News from the North: A digest of First Nations news from Canada

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First Nations Governance Act Update

OTTAWA - The package of bills associated with the strongly contested First Nations Governance Act continues to advance. The Specific Claims Act (Bill C-6) could be headed to the Canadian Senate as early as Jan. 27.

C-6 will effectively remove the First Nations of input from any claims and give complete decision-making authority to Ottawa.

The Assembly of First Nations said in a Jan. 16 report that Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault, L-Kenora, has hurried his "suite" of new Indian laws through the House of Commons, Canada's national legislature, with little or no consultation from the First Nations.

National Chief of the AFN Matthew Coon Come was one of 11 First Nations leaders who were given only five minutes to make their presentation. A mere six-and-a-half hours were allotted for testimony before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs on Nov. 28, 2002. This insignificant period caused 28 other First Nations that had petitioned to speak on the controversial bill to be turned away.

The Liberals hold a sizeable majority in the Commons, which allows the government of Prime Minister Jean Chr?tien to pass without meaningful opposition any and all legislation it sees fit to introduce.

Opposition parties did what they could to delay the legislation Dec. 3 before the Christmas recess. They introduced 40 amendments to C-6 in order to make the bill more reflective of findings of a Joint Task Force between Ottawa and the AFN that included considerably more input from the First Nations. The AFN accused Nault and Chr?tien of reneging on their agreement to abide by the findings of the task force and proceeding with the Specific Claims Act, the First Nations Governance Act (C-7), and the First Nations Fiscal and Statistical Management Act (C-8).

Canadian census provides mixed news

OTTAWA - The Aboriginal population in Canada is increasing, becoming younger and is in danger of loosing its languages, according to reports on the 2001 census from Statistics Canada.

Canadians who identified themselves as North American Indian, Inuit or M?tis decent climbed to 976,305 - an increase of 22 percent in the last 10 years. Aboriginals now make up 3.3 percent of the Canadian population, up from 2.8 percent in 1996.

Native languages are beginning to fade because their use is declining as tribal elders fluent in most languages are starting to die off, said the report.

Only 24 percent of the Aboriginals who responded said they still speak in their ancestral language. That figure represents a drop from 29 percent from only five years ago. Of more than 50 ancestral languages listed when the Census was first taken after Confederation in 1867, 10 have disappeared and 12 are teetering on the brink of extinction.

Indian Country Today reported in December 2002 that Heritage Minister Shelia Copps, L-Hamilton, had announced the allotment of $172 million (Cdn.) to fund programs to provide instruction in Native languages to preserve them.

Many First Nations, such as the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, have taken matters into their own hands and created ancestral language classes and training as part of the curriculum in the territories schools.

The only Aboriginal languages that reported increased use in the census were Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut.

StatsCan estimates that upwards of 35,000 aboriginals living on reserves refused to be counted because they see the census as an unnecessary intrusion.

Cat Lake First Nation stretches out

CAT LAKE, ONTARIO - A joint announcement by Chief Charles Wesley of the Cat Lake First Nation and Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault on Jan. 21 said the band has acquired an additional 3,836 acres of new reserve land under Canada's Addition to Reserve policy.

"Increasing our Reserve base today has opened up opportunities for the Cat Lake Community," said Wesley.

The Cat Lake Reserve is now seven times its original size of just over 538 acres. The land was purchased following negotiations with the Province of Ontario at an assessed fair market value of $84,500 (Cdn.).

This isolated Ojibway community is approximately 500 miles north of Toronto. Cat Lake has 465 registered members, of whom 362 live on the reserve.

Aboriginals win DIAND computer contract

OTTAWA - The Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development announced on Jan. 16 that the firm Donna Cona was awarded a $15 million (Cdn.) contract to provide the ministry with full-help desk and computer network support services.

Minister Robert Nault applauded Donna Cona as an example of the success of Aboriginal entrepreneurs in different markets and Ottawa's contributions to developing business partnerships with the First Nations.

Donna Cona President John Bernard said the company has an established record of building public trust, innovation and a commitment to hiring and mentoring Aboriginals. Bernard is a member of the Madawaska Maliseet First Nations Band.

Dona Cona could not be reached for details on when the project would start or the number of new jobs the contract would create.