Treaty Day marks 'tremendously improved' relations between First Nations and province

Mi'kmaq leaders in Nova Scotia say great process has been made in their relationship with the province, but there remains work to ensure consultation is respected.

First Nations leaders say progress still needs to be made when it comes to consultation

The annual Treaty Day parade travels through downtown Halifax on Monday. The annual event celebrates the living Treaties of 1752 between the Mi'kmaq and the Crown. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

By his own admission, Andrew Denny says the relationship between the Nova Scotia government and First Nations has "tremendously improved in the last 30 years."

Denny, grand keptin of the Mi'kmaq Grand Council, was one of the dignitaries on hand Monday in Halifax for the 30th annual Treaty Day celebration.

"The first Treaty Day, no one wanted to attend, especially the province."

Education has played a big role in that improvement, he said. Last year the province and Mi'kmaq chiefs made a commitment to bring the history of the treaties into the classroom and educate students about the culture and history of the country's first people.

Grand Keptin Andrew Denny of the Mi'kmaq Grand Council. (CBC)

Appearing on behalf of the premier, Justice Minister Diana Whalen noted curriculum is being updated so students learn about Mi'kmaq culture and history. Word that hand drums are in all elementary school music rooms now and students will learn the Mi'kmaq Honour Song elicited a standing ovation.

It's a long way from Denny's days in school.

"When I went to high school we had a short paragraph [in a textbook] as to who the Mi'kmaq were: We were savages, we were uncivilized and we were warlike. And that was my Grade 10 history text."

Monday's celebration comes at a slightly rocky time for relations between First Nations and the provincial government. There are ongoing protests over plans by Alton Gas to build natural gas storage caverns near Stewiacke, concerns about the potential impacts of generating electricity with tidal power, and tap water that runs black in Potlotek.

Chief Sidney Peters, co-chair of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs, addresses a gathering of more than 500 people in Halifax to celebrate Treaty Day. (CBC)

Chief Sidney Peters, co-chair of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs, said he and his fellow leaders hear the concerns of their people for the environment.

"We have lands, waters and resources that we must protect for the next seven generation," he told the gathering.

Denny was more forceful in his remarks.

Too often corporations and companies come to First Nations for consultation only after they've already got permits from government, he said.

"When corporations threaten the very rivers and lakes that have sustained us for centuries, not only is consultation required, but the full protection of the law from these corporations is a treaty right and the heavyweights of the law should punish them."

Protesters opposed to the Alton Gas project join the annual Treaty Day parade in Halifax. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

When development is discussed, Mi'kmaq need to be involved from Day 1, said Denny.

"We are not anti-development, we just want to secure the gifts that were bestowed upon many generations of Mi'kmaq to continue for many generations of all of us in Atlantic Canada."

Several people in attendance were wearing shirts that read Stop Alton Gas.

Consultation becoming ingrained in government business

While Whalen said the government continues to work on nurturing the relationship with First Nations, she stood by the government's view that, in the case of the Alton decision, consultation happened over a long period and the obligation was fulfilled.

Consultation has become a central part of any government initiative, she said.

"It's starting to become ingrained in our bureaucracy and in our way of governing and I think we've been doing that for some time."