APTN National News
OTTAWA-Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said he would “consider” appointing Aboriginal judges to a special tribunal created to decide on First Nations land and compensation claims.
The terms of three judges appointed to the Specific Claims Tribunal expired last month and First Nations leaders have been pushing for more say over who gets named.
The government has been criticized for appointing an Ontario judge to the tribunal who sentenced six members of a northern Ontario First Nation to six months in jail for blocking an exploration company from entering their territory.
Assembly of First Nations national Chief Shawn Atleo asked Nicholson in a recent letter to appoint Aboriginal judges to the tribunal and to consult with First Nations leaders before making a final decision.
Nicholson said Thursday he would take Atleo’s advice seriously.
“I appreciate any advice that (Atleo) gives us in this area and I think it is entirely appropriate,” said Nicholson. “I always consider any advice that I get from Chief Atleo and the AFN.”
The tribunal was announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on June 12, 2007.
It 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.
The tribunal has also faced controversy over the length of time it has taken to begin processing claims. A senior Indian Affairs official told a Senate committee last week he had no idea when the tribunal would be able to accept its first claim.
In an interview with APTN National News, tribunal chair Justice Harry Slade said the tribunal was expected to be up and running by the end of March 2011.
Slade, a B.C. Superior Court judge, said things were delayed because the judges were only appointed last year and needed to iron-out certain issues, including the need to ensure the independence of the tribunal.
“There were a number of matters that we had to address and we have,” said Slade. “I am satisfied now, for the most part, that our most significant independence concerns have been dealt with.”
Slade also said he understood the concerns over Ontario Superior Court Justice Patrick Smith’s six month sentence of the chief of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, four band councillors and one member from the community.
The group,known as the KI6, were convicted for contempt of court after they refused to allow an exploration company onto their territory.
Slade said Smith did the best he could under the circumstances after the group said they preferred jail sentences instead of fines.
“Justice Smith was left, it would seem, with little alternative, but to impose the sentence he did,” said Slade.
A higher court overturned the sentenced deeming it “too harsh.”
Justice Johanne Mainville, from the Quebec Superior court, was also appointed to the tribunal.