Manitoba First Nations seek to sue Canada for not honouring treaty land entitlements

A group representing Manitoba First Nations is seeking to sue the federal government for failing to honour a two-decade-old promise to fulfil land debt.

First Nations promised over 445,000 hectares of land in 1997 deal, have only received about 215,000 hectares

This Treaty Land Entitlement Framework was signed in 1997 by the federal government, the Manitoba government and the Treaty Land Entitlement Committee of Manitoba. (CBC)

A group representing Manitoba First Nations is seeking to sue the federal government for failing to honour a two-decade-old promise to fulfil land debt.

The Treaty Land Entitlement Committee of Manitoba (TLEC) filed a notice of application this week with the Federal Court of Canada in Winnipeg, hoping to nullify an agreement signed between the committee and the Crown in 1997, and clear the way for a "multibillion-dollar" lawsuit.

"In 1997, when our member First Nations agreed to accept the [Manitoba Framework Agreement] deal for land to settle our outstanding TLE [treaty land entitlement] claims, we were required to provide Canada with a conditional release where we agreed that further legal action would not be pursued by us," Chief Nelson Genaille of the Sapotaweyak Cree Nation, and TLEC Manitoba president, said in a news release.

"However, 22 years later, Canada is failing to hold up the honour of the Crown in fulfilling its treaty obligations under the MFA."

As such, Manitoba's TLEC is asking the federal court to make "void and ineffective" the restrictions to pursue legal action.

Economic independence

In 1996, Canada's provincial and federal governments agreed on the TLE process to resolve disputes with bands that did not receive all the lands promised through the treaties signed in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Those bands would be given priority to make claims on surplus Crown lands or to purchase other properties and convert them into urban reserves.

Based on that, the Manitoba Framework Agreement was signed the following year, for deficient land obligations in treaties 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 10. There are 21 Manitoba First Nations eligible under the agreement.

The MFA required the governments to provide over 445,000 hectares of land to Manitoba's TLEC member First Nations. Roughly 215,000 hectares have been set aside since then.

The lands owned to them can greatly help First Nations develop economic independence from the government, Genaille said.

He noted his own band used a TLE claim to buy a parcel of land in the town of Swan River, where it built a gaming centre. That relatively modest 46-hectare patch of land brings in $7 million in gross revenue annually.

I think it's basically Canada holding First Nations hostage, to be dependent.- Chief Nelson Genaille

Sapotaweyak now has a second parcel where the First Nation is building a Petro-Canada gas bar, which is expected to bring in $6 million annually, Genaille said.

Asked why he thinks it is taking so long for the TLE agreements to be fulfilled by the government, Genaille was blunt.

"I think it's basically Canada holding First Nations hostage, to be dependent," he said. 

And more recently, the federal government has breached the MFA's terms by unilaterally amending the TLE land conversion process, Genaille said.

'Stalling the process'

In 2012, Canada advised TLE committees that it would start consulting other Indigenous groups, such as the Métis, prior to setting aside TLE lands as reserve under the MFA.

"That's just stalling the process and contributing to the dependency. They don't want us to progress and be self-sufficient," Genaille said.

If a judge sides with Manitoba's TLEC application to invalidate the 1997 agreement keeping it from pursuing legal action, Genaille intends to take the next steps as quickly as possible.

"We're going to go to court and we're going to battle," he said.

A spokesman for the federal government's Indigenous Services said he couldn't offer much in the way of comment, as the issue is now before the courts.

However, William Olscamp did say "Canada is committed to working in partnership with First Nations and returning to them lands and resources to foster community and economic development."

He also said departmental officials have met with Manitoba's TLEC multiple times over the past year "and we look forward to continuing these discussions."

At the same time, they must still meet "constitutional obligations to all Indigenous groups," Olscamp said.