Chiefs across Canada are saying that the real lack of “accountability” lies in the Prime Minister’s Office and not at the level of individual first nation governments.
Indigenous people across Canada are owed well in excess of $100-billion, the immediate payment of which Prime Minister Stephen Harper refuses to make a national priority.
Canada’s first nations people live in crushing poverty because of the great wealth taken from them and their lands – and are sick and tired of it. First nations children have the highest rates of infant mortality, diabetes, malnutrition, alcoholism, drug dependency, abuse and incarceration of any children in Canada. These curable maladies are directly caused by poverty. The failure to immediately and effectively address these issues is a national embarrassment.
Poverty is usually and most effectively cured with money, not “accountability.”
Idle No More protesters are simply saying that they do not want to be poor anymore. This is not a “vague or unspecified demand,” as some are saying. The beneficiaries of treaties are literally owed tens, if not hundreds of billions of dollars. The Prime Minister wants to pretend that he does not understand what all the fuss is about.
An example of this is Prime Minister Harper refusing immediately to honor the economic-benefit agreements guaranteed under the eleven numbered treaties signed between the First Nations and the Crown between 1871 and 1921.
Ten years ago, a federal-government expert put the value of this entitlement at $42,000 per person. Mr. Harper and his advisors have stalled the settlement of these claims for no apparent reason other than the knowledge that this same claim exists in every treaty area and that the total cost of settlement will likely exceed $20-billion.
The government, it seems, would rather spend the money owed under treaty on auto bailouts for southern Ontario and on fighter jets instead of alleviating poverty in first nations communities.
Mr. Harper seemingly wants to delay payment of the billions owed to First Nations through what has become the laughable and dysfunctional “Specific Claims” process, where bureaucrats are allowed by statute to delay even responding substantively to a claim for a full three years.
Federal officials must snicker as they prepare the token $5 annuity payments handed out on Treaty Day. Canada received the oil and gas, minerals and timber in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories for an amount now eroded to meaninglessness by inflation.
What Canada refuses to acknowledge is that the value native land in the hands of aboriginal people from the 1870s onward was fixed by statutory instrument under the Dominion Lands Act at the value of one acre of land, inclusive of mineral title. When the numbered treaties were signed, treaty money was either redeemable in gold or for land (including its mineral rights), at what was then $1 an acre. This must be honoured, at current values. Therefore, when treaty chiefs talk about “resource revenue sharing” they have good cause.
The government itself told the Supreme Court, in its factum submitted for the 1895 Ontario vs. Canada Supreme Court case, that the obligation to pay annuities was a “trust that runs with the land.” This is good evidence as to how Canada saw this obligation in the 19th century.
Poverty among first nations would be eradicated in Canada if we returned to that same formulation.
Instead of immediately alleviating poverty by paying all of the money owed, Mr. Harper wants to shuffle deck chairs by talking about first nation school boards. This is unacceptable.
Another example of Mr. Harper’s lack of accountability is the damage to Peguis First Nation farm land in Manitoba, and the loss of that community’s agricultural economy, when a federal drainage project built largely for the benefit of off-reserve farmers contributed to flooding in 2010 that caused more than 70 Peguis families to lose their farms, and turned their reserve land into a bullrush-infested swamp. The direct economic losses of this alone can be conservatively estimated at $200-million.
Claims of this nature exist at virtually every treaty first nation in Western Canada.
Unless these issues are addressed, every time there is a sun dance, powwow or ceremony, first nations people should reclaim their traditional trails under Canadian highways. They should take all of their children, grandchildren, cars, trucks, horses, and livestock onto these highways. They should move as slowly and deliberately as Mr. Harper has moved in being accountable, in honouring treaties or in living up to the honour of the Crown.
Jeffrey Rath is a treaty and aboriginal-rights barrister representing several of the chiefs who will be meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Friday.