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Chief Bellegarde on Treaty Governance

Warren Goulding

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      SPRING 2000      v30 n02 p20  
Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) Chief Perry Bellegarde sees the day when the much-maligned Indian Act will be a thing of the past.

And while it can't come soon enough for Bellegarde, the process that is leading to a new governance and fiscal relationship with the federal and provincial governments has been long and at times trying.

"You've got to remember we've had the Indian Act for over 100 years, so you can't totally get rid of it overnight," Bellegarde says.

In 1996, Canada, Saskatchewan and the FSIN began a process that will eventually result in a new relationship with the two levels of government and Treaty First Nations in Saskatchewan. The parties established the Common Table in October of `96 as a forum for developing a new structure. Two separate tables - Governance and Fiscal Relations - were created. Since then, the federal government, the province and the FSIN have explored the many complex aspects that will be part of any new agreement. Discussions with First Nations people have been ongoing.

"We're engaging in Phase Two, which is a community consultation process getting out to our 72 First Nations at the band level," Chief Bellegarde said in a recent interview. "We are going to start focusing on the urban centres like Regina, Saskatoon, PA., the Battlefords. They're the hot spots, where a lot of our First Nations members reside."

Currently, approximately one-third of First Nations people live off-reserve. It is these people, Bellegarde stresses that must be involved in the process leading to a Treaty Implementation Act. The FSIN Chief says replacing the Indian Act and ensuring that the Treaties are honoured will go a long way toward recognizing the rights and needs of First Nations people living in urban centres.

"It will finally see a new fiscal arrangement based on total population on and off-reserve, based on the needs of our people, based on the portability of programs and services and based on their inherent and Treaty rights," said Bellegarde. "We've had the Indian Act since 1876 and we've always maintained that our rights do not come from the Indian Act. We have inherent rights and we have Treaty rights and we have to find a mechanism to give legal effect to those treaties and that's why we have to have this Treaty Implementation Act. "So I wish we could have had it in place yesterday."

The Chief says the tough slugging is taking place now as officials crisscross the province providing updates and seeking input.

"It never moves fast enough for my liking," Bellegarde concedes. "But you can only move as fast as the people."

Clearly, Bellegarde is not prepared to compromise the wishes of his people in a rush to secure a new agreement. The consultation part of the process, including utilizing the wisdom of Elders, is vital, he says.

"We know it's not going to happen overnight. A lot of our people feel comfortable that at least we're engaging in a process. We have a formalized process that will hopefully bear fruit for our children and grandchildren."

The federal government has said that making the Treaty Implementation Act work effectively in Saskatchewan is important, since it would serve as a model for other jurisdictions. The Saskatchewan process is the most comprehensive in Canada.

"We must commit ourselves to finding new and innovative solutions that will enable First Nations people to move toward greater self-sufficiency and stronger economies," Indian Affairs and Northern Development Minister Robert Nault said in November.

Bellegarde agrees the importance of the process cannot be overstated. "We've always maintained that we'll always have treaties as long as the sun shines, rivers flow, grass grows. We've all heard that. We've got them enshrined in Canada's Constitution under Section 35".

"The question is, do we want to leave it to the Supreme Court of Canada to fill up that box of rights or do we rely on ourselves to fill it up ourselves according to the process we've established."

This article first appeared in Eagle Feather News.
Warner Goulding is a Saskatoon freelance writer.