OTTAWA — Canada's treaties with indigenous people prevent the total assimilation of First Nations, Sen. Murray Sinclair told Manitoba chiefs and First Nations representatives Wednesday.
Sinclair, who also chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and was appointed to the Senate last year, spoke to about two dozen people in Ottawa for a Treaty Land Entitlement Committee of Manitoba lobbying effort.
He said he understands why decades of failure by successive Canadian governments to live up to treaty obligations have led indigenous people to wonder if treaties have any validity anymore, but they can't give up.
"That treaty relationship was worth creating and it's worth preserving because it is what holds up our relationship," he said. "It is what stands between us and assimilation. It is what makes us unique in the eyes of the law."
First Nations in Manitoba are signatories to seven different treaties, signed between 1871 and 1906. They set out what lands were to be surrendered by First Nations for the use of the government and vice versa. More than a century later, the government has yet to live up to all of its obligations under the treaties.
"Ultimately the intention was to eliminate Indians and their rights so they didn't feel a serious obligation to fulfil the terms of the treaties so treaties were broken almost immediately," he said.
Living up to the treaty obligations will prevent assimilation, he said.
After the courts began siding with First Nations on the need of Canada to live up to its treaty obligations, the federal government began to act. In 1997, the Manitoba Framework Agreement was signed to establish the process for transferring 1.4 million acres of land. Two decades later, only about one-third of that land has been transferred. In the last five years, less than 5,000 acres has been approved, with not a single acre in 2015.
The chiefs were in Ottawa this week in part to push for the government to act. Treaty Land Entitlement Committee executive director Chris Henderson told the Free Press during the election, Liberal party president Anna Gainey pledged a Liberal government would complete the transfer of land owing within the next decade.
Henderson said t here is disappointment at how the government is proceeding. The government continues to insist the Manitoba Metis Federation must be consulted before any land is transferred. That consultation process is what has slowed the transfer of land in the last five years, said Henderson.
Henderson noted the TLEC is now forcing the government into binding arbitration under the framework agreement's dispute resolution process because consulting with the MMF was a unilateral decision by Ottawa and the First Nations do not agree.
The MMF said recent Supreme Court rulings prove the Métis also have rights in this fight.
The committee was told by Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada in January that 44,000 acres would be signed over by the minister by the end of March.
A spokesman for Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said Wednesday as soon as the provincial government signs its orders in council for the lands, the minister can make the final designation. It may not happen by the end of March but should happen sometime in April.
Henderson expressed frustration that the government will miss yet another deadline on this, even if only by days or weeks.