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Land Claims Timing Causes Consternation

Aboriginal leaders are up in arms over what they call bad-faith negotiating on the part of the Canadian government, which wants to issue offers on some long-standing claims, sending them to arbitration if the First Nations reject them.
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First Nations leaders across Canada are at odds with the ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development over the timing on land claims negotiations.

The government, ostensibly looking to speed things along, has said that it is preparing to offer land-claim terms to several First Nations with negotiations that have dragged on for more than three years as it seeks to settle a number of claims within the next few months. But aboriginal leaders are suspicious of the move, mistrustful of the fact that the only option after that is arbitration.

To them, it looks as though the government’s plan is to issue a “final offer” that gives no other option but mediation before the Specific Claims Tribunal. Established under the 2008 Specific Claims Tribunal Act (SCTA), the tribunal was supposed to stop negotiations from dragging on indefinitely. Its charge is to hold hearings and make final, binding decisions on claims that remain unsettled or have been rejected by the Canadian government, according to a report, Canada’s Undermining of the Specific Claims Process, put out by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council and the Alliance of Tribal Nations. However, they say, the current interpretation does nothing but force their hands.

For its part, the government said in a recent statement that the stepped-up pace gives aboriginal leaders just what they have been wanting.

“First Nations raised concerns in the past about the slow pace of progress in resolving outstanding claims,” said AAND in a July 26 statement addressing what it called “inaccuracies” in the initial interpretation of the move. “To address their concerns, we have adopted a new approach to speed up claims resolution. This includes three-year time frames for negotiating settlements that were set out in the jointly developed Specific Claims Tribunal Act.”

AAND noted that the government has addressed more than 445 claims since 2007, and has renewed its focus on negotiation and implementation in the recently unveiled Joint Action Plan between the government and First Nations.

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"Timely and effective resolution of First Nations claims is in the best interest of First Nations and all Canadians," said Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo in a statement. "Just as we worked with the federal government on the Specific Claims Tribunal Act, we must continue to work together to address matters as raised through the 'Justice at Last' report. We need to immediately advance work on improving negotiations processes and implementation as envisioned in the Joint Action Plan between the AFN and Canada."

Aboriginal leaders are concerned that what Canada is proposing could amount to a “final offer,” one whose only option is mediation through the Specific Claims Tribunal, an independent tribunal that cannot award more than $150 million.

At its recent meeting in Moncton, New Brunswick, the AFN called on Canada “to stop the de facto rejection of specific claims through letters of partial acceptance and the requirement for sign-off on more issues than those identified by the partial acceptance.”

Chiefs around the country are on their guard.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs in its report noted that British Columbia has the majority of outstanding claims, so stands to lose a lot if claims are funneled to mediation. Furthermore, the chiefs’ report said, a clause allowing Canada to accept parts of a claim and then check it off the list does not leave First Nations with many options.

“By ‘partially accepting’ only small parts of larger specific claims, Canada will claim that it has, in fact, offered to ‘accept’ the claim—and if a First Nation refuses to accept the little that is offered, Canada will say it is the First Nation who is at fault and is standing in the way of reaching a fair and timely settlement,” the chiefs said in their analysis. “Canada continues to negotiate in bad faith.”