New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal


Rob Linke


Renewing native rights

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ed Doherty said Thursday he's willing to pursue a modern-day treaty with New Brunswick's native leaders once they signal they're ready to talk.

"It's important they tell me what direction they want to lead in and that I facilitate that direction," Doherty said the day after he met with chiefs for the first time since the Liberal government took office in October.

A modern treaty could take years to negotiate, but might resolve lingering questions over hunting, fishing, education, taxation, health and other issues.

Some observers see it as the best alternative to settling native and resource issues through the courts, an expensive and adversarial process.

-past rulings, the Supreme Court of Canada has encouraged governments and aboriginals to negotiate what are essentially political - not strictly legal - questions.

Nova Scotia's treaty discussions with Ottawa and 13 Mi'kmaq chiefs have been underway since 2002.

Twelve of 13 bands have endorsed the framework agreement that will guide the actual negotiations, which should start in earnest early next year after the last band signs on.

It's a long process, but Nova Scotia's Aboriginal Affairs Minister Michael Baker credits it with improving relations that had been sour for decades.

"It's meant relations in Nova Scotia haven't been adversarial," Baker said Thursday.

"Our government has said we'd rather negotiate than litigate."

In New Brunswick, there's been more litigation than negotiation.

The New Brunswick government's relationship with natives suffered after the 1999 Marshall decision as the province became embroiled in several protracted court cases, mostly involving logging rights.

Cases dealing with the native right to harvest logs on Crown land for personal use are still awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada.

At one point, relations were so poor the province's only aboriginal MLA, T.J. Burke - then in Opposition, now the justice minister - told a Liberal policy convention New Brunswick was a "ticking time bomb waiting to explode into another Oka, Ipperwash or Burnt Church standoff."

The Lord government signalled its willingness to pursue a modern-day treaty in a meeting with chiefs in 2005, said an official.

But he said native leaders realized they needed help with research and legal advice before sitting down at the table.

They got some federal funding toward that goal.

The province, which has done much of its own preparation already, is waiting to hear whether they're ready to proceed.

Chief George Ginnish of the Eel Ground First Nation, who is involved in the undertaking, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Nova Scotia's treaty discussions cover a broad range of issues, including hunting and fishing, education, health, justice and taxation.

New Brunswick could follow that model, or one of several other approaches taken in British Columbia or the north.

"It's too early to say what the approach would be without knowing what the chiefs will come forward with," said the official.

Meantime, Doherty is pressing to follow through on agreements made under the historic Kelowna Accord the federal government reached with premiers and national native groups in November 2005.

The $5.1-billion deal was intended to close the gaps between most native communities and non-native communities in health, education, housing, among other things.

The Harper Conservatives abandoned the accord when they took power, although they did commit some funding to improving housing on and off-reserve.

But tripartite meetings arranged under the accord are continuing.

Doherty is scheduled to attend the first meeting at - fittingly - Kelowna at the end of November where he and his provincial counterparts aim to improve health services.

He's hoping one New Brunswick chief will join him on the trip.

Subsequent gatherings in Saskatchewan and Newfoundland will address economic development and native women's issues.

Doherty said he plans to push his federal counterpart to come through with the funding needed to meet the Kelowna Accord's goals.

"It's almost like equalization payments - being part of a federation, the richer provinces have a responsibility to make sure the poorer have the same services," said Doherty.

"It's the same with Kelowna - the federal government has a responsibility to make sure all Canadians have a standard of living that's equitable.

"I feel very strongly about this and I'll be expressing my opinion."

The treaty talks in Nova Scotia follow the interest-based negotiating model, in which each party has avoided adopting fixed positions in order to pursue an integrated, mutually beneficial outcome.