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Sunshine Coast first nation treaty ratification put on hold by dissidents

The chief of a British Columbia first nation that had its treaty ratification vote derailed by a group of dissidents says he's optimistic the pact can still be salvaged.

Members of the Tla'amin Nation (or Sliammon First Nation) were scheduled to head to the polls Saturday to vote on a treaty 18 years in the making. The vote, however, was postponed after about a dozen band members blocked the community polling station with their vehicles and prevented people from going inside.

Clint Williams, chief of the Tla'amin Nation, said in an interview Sunday that a new voting date has not been set but he hopes it's sooner rather than later.

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"We just want to make sure that everybody gets to exercise their democratic right to vote," he said.

The Tla'amin Nation's main reserve is located north of the Sunshine Coast community of Powell River. The band has about 1,000 members in all.

Negotiators for the nation, as well as the federal and provincial governments, initialled a final agreement in October. The agreement contained provisions for self-government, land and cash. The band was set to receive more than 8,300 hectares of land, and a capital transfer of nearly $30-million over 10 years.

Mr. Williams said one of the main benefits would be getting away from the Indian Act and having the nation create its own laws and regulations.

Video of the blockade was uploaded to YouTube. In one clip, one of the protesters says the treaty process has divided band members.

At one point, he asks: "What would our ancestors say if I were to confront them today and ask are they in favour of this treaty document that is going to be voted on?"

A written statement released by the protesters also says the voting process is flawed.

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B.C. Aboriginal Relations Minister Mary Polak said if the protesters opposed the treaty, all they had to do was vote no. Instead, Ms. Polak said, the protesters chose to stop others from exercising their right to vote.

"The place for this to be settled, as in any other democratic event, is at the ballot box," Ms. Polak said in an interview.

Both Ms. Polak and Mr. Williams expressed frustration with the RCMP, who were at the scene of the protest but, as Ms. Polak put it, "took no conclusive actions."

Superintendent Paul Richards, who works in criminal operations at RCMP E Division in Vancouver, said it's unfortunate the vote was postponed. However, Supt. Richards said the force wants to be respectful when it comes to first nations issues, particularly those involving a treaty. Supt. Richards said he didn't think anyone wanted to see the RCMP swarm in and make a bunch of arrests.

Mr. Williams said the Tla'amin Nation is looking at the possibility of getting an injunction, complete with an enforcement order, that would make it easier for RCMP to make arrests.

"I give them credit for trying to respect our wishes but this was a pretty large process and we're stuck with the humiliation of not being able to carry out the vote," he said.

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Mr. Williams said some of the treaty ratification voting was completed before Saturday. He said about 250 people still need to fill out their ballots. Mr. Williams added the vote could go either way, since a majority is required and anyone who doesn't vote automatically counts as a "no."

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