Canada

Turmoil in Native Affairs

As debate begins in Ottawa on the controversial Nisga’a land-claim agreement in British Columbia, a new federal Indian affairs minister steps onto the field to carry the ball

John Geddes November 1 1999
Canada

Turmoil in Native Affairs

As debate begins in Ottawa on the controversial Nisga’a land-claim agreement in British Columbia, a new federal Indian affairs minister steps onto the field to carry the ball

John Geddes November 1 1999

Turmoil in Native Affairs

As debate begins in Ottawa on the controversial Nisga’a land-claim agreement in British Columbia, a new federal Indian affairs minister steps onto the field to carry the ball

Canada

John Geddes

Chief Joseph Gosnell is a man savouring his moment. At 63, he has been active in the politics of the Nisga’a for nearly four decades, the past seven years devoted almost entirely to negotiating the settlement of the northern British Columbia First Nation’s land claim. Now, success is all but certain. The landmark deal was ratified by his own people last fall and the British Columbia government last spring. This week, when debate on a law to ratify the treaty at the federal level begins in the Flouse of Commons, Gosnell plans to be in the visitor’s gallery. Angry opposition from the Reform party assures the agreement a rough ride, but he is relying on personal assurances from Prime Minister Jean Chrétien that it will pass unaltered. And the serene chief also takes comfort from the stand taken by Robert Nault, 44, the pugnacious new Indian affairs minister. “I think he looks like a chap who will carry the ball,” Gosnell observed in an interview.

Nault appears ready to not only carry the ball, but also, if necessary, to ram it down the throats of his adversaries. Last week, he served notice that debate on the Nisga’a settlement in the Commons will be cut short if he does not like the tone of Reform’s arguments. “We will have a reasonable debate if it’s possible,” Nault warned, “but we will not have a debate that’s nonsensical.” And his sparring is not limited to the official Opposition. In a wide-ranging interview with Macleans, he lashed out at provinces that drag their feet on giving natives economic help, expressed impatience with anyone who is unwilling to accept recent court decisions broadening aboriginal rights in Atlantic Canada, and even took a well-aimed shot at the federal justice department’s handling of those contentious cases. “I think it is time for us to change gears on this,” he said. “It’s time to start accommodating First Nations instead of trying to slow them down and keep them out of the economic mainstream.”

The contrast between Gosnell and Nault—two men near the centre of the current turmoil in native affairs—could hardly be more stark. Just as Nault’s style epitomizes the rookie cabinet minister trying to make his mark, Gosnell’s

measured eloquence lives up to anyone’s expectations of an old chief. He addresses criticisms of the Nisga’a deal methodically. Opponents bemoan the creation of a Nisga’a government for which non-Nisgaas living on tribal lands will not be allowed to vote. “I must point out that under the current Indian Act, non-natives are not allowed to vote or run for band council,” Gosnell responds. “So I have to pose the question: what right are we taking away?” But aren’t those non-Nisgaas—there are about 150 living among nearly 3,000 Nisga’a in the lush Nass River Valley—going to be facing taxation without representation? “We don’t have any taxation over non-natives in Nisga’a lands,” Gosnell declares. The Nisga’a government is limited to taxing Nisga’a people, although the agreement does say British Columbia and Ot-

tawa could negotiate later to allow the Nisga’a to tax non-native residents—a clause federal officials say is unlikely ever to be used.

When it comes to Nisga’a ownership of natural resources, Gosnell’s stately speaking style grows even more measured. In British Columbia, where 50 other land claims are under negotiation, special native rights to fish, cut timber and develop mines is a touchy subject. Anxiety is still running high over the long-term implications of the Supreme Court of Canada’s so-called Delgamuukw decision, a 1997 ruling that broadened the legal grounds for aboriginal land claims. Gosnell emphasizes resource rights as the key to aboriginal economic selfsufficiency—a prospect he clearly believes holds wide appeal for Canadians. “We have plans for investment, getting into forestry, fisheries, tourism,” he says. “Now, we will do something to clear up the high rate of unemployment on our reserve.”

