Harper cabinet stalling 3 modern treaties for over 2 years: federal report

Report lays blame for failure of modern treaties at Ottawa’s feet

 Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
The Harper cabinet has been holding up agreements on three modern treaties for over two years, according to a report released Thursday by the federal government.

The report was commissioned by Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt who appointed former federal negotiator Doug Eyford to review Ottawa’s comprehensive claims policy, also known as its modern treaty process.

The report, which was submitted to Valcourt on Feb. 20, essentially calls for a massive overhaul of Ottawa’s approach to dealing with comprehensive claims, arguing that many of its failings have been pointed out in various reports and studies over the past 30 years.

Eyford’s report, A New Direction: Advancing Aboriginal and Treaty Rights, lays much of the blame at the feet of Ottawa which has essentially set the rules of the comprehensive claim game.

“Many noted that Canada’s negotiators have limited authority to agree to anything unless previously approved within the federal system,” said the report. “Canada’s negotiators do not have the authority to make commitments on behalf of all federal departments.

The issue, however, is not simply one of bureaucratic intransigence, but one the reaches to the cabinet table, the report said. Under the current structure, the negotiations need cabinet approval at several phases of talks. The report found that six treaty tables are stuck waiting for the federal cabinet to either initial or sign-off on agreements-in-principles and three have been in the queue for more than two years.

“Canada is considered an uncreative negotiating partner,” said the report. “Productive negotiations are effectively suspended when cabinet approvals are required.”

Eyford recommends the Aboriginal Affairs Minister get the authority to approve framework and agreements-in-principle, instead of leaving it up to cabinet to give the sign-off.

Agreements are also held up by the need to check-in with about 40 federal departments and agencies throughout negotiations, the report said.

Eyford recommends Ottawa create internal standards and timelines for departments and agencies to respond to the needs of the negotiations.

The report found that many First Nation groups involved in talks complained about Ottawa’s “cookie cutter, take it or leave it approach instead of interest-based, good faith negotiations.” The report said that even provincial and territorial government officials said that Ottawa lacked “sensitivity” to regional issues in the North and Atlantic Canada.

“There were also complaints that dialogue at tables is constrained because federal mandates are narrowly construed,” said the report. “For example, I was told that Canada’s negotiations with the Mi’kmaq and the Nova Scotia government have not been productive because those groups want to discuss the modernization of historic peace and friendship treaties while Canada is proposing to negotiate a modern treaty.”

The report, however, also puts some of the responsibility on First Nation groups. Some First Nations don’t want to end negotiations because they are concerned about locking-in treaty rights “when there is a prospect that other rights not contemplated during negotiations may subsequently be defined by the courts.”

Also, the cash, mostly in loans from Ottawa, is hard to give up.

“The fact the treaty process provides a constant source of funding and employment in Aboriginal communities can also serve as a disincentive to conclude negotiations,” said Eyford’s report.

The report said some First Nations may also not be ready for the process.

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Eyford makes a total of 43 recommendations to Valcourt on changing Ottawa’s approach to an issue that has tied up large-swaths of the country, prevented development and created an environment of potential conflict.

Among the recommendations, Eyford calls for “a new reconciliation framework” with “a renewed and reformed comprehensive land claims policy along with a wider spectrum of policies and initiatives to reconcile constitutionally protected Aboriginal and treaty rights.”

He said this new framework “should reflect the historic, cultural and regional diversity among Aboriginal communities to effectively address Aboriginal and treaty rights.”

Eyford also recommends that Ottawa create “a central agency responsible for the coordination and oversight of treaty implementation” which would also have to file “an annual report in Parliament about treaty implementation activities.”

Valcourt released a statement saying Ottawa would be working on creating a “new reconciliation framework” and begin talks with First Nation groups and “other stakeholders” on the report’s recommendations.

“Our goal is to work in partnership so we can seize opportunities to promote prosperous communities and economic development for the benefit of all Canadians,” said Valcourt, in the statement.

Comprehensive claims are negotiated with First Nations which do not fall under the numbered or so-called “surrender” treaties. A final agreement essentially sets out and defines self-government, land and Aboriginal rights for a particular First Nation.

Most of these comprehensive claims are negotiated with First Nations and Aboriginal groups in British Columbia, the northern territories, parts of Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

Since 1973, Ottawa has only settled 26 comprehensive claims, while 75 are currently in various stages of negotiation, the report said. British Columbia faces the bulk of negotiations with 53 claims in the works. There are 14 comprehensive claims being negotiated outside of that province along with eight trans-boundary claims.

Eyford spoke with over 100 First Nation communities before publishing the report. He was tasked with the report by Valcourt on July 28, 2014.

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