Numerous First Nation bands are alleging that the federal government is threatening them with loss of funding for essential services if they do not, in essence, endorse controversial budget legislation, and chiefs are threatening everything from court action to a United Nations complaint, and one elder has begun a second hunger strike.
The alleged coercion is coming in the form of changes to this year's federal funding agreements with First Nations that have spurred widespread unrest throughout indigenous Canada. The Canadian government has informed poverty-stricken First Nation communities that their funding will not be renewed after April 1 if they do not sign the documents. Although the documents are routine, this year they contain changed wording that outlines new conditions under which money will be disbursed.
The end result: An aboriginal community that signs the newly worded agreement is implicitly agreeing to support and abide by federal legislation, including Bills C-38, C-45 or any "subsequent amendments or replacements” of legislation. Such a move could supercede or trump any previous deals struck with the government. Between that and the removal of a clause acknowledging and protecting existing treaty rights, many bands fear that the agreements could jeopardize those historic pacts, even though they are enshrined in the constitution. Dozens of First Nations have sent letters along with their submitted funding agreements stating that they had signed under duress, in hopes of protecting their rights in future court cases.
In response, one elder has launched a hunger strike, and several bands have threatened to take the government to court or lodge complaints with the United Nations. Numerous band leaders told Indian Country Today Media Network that they felt forced to endorse the legislation in this way. Many fear that the new budget guts longstanding environmental assessment processes and eases the development and sale of reserve lands.
Elder Raymond Robinson, who fasted alongside Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence on Victoria Island for nearly six weeks last winter, announced on April 2 that he was launching a second hunger strike in Manitoba to protest the changes. The Cree elder is again seeking a meeting with the government. But while Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAND) Minister Bernard Valcourt met with him on April 5, Robinson said it was inconclusive and yielded no commitments from the government.
“I'm going all out this time,” Robinson said, explaining why he has renounced all liquids, a move that would quickly create serious health problems. “I've run out of options as to what to do to make this stop, this continued atrocity, this continued abuse to our lands, our waters and our resources.”
Controversy over the funding agreements has spread across Canada. Onion Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan has demanded third-party mediation on the matter, while Ermeskin First Nation in Alberta told ICTMN it may take its complaints to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights on Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya.
“They're adding new things in the contribution agreements to try to control our communities,” said councilor Norman Matchewan of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake in Québec, to ICTMN. “If we don't want to sign onto comprehensive land claims [agreements], they'll find other ways to have us sign away our rights. We have to keep making noise…. We're not signing away our rights. This is wrong of Canada to be doing to the First Nations people.”
Despite initial assurances from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development (AAND) that the changes were “solely administrative in nature,” the government changed its tack on April 3, giving new reasons for altering the agreements. The agreements provide $6.4 billion in federal funding annually to more than 600 reserves, and the ministry now says its procedures were changed so as to ensure compliance with the First Nations Transparency Act, which requires chiefs and other highly placed officials to make their salaries public. That was passed last year and went into effect on March 27 of this year.
The new transparency law has created its own controversy, with many First Nations viewing it as increasing federal control over bands, and proponents seeing it as a step toward holding leadership spending accountable. The government, meanwhile, is urging Robinson not to strike.
“Like all reasonable people, we encourage Raymond Robinson to continue to consume food and water,” AAND spokesman Jason MacDonald told the news site Canoe.ca.
And while bands in the Prairies have so far gained the most attention over the funding dispute, at least one British Columbia reserve has privately complained about pressure to sign despite controversial additions, but has kept quiet for fear of losing all community funding, a source close to provincial leadership revealed. There have been similar reports among the Mik’maq in New Brunswick as well.
The Assembly of First Nations has spoken out against the changes, with National Chief Shawn Atleo calling on the government to revoke the controversial passages and negotiate in good faith.
“I share the concerns expressed by First Nation governments in many regions across the country regarding unilateral and imposed changes to contribution agreements, and call on Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt to revoke these changes until a joint process is identified and implemented that respects the duty to consult with First Nations,” Atleo said. “Moreover, there is a commitment to a renewed relationship which must ensure fairness, respect and long term sustainable financial arrangements.”