But opponents of the Nisga’a deal—and any like it that might follow—attack the very foundations of such treaties. B.C. MP Mike Scott, the Reform Indian & affairs critic, slams the approach I as a continuation of old treaty| making policies that relegated First Nations to second-class economic status. “If treaties brought prosperity, then why are natives in Ontario and the Prairies not prospering?” Scott asks. “Treaties are an expression of collective over individual rights, collective ownership over individual ownership.” He contends that if the Nisga’a had been given a chance to vote for a deal that gave private property and cash payments to individuals, they would have jumped at the chance. Instead, the $253 million to be paid over 15 years, along with 2,019 square kilometres of land and lucrative resource rights, will go to the Nisga’a government.

While negotiation produced the Nisga’a agreement, litigation is pushing the agenda on the opposite coast. Federal officials continue to scramble to contain the turmoil unleashed by the Supreme Court of Canada decision last month that

interpreted a 1760 treaty as giving year-round fishing rights to Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquody First Nations. Department of fisheries and oceans officers, backed by Mounties, seized native lobster traps set in Halifax harbour last Thursday, in a bid to prevent another outbreak of clashes between native and non-native fishermen. And on the same day, the Federal Court of Appeal handed the Mi’kmaq a second major victory—ruling that the National Energy Board failed to properly address native concerns when it approved a $ 1.7-billion pipeline from Nova Scotia’s Sable Island offshore natural gas fields.

While some politicians bemoan the court decisions as judicial hand grenades, Nault cheers the explosions like fireworks. “I don’t blame the courts, I blame the governments,” he says. “The governments have had a strategy of delay—not willing to accept their responsibility. The courts are telling us what we need to hear.” Nault is even inclined to assume that last month’s decision on fishing also extends to other resources, possibly logging. And he sees no reason to wait for a legal opinion from the justice department. “So far, Justice hasn’t been right too often, has it?” he notes. “What I’d like to see is governments take their responsibility and get to the table.”

He argues that negotiations— aiming for the clarity the Nisga’a #

deal provides—are the only way to put an end to the confusion now gripping the fishing industry.

Nault will test his approach this week when he plans to travel to Nova Scotia to meet with all sides.

Not everyone will welcome his unabashedly pro-native stance.

For Don Cunningham, president of the Yarmouth, N.S.-based West Nova Fishermen’s Coalition, the issue comes down to what rules apply to two similar boats setting out from the same dock— one skippered by a white fisherman, the other by a native. “This

government can’t seem to understand that you can’t have two people, in the same line of work, but one with rules applied to them and the other with no rules,” Cunningham says. “Our stand is that conservation comes first.”

Even as determined a politician as Nault cannot hope to win the day easily. But the former CP Rail trainman, who was plucked from the back benches in the August cabinet shuffle, is no novice when it comes to native issues. His sprawling Kenora/Rainy River riding, in northwestern Ontario, contains some of Canadas most storied Indian country. And its Cree and Ojibwa communities provide some of the starkest examples of reserve poverty. Nault boasts of travelling regularly to all 51 native communities in his riding since first being elected an MP in 1988. Now, he says he is relying on the patience he learned from elders in his home territory. Asked how they might advise him to proceed these days, he cites “listening first before talking.” Imagine what the already outspoken minister might be saying now without their influence. EH1

Muddying the waters of aboriginal affairs

Native affairs have been in turmoil over the past three years. Highlights:

December, 1996: The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples finally issues its report, compiled at a staggering cost of $58 million, and recommends a massive $30 billion over 15 years in additional annual spending on native affairs.

December, 1997: The Supreme Court of Canada issues its so-called Delgamuukw land-claim decision, broadening the definition of aboriginal title. The court rules that aboriginal oral histories are a valid basis for land claims.

January, 1998: Then-Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart responds to the royal commission by issuing a Statement of Reconciliation. It apologizes for the residential school system and allocates $600 million for native initiatives. August, 1998: Ottawa, British Columbia and native leaders initial the Nisga’a land claim. The settlement will give the Nisga’a of northern British Columbia $253 million over 15 years, along with 2,019 square kilometres of land, resource rights and powers of selfgovernment. With 50 other B.C. claims under negotiation, critics worry that the deal clears the way for a patchwork of self-governing districts.

September, 1999: The Supreme Court of Canada rules in the so-called Marshall case that a 1760 treaty gives Mi’kmaq and other Maritime natives year-round fishing rights. The decision sparks conflict and violence between native and non-native fishermen. October, 1999: The Federal Court of Appeal hands the Mi’kmaq another major victory, ruling that the National Energy Board did not adequately deal with native concerns when it granted a private company rights to build the $1.7-billion Sable Island natural gas pipeline.