News from the North: A review of the top Native stories in Canada for 2002

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ONEIDA NATION HOMELANDS, N.Y. - It was a fascinating year across northern Indian Country in 2002. There was controversy and frustration, as well as hope and progress.

Summarized below are some of the more important stories that reached us from Canada involving the First Nations over the past year.

All dollar amounts mentioned are in Canadian currency.

James Bay Cree reach settlement

In February, Indian Country Today reported that the James Bay Cree had approved an historic $3.8 billion hydroelectric development agreement with the Province of Quebec.

The settlement was preceded by an Agreement-in-Principle that was first arrived at in October 2001 which had sharply divided the nine Cree villages along the eastern shore of James Bay. Allegations by opponents to the AIP said tampering with the referendum process that led to the 70 percent approval by band members inflated the numbers supporting the decision.

Grand Chief Ted Moses said the settlement was "an historic moment" and a vindication of Cree demands for compensation that were never granted by the province going back to the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975.

Opponents to the February agreement said they feared damage to traditional lifestyles, tribal sovereignty and the environment.

Those fighting the agreement appeared at the official signing on Feb. 7 in the Cree village of Waskaganish, Quebec and were promptly arrested on charges such as blocking a public sidewalk. Chief Henry Diamond, an elderly man, was forcibly subdued by tribal police and injured at the ceremony for refusing to leave.

First Nations leadership opposes First Nations Governance Act

This past summer, Minister for Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Robert Nault introduced the First Nations Governance Act in the House of Commons, the Canadian federal legislature, in an effort to control the structure of tribal governments, the method of tribal elections and to increase accountability by First Nations governments.

Nault was quoted as saying he was not prepared to wait another 60 years for sovereignty agreements to be negotiated.

Roberta Jamieson, the elected chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River - Canada's most populous First Nation - spoke with ICT in June and said the FNGA was an assault on sovereignty.

Jamieson said the act was flawed and had glaring omissions, including failure to recognize the collective right of Aboriginal people to self-government enshrined in the Canadian constitution of 1982.

"And now the Minister would have us believe that that didn't happen," said Jamieson. "That's why reaching back to the Indian Act, pulling it forward and tinkering with it as a blueprint for our future doesn't cut it, and it shouldn't cut it with Canadians either."

Six Nations spokesperson Scott Cavan said this January that the FNGA has been reintroduced for debate following a recess and is a series of measures the Chr?tien regime is attempting to put in place including financial development laws under the control of Ottawa.

Royal couple open Nunavut legislature

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip made Iqualuit, Nunavut the first stop on the Golden Jubilee tour of Canada on Oct. 5.

Iqualuit is the capital of Nunavut, Canada's newest territory which is populated with a large Inuit majority. Queen Elizabeth officially opened the territorial legislature during her two-hour visit which also included a demonstration of traditional Inuit cultural activities and sporting events.

The royals were welcomed to the legislature by the singing of "God Save the Queen" in Inuktitut, English and French.

The Queen's legal status as the head of state of Canada and the other members of the British Commonwealth, the now independent countries that were part of the British Empire, is symbolic. She is held in the highest regard by the majority of First Nations, not only for her well-known concern and interest in Aboriginal affairs, but also the fact that many consider themselves to still be allies of the Crown.

Former Native leader makes anti-Semitic remarks

National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Matthew Coon Come and M?tis National Council President Gerald Morin were among the scores of Canadian leaders that condemned remarks made by Dr. David Ahenakew praising Nazi Germany's treatment of the Jews at a health conference in Saskatoon in December.

Ahenakew, who once was national chief of the AFN, is also facing renewed efforts to have him stripped of the honor of being in the Order of Canada and is facing criminal charges under Canada's strict hate-crime laws for saying Hitler came to power for "trying to clean up the world" by "frying six million Jews." Ahenakew was also clearly heard to have described the Jewish people as a disease.

The specific charge is public incitement of hatred. Canadian legal experts have said the case hinges upon the interpretation of what 'willfully promote hatred against an identifiable group' is interpreted as in this case and Ahenakew's reason for making the remarks.

The Saskatoon Star Phoenix and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have both confirmed that an investigation is under way. The Province of Saskatchewan requested the RCMP launch the investigation in response to public outrage over the remarks.

James Parker, a Star Phoenix reporter, has emerged as a central figure in the investigation because he handed over notes and an audio tape he made while covering the conference that clearly contain Ahenakew's remarks when an RCMP officer showed up with a search warrant at his office.

Residential lawsuits move ahead

A class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of thousands of Aboriginals that suffered abuse in church-run state residential schools that could reach $1.7 billion dollars.

To date, a court decision has limited the financial responsibility of the denominations that operated the schools to 30 percent of settlements to protect them from having to declare bankruptcy. Ottawa has also set up a fast-track settlement process that will net claimants lower awards and save the federal government millions in legal fees.

Evatt Merchant, an Edmonton, Alberta-based lawyer representing some of the claimants, said in November that he had recommended to his clients that they not participate in this process.

Alberta, in western Canada, has one of the highest total number of claims in the suit. The Order of Catholic Oblates that operated several schools in the province faces nearly 3,000 individual suits on its own.

Darcy Merkur, a spokesperson for the Toronto law firm of Thomson Rogers, said his firm is representing claimants that suffered abuse in residential schools in northwestern Ontario between 1926 and 1996 that could reach into the billions on its own.

The Thomson Rogers suit is challenging the government restriction of payment of claims to survivors of sexual and physical abuse only and seeks to extend compensation to family members and include punitive damages.