AFN seeks land claims clarification

The Assembly of First Nations wants an immediate clarification from the federal government about reports that Ottawa is moving to cut off specific land claims negotiations.

The Assembly of First Nations wants an immediate clarification from the federal government about reports that Ottawa is moving to cut off specific land claims negotiations.

The AFN is drafting a letter to Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan asking him to come clean about his intentions for the hundreds of land claim negotiations that deal with the wherewithal of many bands across the country.

APTN National News is reporting that Ottawa is leaving Indian bands with a take-it-or-leave-it option on the government's final offer.

"We need immediate clarification on this. Is this actually going to be the case?" said Don Kelly, spokesman for the AFN.

He said that if the news reports are accurate, many First Nations will be beside themselves with anger, since the move would violate the spirit of previous arrangements.

Duncan, however, says recent media reports "have included inaccuracies," though he doesn't say what they are.

"First Nations raised concerns in the past about the slow pace of progress in resolving outstanding claims. To address their concerns, we have adopted a new approach to speed up claims resolution. This includes three-year time frames for negotiating settlements that were set out in the jointly developed Specific Claims Tribunal Act," he said in a statement.

"First Nations can now opt to refer their claims to the [Specific Claims] Tribunal for a binding decision if three years of negotiations do not result in a final settlement."

APTN quotes negotiators for First Nations, who did not want to speak on record, as saying they have been informed of the move by negotiators for the federal government.

One lawyer working for a firm representing several Indian bands told APTN that the Oct. 16 anniversary of the Specific Claims Tribunal Act has been set as the deadline.

The report says that if a First Nation rejects the government's final offer, the only recourse will be to take the claim before the Specific Claims Tribunal — a body that has a $250 million cap each year for settling claims.

Aboriginal leaders have suspected for some time that the federal government was about to impose an ultimatum on some of the ongoing claims.

Resolution passed

At their annual general meeting in Moncton this month, First Nations passed a resolution saying Ottawa should "reverse its decision to arbitrarily cut off negotiations using the time frames provided for in the Special Claims Tribunal Act."

They added that "a decision to terminate negotiations ought to be based on the principles of good faith, respect and mutuality, rather than arbitrariness and unilateralism."

They also asked Ottawa to stop using partial acceptance of a negotiated settlement as an excuse to completely reject a deal.

AFN figures say there are almost 600 claims up for negotiation right now. The chiefs say about 65 active negotiations would be affected by the Ottawa ultimatum.

Calls to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development were not immediately returned.

Sense of despair

But there is a growing sense of despair within the government that the land claims negotiations often drag on with no end in sight, costing the federal government millions in legal costs.

Plus, the federal government fears that the outstanding claims against it are a black mark on its credit rating and international reputation.

The Special Claims Tribunal Act was passed in 2008 mainly as an incentive to Ottawa and First Nations to negotiate land claims settlements, rather than litigate. First Nations can choose to take their claims to the tribunal for a binding ruling, after three years of trying to negotiate with Ottawa.

The chiefs say Ottawa's ultimatum would turn the intent of that legislation on its head.

"The arbitrary decision by [Aboriginal Affairs] to cut off specific claims negotiations will cause further hardship to claimants who have been waiting for years to negotiate their claims," they said in their Moncton resolution.

"It is in bad faith and not conducive to the settlement of claims and is inconsistent with the principles of the "Justice At Last" initiative which was the basis for the SCTA."