Open Letter: Imposed Deadline to Revise Specific Claims

January 16, 2009

The Honourable Chuck Strahl
Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development
Terrasses de la Chaudière, North Tower
Ste. 2100 – 10 Wellington Street
Gatineau, Quebec K1A 0H4

SENT VIA FAX: (819) 953-4941

Re: Imposed Deadline to Revise Specific Claims

Dear Minister Strahl:

The Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) strongly objects to the six-month deadline unilaterally imposed on First Nations to revise and resubmit specific claims. It is unreasonable, unfair, and unworkable, and it is contrary to the spirit of the Justice at Last initiative which promises to “help restore confidence in the integrity and effectiveness of the process to resolve specific claims”. These claims have sat dormant for years at the Specific Claims Branch (SCB) or the Department of Justice (DOJ), creating a staggering backlog, particularly in British Columbia. Canada is transferring this backlog problem on to the shoulders of First Nations. After First Nations have waited decades for a response to their claims, SCB now demands their immediate action under rushed and uncertain conditions and expects First Nations to fix in six months a problem Canada created over decades. This is not acceptable. The six-month deadline must be extended.

On November 24, 2008, SCB sent out letters to First Nations who had already filed their specific claims with Canada and offered these First Nations an opportunity to “provide the Minister with additional documents, information and arguments that were not in the original claim submission.” In the letter, SCB imposed a deadline of six months for First Nations to complete and submit this work. If First Nations do not meet this deadline, their choice is either to keep their place in the specific claims queue with an outdated claim or to lose their place and submit anew, adding another decade on to the already several decades they have had to wait for the claim to be resolved.

It is the existing claims in the system that comprises the infamous ‘backlog’ of claims that have piled up unanswered for a dozen years and more. The unfairness and dysfunction of this backlog is one of the key issues that galvanized the current specific claims reform. As you know, there are over 300 claims from British Columbia under review, 185 of which are in the DOJ backlog, representing an overwhelming 73 percent of the backlogged claims across Canada.

For many, many years, UBCIC has advocated on behalf of BC First Nations for specific claims reform. In a number of letters, resolutions, and formal presentations, we have urged Canada to commit to the fair resolution of historical grievances through an objective and transparent claims process. This six-month deadline is another example of Canada’s failure to honour its commitment.

Canada has placed an unrealistic and unfair burden on First Nations by requiring them to revise and resubmit claims before the Tribunal rules are in place, judges appointed, funding secured, and before Canada’s new specific claims policy is made public. Each bears upon what to include in any claim submission. Many of the claims in need of revision are very old and the reviewing, researching and updating the legal arguments on these claims can simply not be done thoroughly within a six-month timeframe. It is essential that First Nations have a reasonable opportunity to properly update their claims.

Specific claims resolution plays an important role in the reconciliation of Crown/Aboriginal relationships. There is simply no benefit in replacing old unfairness with new unfairness. It is important for the Minister to ensure that the new Act is implemented in good faith, with reconciliation at the forefront of all processes.

First Nations have awaited Canada’s response to their claims for years. The imposition of a six-month deadline, at the very least, may force them to withdraw their claims and begin again. Such a setback would be the antithesis of reform. It would be a very poor start indeed to the new specific claims process, prompting First Nations to search elsewhere for justice. The Standing Senate Committee cautioned that a lack of political will to act appropriately on specific claims “could invite more confrontations” and could become a “flashpoint” for these longstanding frustrations. The deadline must be extended before First Nations frustration at the lack of concrete specific claims reform reaches such a point to trigger an ongoing wave of conflict.

Yours truly,

[Original Signed]

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip
Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs

UBCIC Chiefs Council
National Chief Phil Fontaine, AFN
BC First Nations Leadership Council
BC First Nations
Mandell Pinder

UBCIC is a NGO in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.