APTN National News
OTTAWA–The country’s most prominent First Nations leader is calling on the federal justice minister to appoint Aboriginal judges to a land claims tribunal.
The Specific Claims Tribunal faced criticism after an Ontario judge who jailed six First Nations people for blocking an exploration company from entering their territory was appointed to adjudicate claims.
In a recent letter to Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo said First Nations leaders in Ontario had expressed concerns about the “composition” of the tribunal which includes Ontario’s Justice Patrick Smith.
In 2008, Smith sentenced the chief of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, four band councillors and one member from the northern Ontario community to six months in jail for blocking an exploration company from entering their traditional territory. Smith’s sentence, however, was overturned by a higher court which found it “too harsh.”
In the letter, Atleo urges Nicholson to appoint Aboriginal judges to the panel to enhance its credibility among First Nations leaders.
“In order to address the reasonable expectations of First Nations from across Canada about the composition of the (tribunal), I want to reaffirm a strong desire to see the appointment of Aboriginal jurists to the tribunal, particularly as the roster of judges available for appointment expands,” said Atleo, in the Nov. 29 letter obtained by APTN National News.
Atleo received a phone call from Nicholson to discuss the reappointment of the tribunal judges, according to the letter.
The tribunal currently has three judges, including Smith, Justice Harry Slade from the B.C. Supreme Court and Justice Johanne Mainville from the Quebec Superior court. Their one-year terms expired at the end of November.
In the letter, Atleo also asks for more time for consultation before the government decides on who should be appointed to the tribunal. The national chief states that a political agreement on the tribunal signed in 2007 requires the government to include First Nations leaders in the decision.
“I believe it would be more appropriate that the approach and timeframe provided for consideration of these matters be broadened to ensure that meaningful engagement around this process can take place,” said Atleo.
The tribunal has recently come under criticism for taking too long to get going. Initially announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on June 12, 2007, it is still not ready to accept claims.
Indian Affairs assistant deputy minister Patrick Borbey simply shrugged after he was asked by Senators during a committee hearing whether he had any idea when the tribunal would be ready to accept its first claim.
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.