'Historic' land-claim shakeup in the works

Facing threat of blockades, Indian Affairs Minister suggests Ottawa will hand settlement process to an independent group


From Monday's Globe and Mail

May 21, 2007 at 1:00 AM EDT

OTTAWA — Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice is contemplating fundamental changes to the way aboriginal land claims are settled and suggests the federal government will hand the job to an independent body.

Aboriginal groups have been threatening a summer of protest to highlight the slow process of settling land disputes. A backlog of 800 claims remains unresolved.

That queue will not go away overnight, Mr. Prentice told CTV's Question Period Sunday. But “I have indicated that this spring I intend to bring forward really very significant historic reforms to the specific claims process in this country.”

Part of the solution, said Mr. Prentice, is to introduce a system that citizens of Canada's native bands deem to be legitimate.

“There has been a complaint in this country for 60 years that the government of Canada serves as the defendant and the judge and the jury and the research body. And that it's too much. And the government of Canada is in conflicting roles. And that's something that we are trying to get to the heart of.”

The Globe and Mail reported last week that Mr. Prentice was working on a plan to give the Indian Claims Commission the right to make legal rulings with regard to violations of treaties that have already been settled. At the moment, the ICC can only recommend to government how those disputes should be resolved.

But bestowing on the ICC – or any other independent body – the ability to settle actual claims would mark a seismic shift in the way land-claims treaties have been negotiated for the past 60 years.

Mr. Prentice, a former ICC co-commissioner, said no decisions have been made regarding the settlement mechanism. “We are in the approval process. It still requires discussion.”

And he indicated that there would be no announcement until the release of the findings of the commission looking into the death of Dudley George, who was shot in 1995 during a protest by aboriginals at Ipperwash Provincial Park in Southwestern Ontario. That report is expected May 31.

But the minister said he is determined to make significant changes to the system this spring.

“I see an initiative that will reduce the backlog of claims very quickly over a five-year period,” he said.

As for the threats by aboriginals to disrupt rail lines and cause other disturbances, Mr. Prentice said he has asked native leaders to convince the agitators to stand down.

“I take the entire situation very seriously,” he said. “Blockades are not in anyone's interest. They harm innocent people and they do damage to aboriginal people … The worst thing, I think, is that they erode the goodwill that exists toward aboriginal people and the resolution of claims.”

The Assembly of First Nations has called for peaceful actions on June 29 to highlight their grievances. Those protests will be discussed at a special meeting of chiefs that will be held in Gatineau, across the river from Ottawa, this week.

“I have called on National Chief [Phil] Fontaine and the other chiefs who are in positions of leadership to speak up and to ensure that there is no illegal activity, there are no blockades, on June 29 or any other day for that matter,” the minister said.

He suggested that if the blockades go ahead, the protesters will be dealt with harshly.

“We've indicated that blockades are illegal under the Criminal Code and they are not acceptable and frankly they are unnecessary,” Mr. Prentice said.

But some recent protests by aboriginals have been allowed to continue for extended periods. One such action by the Six Nations in Caledonia, Ont., has been going on for 16 months. That situation prompted Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to say last month that the federal government is in an “untenable situation” when it comes to settling land claims and must create an independent body to clear the backlog.

And one aboriginal leader urged Canadians to support his people in their protests.

“Hopefully, the Canadian population doesn't think that this is confrontational because it's the only way that's left now for people to be able to show how they feel,” Guillaume Carle, the chief of the Confederation of Aboriginal People of Canada, which represents off-reserve aboriginals, told Question Period.

“What we're trying to say to the Canadian population is, please help us because our kids are dying, they are uneducated, they are unhealthy and they have no future to look at…The Canadian government can't fix the problem, they are part of the problem, therefore, they are in a conflict of interest.”