CBC

‘It’s a big part of our identity … and it’s a huge part of non-Indigenous people’s identity as well’

Loretta Ross is a member of Hollow Water First Nation in Manitoba, a lawyer for more than 20 years and a former member of the Manitoba Human Rights board of commissioners.Loretta Ross is a member of Hollow Water First Nation in Manitoba, a lawyer for more than 20 years and a former member of the Manitoba Human Rights board of commissioners

Manitoba has a new treaty commissioner after a year-long vacancy in the position and Loretta Ross says she’s ready to get started.

A member of the Hollow Water First Nation in Manitoba, a lawyer for more than 20 years and a former member of the Manitoba Human Rights board of commissioners, Ross said helping people understand treaties and the role they played in creating the country is particularly important this year as Canada celebrates its 150th birthday.

​”It’s a big part of our identity, a big part of our identity as Indigenous people … and it’s a huge part of non-Indigenous people’s identity as well,” she said.

“There’s hasn’t been as much attention and recognition paid to that, and I think that we have to start doing that.”

Ross, who officially starts the role on Monday, was appointed by the federal government. She steps in after former commissioner Jamie Wilson finished his second term at the end of March 2016.

Although it took a year to fill the position, the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba has excellent staff who maintained the work “as best as they were able to” during the search, Ross said.

“Having someone at the helm certainly would have been helpful,” she said. “A lot of things could have happened, I guess, in the past year. I hope we can move forward and do a lot of things in the next year.”

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents 30 northern First Nations in the province, issued a news release on Wednesday congratulating Ross.

“I hope we can move forward and do a lot of things in the next year.”– Loretta Ross

“Loretta has a long history of working to advance First Nations issues in Manitoba and is an excellent choice for this position,” said MKO Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson.

“We look forward to working with her and the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba on enhancing the treaty relationship and moving treaty issues forward from the northern perspective.”

Ross said she was fortunate to work under former Assembly of First Nations leader Ovide Mercredi at a time when Indigenous rights were finally getting long-deserved attention.

Mercredi was national chief at the time Canada patriated its Constitution, transferring the country’s highest law from the authority of the British Parliament — a connection from the colonial past ­— to Canada’s federal and provincial legislatures.

He used the opportunity to work at getting constitutional recognition of Indigenous rights. Ross was a youth representative with the AFN and travelled the country to hear the perspectives of Indigenous people on the matter.

She said it gave her a clearer understanding of how Indigenous people viewed themselves in relation to Canada.

“I carry that with me still,” she said.

When she became a lawyer, she worked solely for First Nations and Indigenous people on issues around child and family services claims, residential schools and negotiations with Crown corporations.

“So I have the Indigenous perspective and I have also, I’d like to think, a good understanding of the Canadian government’s perspective and provincial government’s perspective in terms of how it sees the treaties and its responsibility and role in that regard,” she said.

As commissioner, Ross wants to facilitate more discussions between Indigenous governments and the federal and provincial governments.

Although created through a partnership between the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the federal government, the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba is an arm’s-length organization. Its mandate is “to strengthen, rebuild and enhance the treaty relationship and mutual respect between First Nations and Manitobans as envisaged by the treaty parties,” commission’s website says.