(Indigenous claims researchers from different areas of Canada released this open letter today, which was sent to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.)
Dear Minister Bennett,
We are a long-standing national group of specific claims research directors working on behalf of Indigenous Nations and committed to the just, fair, and timely resolution of specific claims in Canada. Here we present a response to the November 2016 report by the Office of the Auditor General (OAG), First Nations Specific Claims—Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). This response, called Taking Action, Building Trust, translates recommendations from the audit process into concrete, tangible actions that Canada can undertake within the next six months.
As you know, the audit found that, over the past eight years, changes to funding and negotiation practices at INAC resulted in significant barriers for Indigenous Nations seeking just resolution of specific claims. As well, the audit criticized INAC’s approach to public communication and reporting, noting that the Department misrepresented progress on claims resolution and failed to communicate even basic program changes to Indigenous Nations.
Overall, the OAG audit named the same biases and systemic barriers that we had consistently identified to INAC. In our submission to the audit, No Access, No Justice: Canada’s Implementation of Justice at Last and the Failure to Resolve Specific Claims, we documented growing inequity in the specific claims process – and our repeated attempts to communicate with INAC about it. Indigenous Nations were being increasingly alienated from processes in which they must be equal partners. We identified a growing rift in the relationship between Canada and Indigenous Nations, one characterized by mistrust and bad faith on the part of the Crown.
In your public response to the audit, you welcomed the report and committed to implementing its recommendations. You stated that Canada is collaborating with Indigenous Nations to “find fair and practical ways to improve the specific claims process.” We thank you for your comments. We, too, are interested in fairness and tangible improvements. In the attached response, we have focused on practical, achievable actions—important first steps toward fulfilling the Auditor’s recommendations, as INAC has agreed to do. These actions will provide concrete evidence of Canada’s willingness to address bias in the process and move toward a more just and equitable working relationship.
As research directors managing over thirty claims research associations across the country, advancing hundreds of specific claims for Indigenous Nations and advocating for ongoing policy reform, we have worked for years within a system undermined in its implementation. As such, we are uniquely positioned to recommend material changes that will make the specific claims process more equitable, transparent, and collaborative. In this response, we call for an end to INAC’s secrecy and unilateralism and recommend specific measures of accountability. We call on Canada to take immediate action on funding to address the unequal distribution of resources in the system and enable Indigenous Nations’ full and equal participation. We also recommend that the subject of the Specific Claims Tribunal be included in current discussions related to the review of specific claims processes. Throughout, we emphasize that specific claims practitioners—Indigenous Nations and Claims Research Units directly involved in the preparation and negotiation of claims—must be proactively engaged in the review of specific claims policies and practices.
The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that Indigenous Peoples have the right to redress in cases where their lands have been taken, used, or damaged without their “free, prior and informed consent” (article 28); specific claims should be a critical mechanism for this kind of redress. As the UNDRIP also states, procedures for conflict resolution must be fair, and Indigenous Nations must have access to the financial support they need to act as self-determining Nations in full and equal partnership with States. But in Canadian specific claims – as demonstrated by multiple studies, including No Access, No Justice, the OAG report, and the 2013 statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya – systematic bias is undermining Indigenous Nations’ relative position and capacity for research and negotiation, reproducing the injustice and inequity that the process is meant to address.
Extensive reforms are needed and these changes must be developed in full partnership with Indigenous Nations. Immediate actions, however, will be a powerful indicator of motivation and good faith. Thus, in the spirit of transparency, accountability, and meaningful change, we ask INAC to release a six-month progress report on the action items we identify in the attached report. Clear details on actions undertaken and results achieved, shared publicly by the end of June 2017, will enable evaluation of your government’s intention to keep its promises to make real changes and work openly and cooperatively with Indigenous Nations as equal partners in processes of restitution and reconciliation. We are looking forward to seeing meaningful reforms that will enable the just and timely resolution of specific claims.
Algonquin Nation Secretariat Director, Policy & Research Peter Di Gangi
Alliance of Tribal Nations Research Director Mark Point
Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaq, Research Manager Mary Jane Stevens
Conseil Tribal Mamuitun Research Director Denis Brassard
Cowichan Tribes Research Director Dianne Hinkley
Lesser Slave Lake Indian Regional Council T.A.R.R. Research Director Peter Havlik
Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke Project Leader Winona Poslon-Lahache
Nishnawbe-Aski Nation Research Director Luke Hunter
Nlaka'pamux Nation Tribal Council Research Director Debbie Abbott
Six Nations Lands Research Office Research Director Lonny Bomberry
Stoney Nation Research Director Ian Getty
T.A.R.R. Centre of Manitoba, Inc. Research Director Patricia Myran
T.A.R.R. Centre of NS, Inc. Research Director Jim Micheal
T.A.R.R. Treaty 3 Research Director Andy Sky
The Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaq Director History & Culture Tim Bernard
Treaty 8 Tribal Association T.A.R.R. Diane Abel
UBCIC Specific Claims Research Program Research Director Jody Woods
Union of Ontario Indians/Anishinabek Nation Treaty Research Coordinator Alicia McLeod