New federal legislation won't address Ontario's native land claims: Minister

TORONTO (CP, Nov 28, 2007) – Ottawa’s attempt to clear a backlog of more than 900 aboriginal land and treaty claims won’t diffuse the mounting frustration fuelling blockades and occupations in Ontario, the province’s aboriginal affairs minister said Wednesday.

Michael Bryant said the new legislation introduced Tuesday in Ottawa won’t apply to the vast majority of the province’s aboriginal land claims, including some of its most problematic and high-profile cases, such as the ongoing aboriginal occupation in Caledonia, Ont.

“It’s useful for the very few claims that involve money and only money,” Bryant said. “As it stands, the bill will not address Ontario land claims, like the one affecting Haudenosaunee Six Nations in Caledonia.”

If passed, the federal legislation would create an independent tribunal of six Superior Court judges to make binding decisions on specific claims that were rejected or have dragged on for at least three years.

The province and the federal government have got to come up with a better – and faster – way of settling land claims if they want to avoid future occupations and blockades in Ontario, Bryant said.

The current process of settling aboriginal land claims is “unacceptable,” both for private landowners and for aboriginal communities who feel they have a legitimate claim, he said. Current delays – some as long as 20 years – just increase frustration in aboriginal communities, he added.

“It’s having a highly detrimental impact overall in the relationship and it leads to protests and blockades and the things that are not helpful at all to either side,” Bryant said. “The resolution of treaty claims is the biggest roadblock to the long-term relationship.”

There is little point in bringing in legislation to clear the backlog of aboriginal land claims if it doesn’t address the needs of Canada’s most populous province, said Grand Council Chief John Beaucage of the Union of Ontario Indians.

“If it’s not going to clear up a backlog of claims then why is it being introduced?” Beaucage said. “That concerns me.”

The mounting backlog of claims that take decades to settle is a “contingent liability on every single taxpayer in Canada,” he added.

“It just takes forever. Some people can spend their whole careers on one land claim,” Beaucage said. “The quicker it’s looked after, the better off we all are.”

In the meantime, Beaucage said, Ontario should follow the recommendation from the recent Ipperwash inquiry and appoint a provincial, arms-length treaty commissioner who would help settle federal land claims.

Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl called the new, impartial process a “powerful new tool” that addresses decades of criticism and recognizes the weaknesses of the current system.

Ted Yeomans, Strahl’s director of communications, said the new legislation could apply to the “lion’s share” of claims in Ontario. About 90 per cent of Ontario’s claims fall under the $150-million cap placed on claims under the new legislation, he added.

Caledonia – Ontario’s most thorny and high-profile claim – doesn’t fall under the new legislation because Six Nations decided to pursue the claim through the courts, he said.

But Bryant said he has already spoken to Strahl about finding alternatives and other ways to speed up Ontario claims.

“The desire by the federal government to work with Ontario to expedite the federal claims is very positive,” said Bryant.

The existing system of resolving land claims was under fire for years – not just because it takes an average of 13 years to settle a case, but because the federal government acts as both a defendant and a judge.

The new bill was co-authored by Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. The bill will now go to First Nations across Canada for review and chiefs will discuss it at a December assembly meeting.

Some estimate it will take more than 12 years to clear the backlog of claims given fewer than 20 cases are settled a year under the current system.

But New Democrat Gilles Bisson said there is plenty Ontario can do without the federal government if it were serious about addressing the plight of aboriginals – starting with sharing revenue generated by mining and other industrial activity on traditional aboriginal land.

“This is what galls me,” Bisson said. “To say what the federal government is doing is not going to fix the problem is one thing but the province is in a position to do a whole bunch of things.”

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