'After 25 years, they're only halfway done,' chief says on anniversary of Manitoba land entitlement deal

Chief Nelson Genaille says he has “mixed emotions” about the 25th anniversary of an agreement between the government and a group of First Nations in Manitoba to make good on land debt.

Only about 565,000 acres of 1.1 million promised have been set aside for Manitoba First Nations

Treaty Land Entitlement Committee of Manitoba executive director Chris Henderson and president Chief Nelson Genaille of Sapotaweyak Cree Nation stand with the agreement the committee signed in 1997 with the federal government and the Manitoba government. (Radio-Canada)

Chief Nelson Genaille says he has "mixed emotions" about the 25-year anniversary of an agreement between the government and a group of First Nations in Manitoba to make good on land debt.

A quarter of a century after the framework agreement between the province, federal government and the Treaty Land Entitlement Committee of Manitoba was signed in 1997, a little over 565,000 of the 1.1 million acres agreed on has been set aside as reserve lands, the land entitlement committee said in a news release last week.

Genaille, chief of Sapotaweyak Cree Nation and president of the land entitlement committee, said First Nations who were supposed to have received more land under the agreement signed in 1997 are feeling frustrated.

"After 25 years, they're only halfway done. Somebody has to step up and get the job done," Genaille said at an event marking the anniversary on Sunday.

"They know what to do. It's just that they don't want to do it."

The deal was signed to give land to First Nations that were shortchanged under Treaties 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 10.

At the time, it was decided that the First Nations that signed onto the framework agreement should have been given more land after the original Treaties were signed in the 1800s.

Genaille says it was unfortunate that Marc Miller, Canada's minister of Crown–Indigenous Relations, did not attend the event given his public statements and pledges about giving First Nations their land back.

Miller issued a statement to CBC News Monday morning in which he said his absence at the event was "regrettable," but not an indication of the federal government's lack of commitment to completing the land transfer. 

"It should have taken far less time to complete the work entirely. There may be many reasons for this, but this isn't time for excuses," Miller said. "Nations who signed TLEC expect action from Canada and Manitoba, and the work I have undertaken with the department of Crown Indigenous Relations to accelerate this process is ongoing as I indicated to Chief Genaille on Friday."

Premier Heather Stefanson, who also spoke at the event, was gifted a painting of a turtle by Genaille. He said the image represents truth in the seven sacred teachings at the heart of many Indigenous cultures.

Stefanson told the crowd that advancing Manitoba's treaty land entitlement obligations is a priority for the province, "and Manitoba is ready to get to work."

"Manitoba recognizes that we need to move beyond traditional approaches to address other issues affecting [treaty land entitlement]. As a result, Manitoba is exploring new initiatives to resolve outstanding issues and advance land for reserve creation," she said.

"I also recognize that [treaty land entitlement] is more than the transfer of land for reserve creation. It is about reconciliation, relationship building and creating important social and economic opportunities. We all have a responsibility to advance this very important work."

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for the province said Manitoba is committed to fulfilling its Treaty Land Entitlement obligations and continues to work in partnership with the committee, federal government and First Nations part of the agreement.

A lot has changed the agreement was signed in 1997, the spokesperson added, and said the province is working on "strategic options" to address issues often faced in the Treaty Land Entitlement process.

Stefanson said the province has dedicated $500,000 to advancing treaty land entitlement and is engaging with First Nations on the best way to use that money.