Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller announced a new policy meant to address issues in the federal government’s implementation of the approximately two dozen treaties it has signed with Indigenous peoples since 1975, which are known as modern treaties.
In remarks Tuesday at the Land Claims Agreement Coalition conference in Ottawa, Mr. Miller acknowledged that Indigenous treaty-holders have needed to work far too hard to get the federal government to understand and uphold these modern treaties, including, at times, by taking Ottawa to court.
The policy, which has long been called for by the coalition, was developed by Indigenous modern treaty-holders and the federal government over the summer and fall of 2022.
At the conference, which brought together Indigenous leaders, subject experts and government officials, Mr. Miller said the goal of the new policy is to increase the understanding within the federal public service of the importance of modern treaties. It is aimed at a “systemic shift” in the public service’s work culture, he said.
“When we don’t live up to the spirit and intent of treaties, it undermines the foundation of trust and respect the agreement was built upon, and frankly, just jeopardizes the relationship,” he said.
Modern treaties deal with everything from ownership and use of land, to the harvesting of fish and wildlife, to economic development, and they usually include self-government agreements. They codify how resources and land are to be used and shared – and the rights that Indigenous peoples are entitled to. Most modern treaties have been signed in areas where Indigenous title and rights have not been settled, the Land Claims Agreement Coalition notes on its website.
The negotiated agreements are typically tripartite, involving an Indigenous nation or organization, the federal government, and a provincial or territorial government.
The first modern treaty, signed in 1975, was the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. In total, 26 modern treaties have been signed, covering the lands of Nunavut, as well as parts of Yukon, the Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador.
Mr. Miller also said Tuesday that a leaders’ forum, comprised of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Indigenous leaders of modern treaties, will be launched, along with policy development round tables.
As well, over the next six months, the federal department and Indigenous treaty partners will develop recommendations for an independent mechanism to hold Ottawa accountable for the terms of the agreements, he said.
The new policy clarifies the responsibilities of the public service with respect to modern treaties. For instance, it specifically directs deputy heads, who are senior bureaucrats, to fulfill Canada’s modern treaty obligations in a “broad and purposive manner.” It also notes that the promises made to Indigenous modern treaty partners – “stable thriving cultures and equitable levels of material well-being” – have not been realized.
“These failures create ongoing legal, financial and reputational risks and damages to Canada,” reads the policy, which though published, is not yet finalized.
The minister emphasized that the Collaborative Modern Treaty Implementation Policy is meant to create continuity within the public service, so that Indigenous groups are not spending so much time reminding bureaucrats and others about the nature of these agreements.
Speaking alongside Mr. Miller, the co-chairs of the Land Claims Agreement Coalition – Nisga’a Nation President Eva Clayton and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) President Aluki Kotierk – welcomed the announcement.
Ms. Kotierk pointed out that 2023 marks 20 years since the modern treaty-holders decided to begin working together to advocate around the issues they were each facing around implementation. It also marks 30 years, she noted, since the Nunavut Agreement was signed.
“Each time a modern treaty is agreed upon, there is a lot of hope in our communities that things will be better. And I can attest that there’s a lot of frustration and mistrust when implementation doesn’t occur,” Ms. Kotierk said.
In 2006, NTI filed a $1-billion lawsuit against the federal government related to implementation failures around the Nunavut Agreement; that case was settled nearly a decade later for more than $250-million.
Ms. Clayton said that while the process of reaching Tuesday’s policy announcement was “no easy feat” and that sometimes, “it seemed like we would never get the attention of the federal government,” she acknowledged Mr. Miller for pushing the creation of the policy forward.
In an interview, Ms. Clayton added that she expects the policy will lead to an improved relationship with Nisga’a Nation’s treaty partners. (Nisga’a Nation signed a modern treaty with the governments of British Columbia and Canada in 1998; it came into effect in 2000.)
“Once they understand what it’s all about, then you’ll come to that bigger picture,” she said. “And we can begin working together collaboratively.”
The coalition’s conference, which ends Wednesday, includes sessions on implementation issues, legislative developments, Indigenous data governance, housing and Indigenous languages.