Prime Minister’s “action plan” on specific claims calms summer of protests

By Lloyd Dolha

AFN national chief Phil Fontaine welcomed Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s announcement of an inclusive, pro-active approach to the archaic specific claims process unveiled in the PM’s June 12th announcement from Parliament Hill.
Calling Harper’s proposed new process to deal with the backlog of specific claims “historic,” Fontaine described the Harper proposal as a “positive response to what our people have advocated for decades.”

First Nations have chafed for decades under the impotent Specific Claims Commission where government acts as both judge and jury over long-standing unresolved disputes of historic injustices committed by past governments. There is currently a backlog of more than 800 specific claims that take, on average, some 13 years to process.

“In the coming days and over the summer, the AFN will be working with government to draft new specific claims legislation that will hopefully speed up the backlog of hundreds of unresolved treaty claims that have been the source of so much frustration among our people,” said the national chief. “The government’s commitment to our full engagement in implementing this important initiative will be critical to its success.”

The establishment of the quasi-judicial body to deal with the growing backlog of some 900 outstanding specific claims among First Nations will provide a “fair, independent, binding and just approach to resolving specific claims,” said the AFN leader.
The Specific Claims Action Plan proposes four key initiatives that would:

  • Create a new tribunal staffed with impartial judges who would make final decisions on claims when negotiations fail;
  • Make arrangements for financial compensation more transparent through dedicated funding for settlements in the amount of $250 million a year for 10 years;
  • Speed up processing of small claims and improve flexibility in the handling of large claims; and,
  • Refocus the existing Indian Specific Claims Commission to concentrate on dispute resolution.

The Harper plan involves discussions over the course of the summer with First Nations and provincial and territorial governments with the goal of bringing forward legislation to implement the specific claims action plan in the fall.

The move comes in the days and weeks of growing apprehension unfolding across the nation over the AFN’s call for a national day of action among First Nations on June 29th, the leading national body put out following a special conference in Gatineau, Quebec in late May.

Fontaine raised the eyebrows of business across the country in a speech to the Canada Club of Ottawa where he warned of a summer of protests and the need for the government to move quickly to address land claims and poverty in aboriginal communities.

The most troubling aspect of the call for a national day of action for Canadians was perhaps the AFN’s call to the national railways to voluntarily shut down operations nationally in a show of support for First Nations.

Chief Terrance Nelson of the Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation of Manitoba said he would blockade CN rail lines running through his reserve for a 24-hour period on the national day of action. His fiery rhetoric has cost him some measure of credibility among his own people who have called for his resignation.

In an interview on CTV Newnet’s Mike Duffy Live, Nelson told the nation, “… there are only two ways of dealing with the white man. One, either you pick up a gun, or you stand between the white man and his money.”

It was Nelson’s resolution at the special AFN conference in Gatineau, that called for the voluntary shutdown of national rail lines.

Nelson also applauded the federal announcement on specific claims, but said he could not call off his blockade because of “the simple promise of another white man.”

The Anishinabe chief sent a letter to Canadian National, offering a five-year truce with the company in exchange for CN’s agreement to voluntarily halt train traffic on June 29th and a promise on behalf of the company to pressure Ottawa on land claims.

The First Nations Leadership Council of British Columbia extended cautious optimism regarding the federal government’s announcement of a new independent body to make binding decisions on specific claims.

“An independent panel on specific claims is long overdue,” said AFN BC regional chief Shawn Atleo. “Given this body will possess the necessary mandate with full decision-making authority and an appropriate level of financial and human resources, e expect they ensure that specific claims are fairly considered and equitably resolved in a timely manner.”

The AFN has called for peaceful marches across the country on the “Day of Action.”