Manitoba·Opinion

Government foot-dragging on land claims leaves Metis, First Nations fighting

Do we want our federal and provincial governments to sit down and negotiate a fair settlement with the Metis and First Nations? Or do we use this opportunity to stall while we “divide and conquer” by turning those groups against each other because they are essentially fighting for the same lands? So far it appears that our government is doing the latter.
Idle No More protesters march in January 2013. The grassroots movement, involving First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, as well as their non-aboriginal supporters in Canada, was founded in December 2012 as a reaction to alleged legislative abuses of Indigenous treaty rights by the Stephen Harper and the Conservative federal government. (Geoff Robins/Canadian Press)

“What do we really want our government to do?”

It's a question we often ask and it's especially relevant when it comes to the issue of indigenous land claim settlements in Manitoba.

Do we want our government to do what is right and fair​, or do we want our government to stall and try to keep as much as ​it can for ​itself?

Manitoba is unique in the fact the Métis were the “first nations” in this province​, ​as their claims to land were established in the Manitoba Act prior to the signing of numbered treaties with First Nations. Basically, our forebears made a deal with the Métis and then made deals for the same land with First Nations.

Whether you agree or disagree with this history, the highest court in our land, the Supreme Court of Canada, has consistently backed both indigenous claims. If Canada is indeed a nation of laws, then we must obey these rulings no matter what we think of them with the benefit of hindsight or revisionist history.

Both the Métis and First Nations have indicated they want to be reasonable in settling these claims. They know they can’t regain the same lands​, so they are both willing to accept compensation for their losses.

So what do we, as good Canadian citizens, want our government to do?

'Divide and conquer'

Do we want our federal and provincial governments to sit down and negotiate a fair settlement with both groups? Or do we use this opportunity to stall while we “divide and conquer” by turning Métis and First Nations against each other because they are essentially fighting for the same lands?

So far it appears that our government is doing the latter.

It has been two years since the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Métis of Manitoba have claims to thousands of acres of land under the Manitoba Act, but there has been no movement on any form of settlement agreement​.

​A​s David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation says, "they have done nothing but stall, stall, stall."

The Treaty Land Entitlement process to deal with First Nations claims moves glacially. At the same time, conflicts are naturally flaring up as First Nations such as Sapotaweyak Cree Nation have claims on some of the same land which could be part of the Métis settlement.

Last month, some citizens of Sapotaweyak set up a blockade to crews cutting a line for Bipole III, which cuts across their traditional territory. The land is also claimed by the Manitoba Métis Federation and the crews work for a Métis economic development company that won the contract to clear the line.

The big fight will be over the millions of acres that each group can lay claim to. We aren’t talking about things like reserves or Métis settlements​. ​The claims involve traditional territories.

'Traditional land mapping'

Determining which lands are affected is going to be an extremely complicated process that begins with “traditional land mapping."

That is, research must be undertaken to develop comprehensive maps which outline the traditional waterways traversed, traplines, fishing spots, burial grounds, berry-picking areas, pow wow grounds, sacred spiritual lands and on and on.

As Chartrand says, the first step is to develop a comprehensive map of Manitoba to determine the amount of land affected and where these lands overlap. Amazingly, both sides say they want to be be patient and accommodating​, but tensions between the Métis and First Nations over competing land claims continue to rise.

And as long as the our government stalls and the two indigenous groups are fighting each other, they have less resources to apply to the negotiations which could settle this issue fair and square.

The Manitoba Métis Federation is recommending the claims be settled with a trust fund to be used for education, economic development, housing and other social and economic development programs that might have taken place if the Métis hadn’t been screwed out of their land in the first place.

First Nations groups want similar outcomes​. Consider what the Peguis First Nation is doing with the land claim ​it settled establishing an urban reserve in the old Motor Vehicles Branch building and creating jobs and wealth by investing in a new conference centre on the Assiniboia Downs site.

These are projects that will benefit indigenous people in this province who need this kind of social and economic activity.

If we want our government to do the right thing, we have to find a way to keep their feet to the fire after we elect them.

The Americans used to elect governments ​that could steal as much land from Indians as possible. Is this the way we want the government we elect to represent us?

Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer and the editor of Grassroots News

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