Huge backlog of land claims to be attacked


From Thursday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — Admitting that the slow pace of resolving land claims like the Caledonia dispute is unacceptable, Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice intends to bring a new plan to cabinet that would employ more lawyers and negotiators to attack the backlog.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Prentice also said the federal government supports Ontario's decision, announced Wednesday, that it will contest a judge's order that both levels of government halt talks with natives occupying a contested site until protesters obey his orders to leave.

Ontario Attorney-General Michael Bryant said the province will act “as expeditiously as possible” in pursuing the appeal of the ruling handed down Tuesday by Mr. Justice T. David Marshall of Ontario Superior Court.

The province will also seek an injunction, which would effectively suspend the ruling until an appeal can be heard — a wait that normally takes as long as six months, although Mr. Bryant said a hearing before the Ontario Court of Appeal could happen in a matter of weeks.

Lawyers for the province plan to argue that Judge Marshall exceeded his jurisdiction in ordering both the federal and provincial governments to halt talks with native protesters until they obey earlier orders to leave the site on the edge of the Six Nations reserve south of Hamilton, Ont.

“One of the grounds of the appeal will be that the court has no jurisdiction to order the parties to cease negotiations,” Mr. Bryant said at a news conference.

Mr. Bryant said Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed his support for the province's position in a telephone conversation with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty Tuesday evening.

“Prime Minister Harper and the premier are entirely of one mind, and that is that the best place for the parties to be is at the negotiating table,” he said.

Mr. Prentice also reiterated Ottawa's long-held position that only further talks among all sides can resolve the issue. While Ottawa is responsible for land claims, Mr. Prentice noted that Ontario plays a key role because it is constitutionally responsible for the property rights of Ontarians, as well as the Ontario Provincial Police who are monitoring the volatile standoff.

Natives inside the blockaded property in Caledonia Wednesday welcomed news of an appeal.

“It's the most peaceful way to resolve the situation right now,” said Hazel Hill, a spokeswoman for the protesters. “It's the best way for everybody that's concerned.”

But on the Douglas Creek Estates, the tension was still palpable following a night in which masses of townspeople and protesters exchanged insults over a line of OPP officers. A downed hydro tower still blocked the main road into the site. At several locations on the field inside, natives had piled up wood, possibly for bonfires. Every few minutes, an OPP cruiser zipped by down Highway 6.

With the day drawing to an end, members of a Hamilton steelworkers union arrived to reinforce the native lines, should townspeople stage another rally.

“If there's an issue of the native people being attacked, we are coming to support them,” said Rolf Gerstenberger, president of United Steel Workers Local 1005. Ken Hewitt, head of the Caledonia Citizen's Alliance, said he agrees with Judge Marshall's insistence on ending the occupation before negotiations resume. He also called on Mr. Prentice to help negotiate an end to the standoff in person.

While describing the Six Nations claims as “one of the longest and most protracted disputes,” Mr. Prentice noted that the backlog of land claims across the board has doubled in recent years and he intends to make the issue a priority.

“It's now up to over 750 claims and people are frustrated and I understand that. I've said it's unacceptable and we'll have to work on it,” he said.

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory, a critic of the McGuinty government's handling of the dispute, repeated Wednesday his party's view that talks should not continue as long as the rule of law in the community is not being upheld. His stance puts him at odds with both Mr. McGuinty and Mr. Harper.

“The laws must be respected,” he told reporters. “So if I'm politically isolated, so be it.”

Constitutional law expert Peter Russell said in an interview that he believes the judge does not have the authority to tell the cabinet what to do in an area — land-claim negotiations — that is under the control of the executive of the government.

“I can't see that it is within the jurisdiction of a judge to order the executive, the Crown, to stop negotiating,” Mr. Russell, a retired University of Toronto professor, said.

He also said the Attorney-General has discretion about how it enforces the contempt order that Judge Marshall issued in March against protesters who remain on the site.

Mr. Russell said the Attorney-General can determine that it is not in the public interest to enforce a contempt order if he finds that it would do harm to the peace of the province.

With reports from Karen Howlett and James Rusk in Toronto and Alex Dobrota in Caledonia