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New Federal Claims Policy For Indians

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      JUNE 1982      v12 n05 p07  
New Federal Claims Policy For Indians Indian and Northern Affairs Minister John C. Munro announced on May 13, 1982 that the government has reaffirmed and strengthened its commitment to meeting its lawful obligations to Indians through the resolution of specific claims.

The revised policy clearly establishes the basis for claims, provides guidelines for compensation and commits the government not to apply statutes of limitation or the doctrine of laches to the process of negotiation.

The government has also substantially increased funding to Indian associations from $2.2 million in 1981-82 to $3.7 million in 1982-83. The loan fund to support the development and negotiation of accepted claims has been increased as well. Starting in 1982-83, $1.5 million annually will be available for this purpose compared to $300,000 annually in the three previous years. These loans are repayable from the proceeds of claims settlements.

"Specific" claims result from the actions of government in the administration of the Indian Act and treaties, and usually involve the management of band assets or the fulfillment of treaty obligations. The other kind of claims negotiated by government are referred to as "comprehensive" and are based on traditional use and occupancy of land by native groups. The government's policy on comprehensive claims was released on December 16, 1981.

The government first introduced a specific claims policy in 1973, but it admits that "to date progress in resolving specific claims has been very limited."

FSI Not Consulted On New Policy

The successful negotiation of claims must be based on mutually agreed upon principles for resolution and settlement between the Crown and Indian people, which are: 1) Mutually agreed upon interpretation of Treaty agreements, 2) Formal recognition of the Crown's trust responsibility for carrying out Treaty provisions. Although the Federal Government claims to have had discussions with Indians for the formulation of this "new" claims policy, no such discussions have taken place between the Indians of Saskatchewan and the Federal Government.

The Federal Government can no longer continue its old attitudes and practices of making such policy decisions in a vacuum. This is especially true on such a volatile issue as the long-standing grievances against the Crown for not maintaining the Treaty provisions and its trust responsibility with respect to the administration of Indian lands and assets.

Under Treaty Agreements, the Crown assumed Trust Responsibility for the maintenance of Treaty provisions. They undertook the obligation to "protect" and "enhance" Indian Treaty Rights, Lands and Resources for the benefit of Indian generations yet to come. In many cases the Crown, either through design, ineptness, or sheer oversight, failed to fulfil that obligation. The loss and resulting damages suffered by Indian people constitute claims against the Crown.

New Policy Emphasizes Moral and Political Obligations

Past Federal claims policy was based on very narrow legal interpretations of the Government's responsibilities to Indian people. Approaches the courts would use in dealing with the issues have been the criteria for acceptance or rejection of claims submitted. The "new" policy retains many features of this attitude, but shows signs of changes toward more flexibility in moving away from absolute reliance on legal procedure and precedent. The criteria to be applied in assessing lawful obligations to bands are spelled out with more detail and clarity. More importantly, some of the legal defences available to the government to avoid its political and moral obligations will not be applied to claims submitted to this procedure for resolution. Of course, the legal restrictions should not have been applied in the first place, but this does not prevent our appreciating this new initiative. It points toward a future in which moral and political criteria will come to the forefront in the policies of government towards Indian rights.

The "new" policy admits Federal liability for the kinds of fraud perpetrated in Saskatchewan to induce bands to surrender reserve lands. This is welcome for formal negotiations to begin on the Indian land surrenders in Saskatchewan. Through these, bands were despoiled of a major portion of their land assets. Our policy has always been to demand the return of all lands lost through these improper procedures; we will not compromise by accepting cash in lieu of the restoration of our lands.

The Treaties are political agreements entered into between the Crown and Indian Nations, and have lost none of the force they had when first made. They continue to be fully in effect as political agreements which must be maintained by both parties. Past violations must be dealt with so that we can get on with the future development of Indian people.