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Backlog of unsolved land claims nears 800 as minister plans overhaul

Sue Bailey
Canadian Press
June 27, 2006

[SISIS note: The following mainstream news article is provided for reference only, as an example of how mainstream media treats indigenous resistance to genocide. Mainstream media often presents biased and distorted information, lacking pertinent facts and/or context. Inclusion of this article on our site should not be considered an endorsement by SISIS.]

OTTAWA (CP) - More Caledonia-type conflicts are brewing as the number of native land claims nears 800 and the average wait time for settlements tops nine years.

The most complicated cases take longer. It's not unusual for the federal justice department to take five years to draft a legal opinion on a claim's basic merits. Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice says he plans a major "retooling" of a badly flawed system that critics blame for rising tensions and stunted development.

"The backlog is not acceptable and we're working on it," Prentice said in an interview.

"Claims vary in complexity. But by any measure, the current system is not working effectively."

A three-day conference starting Wednesday in Gatineau, Que. will gather experts on ways to push for improvements.

Prentice says he's considering increased mediation, more skilled negotiators and other ways to simplify a notoriously cumbersome process. More funding may also be needed for a system that cost Ottawa $536 million in 2004-05 to negotiate, settle and implement land claims.

Prentice led more than 50 public inquiries into such cases as co-chairman of the federal Indian Claims Commission. He was a bared-tooth critic of the sluggish pace of settlements while in opposition.

Today, communities embroiled in often testy disputes across Canada are looking to him for answers.

Prentice says he appreciates that "there's frustration out there."

It most recently erupted in Caledonia, near Hamilton, Ont., in a series of nasty confrontations over a subdivision on land reclaimed by Six Nations members.

In Manitoba, a half dozen bands threatened this week to block rail lines around the province as part of a 24-hour protest over delayed land claims.

Prentice blames the former Liberal government for letting the number of unsettled specific claims soar from about 200 to more than 750 over the last 13 years.

The situation got worse when the Liberals passed faulty legislation but never proclaimed it into law, Prentice says.

"By the time it was finished, the legislation was acceptable to nobody. So it sits on the books."

Meanwhile, the existing system ground to a halt in anticipation of a new law that never arrived, Prentice says.

Most specific claims stem from First Nations who say Ottawa has misused traditional lands or breached historic treaties. Cases have been settled for anywhere from $12,000 to $150 million, says Audrey Stewart, director general of specific claims for Indian Affairs.

Comprehensive claims, such as the landmark Nisga'a agreement in northern B.C., involve sweeping compensation deals for use of native territory.

About 20 specific claims are settled each year - compared to 55 new cases filed annually, Stewart says.

Department officials began streamlining the process more than a year ago, she added.

"There's been a general recognition that it takes too long."

Cases are complicated, Stewart said. "We do lack capacity to deal with all of them as quickly as we'd like to."

Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, who teaches aboriginal studies at University of Toronto, has helped write and research several land claims.

More high-profile clashes on par with Caledonia, Oka and Ipperwash are inevitable without major changes, she says.

"That's exactly what's going to happen because one of the messages that gets transmitted is: Unless you become a hot spot, nobody's going to sit down with you and do any negotiating.

"Maybe it's not a spoken thing, but it sure seems to be that the squeaky wheel gets the grease."

Wesley-Esquimaux says a revolving table of experts is needed to tackle cases as quickly as possible.

Negotiating land claims shouldn't be a full-time, indefinitely lucrative pastime, she says.

"The consultants get paid huge amounts of money, and the lawyers get paid huge amounts of money. Frankly, I think this could be done a little more expeditiously by having people come to look objectively at the situation."

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