National Chief Communique on Specific Claims
Assembly of First Nations
September 10, 2007
Creating a Renewed Approach to Resolve Specific Claims
On June 12, I stood with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and then-Minister of Indian Affairs Jim Prentice to announce the beginning of a new, joint process aimed at resolving the backlog of First Nations specific claims. I took part in the announcement because First Nations have had to wait far too long for justice. The current claims process is fundamentally unfair and biased in favour of the federal government. Canada is in a conflict of interest because, at the end of the day, it decides claims against itself and treats claims as a discretionary government program rather than legal debts owed to First Nations.
The extremely slow pace of resolving land claims has resulted in a backlog of more than 1,000 claims and a tremendous cost to First Nations and Canadians in terms of time, money and good will. Resolving these claims is the key to unlocking the full potential of our people and our communities. It is a foundation for us to rebuild our economies, our communities, our cultures and our governments. W hile resolving these legitimate land issues will not resolve every outstanding issue before us, it is one step further in putting to rest historic wrongs.The AFN Executive and I, directed by the Chiefs in Assembly, take the position that we must seize this opportunity to create a new process that is truly fair and independent. I am providing this Bulletin to update you on the status of this work.
Current Status of the Joint Work on Specific Claims
Representatives of the AFN and federal government (including the Prime Minister’s Office) have been meeting regularly since the June 12th specific claims announcement. As National Chief, I am overseeing this initiative with AFN Regional Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo (British Columbia) as the Co-Chair of the AFN/INAC Joint Task Force guiding the discussions, supported by the Co-Chairs of the Chiefs Committee on Claims, Regional Chief Wilton Littlechild (Alberta), Regional Chief Lawrence Joseph (Saskatchewan) and Roger Augustine, Chief of Staff. We are ensuring that First Nations are involved in this work and that expert First Nation perspectives inform all aspects of these discussions.
The AFN’s objective in this exercise is to create a process that will efficiently, fairly and effectively resolve land claims, protect Aboriginal and Treaty rights, and ultimately reduce the backlog of claims. We are drawing on a great deal of work done to date, including the 1998 Joint First Nations – Canada Task Force on Specific Claims Policy Reform. We have had extensive discussions and numerous resolutions passed by the Chiefs in Assembly. As well, our approach is guided by First Nations direction through the Recognition and Implementation of First Nation Governments (RIFNG) initiative, and the principles articulated in the First Nations-Federal Crown Political Accord on the Recognition and Implementation of First Nation Governments.
Let me state that – at all stages of this work – the AFN will not support any new legislation or approach that is not consistent with our mandate, our principles, our resolutions or the longstanding position of First Nations on this matter.
Getting a new system into place will require new legislation. The federal government has committed to the full engagement of AFN in jointly drafting specific claims legislation and implementing this important initiative. It is expected that this legislation will be presented to First Nations, Parliamentarians and the public in the Fall of 2007.
The legislation will create an Independent Tribunal. The Independent Tribunal will be a key feature of the new process in that the Government of Canada will no longer make the final decision on First Nations claims. It is proposed that the Independent Tribunal be made up of a panel of judges from the superior/federal court level. The Independent Tribunal will make binding decisions on the validity and compensation of specific claims. The AFN is advocating strongly for First Nations input into the selection process. W e are also pressing for First Nations to be included in developing rules of procedure for the Tribunal (which would include, for example, addressing respect for First Nations Elders in providing oral history).
The new approach, once in place, will be supported by dedicated funding of $250 million per year for at least ten years.
Joint AFN-Canada working groups have been established to discuss other critical elements of the claims resolution process. Discussions are underway to see changes to the existing Indian Specific Claims Commission (ISCC) that would enable the commission to provide funding dispute resolution services. The current mandate of the ISCC is to provide mediation services and recommendations which are non-binding. The other working group is exploring the way in which Canada funds and processes claims. The goal of this work is to look at ways to speed up Canada’s review of specific claims and reduce the backlog.
In the end, it is our hope and expectation that real and thorough improvements to the entire specific claims resolution process will result in First Nations’ receiving justice for historic grievances. As discussions continue on this important work we will ensure that you are fully informed of the progress.
Engaging and Involving First Nations
The AFN is working to ensure that First Nations are fully involved in the development and review of the new approach and the new legislation. Beyond the Joint W orking Groups, the AFN is pushing for a national review process once the new legislation is drafted. There are a number of options that have been identified by First Nations, including regional review sessions and/or an AFN Special Chiefs Assembly focused on this matter. W hile these issues have been discussed by Chiefs at previous Assemblies and meetings, we remain open to hearing from you directly regarding other possible options.
I want to reassure you that any new legislation will be draft legislation and, as such, it will have to go through the Parliamentary and Committee process before anything is finalized. This provides additional points of intervention for First Nations to express their views.
And finally, the AFN is strongly advocating that the new approach include a mandatory five year review process. This means that after five years of operation, the AFN, First Nations and the government of Canada will be able to assess the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the new approach and adjust accordingly.
Dealing with First Nations land issues goes beyond the specific claims process. There are different kinds of claims and, of course, the Treaties and Treaty-making are central to land issues. For this reason, the AFN is moving on other fronts to ensure our approach is holistic and comprehensive. The RIFNG work, for example, will continue as it is all about First Nations defining their own path to nation building and self-government.
I am pleased to announce that we will be convening an AFN National Treaty conference to be held on November 21-22, 2007 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The purpose of this conference will be to explore approaches to Treaty implementation. W e have secured participation and support from the highest levels of government for this conference. This will be an opportunity to begin the long-overdue work of giving life to our historic Treaties which will form a critical companion effort to the work on specific claims.
We will be providing more information on the upcoming Treaty conference on our website at www.afn.ca in the very near future.
Changes in Government
On August 14 the Prime Minister announced a Cabinet shuffle. Conservative MP Chuck Strahl (Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon) has been appointed as the new Minister of Indian Affairs. He replaces former Minister of Indian Affairs Jim Prentice, who is now the Minister of Industry, A new session of Parliament will re-open on October 16, 2007 with a Speech from the Throne.
The proroguing of Parliament will not necessarily have any effect on when the federal government will introduce the new Specific Claims Bill into the House.
Through this transition, we are assured that none of these changes will affect the ongoing work aimed at resolving specific claims. I have met with Minister Strahl and have his personal assurance that this initiative will continue.
We have a great deal of work before us. We are cautious but, at the same time, we do see an opportunity to create change that will benefit our people, our children and the generations to come. We will ensure that you are informed and engaged throughout all stages of this work. We will need your energy and best ideas to ensure we achieve success.