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First Nations: A 2011 Retrospective of the Year's News

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Aboriginals in Canada share many issues, but they comprise three distinct groups: First Nations, Inuit and Métis. Over the next few days Indian Country Today Media Network will highlight events and affairs distinct to each one as they occurred over 2011.

We start with the largest group, the First Nations, 700,000 souls who collectively form the largest bloc of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, with more than 630 communities throughout the country.

Violence Against Women

Across the board, of course, were the common issues of violence against aboriginal women, the sad state of education and deplorable housing.

Last January Members of Canada’s parliamentary Committee on the Status of Women fanned out across the nation over two weeks to investigate the scope of violence against aboriginal women, speaking with women’s groups, Métis associations, shelter workers, professors, police and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in seven cities to try and get a handle on the high rate of violence that aboriginal women are prone to.

As the year wore on, hearings for the British Columbia Missing Women Commission of Inquiry got under way, its members gathering testimony from sources associated with the investigation into the years-long murder spree of serial killer Robert Pickton. Seeking to find out why it did not come to authorities' attention until he had killed dozens of women, most of them aboriginal, the panel listened to families of victims, members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and others.

Notably missing were the Native Women's Association of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations, which pulled out along with a number of other groups when the British Columbia government refused to fund their participation. Meanwhile marches were held throughout the year to commemorate the more than 700 aboriginal women nationwide who have been murdered or disappeared, the crimes unsolved.


The tobacco debate started smoking in February, when 14 million cigarettes in 75 cartons made by Rainbow Tobacco, based on a Mohawk reserve in Kahnawake, Quebec. Chad Rice, chief financial officer of the federally licensed manufacturer, said at the time that the company was finalizing a deal and distribution network with various First Nations communities that were going to sell the cigarettes. He vowed to take them to court. Over the course of the year, shops selling Rainbow smokes were raided a few more times for selling cigarettes that were federally licensed, but not stamped for sale in the province in which they were being sold. The latest was the November seizure of 89,550 cigarettes being sold at the Dakota Chundee smoke shop, run by three Dakota First Nations, by Manitoba tax authorities. Besides Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan have also seized Rainbow Tobacco cigarettes, according to APTN.

Bruce Power Co.'s Excellent Nuclear-Transport Adventure

Also in February, leading into March, was a controversy over Bruce Power Co.'s idea to transport steam generators containing radioactive waste up the St. Lawrence Seaway to Sweden. The St. Regis Mohawk and other tribes objected strongly and were joined by chiefs in Ontario sooner after.

On February 4 the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission had approved the shipment but without consulting any American Indians or Canadian First Nations. The scheme was eventually dropped by Bruce Power itself, which said it would hold off until the First Nations were on board.

Self-Government and Then Some

Eleven of the 14 First Nations in the Yukon region of the Northwest Territories (NWT) had signed self-governing agreements by the beginning of this year, but the Teslin Tlingit took it a step further in March with the historic adoption of its own justice system. Under an agreement signed by Tlingit and Canadian officials, band would enact its own laws in wildlife protection, control of its settlement land, zoning, adoption and other civil matters. A peacemaker court was created to impose penalties and resolve disputes for legislative violations, and corrections programs and services were set up for those sentenced in the court, excluding criminal law cases and federally regulated matters such as national security.

The self-government trend continued over the course of the year, with the Huu-ay-aht, Ucluelet, Uchucklesaht, Toquaht, and Kyuquot First Nations taking on their own responsibilities effective April 1. The Maa-nulth Final Agreement was the first modern-day treaty on Vancouver Island and marked the beginning of a new era for five First Nations along the west coast shores of Barkley and Kyuquot Sounds.

Later, in October, First Nations in British Columbia took another step toward health-care autonomy with the signing of a groundbreaking agreement to oversee their own health care services, rather than relying on the federal government. That too was hailed as historic and a possible model for other First Nations.

The Absurd

Even as First Nations concerns seemed to advance on the self-governing front, there were setbacks as well. Take, for instance, the April solution to Island Lake First Nation's request for sanitary facilities. Instead of the Porta-Potties, holding tanks and communal facilities for bathing and laundry that community leaders had envisioned, they received 999 slop pails—albeit with seats—plus 800 water barrels, a water truck and a sewage truck for each community, though without a maintenance plan or fuel cost provisions.

This was one of many ways that First Nations concerns failed to hit the national radar, even during election-campaign season.

National Politics

A scandal erupted in March when the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) broke the story of Bruce Carson, a one-time aide to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, having lobbied the government and AFN National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo for water contracts for First Nations for his girlfriend's company. Soon afterward the government fell, though not because of that story. However the election campaign too became symptomatic of the lack of regard of mainstream Canadian politicians for the country's aboriginals.


For First Nations as with all aboriginals, environment is synonymous with livelihood. And that was no more evident than in an April fuel spill along the Goldstream River on Vancouver Island that killed much of the young salmon in several First Nations fisheries. The five affected First Nations—the Tsartlip, Tsawout, Pauquachin, Tseycum and Malahat—were also angry that they were not consulted directly by truck owner Columbia Fuels, whose vehicle spilled the fuel. Columbia contacted Indian and Northern Affairs Canada rather than deal with the nations directly.

May saw the 28,000-barrel oil spill from the Rainbow pipeline in Northern Alberta, which closed the school in the First Nation community of Little Buffalo as well as the pipeline, which eventually reopened. In the interim environmentalists and indigenous leaders began calling in earnest for a halt to the notion of mining crude from the notorious oil sands. This controversy would extend through the end of the year and beyond as President Obama’s administration mulled over approval of the Keystone XL project proposed by TransCanada.

