Native groups rally to fight for their rights in Nunavut
By Jen Ross
Eight aboriginal groups have banded together to oppose what they call the federal government's attempts to divide them over their rights within Nunavut's borders.
"Because Canada has taken the position that the rights of First Nations will not be recognized within the proposed territory of Nunavut, Canada has now pitted First Nations and the Inuit against each other as adversaries," said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine at a Parliament Hill press conference yesterday.
The new territory of Nunavut, covering two million square kilometres in the eastern Arctic, comes into being April 1, 1999.
The Inuit-controlled territory has been heralded by some as a triumph for aboriginal self-government. But only 85 per cent of the population is Inuit and other First Nations groups feel they have been forgotten.
"We want aboriginal groups to become strong," said Chief Ila Bussidor, of the Sayisi Dene Nation in Manitoba. "But not at the expense of other aboriginal groups."
A number of First Nations have long disputed Nunavut's territorial borders, saying they overstep their traditional lands above the 60th parallel.
Various peoples under the Dene Nation have taken their particular land-claims cases to the courts. Six hundred Dene in five northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan communities have been asking to have Nunavut's boundaries pushed 200 kilometres northward.
Quebec Cree groups have also made numerous claims on offshore islands in eastern Hudson's Bay and James Bay. But most First Nations' efforts have been made individually.
Now for the first time, leaders representing First Nations from Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and the Northwest Territories are working together to protest the way the government is handling their rights and land disputes involving Nunavut.
"We were never at the table when Nunavut was being created," said Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus. "Our rights are not explicitly protected under Inuit self-government and the (federal) government must get involved."
The federal government has left any disputes over aboriginal rights within Nunavut's borders to be dealt with between First Nations and the Inuit.
"We've taken the approach that we can't decide which of you has the right, it's best if you work it out yourselves," explained Greg Gauld, director general for comprehensive claims with the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.
But the coalition is chiding the government for its hands-off approach.
Mr. Erasmus calls it a "cop-out" meant to divide aboriginal groups. The position of the Inuit in Nunavut, he said, is that they will only recognize the rights of First Nations when they are recognized by the federal government.
"We don't want it resolved between the Inuit and the Dene," said Fontaine. "We want the federal Crown to deal with us. And we don't want to go through the courts because it's a long process and Nunavut comes into effect April 1."
Some First Nations groups still resent the fact that the Inuit overwhelmingly voted in favour of Nunavut's proposed territorial borders in 1992.
The word Nunavut means "Land of the People," but the question has become which people?
"We hope our rights can be resolved before April," said Mr. Erasmus. "We want to take part in Nunavut celebrations with the Inuit; we don't want to be the opposition."