Senate report recommends $250 million fund to deal with backlog of Land Claims

By Lloyd Dolha

A senate report is recommending the establishment of an independent specific claims body with an annual budget of $250 million to address a significant backlog of specific claims among First Nations across Canada.

Invoking the violent images of Oka, Caledonia, blockades and police action, the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples has warned the federal government in their recently released report Negotiation or Confrontation: It’s Canada’s Choice, that government must move quickly to address the legitimate specific claims grievances of First Nations.
“Inaction or maintaining the status quo is not acceptable. It’s breeding violence,” said Metis senator Gerry St. Germaine, chair of the committee. “The First Nations of Canada have been incredibly patient, some of them have waited three and four decades for the resolution of their claims,” said St. Germaine. He warned of a summer of confrontation and police action if something is not done.

Tabled in the senate in December 2006, the report was released following a year of hearings from a wide range of First Nations leaders and academics. It states that a plan to settle the outstanding claims is a proven way to better the lives of aboriginal peoples in the communities. Resolving land disputes, the committee argues, allows First Nations to benefit from economic activities such as housing developments and natural resource projects.

“In every case where they have been settled, it has meant an immediate improvement in the lives of First Nations peoples,” says the report.

The report lays out a specific set of guidelines on how to remediate the government’s specific claims policy and process in ways that will address past wrongs that were committed against First Nations by officials of the federal government which have included fraud and outright theft.

In the next federal budget, the committee wants to see:
• An increase in funds available for settlement. No less than $250 million per year to be allocated to a fund for the payment of specific claims settlements.
•The establishment of an independent claims resolution body within two years. This body would be established in full partnership with First Nations and be capable of reaching settlements in five years of their submission to the body: and,
• The adoption of new guiding principles of fairness, inclusion, dialogue and recognition of regional differences.
Of the roughly 1,300 specific claims submitted by some 400 First Nations since the inception of the policy in 1970, approximately 900 have yet to be resolved.
The report found that long delays and Ottawa’s conflict of interest in acting as both defendant and judge, means it will be at least 90 years before the backlog of claims is resolved.
In an interview, Senator St. Germaine said federal leaders need to treat their legal liabilities in the same way a business would, setting aside enough money each year until the debt can be paid off.

The Metis senator estimated that settling all specific claims would cost between $3 and $6 billion. Even with the $250 million fund, it would take between 12 and 24 years to clear the backlog.

The senate report echoes the recommendations of the Assembly of First Nations, presented to the committee in November 2006.
“In order for First Nations to move from poverty to prosperity, Canada must settle its lawful obligations owed to First Nations,” said AFN national chief Phil Fontaine. “I’m pleased that Minister Prentice has indicated that he looks to the Senate report for its recommendations on how to improve the process.

Prentice has pledged to reform the way Ottawa deals with land claims, but has yet to announce his new approach. He spent most of his career dealing with land claims.