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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Paying what you owe

BY Will Nicholls Mar 2, 2023

Promises forgotten, treaties not honoured and fiduciary obligations unfulfilled underly the relationship First Nations have lived with both federal and provincial governments. In most cases it means going to courts for justice, to make our partners live up to their signatures. It’s an uneven battle, as many First Nations have limited funds to pay for lawyers and court costs compared to unlimited government resources.

In fact, some payouts have come close to the amount the governments have spent on legal fees to fight First Nation legal cases. In many cases, the years waiting through appeals, delays and technical manoeuvres make a mockery of the justice system.

For example, Zongidaya Nelson of the Roseau River Anishinaabe First Nation in Manitoba is the lead plaintiff in a case seeking $11 billion in compensation from the Canadian government on behalf of Treaty 1 status members. It includes damages, compensation and interest for more than 150 years of non-compliance by Canada.

Nelson says the Crown failed to uphold treaty obligations by ignoring inflation when determining payments to status members. The claims say that the government did not consult members on the amount of the $5 per year annuity.

“We were left without the ability to access finances, goods and tools which would foster our equal participation in a foreign economy which the Crown forced upon us,” said Nelson. He added that reconciliation is tied to modernizing the annuity payments.

Included in the case is a reference to the Robinson treaties of 1850 where the Crown agreed that annuities would be increased as revenues from those lands increased.

The case invokes the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by Canada. It entitles First Nations to seek restitution for treaty violations and for land and resources that were taken from them. This is only one of many cases that First Nations and the Inuit have before the courts. 

A spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs said, “More needs to be done with regards to renewing the treaty relationship.” He added the government will continue to work with First Nations to advance treaty relationships and work to ensure reconciliation becomes a reality.

If that is the truth, why is it so hard to pay what is owed without a battle in the courts? Why is it so hard to understand the pain a person feels when their children are taken from them? The loss of murdered and missing women and girls without real police investigations? The systematic racism First Nations people experience to this day despite commissions and court cases? 

It’s not just about paying what Canada owes in monetary or fiduciary obligations but what they owe in terms of equality for all Canadians. What every Canadian expects from Canada or their province is not what any First Nations person will receive. It’s time to understand what should be paid to let First Nations know they are just as important as anyone else.

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Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.