By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
First Nations chiefs say they are disappointed but not surprised a special land claims tribunal remains stalled three years after it was unveiled amid much fanfare during a Parliament Hill press conference on a “historic day for Canada.”
The Specific Claims Tribunal, created by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to cut into the large back log of claims, was announced on June 12, 2007.
Harper said it would “revolutionize” the land claims process.
As of this week, the organization’s main telephone number did not ring through to anybody, and its messages were only sporadically checked.
Akwesasne Grand Chief Mike Mitchell, whose community has two specific claims in the queue, said it’s not surprising the tribunal lies nearly dormant years after it was presented as a “historic announcement” by the prime minister.
“I’ve never been impressed with this government’s handling of specific claims. Things are always being recycled and every time something comes up, it is supposed to be better and it never happens,” said Mitchell. “You might have to wait a long time if you pin your hopes on something better to come along.”
Sachigo Lake First Nation Chief Titus Tait said he was disappointed the tribunal was still not operational and suspected the government was purposely trying to delay it.
“The reality is that they don’t want these things to materialize or work. That is just the way it has been with this government in regards to Aboriginal concerns,” said Tait, whose community is in northern Ontario. “When big announcements are made by the prime minister, you get used to the fact that another big announcement is not going to materialize. Of course you are disappointed, but that is the way this government has been dealing with our concerns.”
The tribunal was created to break the logjam of special claims which, as of March 31, number 588. The tribunal has been mandated to handle specific 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 announcement for the tribunal came amid rising tensions and rhetoric in the lead up to the first National Day of Action in 2007.
Harper, standing alongside former Indian affairs minister Jim Prentice and former AFN national chief Phil Fontaine, reached all the way back to Canada’s first prime minister to emphasize the historical weight of the announcement.
“Sir John A. MacDonald himself grappled with a Mohawk land claim at Caledonia in 1887… we believe these measures represent an historic breakthrough,” said Harper. “Canada will be a better, stronger, more united country when all its citizens enjoy full equality of opportunity, and today’s announcement, I believe, represents a quantum leap toward that goal for Canada’s first peoples.”
Prentice, now Environment Minister, was equally effusive.
“It’s a historic day for Canada,” he said.
The tribunal, which has received about $4 million so-far, occupies the fourth floor of a downtown Ottawa office building. Earlier this week APTN National News discovered that there was no one to answer or monitor the tribunal’s main telephone number, which is posted on their website.
The tribunal had someone answering the phones Thursday.
A visitor to the tribunal this week was be met by a large banner on one side of the floor announcing the tribunal. On the other side, there was a glass doorway and a desk empty except for a special delivery notice requesting pick-up of a letter.
Veda Weselake, the tribunal’s deputy head and registrar, said the tribunal can’t afford a receptionist.
Weselake said she wasn’t sure when the tribunal would begin processing claims, but estimated it could come by April of next year.
The three judges appointed last November were still trying to draft the rules and procedures for dealing with the claims, she said.
“In terms of a time-line, I am not sure,” said Weselake, who is in charge of providing administrative support for the tribunal. “I don’t speak for (the judges).”
It’s rare for administrators like Weselake to be tasked with responding to questions from the media, especially on an issue that seemed to once have been a priority of the prime minister.
The government is also facing criticism for freezing out First Nations leaders on who is chosen to head the tribunal.
Tait backed an Assembly of First Nations motion passed this summer calling on the government to consult with chiefs before making any more appointments to the tribunal.
The motion was sparked by the Conservative government’s decision to appoint Ontario Justice Patrick Smith who sentenced Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug Chief Donny Morris, four band councillors and a community member, to six months jail for blockading an exploration company from entering their territory.
The sentence was overturned by a higher court after deeming it “too harsh.”
Smith, along with a British Columbia and Quebec judge, was appointed to the panel last Nov. 27 to a one-year term.
Morris has called for Smith’s removal from the tribunal.