Friday, June 15, 2007

An overdue move to address native claim backlog

Give Stephen Harper credit for promising a long overdue plan to fix the way the federal government deals with native land claim issues.
This isn't about new treaties. That's a different, tough problem.
But while First Nations and the federal and B.C. governments have been struggling to sign treaties, hundreds of disputes about existing treaties and agreements have been piling up. Those are the kind of disputes that sparked protests and blockades, like the ongoing battle over land at Caledon in Ontario.
The federal government has behaved in a truly appalling fashion. The most amazing thing about the whole affair is how little protest there has been from First Nations as they waited and waited for answers. The average time to have a claim dealt with was 13 years.
The disputes mostly involve existing treaties, reached in the 19th century. The British were keen on treaties. They wanted a written record showing the natives had given up their land in exchange for compensation, even if the deals looked a little unfair.
But once the treaties were signed, things tended to slide a bit. A neighbour decided a chunk of reserve land would be a useful addition to a pasture. Settlers squatted on unoccupied land. The province wanted to put in a highway and decided it was easiest to go through a reserve. Or perhaps promised land was never actually included in the reserve.
The legislature, for example, is built on land listed in documents as being set aside for a reserve for the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations in Victoria. Somehow it just got taken. (The governments paid $31 million to settle the claim last year.)
As First Nations started relying less on the Indian Affairs Department and looked into their rights, they started trying to get back - or get compensation - for land that was wrongly taken.
The response was appalling. Claims were stalled and ignored. In 1991 the government acknowledged the problem, sort of. It set up the Indian Claims Commission, an appeal tribunal that could investigate claims and mediate or make recommendations.
It would be fair to describe the progress as hopeless.
The Saulteau First Nation near Chetwynd, for example, made a claim to the Indian Affairs Department in 1997 alleging it was shortchanged by about 5,000 acres under an 1899 treaty. The government didn't say yes or no. It ignored the claim for six years.
The Indian Claims Commission accepted the claim for review in 2003.
Only last month was it resolved, in the band's favour.
I was going to write that it was a typical case, but that wouldn't be true. It took 10 years. The average is 13.
And at least the government didn't fight the referral to the claims commission, as it did with the Blueberry and Doig bands in northeastern B.C. In that case, the government didn't respond to a claim over land taken for a road for eight years - and then argued the commission couldn't hear an appeal because the government had never turned down the claim. (The commission over-ruled the bizarre argument.)
The end result is that today there are 850 claims outstanding, about half. At the current rate of progress, some will still be unresolved in 2090.
The government's position is baffling. There are a handful of big claims. But about half are worth less than $3 million, even if the First Nations win. It doesn't cost much to compensate a band for the loss of some land in a remote area.
But the government wasn't interested.
Harper promised this week to change that, prompted by Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice, a former co-chair of the claims commission.
The commission is to be replaced by a new board, with the power to decide claims, rather than just make recommendations. There will be deadlines for responses. And, probably most importantly, the government will set aside $250 million a year for 10 years to cover the costs of settlements.
The changes are useful. The delays hurt First Nations, poisoned relations and increasingly have sparked disruptive protests.
Harper is doing the right thing in getting on with the work.
Footnote: The changes, which will take a year to put in place, were seen by some as way to reduce the intensity of an aboriginal national day of protest June 29, which some feared would include blockades. If so, the move may be successful. The claims plan was quickly welcome by the B.C. First Nations Leadership Council and national native groups.


Anonymous said...

Canada's record on treaties is not impressive. Hopefully these claims will now be resolved, and in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, I doubt that the outcome will have any significant material impact on the well-being of First Nations in Canada. The true benefit of resolving these claims will be to clarify the true challenges facing aboriginal people in this country. The poverty and health problems aren't a consequence of a misappropriated piece of land or a violated treaty right, they're a consequence of deep-rooted sociological problems. I think a pragmatic approach on the part of First Nations would've gained far more than the past decades of lawyering and protest. Never mind the government's transgressions or failings: what can be done with what's available to improve the welfare of the people immediately? That probably means a community-based push to deal with substance abuse, get kids educated, and develop support networks so that aboriginal people can take advantage of the greater economic opportunities off-reserve without losing touch with their culture. The success of Chinese and Sikh Canadians are excellent examples of what can be done when a disadvantaged group refuses to wallow in victimization.

Anonymous said...

While it is true the land under the legislative precinct was part of Songees one reserve, the band members agreed to move to their present location Songhees 2. The maps showing location of both are certainly available and I cannot for the life of me understand why the present government caved on that land issue.The band was suing because they were angry that Campbell insisted on a referendum about treaties. But many abuses of reserve lands exsist. it was easy for the fderal government to allow a easement on reserve land for roads and rail rights of way. The deal was that when the land was no longer needed it would be returned. Often the fed didn't quite get around to either giving extra land to the reserve or passing a long some money.Or return when no longer needed by the railways. After all it is federal land set aside or Indians so the fed figured why not and often the provinces were not aware. I can show you a road or two that were set aside as wagon trails, 27 feet, that somehow ended up with a 66 foot road allowance. Maybe this time they will pay up and resolve these cases, many of which are rather small. dl

Anonymous said...

A single land claim court case which has not yet covered the overlap issues. No wonder it takes forever and the court costs are over the moon, dl

dirk said...

PA said..."The changes, which will take a year to put in place, were seen by some as way to reduce the intensity of an aboriginal national day of protest June 29, which some feared would include blockades. If so, the move may be successful. The claims plan was quickly welcome by the B.C. First Nations Leadership Council and national native groups"...

Perhaps but don't hold your breath Orgs such as AFN etc do not have as much influence within FN communities as many people suspect or believe.
In many cases blockades and protest happen despite the "leadership" of these federally funded orgs.
Ordinary FN peoples have lost patience with the Gov and long time ago,and have little faith if any in AFN,Band Councils,and other Indian Act organizations.
After all unlike AFN etc most FN peoples do not big fat government checks rolling in.They have nothing to gain by playing the game,unlike some..
This soi called day of Action was organized by AFN after ordinary grassroots FN people acted by setting up blockades etc.Again not because of AFN or the Band Chiefs but despite them.
That said it is good to see this issue is getting much needed and long over due attention.