga'a leaders paddled by canoe to the provincial capital to request a treaty. They were rebuffed and the Nisga'a then endured 100 years of darkness. That has changed, forever, and we make history as we correct the mistakes of the past and send a signal of hope around the world."

There are 51 other aboriginal groups in the west coast province of British Columbia which are currently in treaty negotiations with the federal government. Across Canada, native groups have laid claim to more than two-thirds of the country.