Canada’s top pollster called the process “amateurish and one-sided” and one journalist called it “a repugnant, arrogant and demeaning attack on aboriginal people,” but the BC government has pushed ahead with its promise to hold an eight-question referendum on the province’s treaty process.

Only 34.5 per cent of the province’s eligible voters returned their mail-in ballot by the May 15 deadline, according to Elections BC. A legal challenge to stop ballot counting failed.

That last-minute appeal to the courts was just the latest episode in a controversial, conflict-filled referendum process. Ever since then opposition leader Gordon Campbell promised a future Liberal government would hold a referendum on BC’s glacially-slow treaty process, it has been attacked by the full spectrum of the province’s aboriginal, church and social-activist leadership.

But Campbell, backed by a landslide election victory, went ahead anyway, mailing out 2.1 million ballots in early March. The eight-question ballots ask British Columbians a series of yes/no questions on various aspects of the treaty process, including hunting and fishing rights, the fate of private property and aboriginal tax exemptions.

Campbell and his supporters say the process is no less democratic than court decisions on aboriginal rights and give British Columbians a voice in the negotiations. “We’re going to make sure every eligible voter in this province has the opportunity to help shape the direction this government will take,” he told the legislature in March when introducing the referendum.

But opponents were not satisfied. They say the referendum process is unfair, misleading and will only serve to further deepen division between native and nonnative in the westernmost province.

“This process is not an exercise in direct democracy. It is a référén-dumb,” said John Dixon, head of the BC Civil Liberties Association. “Citizens are being asked questions designed to mislead and misinform, the answers to which will be in no way binding upon the government. The entire process is illegitimate.” Critics of the plan point out that British Columbians have always had a voice in the process, through the municipal, provincial and federal governments they have elected. Furthermore, they say their treaty rights and inherent rights to self-government are enshrined in the Canadian Constitution and cannot be abrogated or changed by a provincial referendum. In that sense the situation resembles 1995, when Crees voted overwhelmingly to exercise their right to self-determination by choosing to stay in Canada should Quebec vote to separate.

Critics have also blasted how the referendum has been conducted. Angus Reid, head of one of Canada’s most high-profile public polling firms, slammed the process as “amateurish and one-sided,” because the questions are not impartial and the results are only binding if the “yes” side wins. That has led some to suggest the $9 million referendum is simply a clever way to throw a monkey-wrench into the treaty process and shut it down entirely, as just one “yes” vote on a crucial question would leave the province unable to deal.

Chief Stewart Philip, head of the BC Union of Indian Chiefs, says the vote has given anti-native groups in the province a measure of respectability and fanned the embers of racism. In mid-April, he revealed white supremacist groups were using the vote as a recruitment tool. “We stated from the outset of this immoral exercise that it would provide a forum for the public expression of racist views against First Nations. White Pride is stating that the referendum ‘will go down in Canadian history as enabling the most fundamental symbolic expression of White unity since racial pride went out of style almost 40 years ago.’ This hate mongering dramatically proves that the referendum is racist.” In response, almost every aboriginal, church and social-action group urged British Columbians to boycott the vote, to not turn in their ballots or to destroy them. And there’s some proof voters listened. According to a poll done for the CBC, most voters opposed the referendum and 35% said it would harm native-non-native relations in the province.

As the ballots are counted, no-one is sure what the controversial vote, or the stiff opposition, managed to accomplish. “We are no longer in negotiations, but a situation where one side is dictating what they want,” said Chief Judith Sayers of the Hupacasath First Nation on Vancouver Island. “If First Nations don’t want to accept it, and we won’t, treaty negotiations will come to an end. Years of time, hope and money will be for naught.”