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Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes part in the Crown First Nations Gathering in Ottawa on Tuesday, January 24, 2012.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

First Nations are pushing back at the Harper government over strings they say have been unfairly attached to their federal funding.

Chiefs contend Ottawa crafted the 2013-2014 funding agreement without consultation and that a specific clause forces them to abide by existing and future legislation – without the right, they say, to mount legal challenges. The document, which is about 50 pages long and lays out funding conditions such as reporting and transparency requirements, includes changes to on-reserve income assistance and specifies that relevant future legislation prevails over existing terms.

While the particularly contentious clause is not new – the paragraph about existing and future legislation dates back at least as far as 2008 – one prominent leader said chiefs reviewed the agreement with more scrutiny this year because of the extent to which aboriginal-federal relations have deteriorated.

"Trust has diminished," said Morley Googoo, the Nova Scotia and Newfoundland regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations. "People have grown more aware of what's written."

Leaders from Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta told The Globe and Mail that chiefs have either withheld signatures or signed the agreement stipulating duress. Saskatchewan's Chief Wallace Fox sent a package to Aboriginal Affairs saying he signed under duress and enclosed a copy of a recent Montana Senate resolution supporting Canada's Idle No More movement and the right to consultation.

Saskatchewan regional chief Perry Bellegarde said the agreement has caused "alarming fear" among the province's 74 bands, which is why his Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Chiefs advised bands to sign saying they did so under duress. Mr. Googoo said most bands didn't have a choice: "It's not like we're rich enough to say, 'Screw you.'"

On Tuesday, one Manitoba First Nations organization plans to issue a directive to its chiefs advising them to challenge the "assimilationist extortion tactic" in court. Also Tuesday, First Nations will receive their first monthly cheque under the new agreement (once signed, Ottawa will issue funding regardless of whether there was mention of duress).

Several chiefs said they are more suspicious than ever of the Harper government because of what the past year has brought: two omnibus budget bills that enraged First Nations concerned with the environment and treaty rights; new financial transparency rules allegedly passed without proper consultation; and an unwillingness on behalf of the Prime Minister to meet with First Nations leaders alongside the Governor-General.

"There's a growing restlessness and anger," University of Manitoba native studies professor Peter Kulchyski said of the latest uproar. "I think we're looking at the threat of a whole other scale of potentially violent [protest], but certainly civil unrest, coming from aboriginal communities."

The government put out a statement last month saying changes to the agreement are "solely administrative" and that "there is no explicit or implicit funding condition" regarding the omnibus budget legislation. To that, Mr. Bellegarde said: "That's their interpretation."

He said the new agreement is peppered with concerning language. At various points, a phrase was inserted stating that recipient bands must not only meet the terms of this agreement, but also relevant conditions laid out under future legislation. It also includes more clearly defined financial reporting requirements and nods to a controversial Budget 2012 pledge to align on-reserve social assistance with provincial programs.

John Paul, executive director of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations, pointed out that a federal judge issued an injunction last year temporarily preventing Ottawa from reducing income-assistance rates for First Nations in Maritime provinces. A decision is expected this summer.

Aboriginal Affairs spokesperson Lesia Manchulenko said the office welcomes any questions to help "clarify the meaning and intent of certain clauses."

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt has also directed the department to mail the agreements earlier next year since chiefs complained they didn't have enough time to review them before the March 15 deadline.

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