Also on the environmental front, floods in May displaced hundreds of First Nations people in Manitoba. To this day they are living in hotels and elsewhere scattered throughout Winnipeg, waiting to be relocated permanently.

Fires ripped through northern Ontario in May and June, causing widespread evacuation and destroying much of the town of Slave Lake. The thousands of evacuees were able to return home a few weeks later.

Government Boondoggles

As if slop pails and water contract favoritism weren't enough, the government came under fire in June for allegedly spying on its First Nations citizens. It came out that just after coming to power as prime minister in 2006, Harper had set up a federal effort to monitor what he considered potential areas of First Nation unrest by enlisting the Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC, since renamed Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, or AAND). Child advocate Cindy Blackstock was also later revealed to have been a target as well.

Clearly, the government was spending time and money on the wrong things, as outgoing Auditor General Sheila Fraser suggested when she denounced a lack of progress on aboriginal issues during her 10-year tenure as she performed a series of exit interviews with Canadian media.

“Too many First Nations people still lack what most other Canadians take for granted,” she said in a May 25 speech to the Canadian Club of Ottawa, adding that far from improving, conditions had deteriorated.

Another government branch, Canada Post, was gripped by a strike in June that caused mail service to grind to a halt in Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. It held up everything from public-assistance checks to supplies for fly-in communities.

Ups and Downs

Early July was upbeat, with a visit from the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, newlywed British Royals Prince William and Kate Middleton. After checking out indigenous life at the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning in the NWT, they canoed to a secluded island for a night of R&R. They wowed the crowds and reinforced aboriginals' special, unique relationship with the Crown.

In mid-July the AFN's Atleo raised eyebrows by calling for an end to the Indian Act once and for all. He was already under fire for moving ahead with a national blue-ribbon education panel in conjunction with the federal government, and some chiefs thought he'd gone rogue. He continues to push for the Act's abolishment, saying that its paternalistic nature represents everything that is wrong with aboriginal-Canadian relations.

However First Nations were in accord against the gold and copper mine re-proposed by Taseko Mines Ltd of Vancouver, which wants to drain a lake on Tsilhqot'in ancestral territory and render much of the surroundings unusable for decades. Calling it "one of the worst mining proposals in B.C. history," the AFN passed a resolution at its general assembly. That fight continues, with both the Tsilhqot'in and Taseko in court.

Opposition to other projects reared up in July, when the 35-member Dene Nation, whose territory stretches from northern Alberta through the Northwest Territories, added its voice to that of the British Columbia Yinka Dene Alliance’s fight against Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would send oil to the Pacific coast through traditional territory.

Governments and First Nations weren't always at odds, though. In August the Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) and the province of British Columbia finished hammering out an agreement that allows for both Native stewardship of ancestral lands, and responsible economic development in partnership with industry. The Atlin Taku Land Use Plan, coming after years of strife between the Tlingit and the province, earned kudos from aboriginal leaders, Canadian authorities, the mining industry and even environmental groups. It covered 11,500 square miles.

In more good news, August saw the settlement of the 23-year-long human-rights case of a former Ontario corrections officer, the country's longest-running such case ever. Aboriginal corrections officer Michael McKinnon not only received damages, but his settlement also included provision for a three-year initiative launched by the province to rid the prison system of racism.

The death of beloved National Democratic Party leader Jack Layton in August affected all aboriginals, but it was Atleo who gave the opening blessing at his state funeral.

“Please accept my condolences and the condolences from so many indigenous people from coast to coast to coast,” said Atleo, clad in traditional attire, before invoking the ancestors and turning to address the maple-leaf-draped casket. “We speak directly to the spirit, expressing the highest regard for a close family member, which is how so many of us feel.”

In September Layton's protégé, aboriginal MP Romeo Saganash, announced his candidacy for his mentor's seat. If Saganash wins in March he will be the country's first-ever major-party leader.

Also in September, in a milestone of another sort, the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation Band was officially created, giving thousands of Newfoundland Mi’kmaq membership as status Indians with access to provincial and federal benefits.

First Nations clashed with business in October, when an internal memo from Air Canada to its employees implicated displaced Manitoba flood victims in a reduction of safety and moved its employees elsewhere for layovers. Manitoba chiefs demanded a formal apology but got only a cursory e-mail, and vowed to boycott.

Elsewhere, Atleo and other First Nations leaders were busy fostering business relationships in China, where they participated in trade shows, business meetings and the dedication of a totem so as to solidify direct relations with the Asian nation.

Back on the home front, the November pullout of the Matawa chiefs from the Ring of Fire's chromium mining project put the entire enterprise in jeopardy. The chiefs of all nine Ojibwe and Cree communities of the Matawa First Nations said the government was not doing the level of environmental assessment they felt was necessary.

In late November Attawapiskat burst onto the national consciousness. Chief Theresa Spencer had called for an evacuation a month earlier due to deplorable housing conditions and been ignored. But once the media and opposition politicians got hold of the story, the Conservative government was forced to act. Now modular homes are en route and local public buildings have been adapted into shelters to get the residents through the winter. And the country is newly outraged at the way many First Nations are forced to live on their reserves.

Land claims ruled the balance of the month, with the Algonquin preparing a huge one in Quebec and Ontario that would overlap lands held by other tribes, and the Williams Lake First Nation settling its own claim with the Canadian government for $160 million.

The year ended on a positive note, with Harper finally picking a date for the long-promised summit between First Nations and the Crown. The meeting will be held January 24–25.