Government slashes specific claims budget First Nations use to research land claims


Aboriginal Affairs slashes specific claims research budget triggering Oka-repeat warnings


OTTAWA-The federal Aboriginal Affairs department cut its specific claims research budget as part of on-going government-wide belt-tightening in a move that one senior British Columbia chief says is contributing to creating the same environment that produced the 1990 Oka crisis.

Aboriginal Affairs' Negotiations Support Directorate said in a recent letter to one First Nation organization that the specific claims contribution budget was cut in the coming fiscal year "in order to meet government-wide efforts to identify efficiencies and streamline departmental operations."

The department's budget cut means First Nation claims research organizations across Canada saw their own budgets sliced from 35 per cent to 60 per cent, said the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC).

The money is used by First Nations to research specific claims, which centre on historical grievances like the mismanagement of trust funds and the loss of lands.

"These massive funding cuts signal clearly the Harper government's intent to walk away from specific claims," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the UBCIC. "These are the same circumstances that preceded Oka: Canada walked away from the federal duty to address specific claims and was dismissive of First Nation grievances."

In 1990, the Quebec government asked for military intervention after armed Mohawks blocked the development of a golf course threatening burial grounds in Kanesatake.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt's office, however, said in a statement the money was cut because the department has managed to settle the majority of specific claims. Valcourt's office said Ottawa had reduced its "backlog" from 541 claims to 92 since to 2007 and negotiated $2 billion worth of agreements.

"As a result, fewer claims are submitted each year and even fewer claims are at the assessment stage, resulting in a reduced caseload," said the statement. "Canada will continue to work closely with research groups affected by the change to research funding to ensure they have adequate support to advance priority claims over the coming year."

The UBCIC responded to Valcourt's statement saying the department cleared its backlog by delivering take-it-or-leave-it offers to First Nations across the country. The organization said the department's rejection or file closure rate had jumped to 86 per cent.

"Clearing the backlog is not the same as mass rejections and file closures since these claims are unresolved," said the UBCIC. "The number of new claims is in fact increasing, especially in B.C...Funding cuts mean new specific claims and ongoing claims under development will, at best, be delayed, and at worst, not have access to justice."

The Specific Claims Tribunal recently criticized the Harper government for its take-it-or-leave-it tactic to clear specific claims calling it "paternalistic, self-serving, arbitrary and disrespectful."

The Jan. 17 ruling by Judge Patrick Smith eviscerated Aboriginal Affairs' specific claims branch for its handling of a claim filed by the Aundeck Omni Kaning (AOK) First Nation, which is on Manitoulin Island, and its attempt to block it from accessing the tribunal.

The tribunal was created by the Conservative government through a political agreement with the Assembly of First Nations. Its creation was announced in 2007 with the looming threat of a day of action scheduled for that June 29.

The agreement managed to calm much of the tension that had been building throughout the spring. Only Mohawks from Tyendinaga took action that day blocking Hwy 401 and rail lines for 11 hours.

The Harper government jointly announced an education agreement recently with the AFN. The bulk of the promised $1.9 billion for education is expected to flow after the next federal election scheduled for 2015.