Ottawa wants to change the way it doles out money to self-governing First Nations and Inuit groups.
It is proposing to establish a formula-based policy to replace the current model of negotiating each financial transfer for every one of Canada’s 24 modern treaties.
But those treaties, including the agreements for Yukon’s 11 self-governing First Nations, all say that the financial transfers must be negotiated.
The Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development intends to pass the new “fiscal harmonization policy” to cabinet by the end of the calendar year.
But if it does, Canada would be committing a direct breach of all 24 constitutionally-entrenched agreements it has signed with aboriginal governments in Canada, said Mitchell Stevens, co-chair of the national Land Claims Agreements Coalition, and president of the Nisga’a Nation in B.C., which is one of the first aboriginal groups in Canada to sign a land claims agreement.
Mitchell’s coalition represents all self-governing aboriginal groups across Canada, including the 11 self-governing First Nations in the Yukon. All together, those 24 land claims agreements affect more than 40 per cent of Canada’s lands, waters and resources.
The coalition got wind of Ottawa’s plans to pass the policy after meetings with federal officials last week.
The meeting was supposed to constitute round two of consultation with the self-governing aboriginal groups.
But that consultation has been a farce, said Stevens.
The federal department hasn’t given any response to the aboriginal governments’ concerns, he said.
And it hasn’t shared any real details about the policy with the aboriginal governments, Stevens added.
“How can we, as signatories to constitutionally protected agreements, agree to a policy which we had no part in developing or … which we have never even seen?” he asked. “They have a constitutional obligation per each respected agreement, which they have signed on behalf of the citizens of Canada.”
If Ottawa does pass the policy, there’s little room to turn back, and aboriginal governments will be left with really only one option: costly and lengthy court proceedings, said several Yukon First Nation chiefs.
The Yukon’s self-governing First Nations have publicly opposed the new “fiscal harmonization policy” for more than a year, comparing it to the formula-based and oppressive Indian Act.
According to the Yukon agreements, First Nations are supposed to negotiate financial transfers with Ottawa every five years.
This allows for changes as the aboriginal governments take on more responsibilities for their citizens and generate more of their own revenue, among other things.
For most Yukon First Nations, the transfers make up the majority of their budgets.
And Ottawa’s unwillingness to negotiate those transfers has already left one Yukon First Nation in trouble.
The Carcross/Tagish First Nation’s agreement ran out in April after it came to a stalemate with Ottawa last year. Ottawa refused to negotiate, offering the Tlingit group the same deal as it did to three other Yukon First Nations which were also up for a new transfer, said current deputy chief Danny Cresswell.
It was not a matter of money, but principle. Ottawa was offering more than Carcross/Tagish’s last transfer but by tabling a “take it or leave it” offer, Ottawa was breaking the legal promise it made by signing Carcross/Tagish’s agreement, Cresswell said.
Since then, Cresswell has been able to secure a six-month extension of the old cash flow and has until September until money runs out again.
Ottawa’s proposed fiscal harmonization policy would cut out negotiations across the board.
Right now, the process is not transparent, efficient, consistent, fair or timely enough, according to the federal department’s website.
But Ottawa causes the holdups, said Stevens, citing the frustration with having to go through Aboriginal Affairs instead of straight to finance officials, for example.
“There’s no fiscal harmonization policy that governs the provinces, so why then would there be one for self-governing First Nations?” asked Stevens. “We negotiated our way back into Canada to become full and equal partners, only to be insulted after the fact by a policy.”
The Nisga’a Nation’s agreement cost the B.C. group $80 million to negotiate more than 12 years ago. And it’s working, said Stevens.
First Nations are no different than provinces or territories, he said. And they get financial transfers. The Yukon depends on Ottawa for 83 per cent of its budget.
But if Ottawa really wants to get down and talk about who’s giving a hand out to whom, Stevens welcomes the discussion.
The tax revenue from resource development, on First Nations’ land across Canada is huge, and it all goes to the federal government, he said.
“Let’s talk about that revenue share of that tax so that we can pay our own way,” said Stevens. “We’re not objecting to paying our own way. I don’t think any aboriginal people in this country would object to paying their own way if they got a share of what rightfully belongs to them.”
And Ottawa’s pressure for aboriginal governments to develop “own-source revenues” has become a disincentive, said Stevens.
“We’re getting taxed on our tax,” he said. “Canada has to allow the agreements to be implemented. If they ever do, they’ll see the economic benefit it will bring to the country.”
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at