By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA–A northern Ontario First Nations chief says the judge who sentenced him to jail should be removed from a land claims tribunal unveiled in a “historic announcement” by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2007.
Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug Chief Donnie Morris says Justice Patrick Smith should not have his term on the Specific Claims Tribunal extended once his current mandate expires at the end of next month.
Smith, along with Justice Harry Slade, from the B.C. Supreme Court, and Justice Johanne Mainville from the Quebec Superior Court, were appointed on Nov. 27, 2009, to one-year terms on the tribunal.
In 2008, Smith sentenced Morris, four band councillors and one community member to six months in a provincial jail for their role in blockades aimed at stopping a junior exploration company from entering their territory.
“I don’t trust him. I would like to see him gone,” said Morris. “You don’t fool around with native issues, native rights and land issues, by throwing a couple Indians in jail and hoping the problem will go away.”
Morris and the rest of the so-called “KI6” were released after spending 68 days in jail following an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that found the sentence “too harsh.” The court also struck down thousands of dollars in fines levied against them.
The Ontario government eventually bought the company’s claim near Big Trout Lake, about 580 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.
“I felt angry (when I was sentenced), not fear. It was anger and resentment,” said Morris. “(Smith) dropped the ball. I thought he knew what he was doing.”
The Specific Claims Tribunal was created to cut into the backlog of specific claims. It has been mandated to handle claims of $150 million or less.
Specific claims usually stem from historic grievances such as the federal government selling never-surrendered reserve lands, the mishandling of First Nations band money held in trust or the destruction of land as a result of projects like hydro dams.
The Assembly of First Nations passed a resolution during their annual assembly this summer calling on the federal government to consult with them before any new appointments were made to the tribunal.
When asked if First Nations leaders would be consulted when it came time to decide on the terms of the current tribunal members, Indian Affairs referred queries to the Department of Justice.
When contacted, the Department of Justice passed on queries to the Specific Claims Tribunal.
Veda Weselake, deputy head and registrar for the tribunal, said her office had nothing to do with the appointment process.
Harper stood alongside former AFN national chief Phil Fontaine and former Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice to announce the creation of the tribunal in a splashy Parliament Hill press conference on June 12, 2007.
The announcement came amidst rising rhetoric and tensions in the run-up to the first National Day of Action which was scheduled for June 29 that same year.