Jul 4, 2012

Sliammon votes: what opportunities might come by sharing more than two sides of the story?


Sliammon (Tla’Amin) Nation, located on the northern segment of British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, is making history.  But not in the way that may have been expected.

After over ten years of negotiations, the vote for a final treaty agreement was to take place on June 16th, 2012.  The intention, according to both the Sliammon Treaty Society and the Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation was to settle matters of land and resources, clarifying rights and title as related to the Sliammon Nation.  During the weeks leading up to the vote, signs began appearing around town asserting one of the two positions: ‘Yes to Treaty’ or ‘No to Treaty’.  As it turned out, protestors effectively stopped the process by blockading the voting station, releasing a letter and making public statements regarding their opposition to the vote.

I will not go into the details of the negotiation, as information on the various dimensions of this can be found elsewhere (see below for links).  My interest for the moment is what happens when an issue as complex as settling land claims is presented as if it has two sides only, and the opportunities that might come by sharing more.

Leading up to the vote, this story was told as either a pro-treaty or anti-treaty tale.  Or, when ‘balanced reporting’ was being sought, both sides would get air time.  My concern, however, is that telling ‘both sides’ can be as destructive in effect as telling only one.  At best it misrepresents the situation by sifting out the complexities that exist between the two poles of this ‘debate’ and obscuring the diversity of voices within each of the two positions.  At worst it serves to divide people within – and about – a community that is undergoing significant political and relational developments, pitting people who have shared vested interests against each other.

Believing that balanced reporting requires nothing more than telling two sides is preventing us from grasping opportunities for creating a new, much more productive story.  This is not a utopian claim that if we would just listen to each other we’d find out we agree on everything.  It is an observation that telling a story as if it has two sides makes it difficult for us to agree on anything.

As an interested citizen who lives on traditional Sliammon territory, I have been doing what I can to inform myself about this treaty process.  I have found it to be incredibly difficult, however, to get beneath the pro- and anti-treaty rhetoric, but by doing some digging I have made a few observations:

Those who are presented as being on the ‘anti-treaty’ side do not have uniform views.  Within this simplistically represented perspective, there are concerns over such things as: the inflexibility of the constitution that would be institutionalized, the readiness of the Sliammon community for self-government, the pressure to settle the treaty, a lack of ownership over the terms of the treaty, some still unsettled specific claims, and various concerns about corruption and dishonesty at a number of levels (including the vote itself).

Neither do those who are presented as being on the ‘pro-treaty’ side have uniform views.  Within this perspective, there are interests in such things as: not incurring more debt that would be required if negotiations continue, having autonomy and no longer being under the jurisdiction of the ‘Indian Act’, more fully participating (as individuals and a community) in enterprise and asset development, dignity and equality for Sliammon people, and a greater voice in decision making that effects their community.

As I look through these two lists (which of course are not comprehensive), I am perplexed as to why they have been presented as oppositional.  Do the concerns in list one preclude the interests in list two?  Is this really a ‘debate’, which requires that one side wins and one side loses?  Or is it a matter of foregrounding different concerns and interests, all of which may be at play for the various individuals and families who are raising their voices in relation to this treaty process?

What would happen if the story was not framed as having two sides, but rather as having multiple dimensions?  What kind of dialogue might follow if instead of asking the question ‘Yes or No to Treaty?’ the questions were around the kind of Sliammon its people want to create together, whether or not treaty might help them get there, and  – most importantly – what kind of treaty might be likely to do so?

How a story is told, in part, determines how it might unfold.  Sadly, I fear the polarization that has taken place throughout this treaty process is something we all bear responsibility for.  As a non-Aboriginal Canadian, some questions I am left wondering about are: Why is Sliammon forced to go into debt for this negotiation process, while the provincial and federal governments are not?  Why is the provincial government precluding further conversations from happening without incurring more debt?  What is my civic role in relation to the authority the Province and Canada are asserting over this precedent-setting process?

Asking different questions and telling different stories doesn’t gloss over differences.  It may, however, help us better recognize and respond to the nuances within them, and in so doing bring opportunities for moving forward more peacefully and productively.

A new voting date of July 10, 2012 has now been established.  For more information about Sliammon’s treaty process, please see: