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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Supreme Court Tsilhqot'in ruling to be a focus at First Nations' annual meeting By Geordon Omand


HALIFAX - Native leaders are expected to discuss the implications of the Supreme Court's recent decision granting aboriginal title for the first time when they meet this week in Halifax for the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations.

Ghislain Picard, the regional chief for Quebec and Labrador, said there is a need to understand the ruling and what it means for other First Nations in Canada.

"There are many opinions out there on what this decision says and how it impacts - or should impact - the way that we look at the relationship between ourselves as First Nations and the Crown," Picard said.

"To me this case is really major in terms of how we determine the process forward."

Late last month, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously to award 1,700 square kilometres of territory to B.C.'s Tsilhqot'in First Nation, providing long-awaited clarification on how to prove aboriginal title. The ruling also formally acknowledged the legitimacy of indigenous land claims to wider territory beyond individual settlement sites.

"It's a strong signal from the Supreme Court that the rights of aboriginal people have to be taken very seriously ... and not assumed that of course they have to bend to whatever government or industry wants to do," said Roger Townshend, a Toronto lawyer who specializes in aboriginal law.

Since the 1970s, the courts have said aboriginal title exists, but have shied away from defining it. Acknowledging the existence of aboriginal title is poised to change how governments and industry go about developing projects on land to which an aboriginal group lays claim, Townshend said.

"When a First Nation has proven title ... it's not consultation and accommodation anymore," he said. "You need to have the consent of a First Nation to be on the land."

Townshend predicts far-reaching consequences for the country's First Nations, including the Mi'kmaq and the Maliseet on Canada's East Coast.

Atlantic Canadian treaties are unique, Townshend explained, where First Nations and colonial powers signed peace and friendship treaties in the 1700s that were not intended to transfer land.

"There are disputes in the rest of Canada about what exactly the treaties mean and what rights they gave up and what rights they didn't," he said. "But in Atlantic Canada everybody agrees they're really peace treaties and trade treaties."

One high-profile New Brunswick case stands to be affected by the historic ruling, Townshend said.

Last October, protests against proposed shale gas exploration in a First Nations community about 70 kilometres north of Moncton turned violent as members of Elsipogtog clashed with police.

"We knew it in our hearts," said Elsipogtog Coun. Robert Levi of the Supreme Court ruling. "To have the Supreme Court actually recognize that (though), it's an incredible feeling.

"I said to myself, 'It's a good day to be an Indian."'

In response to the Supreme Court decision, Levi said Elsipogtog band councillors intend to reveal a legal strategy to prevent seismic testing for shale gas in the province when they attend this week's national meeting, which begins Tuesday.

The assembly is also expected to determine the process for selecting a new leader after former national chief Shawn Atleo stepped down in May following a five-year term. This is the first time the annual meeting will be held without a leader, Picard said.

Atleo resigned under criticism for his support of proposed changes to federal legislation related to aboriginal education. The federal government has since put the policy changes on hold.

Also on the agenda for the three-day annual general assembly are talks on resource development, improving education and organizing a United Nations international forum in September for the world's international indigenous peoples.

Follow (at)gwomand on Twitter. -CP-

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