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Canada's new Prime Minister lays out First Nations legislative agenda

There was encouraging news for the First Nations in Prime Minister Paul Martin's first Speech from the Throne as he honored his responsibility and commitment to improve the quality of life of Canada's Aboriginal peoples.

The Throne Speech, traditionally used to outline a new government's legislative agenda in the British Parliamentary system, honored initiatives announced by Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Andy Mitchell on Jan. 21. Mitchell's statement said his department had consulted with Aboriginal leadership on joint plans to improve the living conditions in First Nations communities. In the Throne Speech this translated into a pledge from the Martin government to improve drinking water quality, to close jurisdictional gaps that have allowed urban First Nations citizens to be denied benefits and access to federal programs, and improvements in educations and skills training.

Martin also announced the establishment of an independent Center for First Nations Government in cooperation with the First Nations. The Center will presumably address issues of accountability and good governance that would have been addressed in a significantly less-consultative manner than the First Nations Governance Act (Bill C-7) which died late last year. C-7 was the object of persistent and vocal protest by the First Nations and Martin honored his word when heir-apparent to rethink the legislation by stating his government would not pursue re-introducing the legislation.

"Our goal ? is to see Aboriginal Canadians participating fully in national life, on the basis of historic rights and agreements - with greater economic self-reliance, a better quality of life," said Martin in the Throne Speech read to a joint session of Parliament by Governor-General Adrian Clarkson.

Reaction to the speech from First Nations leaders was positive. Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine said the recognition of the reality of many First Nations citizens was encouraging and should serve as "a catalyst" for constructive and joint efforts with Ottawa, but called upon Martin to make more money available to improve health care, on-reserve housing and post-secondary education. Fontaine said he expects the Martin government, expected to call a general election in April, to fully consult the First Nations on the mandate and composition of the Center for First Nations Government.

"The Government appears to recognize the importance of moving towards First Nations economic development and governance together," said Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations Chief Alphonse Bird in a Feb. 2 statement. I am also pleased that the government promises to proceed down this path with First Nations based on our historic Treaty relationships."

The First Nations' enthusiasm and encouragement from the Throne Speech has been offset by discouraging news in the same Jan. 21 Mitchell announcement that the Martin government will be proceeding with plans to implement the Specific Claims Resolution Act (Bill C-6) and pursue the First Nations Fiscal and Statistical Management Act. C-6, which passed the House of Commons in November 2003, would establish a claims review body with members appointed by the federal government. Land and damage claims will be capped at $7 million. Minister Mitchell has claimed that his department will address First Nations opposition and rejection of the legislation in the implementation phase.

Chief Roberta Jamieson of the Six Nations of the Grand River, Canada's most populous Aboriginal community, told Indian Country Today anyone who thinks the deficiencies of the Specific Claims Resolution Act can be corrected in implementation does not understand the bill. Jamieson cited that there is no transparency or independence in a claims resolution body appointed by the government of the day against whom the claims are being made. She also said the bill is without teeth to force Ottawa to resolve existing pending claims the AFN has pegged at over 700.

"There are only a small percentage of claims under the artificial cap," said Jamieson of another widespread criticism of the legislation. "The bill in its current form may appeal to someone looking for government progress, but it is just not there."

According to background information provided by the Ministry of Indian Affairs, the First Nations Fiscal and Statistical Management Act would build upon existing institutions to improve the quality of life on Canada's reserves. C-19 would create through legislation a series of bodies operated by the First Nations, including the First Nations Finance Authority, the First Nations Tax Commission, the First Nations Financial Management Board and First Nations Statistics. The intent of the news bodies is to allow reserve governments to generate capital by borrowing against future taxes in the same manner as municipalities, resolve taxation disputes, to encourage financial responsibility and to fill the gaps in national databases of information related to the First Nations.

AFN National Chief Fontaine said on Jan. 22 the legislation, previously rejected by the majority of the First Nations and the AFN, prevented Aboriginal governments from pursuing alternative methods of securing funding. Fontaine added in his response to the Mitchell announcement the development of C-19 had taken place without the full consultation and approval of the First Nations leadership in accordance with their legal rights and existing agreements with Ottawa. The focus of fiscal relations between Canada and the First Nations should be on creating jobs, genuine economic opportunities and eradicating poverty amongst Aboriginals.

"If the Minister plans to pursue Bill C-19 it should be revised so that it specifically and explicitly only applies to those First Nations who want to sign on to the legislation," said Fontaine. "We will not stand in the way of those who want to pursue C-19."

Chief Jamieson shared Fontaine's concern over the prescriptive nature of C-19. She said the underlying principles of good governance and financial responsibilities are ideals the First Nations support, but rejected the legislation as it stands. She said C-19 is not really about building trust and true partnership, but about the "municipalization" of the First Nations.

"If you put two and two together, you can see the limiting destination," said Jamieson of C-19. "Let us create our own C-19. When we are in control of our future - it works and we can prove it statistically.

"They are looking through the wrong end of the telescope."