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The federal government opposes a referendum in British Columbia on the aboriginal treaty process but supports the continuing land-claim negotiations, Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault said yesterday.

"I agree with my colleagues in the aboriginal world that a referendum is not the preferred option," he said after meeting with native leaders and provincial government officials in Victoria.

"Having said that, we're prepared to continue to negotiate on behalf of the federal government because we see that as the most appropriate way to proceed. It's the best process there is. We can get treaties in British Columbia."

Mr. Nault appealed for calm as the B.C. Liberal government pledged to go ahead with the referendum that has angered native groups across the country and sparked threats of blockades.

"I think people should be calm and keep the principles [of the treaty process]in mind."

Aboriginal leaders will boycott Premier Gordon Campbell's invitation to help draft the questions in the referendum his government promised to hold within a year.

"We think it's a dumb idea and it will be divisive," Bill Wilson of the First Nations Summit said. "It's a non-democratic idea. The worst thing about it is it exposes aboriginal constitutionally protected rights to the whims of the majority." But Mr. Campbell said polls show most British Columbians support the referendum and want to hold a vote as soon as possible.

"We will hold the referendum as quickly as we can," he said. "We know in the election the referendum was discussed time and time again. We have a very significant mandate to move forward with the agenda we put forward."

He said polls show "well over 60 per cent of the people in British Columbia want to be included in this process. Aboriginal rights will be fully protected." The Liberals won 77 of the legislature's 79 seats in the May election.

"A referendum on minority rights will do nothing to contribute to the speedy settlement of land claims," provincial NDP Leader Joy MacPhail said. "There is no need to put that to a referendum and have communities torn apart."

Mr. Nault was in Victoria for a meeting with the British Columbia Treaty Commission.

Only a fraction of Indian bands have settled treaties in British Columbia, leaving much of the province subject to land claims. The referendum promises to give voters a say on the principles of treaty negotiations.

The treaty process will continue pending the referendum. Miles Richardson was reappointed as the chief commissioner of the British Columbia Treaty Commission yesterday. The commission, which includes representatives from the provincial and federal governments and the B.C. First Nations Summit, oversees the B.C. treaty process.

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