Resisting the referendum is about salvaging democracy

May 1, 2002

Four weeks into the Campbell government's referendum Attorney General Geoff Plant is touring the province, trying to give citizens a lesson in democracy. The reason to participate in the referendum, according to Plant, is that voters who refuse to cast a vote are letting "other citizens" have more authority in treaty making.

Despite the long list of referendum opponents, many undecided voters may still hesitate about rejecting the referendum. After all, is it not our obligation as citizens in a democracy to vote in electoral processes?

In my view, democracy is achieved when citizens, despite differences in status and power, participate equally and meaningfully in defining social problems and their solutions. It is fundamentally an educational journey of citizenship. Only the most hollow notion of democracy equates casting an obligatory ballot once every few years- or in this case, answering yes or no to 8 poorly constructed questions- with a commitment to democracy.

If democracy is about the way in which public affairs is conducted, then we need to look at the stark contrast between the methods used by the provincial government on the one hand, and those used by referendum opponents on the other.

The government's "consultation" on the referendum was a paltry one-month provincial tour by an all-Liberal Select Standing Committee. No real effort was made to engage First Nations leaders and options for public participation were so limited it was essentially by invitation or written submission only.

Second, the Liberals have thrown government accountability by the wayside by promising to be bound by the referendum results only if the "yes" side receives the majority of cast ballots.

Finally, as if to dispel any pretense of being an exercise in improving social relationships, Geoff Plant has fuelled the scapegoating of minorities by labeling all referendum critics, including churches, as "special interest groups," while at the same time ignoring the racial interests being served by a "Yes" vote.

In contrast, the critics of the referendum have come together in largely spontaneous movements of citizens and groups - non-aboriginal and aboriginal - committed to defending democratic principles and minority rights through dialogue, human contact and education.

Take for example the Aboriginal Political Action Committee which held a "Trick or Treaty" Mock Tribunal of the Liberals Select Standing Committee to call attention to a how a provincial referendum on treaty rights defies decades of Canadian legal jurisprudence on aboriginal rights.

Or the Saltspringers for Justice and Reconciliation, who began public meetings in Fall 2001 to educate themselves about local Aboriginal history and the claim affecting their community, and to build relationships with members of the Hul'qumi'num Treaty Group.

The BC Referendum Action Network- an adhoc group acting as an educational and activist forum on the referendum - has put together a website of alternative views and a comprehensive list of resources and articles to provide context to the referendum questions. They have even translated materials into Chinese and Punjabi.

Proving that political statements can still be fun, the Society To Understand and Promote Innovative Defiance of the Referendum (STUPID Referendum) organized the "artful ballot" contest where British Columbians could win prizes by creating art with their mail-in ballots for the Treaty Referendum. Businesses and other donors have contributed $500 and other prizes for the "best ballot origami" and the "best ballot limerick."

The unexpectedly broad-based opposition to the referendum has galvanized non-aboriginal Anglican, United and Orthodox churches, the Council of Senior Citizens Organizations, and other ethnic minorities such as the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Vancouver Association of Chinese Canadians, and many others because the assumptions and questions that form this referendum not only ignore colonization, but hide the continued advantage accrued by predominantly white society while Aboriginal people continue to be marginalized and disempowered.

Referendum opponents are a diverse lot advocating a variety of strategies and tactics, but they are unified in their analysis of the referendum as undemocratic. History suggests that the democratic spirit is most creative, vigorous and compelling when ordinary people collectively challenge governmental processes that undermine democratic principles and human dignity. When faced with options that are repugnant choices, resisting may be the only way to salvage democracy from the electoral process.

Cecilia Kalaw is a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a member of the BC Referendum Action Network, and a board member of the Westcoast Coalition for Human Dignity.