Tears welled up in the eyes of Chief Joe Gosnell as he described what the long-awaited passing of the Nisga'a Final Agreement will mean to the people of his community in the Nass Valley of British Columbia.
"It's been an emotional roller-coaster ride as far as my colleagues and I are concerned," said Mr. Gosnell, president of the Nisga'a Tribal Council. "This has been quite a journey for our people."
The Senate finally passed the controversial bill to activate the Nisga'a treaty by a vote of 52-15. Thirteen senators abstained.
In a rare move, Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson gave the bill royal assent in person last night, rather than sending a representative.
"Our right to govern ourselves was taken away by the Parliament of Canada. Today, with the passage of the Nisga'a treaty, that right has been reinstated again by the Parliament of Canada," Mr. Gosnell said. "We're extremely pleased."
Mr. Gosnell and a dozen Nisga'a representatives made the trip to Ottawa to see the legislation passed. Dressed in the ornate capes of black and red that they wear only for the most special occasions, the Nisga'a members were clearly anxious for the bill to clear its final legislative hurdle.
The Senate vote and royal assent turn the Nisga'a treaty into law. It will give about 5,000 Nisga'a residents in northwestern British Columbia about 2,000 square kilometres of land. They will also receive cash and benefits worth about $253-million, as well as the power to govern themselves.
The treaty takes the Nisga'a out from under the control of the Indian Act, which natives blame for their social and economic problems. They will no longer be exempt from paying taxes and have given up any right to renegotiate the Nisga'a treaty in the future.
There are still T's to cross and I's to dot before the treaty comes into effect. Last week, Mr. Gosnell spent five hours signing about 1,200 legal documents to formalize all the technical elements of the agreement. He still has about 800 more to sign.
But the treaty won't make all the Nisga'a dreams come true at once, warned Nelson Leeson, executive chairman of the Nisga'a tribal council.
"We need to be able to move forward and become self-sufficient -- self-sufficient as we once were, not too long ago," he said. "That's a challenge because we've been in the poorhouse for 100 years. It'll take a little bit of time to get us there."
The legislation has had a rough ride through Parliament. When it was in the House of Commons, the Reform Party stalled the bill by proposing 471 amendments and forcing MPs to debate the vote for 42 hours straight.
In the Senate, the Conservatives opposed the bill even though their counterparts in the House of Commons voted in favour of it. After senators heard from a former supreme court justice and other legal experts about constitutional difficulties surrounding the Nisga'a agreement, the Tories decided they would not be able to support it.
"We will be doing them [the Nisga'a]a disservice by voting this bill with so many uncertainties surrounding its legality," Conservative Senator John Lynch-Staunton told the Senate yesterday. "To pass it in its present form is to invite years of litigation, misunderstanding and mistrust, as well as make its application in whole or in part subject to possible repeal."
Indeed, the Nisga'a Final Agreement already faces a handful of lawsuits.
The Liberal Party of British Columbia is challenging the legality of the agreement. The party and other critics argue that the treaty takes away sovereign power from Canada and gives it to the native government, surpassing the constitution.
Neighbouring native communities have lawsuits claiming part of the Nisga'a land. And non-native landowners on Nisga'a territory have their own cases against the pact.
Canadian Alliance critic MP Mike Scott, who opposes the legislation, figures the Nisga'a agreement will need years in the courts before everything is settled.
"The last chapter on Nisga'a has not been written, and probably won't be written until four or five years from now," he said.
Indian Affairs Minister Bob Nault says he's not concerned about the legal challenges and will deal with them as they surface.
"I'm very comfortable that we've protected third-party interests," he said yesterday.