Monday, May 15, 2006

To understand First Nations blockades, look to Ottawa

VICTORIA - Of course First Nations are going to stage blockades and occupations of disputed land.
It's the only way they can get government to respond to their claims.
What would you do if you launched a legal effort to get back land you believed someone had taken from you and found that you were being stalled for year after year?
People have been getting mightily exercised about the latest First Nations' blockade over some disputed land in Ontario.
And let it be said that everyone has to obey the rule of law or accept the consequences. That's what keeps our society working.
But before you get too righteous, let me tell you about another land dispute here in B.C. Consider the way the federal government handled it, then decide whether you'd be thinking about a blockade too.
The Doig River and Blueberry River bands were part of the Treaty 8 agreements reached in 1900. They were given reserve land near Fort St. John for giving up their traditional territories.
By 1920 settlers had become established. They wanted the province to build a road to Alberta and - not surprisingly - said the best route was through the reserve land.
OK, said the province. It wrote the federal government and asked for 32 acres to be taken from the reserve for a road. The land wasn't being farmed and maybe a road would even make the rest of the reserve more valuable, the province said.
Of course the province didn't want to pay for the land.
Ottawa - the legal protector of the bands' interests - countered by saying that the province could have the land if it would fence the roadway.
No, said the province. So the federal government just handed the land over. It didn't ask the bands if they wanted to give it up. In fact, Ottawa never actually told them about the deal.
But eventually, decades later, they found out. In 1995 the Treaty 8 association decided to submit a claim for compensation. The Crown had ignored its legal obligations and the bands were owed compensation, the association said.
Here's a nice detail. The association didn't want the dispute to drag on, so they used a new "fast-track" process.
It seemed simple. Even today 32 acres up there aren't worth much. There's no tricky precedents involved. The federal government could admit compensation was owed, and negotiate a deal. Or it could say no, the Crown did nothing wrong.
Figure six months as a reasonable period for definitive answer.
Instead, Ottawa did nothing. Eight years went by and the federal government wouldn't respond to the claim.
Finally, after eight years of waiting for any answer, the First Nations had enough and filed an appeal with the Indian Claims Commission.
The federal government had denied their compensation claim and they wanted to challenge the decision.
Get this. The federal government then argued that the natives had no right to appeal to the commission, because there was nothing to appeal. Their claim hadn't been denied yet. It has been ignored for eight years, but it had not been denied.
Come on, said the Indian Claims Commission, grab some common sense. If the federal government hasn't responded in eight years, it has effectively denied the claim. We're investigating and issuing a decision.
And then - cornered - the federal government said wait , we'd rather negotiate. Talks are going on now.
Ottawa's approach was stall, ignore and then attempt to deny access to legitimate appeal channels. People will grow impatient.
And this case appears to be much too close to the norm. One lawyer involved in the process says B.C. First Nations find claims for specific compensation are regularly stalled for years in a gridlocked system.
It's wrong to break the law or defy the courts.
But when I expect it's something many of would do faced with a government that took our property and then ignored us like we just didn't matter.
Footnote: The Blueberry and Doig could afford to be patient. The tiny didn't just lose the 32 acres for the road. Indian Affairs also handed over reserve land and mineral rights to returning Second World War veterans just before gas reserves were discovered. After a 1995 Supreme Court of Canada ruling in their favour, the bands received $147 million in compensation.


Anonymous said...

If you think that's a bit weird try this on for size.

When BC Joined Canada the reserves were handed over to the Fed. The fed were led to believe all of BC was under treaty. We of course know that's not true. Railway rights of way were granted and a lot of it was though land set aside for Indians. The idea was if they no longer needed the land they would give it back to the Indians. I use the word Indian because that's the feds name for first nations people. The province wa under the impression the local band got compensation and usually didn't. The fed figured the land is still federal land set aside, but the Indians don't actally own it.

Fot that reason the fight goes on. There used to be a train line through a local bands land years ago.The line was pulled and
no money changed hands. Similarly in the Pat Bay area a wagon trail was established through the reserve. Periodically the locals close the road, knowing if they end up in court the band would win as the wagon trail is now a 66 foot road allowance. I could go on but you get the drift. All this mess can be resolved by modern treaties but a lot of first nations folks won't go that route. The courts will be full of such cases for eons. The lawyers love it

Canadian_Voice said...

Isnt it amazing how when the land suddenly had some value (even if it wasnt actually the land... but the settlemtent because of the land)that after 50 years the claim arose?

Shouldnt there be a statue of limitations on somthing like this?

Denny said...

Interesting article. It's hard to find someone who hasn't polarized either to the extreme left or extreme right on the issue. I invite you to read an article I wrote on the issue at Keep on blogging.