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CANADA: First Nations Step Up Pressure on Land Claims

Am Johal

VANCOUVER, Jun 25 2007 (IPS) - After facing heated criticism in recent weeks from First Nations groups, the Canadian government has committed to passing legislation to overhaul the Indian Claims Commission, a federal body that was set up to make recommendations on longstanding disputes.

“There is a massive number of these claims filed with the federal government,” Doug McArthur, a Simon Fraser University Public Policy Professor, told IPS. “They are notoriously slow. The process was heavily bureaucratised. These are very, very complex, tedious, nitpicking reviews.”

Under the Indian Claims Commission, members of the First Nations can initiate a process resulting in recommendations from the Commission. However, final decisions on the claims are left in the hands of the cabinet minister in charge.

First Nations groups have been deeply critical of this process and viewed it as unfair since its reformation in 1990. Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau started an earlier version of dealing with outstanding aboriginal land issues in 1971, which was also ineffective in bringing about long-term decisions.

The Assembly of First Nations has called for a National Day of Action on Jun. 29 to highlight outstanding land claims, racism and poverty. First Nations leaders had earlier called for a summer of protests to criticise government inaction.

“The Indian Claims Commission has to do with one part of claims that have historically not been honoured,” McArthur noted. “The ICC deals with the type where previous understandings were reached, but were breached or the creation of reserves was not done fairly and lands were taken away. It does not deal with comprehensive claims, so there is very little actual impact on treaty negotiations.”

“Furthermore, the federal government was never prepared to agree to a process other than one in which the final decision-maker had to be the minister,” he said. “There was a widespread feeling that they were not fair hearings and were deliberately delayed. For years, First Nations have asked for a more efficient, expeditious process.”

According to the Assembly of First Nations, there is currently a backlog of 800-1,000 unresolved claims within the federal specific claims process – in other words, claims involving Canada’s treaty obligations. Estimates of the total value of these unresolved claims range from 2.6 billion dollars to six billion dollars. It takes an average of 13 years to settle a claim under the current system.

The most significant change will be the establishment of an independent body of retired and sitting judges which will have the ability to make binding decisions under certain circumstances.

For decades, First Nations have been advocating reform of the specific claims resolution process to address the backlog and lack of independence.

McArthur said that it will be interesting to watch whether time limits will be effective and whether the issues of higher standards of proof can be addressed as part of this review.

The Commission will also be allocated 250 million dollars annually over the next 10 years to address disputes under this process.

Tony Penikett, author of “Reconciliation: First Nations Treaty-Making in British Columbia”, told IPS, “This move by the federal government will help to expedite the specific claims. It’s like clearing up a backlog in a small claims court that is clogging the system. But it doesn’t begin to deal with comprehensive claims such as in British Columbia.”

Penikett also said that Canadians could use the example of Robert Kennedy when he was attorney general in the United States. “There were similar claims in the U.S. in the early sixties and he ordered the Justice Department to get them settled in a matter of months. Robert Kennedy showed political will.”

“That’s really what is required here – it is good that the prime minister is taking political action on a serious issue that has deep historical tensions.”

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a press conference in Ottawa, “Instead of letting disputes over land and compensation drag on forever, fuelling anger and frustration and uncertainty, they will be solved once and for all by impartial judges.” Together with Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine, Harper said that it was unacceptable that the federal government was acting as both judge and jury in the dispute process. Harper noted that the transformed Indian Specific Claims Commission will now act as a mediation body with decision-making power.

Phil Fontaine told reporters at the same press conference, “This announcement today represents hope for First Nations people who have fought for decades for fair and just resolution on land claims. This is a historic announcement, and there is history that needs to be corrected.”

If the proposed changes are passed in the fall in the House of Commons, the new system will take effect next year. *****

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