In a landmark decision that could have wide-ranging implications on treaty rights, the federal government has been ordered to pay $4.5-million to a Saskatchewan First Nation for actions that date back to the 1885 North-West Rebellion.
Lawyers for the Beardy's and Okemasis First Nation say the Specific Claims Tribunal's decision relates to the government withholding treaty payments as punishment for the short-lived Metis rebellion led by Louis Riel.
"There was no due process or legal authority to do any of that," Ron Maurice, the First Nation's lawyer, said in an interview.
The Specific Claims Tribunal, which resolves legal disputes between First Nations and the federal government, ruled last year that the government breached its lawful obligation to members of the First Nation to pay treaty annuities after the rebellion. A decision about compensation was made last Friday.
The government at the time believed band members were involved in the resistance and withheld annuities from the First Nation and 13 others in Saskatchewan from 1885 to 1888.
On the Beardy's and Okemasis First Nation, Mr. Maurice said John A. Macdonald's government was legally obligated to pay each man, woman and child $5 a year, for an amount totalling $4,250 over three years.
"It's a relatively small amount of money, but it literally meant life and death for these people at that time," Mr. Maurice said.
"To say that people were starving and destitute is not an overstatement at all."
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett's office said it had just received the decision and would be reviewing it. But the Liberal government has been pushing for a more collaborative process alongside the Assembly of First Nations, instead of resorting to the Specific Claims Tribunal.
"Negotiation, rather than litigation, remains our government's preferred route to settling differences and righting historical wrongs," Ms. Bennett's office said in a statement.
The federal government has 30 days to appeal the decision.
Mr. Maurice said if awarded, the $4.5-million would be put into a communal trust and used for social measures such as housing and scholarships.
He said legal action against the government first began in one form or another in 2001, and he is hoping the tribunal's decision spurs the government to settle with the other 13 First Nations.
"It could literally be done in a matter of days if the government was determined to actually resolve it," he said.
Bobby Cameron, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, said he feels both relief and frustration about the decision, which took more than a decade of legal wrangling.
"It meant an acknowledgement about our inherent and treaty rights," he said. "It's very significant."
Mr. Cameron said he hopes an improved relationship between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and indigenous peoples means the government will settle similar cases at a faster rate.
"Let's not waste thousands and thousands of dollars on legal fees. The decision has been made. Precedent has been set. Therefore compensate these bands a lot sooner than how long it took Beardy's and Okemasis to get a decision," he said.
After the rebellion, the federal government labelled men, women and children on the First Nation, along with the 13 others, as "rebel Indians" even though many could not have possibly taken part in the resistance.
Beardy's and Okemasis First Nation Chief Rick Gamble said the judicial system is costing everyone a lot of money, and that public money could be better spent on things other than fighting treaty rights.
"We keep winning these treaty rights battles and the government keeps insisting on fighting," Mr. Gamble said.
With a report from the Canadian Press