Putting First Nations issues into context

A continuation of Alex Atamanenko's column regarding First Nations issues.

As per my previous column, as promised, here is my continuation on the First Nations issue.

In some parts of the country, Aboriginal rights were recognized and affirmed under historic treaties. In other parts of Canada – particularly British Columbia – few treaties are in place, so modern treaties (called comprehensive land claims) are being negotiated.

Both government and Indigenous peoples see these agreements as the way forward, but very little progress has been made. Since 1973, only 24 comprehensive land claims and two stand-alone self-government agreements have been concluded.

As of September 2012, there remain 93 active self-government and comprehensive land claim negotiations underway across the country. On average, reaching an agreement takes 15 years and many negotiations are completely stalled – in part because government negotiators insist that agreements must “extinguish” rights in one form or another. This means that in exchange for an agreement that defines specific rights and benefits, the community in question must renounce any other rights they may be entitled to as Indigenous peoples. Many communities resist renouncing what they see as Inherent Rights, and this approach has also been condemned by a number of UN Human Rights bodies.

Even when agreements are reached, issues remain with implementation. Numerous independent reviewers, including the Auditor General, have confirmed that the Government of Canada is not fulfilling its obligations under these historic or modern treaties. Indeed, there are an estimated 700-800 charges of breach of such agreements (specific land claims) that remain unresolved. The federal government officially recognizes 346 of these specific land claims. At the present rate, it is expected to take 100 years to settle them all.

Faced with the failure of its approach, in September 2012 the Harper Government announced a policy shift to focus on comprehensive land claim negotiations with “willing” partners. This “Results-based approach”, means that the Federal Government will pull-out of negotiations if it decides they are not progressing satisfactorily.

The NDP strongly rejects this approach, as the Federal Government has a responsibility to negotiate with all Indigenous peoples.

In 2007, the NDP tabled a motion for a child-first principle based on Jordan’s Principle, which holds that when there is a jurisdictional dispute over which level of government should pay for an Aboriginal child’s care, whichever government was first contacted will provide the service, and later seek resolution of the jurisdictional dispute. This motion was unanimously agreed to by the House of Commons.

In 2008, the NDP tabled a motion in support of the United Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous peoples that was adopted by the majority of the House.

The NDP was also instrumental in bringing about the 2008 Residential School Apology.

In 2009, the NDP tabled a motion that was unanimously agreed to by the House to declare June as National Aboriginal History Month.

In 2010, we hosted an Aboriginal Candidate’s Summit in Ottawa that brought indigenous candidates running for the NDP together with representatives from the three national Aboriginal organizations representing distinct peoples.

In 2012, the NDP tabled a motion based on the principles of the Shannen’s Dream campaign, which maintains that per-student funding for First Nations’ education should be at least equal to the funding provided for other Canadian students.

This motion was unanimously agreed to by the House.

The idle No More movement arose in response to the Conservative’s omnibus budget bill which gutted the Environmental Assessment Act and the Navigable Waters Act directly affecting the Indigenous peoples. The NDP supported this campaign.

Government Position

Aboriginal issues were not among the five priorities in the Conservatives’ election campaign. Before the 2006 election, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper barely mentioned the Kelowna Accord, and has since failed to meet its targets.

Since coming into power, the Conservatives have failed to deliver on the promises they made to renew the Crown’s relationship with Aboriginal peoples,  first in the Residential School Apology in 2008, then at the January 24th 2012 Crown Gathering, and again at the January 11th 2013 meeting with the National Chief Shawn Atleo.

Instead, through omnibus bills like C-38 and C-45, the Conservatives have gutted the Navigable Waters Protection Act and weakened environmental protection laws falling to uphold the Crown’s duty to consult Aboriginal peoples.

The federal government has a moral obligation and must live up to its responsibilities of First Nations in Canada.

Alex Atamanenko is the MP for BC Southern Interior