Canada's balancing act: land claims and aboriginal rights

Canada's federal Cabinet will soon consider what terms it can offer to settle long-outstanding native land claims. At stake are billions of dollars and a land area, mostly in northern Canada, larger than any West European nation.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government announced significant changes in its ``comprehensive land claims'' policy in December.

The ``movement'' on the government's policy is welcomed by the groups representing Indians, M'etis (those of mixed European and Indian origin), and Inuit (Eskimos). But they reserve judgment until they learn what the government's negotiating terms are.

The claim by the Dene-M'eti, in the Northwest Territory, is now before the Cabinet and sources say others will be heard ``in the near future.''

Richard van Loon, an assistant deputy minister in the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, says, ```We hope at least in some cases, perhaps two or three, we can reach deals in a couple of years.''

Six major claims are under active negotiation. They cover about a third of Canada - a chunk of northeastern British Columbia, the Yukon, most of the Northwest Territories, northeastern Quebec, and northern Labrador. In most of southern Canada, various treaties or other legal provisions settled native land rights many years ago.

The land claims settlements would resolve questions of fishing and hunting rights, mineral rights, and surface rights. They will also involve compensation, which one native leader has said might reach $1.5 billion.

Ottawa negotiated three claims settlements under its old policy, established in 1973. These involved the James Bay and northern Quebec area, part of northeastern Quebec, and the Inuvialuit area that includes the petroleum-rich Mackenzie Delta and some Arctic islands.

To win concrete rights and benefits, the natives of these areas agreed that their undefined ``aboriginal rights'' and land titles, based on traditional and continuing use and occupancy of the land at issue, were ``extinquished.''

But many of the native leaders were unhappy with this loss of aboriginal rights as a condition for settlement, fearing an encroachment on their linguistic and cultural heritage. A special government-appointed, five-member task force was created to look into the issue and reported back in March 1986.

As a result, the new government policy calls for extinguishing only those aboriginal rights specifically related to land title.

A second change in the policy makes broader provisions for self-government. In southern Canada, this could mean a native council would have similar powers to a municipality. In northern Canada, where the system of Indian reserves was never imposed, this could mean guaranteed representation in regional or municipal government.

At the moment, self-government will not be entrenched in the Canadian Constitution, as hoped for by the natives. A meeting of ``First Ministers'' (provincial premiers) in Ottawa last month failed to draw up a clause for the Constitution that would guarantee this right.

The third policy change assures native groups of representation on boards governing wildlife management, water use, and land use.

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