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Minister alleges intimidation on C-7 as formal debate closes

OTTAWA - The gloves have come off in the recent fight over the First Nations Governance Act and Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Robert D. Nault threw the first punch.

Nault issued a statement May 6 in which he described the Assembly of First Nations' opposition to the FNGA as a part of "pockets of opposition" to the Government of Canada's efforts to respond to First Nations people who want increased accountability and efficiency in their communities' governments.

"Many First Nations people are too frightened to speak of their support of the bill for fear of reprisals," said Nault who cautioned Canadians they should not gauge support for the act on the government's relationship with the AFN and National Chief Matthew Coon Come. "Many First Nations leaders and members have told me there is a need for changes to the Indian Act in areas dealing with the political and financial responsibilities of band government."

The Minister added there has been an extensive consultation process, Ottawa has listened to the opposition, and established First Nations leaders are not interested in seeing changes occur.

"I have always wanted and continue to want the Chiefs to be part of this process for many valid reasons," said Nault. "They have experience in governance which should be shared with all people involved in the process.

"It perplexes me that any First Nations leader would deny the full participation of their members in discussions that affect them."

Indian Country Today contacted the Minister's office to confirm the statement and to determine if he had acquired any proof to support the allegations of intimidation and reprisals and was forwarded a letter to the editor from the Winnipeg Free Press titled "Governance Act needed for protection."

James Wilson of the Opaskawayak Cree Nation said an employee of the band government was fired for insubordination for being publicly critical of the band's handling of certain businesses and its management strategy.

"My opinion has now changed," wrote Wilson. "As long as there are leaders in our community who cannot take a little constructive criticism and are threatened to the point that will fire dissidents, we need an act that represent the interests of community members, not the leaders.

"If the First Nations Governance Act means placing individual human rights over and above treaty rights (the right to fire anyone you please for any reason and the right to set up any form of government you desire) then that's a treaty right I will gladly part with."

Coon Come said the First Nations opposition to the FNGA has not been a personal matter with the Minister as Nault would have Canadians believe and is based on genuine concern for their people in the future.

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"Let us be clear why we oppose Bill C-7 [the First Nations Governance Act]," said Coon Come in his response to Nault. "Bill C-7 does not replace the Indian Act but instead props it up with more rules and regulations unilaterally designed by a federal bureaucrat, to be imposed on our communities.

"It infringes on our constitutionally-recognized and protected rights by imposing 'one-size-fits-all' codes and criteria on our governments, rather than allowing us the freedom to work with our citizens to create systems that truly reflect our culture and values."

Coon Come said C-7 does not transfer power from the Minister to governments, as Nault said in his statement, but enhances his authorities by making him the registrar of band by-laws for example. He added that grassroots protests involving thousands of First Nations citizens across the country are more than "pockets of opposition" and that First Nations have been joined condemning the Act by the Canadian Bar Association, the Auditor General of Canada, the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, Ecumenical Church leaders, the authors of the Harvard Study on Sovereignty and Nation Building, and the leading federal Liberal Party leadership candidate Paul Martin.

The AFN National Chief also said that of the 201 witnesses before the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs, the legislative committee preparing the FNGA, 191 spoke out against the legislation.

"The personal attacks on our people and leaders reveals a desperation brought on by the crumbling fa?ade of 'support' for the Minister's legislation that all Canadians have witnessed over the last few days," said Coon Come.

Coon Come said the First Nations, who withdrew formally from the consultation process, would work with the Minister, but only on meaningful partnership that addressed their concerns.

First Nations leaders countered with the "Drums of Nations" rally protesting the FNGA in the Minister's home legislative riding of Kenora, Ontario on May 15 attended by hundreds of protestors.

Native leaders and speakers on the list included President of the Native Women's Association of Canada Terri Brown whose organization has soundly rejected the FNGA, Coon Come and other chiefs from every region of Canada. Mayor Dave Canfield of the City of Kenora, leader of the New Democratic Party Jack Leighton, leader of the Ontario NDP Howard Hampton and opposition Members of Parliament on the Standing Committee from Manitoba and Quebec also participated in or were honored guests at the rally.

Despite the rally and the obvious extensive opposition to the FNGA, the Standing Committee closed debate on the bill at 9 a.m. May 26 in an effort to send it back to the House of Commons before the summer recess.

Clan Mothers of the Mohawk Nation were amongst the last to address the Standing Committee and voiced their concerns and opposition to the legislation as MP Yvan Loubier of the Parti Qu?b?cois, MP Pat Martin of the NDP, and the Right Honorable Joe Clark, leader of the Canadian Alliance party and a former Prime Minister, protested all night in the Commons in opposition to the Standing Committee's Liberal Party-dominated decision.

"The fight goes on," said Coon Come in an official statement on May 26. "We will oppose this legislation on all fronts at all times. It is the modern age and we must move past colonial days when the government purported to tell us how to run our communities and our lives. We are ready and willing to work in a real partnership to address all our mutual priorities, but we will not stand for imposed legislation that binds our hands and tramples our rights."