Harper government forcing relocation of FN claims tribunal to “smother” it, says grand chief

A tribunal created to deal with historic First Nation grievances is slowly being smothered by the Harper government, said a British Columbia grand chief in response to revelations the independent body is now being relocated and stripped of the ability to run its own affairs.

 Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
A tribunal created to deal with historic First Nation grievances is slowly being smothered by the Harper government, said a British Columbia grand chief in response to revelations the independent body is now being relocated and stripped of the ability to run its own affairs.

The Harper government is forcing the Specific Claims Tribunal (SCT) to move from its current space to make room for a new super-agency that will handle the administration of several federal tribunals, including the SCT, according to notes obtained by APTN National News. The notes were taken by an individual who was present for a speech given Tuesday by SCT Chair Justice Harry Slade to the Assembly of First Nations’ special committee on claims.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), was among about 20 people who were at the meeting held in a Vancouver board room.

“They are trying to smother it,” said Phillip. “It was a very Machiavellian move, it’s unbelievable. That’s why I say, I’m biting my tongue here.”

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt’s office issued an emailed statement Wednesday evening saying it was up to Justice Canada to respond. The minister refused to answer questions from reporters following an appearance before the Commons Aboriginal Affairs committee late Wednesday afternoon.

APTN National News will be following up with Justice Canada Thursday.

According to the notes, Slade told the meeting the tribunal was given no warning it was expected to move out of its current space, which includes a high-tech hearing room and smudging room, by March. Tribunal employees only found out this was happening because workers showed up at their office and started taking measurements.

Slade also said, according to the notes, that the cost of the paint job for the SCT’s new planned space was taken out of the tribunal’s budget without its knowledge. Slade expressed concerns that the building slated to house the SCT carries a large “Government of Canada” sign which may undercut the image of the tribunal as an independent entity.

The notes also state that Slade is concerned the independence of the tribunal is further comprise by the loss of control over its administration, which will now be handled by a super-agency overseen by Justice Canada. The department twice challenged the SCT’s rulings and is the party opposing First Nation claims during tribunal hearings.

The tribunal, which had its own registry and dedicated administrative budget, will now have to request funds from a centralized agency run by bureaucrats who don’t understand the work of the SCT, Slade told the meeting, according to the notes.

The centralized agency, called Administrative Tribunals Support Service Canada, was buried deep in the Harper government’s 2014 omnibus budget bill. It will pool the cost and administration of 11 quasi-judicial federal tribunals, from the Human Rights Tribunal to the Competition Tribunal to the SCT.

Slade said, according to the notes, that the new structure threatens the SCT’s community hearings. The SCT held some of its hearings in the communities of First Nations seeking compensation for the historical loss of land or the mismanaging of its funds by Ottawa.

News of the tribunal’s forced relocation surfaced mere weeks after Valcourt tabled a scheduled yearly report from Slade warning the SCT was on the brink of failure.

Phillip said he interpreted the Harper government’s decision to move the tribunal as retribution for Slade’s report.

“I think, without question, it is punitive,” said Phillip.

In the report, Slade warned the tribunal was on the brink of failure unless the government appointed more judges to its roster. Slade is currently the tribunal’s only full-time judge. The tribunal also has two part-time judges.

Slade said in his report that Ottawa ignored the tribunal’s requests for more judges.

Slade told the meeting Tuesday, according to the notes, that the tribunal would “collapse under its own weight” unless the federal government appointed more judges. He said the issue was compounded by the slow pace in which Ottawa was filling vacancies in provincial superior courts, according to the notes.

Slade told the AFN committee that there are 62 claims before the tribunal and it will take five years to deal with them if no new claims are filed, according to the notes. Slade said the tribunal is receiving a new claim every two or three weeks.

First Nations can go to the tribunal once their negotiations hit a dead-end or are rejected by Aboriginal Affairs. The department’s rejection rate on specific claims has hit about 85 per cent.

About 42 per cent of the claims before the tribunal come from B.C.

The Oka standoff and the Ipperwash crisis both stemmed from unresolved, specific historical grievances over loss of land.

Harper, along with former Aboriginal affairs minister Jim Prentice and former Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine unveiled the SCT in 2007 during a press conference held on Parliament Hill. The trio stood beneath a giant portrait of John A. Macdonald and the “Fathers of Confederation.”

On that day in June 12, 2007, the prime minister said the tribunal would “revolutionize the claims resolution process” and that it presented a “historic breakthrough.”

The tribunal was announced partly to quell rising tensions in the lead up to a planned day of action later that month. It worked. Only Shawn Brant and the Mohawks of Tyendinaga launched blockades that day, shutting down Hwy 401, the busiest highway in Canada, for 11 hours.

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