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Time to settle First Nation land claims

GB Geo-Blog

Time to settle First Nation land claims

Diane Francis started her column in Saturday’s Financial Post as follows: “The time has come for Canada and the provinces to make timely and responsible resource development the country’s No. 1 national interest.”

I guess Diane believes that Canada can amount to no more than a “hewer of wood and a drawer of water”; that our future depends entirely upon “our” resource endowments and not on our people’s ingenuity and creativity. Of course, I take issue with this type of conclusion and her argument that resource development should be our top priority.

However, I do agree with her argument that the time has long passed to settle First Nation land claims.

To her credit, Diane did stress: “Frankly, I don’t blame First Nations for obstructing development because they face a politicized and dysfunctional court system that never settles, never seems to reject new claims, never deals with any expeditiously and never imposes a deadline on requests.”

Unfortunately, I do not believe that she understands what is at issue and the inherent complexities and risks. For if she did, she would not be so blase to assume that the land claims could be settled quickly by putting the “right” amount of money on the table.

Let’s just consider British Columbia. At the time this province was brought into confederation, there were no treaties between the First Nations inhabiting that region and either the Government of Canada or the British Government. In other words, in 1871, all the lands that comprised B.C. belonged, according to international law, to the First Nations. They were never “surrendered” to Canada. Consequently, until very recently, British Columbia legally belonged to the First Nations – not to Canada. There have been a couple of “modern treaties” in the province that have resulted in some lands being surrendered, but most of B.C. still belongs to the First Nations and are subject to ongoing treaty negotiations and land claims.

Despite this “inconvenient” fact, British Columbia and the federal government have treated all the lands in the province as part of Canada, and subject to Canadian and provincial control. Indeed, both levels of government have benefited enormously from these lands. The same cannot be said for the rightful owners of these lands.

Given this background, would Diane still believe that the disputes in B.C. could be easily resolved; that a few trinkets and some money would suffice to correct the injustices and theft that have taken place for at least the past 140 years in British Columbia? The issues are much more complex and the resolution much more costly for Canada than Diane could imagine.

The Canadian Government has little incentive to settle quickly. The costs could be staggering. Instead, the federal government has learned that its optimal strategy is to delay, beating down the will and resolve of the First Nations until they finally are willing to accept a pittance to settle. Creditors in bankruptcy proceedings in Canada fare infinitely better than First Nations in treaty negotiations and land settlement claims.

I wonder what Diane’s position might be if she really understood the history of Canada and treaty negotiations with First Nations? I wonder what her position might be on resource development if she understood that the federal government likely did not have the authority in the 1930s to transfer control over resources to the provinces? I just might have to ask her!

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


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