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Gaming, mineral rights control conversations at First Nations conference

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Gaming and mineral rights dominated discussions at a First Nations conference in Winnipeg Wednesday.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which represents 64 First Nations in the province, is hosting the conference on Inherent and Treaty Rights as Economic Rights to reset the national debate on who owns what on the Prairies.

The conference wraps up Thursday.

The conference drew more than 100 political and business leaders, mostly from Manitoba, but also from other aboriginal communities across the Prairies.

"The purpose of the resource equity conference is to reestablish some of the markers for future discussions," AMC Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said.

Federal Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair delivered one of the keynote speeches.

The NDP leader pledged to hold two first ministers meetings a year to discuss equitable resource sharing if his party forms the next government.

"What’s missing is a federal government that will look you in the eye and say this is a priority," Mulcair told the conference.

"You will have a place at the table. We’ll talk and that’s the difference. We will not say there’s been a transfer of resources (away from aboriginal rights) and it’s not our problem. I’m not afraid to take on these tough issues."

Aboriginal leaders from Manitoba to Alberta said Mulcair’s offer of regular meetings is not enough.

"We never gave up the mineral rights... and the Criminal Code put gaming under the provinces. We can’t start a casino without them, so how are you going to deal with the Natural Resource Transfer Act and the Criminal Code?" Regena Crowchild, a former president of the Indian Association of Alberta, said to Mulcair.

Court victories have given aboriginals the constitutional right to be consulted on developments but those negotiations have resulted in lip service, not real change, Nepinak said.

"The practical results of negotiations and the practical results of the lack of consultations are leading us down the wrong path, particularly within the scope of a $650 billion resource development plan that’s sitting on the federal government’s table," Nepinak said.

The $650 billion reference is the most commonly circulated figure within aboriginal circles for the total projected revenues of Alberta’s oilsands industry.

"This conference has been marketed as a national discussion and we do hope it will set the stage for recognition for a lot of the barriers that have been put in place," Nepinak said.

"The Criminal Code has provisions for sanctioning people and sending people to jail just for an economic activity like gaming, which is one of the oldest inherent rights we have as indigenous people."

Federal legislation that transferred natural resources rights to Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta in separate pieces of legislation in 1930 effectively cut aboriginal claims out of the equation.

"The natural resource transfer agreements were done at a time when our people were locked way on our reserves," Nepinak said.

"We have people at the time who were from Ottawa or the regions saying they represented us when they certainly did not... the titleholders were excluded form a discussion on the creation of wealth in provincial jurisdictions. It’s an absolute robbery."

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