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Ottawa is willing to open a 19-year-old Manitoba treaty land claims process that appears to have ground to a halt.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, in Winnipeg for the Liberal Party convention, said she met with the Treaty Land Entitlement chiefs who are part of a 1997 framework agreement that was supposed to settle land claims, but hasn't.
After signing a seperate agreement Friday with Manitoba Métis Federation, the minister confirmed she's also asked departmental officials to work with the TLE committee to review options to move claims forward for First Nations.
Manitoba First Nations and the MMF have historicially had a difficult relationship, and there currently is a feud between some First Nations and Métis over whether the Métis should be consulted before Ottawa approves additions to reserve lands.
The minister said she wants to broker a way forward which could potentially mean amendments to the 1997 agreement, she said.
The agreement was signed by the chiefs, Ottawa and the province so any change would also need the approval of the province. The Métis aren't signatories but Ottawa has a legal obligation to consult with them, so settling the dispute will take diplomacy.
"The status quo isn't working and so I was very inspired by the meeting and the way forward because treaty land entitlement completion is what we're after and we need to get on with it," Bennett said.
The 1997 Treaty Land Entitlement Manitoba Framework Agreement set out that Manitoba First Nations were owed about one million acres that had not been properly distributed from treaties signed between 1871 and 1910.
The process however has ground to a near halt, with 440,000 acres still left to settle. Fewer than 125 acres were approved between 2012 and 2014.
"We need to remove the impediments that have been blocking the process," Bennett said.
Manitoba's First Nations are demanding the federal government reopen the nearly 20-year-old Treaty Land Entitlement, saying the government's decision to consult with the Manitoba Métis Federation before approving additions to reserves is a breach of the agreement.
The chiefs filed a grievance under the agreement's dispute resolution mechanism to make their point.
Chris Henderson, executive director of the Treaty Land Entitlement Committee, told the Free Press before and after meeting the minister the decision to consult the Métis on additions to reserve lands is an real obstacle.
He said the chiefs welcomed the minister's willingness to talk about how to amend the process and speed up claims.
"She told us she's asked some of her officials to work with me and few others to get the ball rolling on that," Henderson said. "It was the first time the TLE has received the federal minister and that was well received."
The elephant in the room remains the role of the Manitoba Métis Federation. Both the Métis and the TLE sides have said the other has spurned invitations to meet.
Earlier this week, MMF president David Chartrand told the Free Press some First Nations have taken the position "Métis have no rights," despite what the Supreme Court has said in recent decisions. The MMF contends, and the government agrees, the Métis have to be consulted.
Henderson said Bennett made the same point.
"We don't envision any formal role for the MMF in our discussions to amend the framework agreement but the minister said that at some point we all are going to have to meet," Henderson said.
"Obviously if the minister wants to convene a meeting wilh all the parties, we'll meet," Henderson said.
Allowing northern First Nations to purchase urban lands instead of sticking to the framework agreement that limits them to Crown tracts is an option favoured by the chiefs and it could break the impasse.
"That's a concession that would go a long way to resolve this issue," Henderson said.
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