18 more First Nations sign land control deal

Eighteen First Nations today signed the official paperwork that allows them to opt out of land restriction rules in the Indian Act and gain more control over their own resources.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan is presented with a ceremonial blanket at a signing ceremony in Gatineau, Quebec on Friday. Eighteen First Nations signed paperwork allowing them to opt out of land-control rules. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Eighteen First Nations communities today signed the official paperwork that allows them to opt out of land-related rules under the Indian Act, with the agreement giving them more control over their own resources.

A signing ceremony was held in Ottawa with Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan and several chiefs to mark the 18 latest communities signing on to the Framework Agreement on First Nations Land Management. 

"It basically means they can make their own decisions with their own land base and they don't have to come through me," Duncan said in an interview with Rosemary Barton airing on Power & Politics. "They can operate at the speed of business as opposed to having all kinds of delays in the process."

Under the Indian Act, First Nations have to get approval to re-zone or designate land, for example, and that takes far too long, Duncan said. Under the agreement, the participating communities can act on their own without having to get the minister's approval and can more quickly pursue commercial opportunities, he said.

The agreement was ratified in 1999 and First Nations that join it are opting out of the 34 land-related sections of the Indian Act. They instead develop their own land code that sets out the rules and procedures for managing their lands and resources. The land code must be approved by community members.

One of the goals is to allow for expanded economic development on reserves and increase business partnerships with the private sector.

With the addition of the 18 communities that signed the agreement Friday, there are now about 60 First Nations operating under their own land codes.

The names of the 18 communities were announced in January and they are spread out in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

In the 2011 budget, the government dedicated $20 million over two years to increase the number of First Nations participating in the agreement.

Chief Robert Louie, chair of the First Nations Lands Advisory Board, called it a "historic day." 

"Eighteen more First Nations now have the opportunity to assume jurisdiction over their reserve lands. This control is a critical step on the path to self-sufficiency," he said in a news release from the government. 

Duncan said in the interview on Power & Politics that another 70 First Nations are eager to sign the agreement. His department and the advisory board determine which ones are permitted to join, based on their records of governance and financial management.

When the Crown-First Nations meeting was held in Ottawa in January, the government faced calls to scrap the Indian Act. It did not commit to repealing the act but did say there are ways to change it and act outside of it.

Duncan said the land control agreement takes away one-quarter of the Indian Act. "It's not a baby step, this is actually a pretty big step," he said.

Attawapiskat third party manager 'a success'

The minister also commented on the third party manager in Ontario's Attawapiskat First Nation ending his term by April 19. Jacques Marion was appointed, amid much controversy, after the community declared a state of emergency in October because of poor housing conditions. He took control of the community's finances, and the government's move to appoint a third party manager led to a court case launched by Attawapiskat's band council.

Duncan said 22 new homes were constructed and three were renovated under Marion's supervision. Families will be able to move in as of April 20.

"His work was done with the First Nation. We think that this is a great success story," he said.

He acknowledged that the fact that Attawapiskat is proceeding with its court case despite the removal of the third party manager, indicates his assessment of events isn't shared by all parties.

He stands by the decision. "I think we did the right thing because our priority was on getting the housing in place for the people of Attawapiskat," Duncan said.