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Between Justice and Certainty: Treaty Making in British Columbia

By Andrew Woolford

Review By Paulette Regan

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 149 Spring 2006  | p. 89-91

Andrew Woolford’s Between Justice and Certainty: Treaty Making in British Columbia marks an important shift in the historiography of indigenous- settler relations in Canada. Focusing on the first ten years of the BC treaty process (BCTC) from 1992 to 2002, the author explores the tensions that exist between First Nations visions of achieving justice for historical wrongs, and government visions of creating legal and economic certainty in the province. The resulting work is a rich, nuanced analysis of these conflicting visions set within an emerging international discourse on reparations, restitution, apology, and reconciliation. Woolford draws on a diverse literature, including Elazar Barkan’s The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000); John Torpey’s Politics and the Past: On Repairing Historical Injustices (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003); Martha Minow’s Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing Genocide and Mass Violence (Beacon Press, 1998); Nicholas Tavuchis’s Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation (Stanford University Press, 1991); and Trudy Govier’s Forgiveness and Revenge (Henry Holt and Co., 2004). In doing so, he avoids the trap of regional parochialism, enabling the reader to understand the specificity of treaty making in British Columbia as part of a broader global phenomenon of the West’s “coming to terms with the past.” The author asks a pivotal question that should be of concern to all Canadians: “Is there a space between justice and certainty in which modern treaties can be made?” (viii). Woolford suggests that such a space of reconciliation can be created only if the non-indigenous majority looks beyond the neoliberal, utilitarian, future-focused visions of certainty that currently drive the BC treaty process (179-82); rather, we must take First Nations visions of justice seriously – visions that demand moral, political, and socioeconomic accountability for colonial wrongs that continue to exist today.

The book builds on earlier critiques of the BC treaty process that question its legitimacy and challenge us to rethink our ideas about treaty making and reconciliation. Two examples must suffice. Taiaiake Alfred’s “Deconstructing the British Columbia Treaty Process,” published in T. Mustonen and C. Rattray’s edited collection Dispatches from the Cold Seas: Indigenous Views on Self-Government, Ecology and Identity (Tempere Polytechnic, 2001), is a scathing indictment of the process itself. Alfred argues that the process is morally and politically corrupt, wil l do nothing to achieve a just reconciliation, and further entrenches colonial relations. In “Reconsidering the BC Treaty Process,” published in Speaking Truth to Power: A Treaty Forum (BC Treaty Commission, 2000), James Tully suggests that the parties must engage in a dialogue about the “misrecognition” of historical treaty relationships and conflicting ideas about reconciliation. These issues, he says, must be explored thoroughly as a precondition to just treaty making. Woolford takes up these themes, ultimately seeking a common ground. Drawing on primary sources and field interviews, he links justice theory to the actual practice of negotiations, providing concrete examples of how power imbalances coupled with a denial of history play out at negotiating tables. The chapters are well written and organized, beginning with a discussion of procedural as opposed to substantive justice in order to establish a theoretical context for understanding the history of colonial land settlement in British Columbia; First Nations political activism; and the overarching, conflicting visions of justice that characterize contemporary treaty making. Woolford suggests that provincial and federal government res ponses to historical injustices remain “on an abstract level,” enabling officials “to avoid any sense of moral responsibility for the past” (173). This precludes any serious discussion of reconciliation, which must necessarily encompass both symbolic and material redress.

Whereas Christopher McKee’s earlier work, Treaty Talks in British Columbia: Negotiating a Mutually Beneficial Future (UBC Press, 2000 [1996]) accepts the premise that the respective parties can negotiate fair and equitable treaties within an “interest- based” or “mutual gains” negotiation model that focuses on building Book Reviews 91 relationships for the future, Woolford views this procedural model of justice as deeply flawed. He argues that the undue emphasis on process over substance in treaty negotiations will not achieve a just resolution to the unresolved “Indian land question” or provide adequate reparations for the historical injustices that have been perpetrated against First Nations (173). In the absence of clear substantive goals, governments manipulate the process, skewing it away from a reckoning with the past in ways that privilege neoliberal economic and political priorities. Thus the BCTC is mired in what Woolford describes as “symbolic violence” or “affirmative strategies” that invoke the rhetoric of reconciliation but that will actually deliver only minor reforms to accommodate First Nations within existing neoliberal structures and global markets. What is needed in stead is a transformative justice that funda mentally “reconfigures symbolic, political, and economic relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples” (viii). Woolford’s ability to explain the subtle interplay between history and power relations, using examples taken from actual negotiations, is particularly effective in demonstrating the subtle forms of violence that permeate negotiations between First Nations and governments. This book is destined to become a standard text for university courses dealing with First Nations issues, but, equally important, it should be required reading for politicians, negotiators, and policy makers involved in the BC treaty process. Between Justice and Certainty: Treaty Making in British Columbia will inform all those who seek a deeper understanding of why treaty making and reconciliation must begin with facing our history. For as Woolford argues so persuasively, our failure to do this will create neither certainty nor justice in indigenous-settler relations in British Columbia in the twenty-first century.