APTN National News
OTTAWA–First Nation band councils would no longer need majority community support to lease out parcels of reserve land under proposed changes to the Indian Act contained in the Harper government’s omnibus budget bill.
The proposed changes are raising concern among some prairie First Nations who say the Harper government is unilaterally changing the laws impacting reserve lands in defiance of the treaties and without any consultation.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan, however, says the changes will help First Nations move at “the speed of business.”
“It has nothing to do with selling off, surrendering lands. It has everything to do with allowing First Nations a much quicker and simpler process to designate lands they want to turn to economic development purposes, for leasing purposes. We have had multiple requests from across the country to expedite the process,” said Duncan.
Under the changes to the Indian Act, contained in the massive omnibus Bill C-45, the government proposed to alter a section of the Indian Act that allows First Nations to give up their rights to reserve lands which is known as “surrendering.”
The current section allows First Nations to either fully surrender reserve lands or partially surrender them in order to enter into lease agreements. Under the existing section, a band council needs the support of a majority of community members to do either one.
The Conservatives, however, are proposing to split up the section and make it easier for band councils to enter into lease agreements governed by provincial laws. Band councils would only need a simple majority from a vote, regardless of how many people show up to cast their ballot.
The minister would also now be able to sign off and approve it, where before it needed approval from federal cabinet.
Aboriginal Affairs officials say the changes are no big deal and that they are simply making it easier for bands to enter into lease agreements and generate revenue from their own reserve lands.
“These two proposed steps…don’t represent a fundamental break with the concepts that have been around since 1988 for designation,” said Andrew Beynon, Aboriginal Affairs’ director general of the department’s community opportunities branch, in an appearance before the Commons Aboriginal affairs committee Monday. “It is still a process for temporary alienation of lands primarily for leasing purposes, there is a community ratification process that is open to all community members and there is a federal approval to finalize the designation.”
There is concern among some grass-roots people that lowering the bar for community approval on something that could have a long-term impact on reserve lands, especially if a band enters into a long-term lease agreement.
“It all leads down to accountability and transparency, you can’t vote on something with 50 members when you have a population of 8,000,” said Phyllis Sutherland, with the Peguis Accountability Coalition, who appeared at a press conference with Duncan on Parliament Hill Wednesday, to support a government bill that will force Chief and Councillors to post their salaries and expenses. “My take is that a lot of band members are not even aware what is going on.”
There are also concerns among some First Nations leaders that the Conservative government is altering the law governing reserve lands and surrenders without bothering to consult with First Nations people despite its possible long-term impact.
“The Parliament of Canada is changing the Constitution and our constitutionally protected lands without our consent,” said Onion Lake First Nation Chief Wallace Fox, in a letter sent to chiefs aimed at building opposition to the proposed changes. “There were no meetings. There were no discussions. There was nothing to respect the honour of the Crown. We entered into Treaty in good faith. Canada as a Treaty successor state does not have the authority to change the Treaties.”
Fox calls the proposed changes are a “violation” of the treaties.
“When we made treaties, we agreed to allow the Queen’s subjects to use some of our territory, in exchange, our ancestors reserved lands for our use for as long as the sun shines, the waters flow and the grass grows. Now, the parliament of Canada is going to violate our treaties,” said Fox, whose Saskatchewan community is the largest oil producing First Nation in the country.
Fox says Duncan only informed chiefs on Oct. 22 that the changes were coming down the pipe.
“These actions are violations of the laws of Canada as it relates to rights of Treaty Peoples,” says Fox, in a submission to the Commons Aboriginal affairs committee. “As the government has encoded these changes within the present omnibus legislation, the Indigenous Nations have no process to make changes. e have been silenced by the parliament process.”