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OTTAWA, April 17 – Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine today commented on the 25th anniversary of section 35 of Canada’s 1982 Constitution Act.
“Twenty-five years ago today, Aboriginal peoples secured an important victory at the Constitutional table. The victory is section 35 of Canada’s 1982 Constitution Act, which recognizes the existing Aboriginal and treaty rights of the First Peoples of Canada. Section 35 is important because it recognizes that Aboriginal peoples have different rights from other Canadians by virtue of being the First Peoples of this land, who never surrendered or gave up those rights to any government. It recognizes that our rights are “inherent” – they are within us, not gifts from government to ignore or deny at their whim. And it recognizes that Canada must honour and respect these rights. Aboriginal and Treaty rights are a reality and are part of our country’s legal and political landscape. And yet, a quarter of a century later, First Nations continue to challenge the federal government to honour the spirit, intent, and content that section 35 promised. Federal policy and legislation has failed to respond appropriately to section 35.
The federal “inherent right” policy, for example, attempts to define, prescribe and limit for us what our rights are. As a result, negotiations are based on a limited and narrow definition. The federal government’s land claims policy moves at a glacial pace and is further compromised by a conflict of interest in which the federal government is judge and jury in claims brought against it. It is failing First Nations and costing Canadians hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
In general, federal negotiating policies are not designed to create success. They are designed to create ‘wins’ for the federal government by limiting the scope of First Nations rights and First Nations governments. We have seen in recent weeks the concerns by First Nations in BC over the Treaty process. Many have expressed serious concerns about the limited, narrow scope of the discussions.
None of this is good for First Nations or Canada. It creates frustration for the political leadership. It creates conflict on the ground within our own communities and with non-Aboriginal Canadians.
There is hope, however, in this situation.
This generation has the opportunity to right the wrong of the last twenty-five years. We can work together to give life to the promise of section 35. As the Supreme Court wrote in the Sparrow decision, ‘Section 35 calls for a just settlement with aboriginal peoples.’
The problem to date has been the failure of any government to truly recognize our jurisdiction over our own lands and our own peoples. First Nations are only asking what other Canadians take for granted: that our rights be respected and implemented.
Giving life to section 35 means sitting down as partners and talking about the new structures we need to revitalize First Nations governments – getting out from under the colonial Indian Act and the archaic mandate and practices of the Department of Indian Affairs. We need new fiscal arrangements that enable First Nations to truly invest in their people, their communities and their future.
A new approach is urgently required to deal with the outstanding, legitimate land claims of First Nations. Land is central to our economic, political and cultural freedom. None of this means turning back the clock or putting a stop to all economic activity. It means fair settlements that allow First Nations to enjoy – on their own or with industry and government – the benefits of the riches in our traditional territories.
First Nations have a plan for action. And, there is no excuse not to act. It is cheaper to fix the problems than it is to maintain the status quo. First Nations want to end dependency and work towards self-sufficiency. We are seeking tools, not hand-outs. We want to work in partnership with all governments to improve the lives of our people. In honouring its obligations to First Nations, the government will be helping First Nations to help themselves.
Section 35 represents a promise, and a vision. But, because the promise goes unfulfilled, the vision cannot be realized. Our greatest legacy to future generations will be to secure this vision and promise for all Canadians. Fulfilling this vision will help fulfill Canada’s potential. As a result, Canada will be a strong and productive country that is seen as a leader in respecting and recognizing human rights and Aboriginal rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Today, we celebrate the achievements of our forebears who secured the recognition of our rights. And in looking forward, we extend a hand to all the peoples of this nation to work with us to breathe life into the spirit and intent embodied in the words of section 35.”
The Assembly of First Nations is the national organization representing First Nations citizens in Canada.
For further information: Bryan Hendry, A/Director of Communications, (613) 241-6789 ext. 229, cell (613) 293-6106, firstname.lastname@example.org; Nancy Pine, Communications Advisor – Office of the National Chief, (613) 241-6789 ext 243, (613) 298-6382, email@example.com
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