APTN National News
The federal Aboriginal Affairs department has used “misleading” and “false” statements to claim success in dealing with historical grievances known as specific claims, a new report has found.
The report, In Bad Faith: Justice at Last and Canada’s Failure to Resolve Specific Land Claims, was released this week along with an open letter addressed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed by over 100 First Nation chiefs, tribal council heads, research directors, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, NDP MPs and non-government organizations.
The report takes aim at the federal government’s “Justice At Last” policy to deal with specific claims and finds it has been a failure. The report said Aboriginal Affairs plans to “terminate” its program funding for Justice at Last based on “false statements” that the department has met its objectives on specific claims.
“The failure of Justice at Last reflects a deep and growing rift between First Nations and the Crown, one that is characterized by a profound mistrust towards government processes, systems, promises, and, most importantly honour,” said the report, which was composed by research directors working with First Nations across the country.
The issue surfaced in the House of Commons during question period Tuesday. NDP Aboriginal affairs critics Niki Ashton pressed Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt to act on the report’s recommendations.
“Will the minister of Aboriginal Affairs listen to the recommendations and answer for his department’s failure?” said Ashton.
Valcourt said the department had no plans to change its ways. The minister said the department had settled 120 specific claims and cleared a backlog of about 516 claims.
“Our government is committed to delivering fair and timely resolution for First Nation specific claims,” said Valcourt. “Our government has made unprecedented progress on this topic and we will continue in that way.”
Valcourt’s office was first asked by APTN National News about the report Monday, but failed to respond. Late Tuesday afternoon, a spokesperson sent an email containing the minister’s comment from question period, but ignored APTN’s question regarding the report.
The report analyzed Aboriginal Affairs’ “five achievements” under the policy, which was first announced in 2007. The federal department states fewer claims are entering the system, the backlog has been eliminated, mediation is working, specific claims accepted by the minister are being negotiated and the Specific Claims Tribunal is meeting is legislative requirements.
“An analysis of (Aboriginal Affairs) data and input from First Nations currently involved in the specific claims process shows that contrary to (Aboriginal Affairs) reports and public announcements, the five achievements outlined above have not been attained,” said the report.
Specific claims stem from historical grievances from First Nations around the mismanagement of trust funds by Ottawa and the loss of lands. The Oka and Ipperwash conflicts both stemmed from specific historical grievances over the loss of land.
The report said the number of claims entering the system is actually increasing because the federal department is forcing First Nations to pull back and break up their claims into smaller pieces. The department’s specific claims branch is only accepting to negotiate minor portions of claims and then “demanding legal releases of liability on the bulk of substantive allegations,” said the report.
The report also blasts the department’s assertion that it had cleared a backlog of 572 specific claim files. The report said the department cleared the backlog using “take-it-or-leave-it” offers which allowed officials to reject or close 85 per cent of the files in the backlog.
The report found that the department rejected less claims, 44 per cent, before the Justice at Last policy took hold.
“Contrary to (Aboriginal Affairs) statements and reports, the backlog has not been eliminated. It persists in the form of unresolved claims,” said the report. “The backlog has been repackaged and effectively transferred to the Specific Claims Tribunal or returned to the pre-submission stage.”
The Specific Claims Tribunal (SCT) was also announced in 2007 as part of the Justice At Last package. First Nations can go to the tribunal once their negotiations hit a dead-end or are rejected by Aboriginal Affairs.
The Chair of the tribunal, Justice Harry Slade, has warned it is on the edge of failure unless the Harper government appoints another full-time judge to deal with the rising workload. Slade has also warned that recent centralizing changes to federal tribunal administration threatens the independence of the SCT.
The report said the federal government is undermining the tribunal.
“(The SCT) is seeing its independence, authority and legitimacy undermined and resources curtailed by the government who currently lauds it as one of its successes,” said the report.
Aboriginal Affairs’ mediation services, which are housed within the department and staffed by department officials, also faced criticism in the report. The report said the department ignored a public commitment to work with First Nations on the mediation unit.
“First Nations have publicly criticized this mediation unit for its appearance of conflict of interest,” said the report. “First Nations’ requests for mediation services are routinely denied by specific claims branch officials. With the prevalence of ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ offers, there is much less opportunity for mediation.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was on hand to unveil the Justice at Last policy and accompanying tribunal on June 12, 2007. At the time Harper said it represented a “historic breakthrough.”
The announcement was made partly to quell rising tensions in the lead-up to a planned day of action scheduled for that month. Only Shawn Brant and the Mohawks of Tyendinaga launched blockades that day, shutting down Hwy 401, the busiest highway in Canada, for 11 hours.
The report was emailed to Harper’s office which will also receive a paper copy in the mail.