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In a statement released by Indian Affairs minister Jean Chretien August 8, the government said it was confirming a statement made by Queen Elizabeth in Calgary when she said, "You may be assured that my government of Canada recognizes the importance of full compliance with the spirit and terms of your Treaties."
Mr. Chretien said his statement was "to signify the government's recognition and acceptance of its continuing responsibility under the British North American Act. The government wants to reassure Native peoples concerned and the people of Canada generally that its policy in this regard is an expression of acknowledged responsibility."
Turning to the question of aboriginal rights, Mr. Chretien said, "It is basic to the position of the government that these claims must be settled and that the most promising avenue to settlement is through negotiation."
Since the claims involve not only money and land but the "loss of a way of life", the government feels "any settlement must contribute positively to a lasting solution of cultural, social and economic problems that for too long have kept the Indian and Inuit people in a disadvantaged position in the larger Canadian society."
Any settlement reached would be enshrined in legislation "so they will have finality and binding force," Mr. Chretien said.
Since any settlement would likely involve provincial lands, provincial governments will be invited to take part in negotiations, he said.
What in effect the statement on claims does, said Mr. Chretien, is acknowledge that in cases "Where the traditional interest in the land has not been formally dealt with, the government affirms its willingness to do and accepts in principal that the loss and relinquishment of that interest ought to be compensated."
The statement is a reversal of earlier policy statements from the Liberal government that did not recognize Indian claims to aboriginal rights.
The 1969 Indian White Paper policy referred to aboriginal claims as being "so general and undefined that it is not realistic to think of them as being specific claims capable of remedy."
Prime Minister Trudeau in August of 1969 was even blunter. We won't recognize aboriginal claims," he said. The issue of aboriginal rights has received national attention as a result of claims submitted through the courts by the Nishga Indians of British Columbia and from claims by Indians living in the Northwest Territories.
The Nishga Indians took their claim to the courts, where they lost a Supreme Court of Canada decision. The government now, however, says it is willing to negotiate their claim for aboriginal rights although it regards provincial government participation in the negotiations as "essential".
In the Northwest Territories where there are outstanding land claims based on Treaties to be settled, the statement also said the government was prepared to negotiate and in northern Quebec where Indians are fighting the James Bay Hydro project on the basis of outstanding aboriginal rights, the government says it would prefer to negotiate a solution rather than see it thrashed out in the courts.
The government statement is in life with the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian's stand on the settlement of outstanding claims. In previous statements, F.S.I. Chief David Ahenakew has said the courts have usually taken too narrow a view of Indian rights and that it would be to Indian people's advantage to negotiate a settlement with government rather than rely on the courts.