Globe and Mail

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett speaks to the Assembly of First Nations National Forum on the proposed Federal Recognition and Implementation of Indigenous Rights Framework in Gatineau, Que., on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations says unprecedented numbers of Indigenous communities have been settling claims with the government over the past three years, a trend that could fundamentally transform the relationship between First Nations and the rest of Canada.

Carolyn Bennett, who has held an Indigenous cabinet post since the Liberals were elected, said in a year-end interview that her government has made it clear it is willing to do things differently from those of the past.

It has significantly increased the pace of land-claims settlements by creating more flexibility at the negotiating tables and by bargaining collectively with groups of First Nations that have common cultures and interests, she said.

“Most of it [involves] cleaning up our act and making sure that we don’t have barriers in place to that kind of exciting work” of moving to self-government, said Ms. Bennett. That has required eliminating bureaucratic policy hurdles, she said, “and being able to keep up with our Indigenous partners in terms of their ambition and their appetite for self-determination.”

Between 1973, when the current process for settling specific claims with First Nations came into effect, and 2015, when the Liberals first took office under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, 408 were resolved – an average of roughly 10 a year.

Since November, 2015, 67 claims have been settled, an average of 22 a year, and the pace is quickening. The government says it is on track to settle 40 specific claims in 2018-19, pending ratification by the Indigenous communities.

Meanwhile, there are more than 70 different negotiating tables under way involving more than 350 of the 634 First Nations in Canada as well as some Métis communities.

These discussions revolve largely around ways in which Indigenous communities can enact their own laws, set the rules for electing their leaders, decide who are their citizens, determine how they will promote their own culture and manage and operate their own governments. When all of those things are in place, a First Nation can take over its own governance and shed the shackles of the much-reviled federal Indian Act.

Previous governments have failed by trying to reach comprehensive agreements affecting all aspects of a First Nation’s sovereignty, said Ms. Bennett.

“You would spend 20 years and the community would be $30-million in debt, and then you would almost be there,” she said. “Now we are able to take a blank sheet of paper and say, ‘What would you like to talk about, what are your priorities, what is the art of the possible, what is going to be more difficult?’ So we can get some early wins for communities on their path to self-determination.”

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That does not mean that the Liberal government’s efforts to pave the way for Indigenous self-government have been wholly successful.

Sweeping plans announced last February by Mr. Trudeau to change the framework for implementing Indigenous rights are on hold and legislation that Mr. Trudeau promised to introduce in 2018 to implement that framework did not appear. The proposal was too vague and confusing, and was opposed by Indigenous critics who accused the government of imposing a “top down” structure for settling claims.

Ms. Bennett says that was never the intention, and the only impositions would have been placed upon the government, not the First Nations. But, at the request of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), the framework, as it was envisioned by Mr. Trudeau, has been shelved.

Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the AFN, says all First Nations want to get out from under the Indian Act, which has been in effect since 1876 and dictates how Indigenous communities will be run.

“But it’s a process,” Mr. Bellegarde said in a telephone interview. “And the First Nations have got to drive that process themselves. Some are doing it nation by nation. Some are doing it by treaty area. They have to have a flexible approach.”

Currently, there are 22 self-government agreements across Canada involving 43 Indigenous communities.

Ms. Bennett said some aspects of Mr. Trudeau’s proposed framework are going ahead, including a law to give First Nations more control over their own child and family services, and another to promote Indigenous language and culture. Both of those pieces of legislation are expected to be introduced in Parliament early in the new year.

In addition, the government is making self-government more enticing by offering 10-year funding agreements that allow First Nations to choose how they will spend their money over the long term and be accountable to their own citizens.

“Our challenge is to keep up with what has been seeded now in terms of self-determination,” Ms. Bennett said, “because we need to be able to keep up with the current.”