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Minister accused of abuse of power


Paul Barnsley, Windspeaker Staff Writer, Ottawa







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Saying he has abused his power by dealing punitively with First Nations that don't co-operate with him, the chiefs will take their complaints about Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault to Parliament's ethics commissioner, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Auditor General of Canada and the Prime Minister.

The plan was revealed at a press conference on the second day of the Assembly of First Nations' Confederacy meeting held in Ottawa from Dec. 10 to 12.

National Chief Matthew Coon Come was flanked by Grand Chief Margaret Swan of Manitoba's Southern Chiefs Organization, Six Nations Chief Roberta Jamieson, Ontario Vice-Chief Charles Fox, Robinson Huron Regional Chief Glen Hare, Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Stan Beardy and Treaty 3 Grand Chief Leon Jourdain as he made the announcement.

All the chiefs told stories of being punished by the minister, they say, because they have resisted his First Nations governance act (FNGA) legislation.

Beardy pointed out that the Pikangikum First Nation was in a surplus position when it was placed in third party management by the minister. The Federal Court of Canada recently ruled that decision was contrary to departmental policy.

"The people of Pikangikum and Nishnawbe Aski, we thought there were no checks and balances for the minister. For that reason, the Pikangikum First Nation took the minister to court to challenge his decision," Beardy said.

Jourdain said the court decision is proof of misconduct by the minister.

"I believe that the minister has abused his power as confirmed by the decision that was made in court by way of Pikangikum," he said.

Jourdain claimed the minister withdrew funding from Treaty 3 after he helped organize a rally against the governance act in the minister's own riding. Nault recently suspended self-government negotiations with Treaty 3, saying the discussions were going nowhere.

"The minister has refused to meet with myself. The minister has refused to answer any phone calls or respond to any letters. The minister is going on the grounds that there's no progress made in our territory," the grand chief said. "A year ago his own federal negotiator asked permission to make a presentation on the Treaty 3 model and vision on negotiations and methodology as an option for other areas across the country. A year ago, INAC encouraged Treaty 3 to accompany academics and INAC officials on a cross-Canada promotional tour to highlight success."

This, Jourdain added, was after Treaty 3 won an award for management excellence.

"It is very clear to myself and to the chiefs that as a result of my position on the FNGA that the minister is personally attacking myself and those grand chiefs that stand for the inherent rights and sovereign rights of our people. I believe the minister has abused his power and will continue to abuse his power. I believe the Canadian people have a right to know the type of abuses that we're subjected to," he said.

Hare suggested the government is using First Nations own money to push them around.

"There's a certain amount of dollars that is given to First Nations peoples in Canada to live on. If we were given that whole principle of money we would be a lot further ahead. Half or more of them billions of dollars is based on administration for these people to abuse their powers over our communities," he said.

Fox said his organization, the 134 First Nation Chiefs of Ontario, was one of the original opponents of the FNGA.

"Last year we didn't get funding until the last quarter. This year nothing," he said. "The punishment of the Chiefs of Ontario is reflective of the abusive nature, not only of this minister, but of the government in general."

Fox said he suspects the minister is using the money that is not going to First Nation organizations to fund the public relations campaign in support of the government's agenda. Nault has stated that $10 million has been obtained from Treasury Board to fund consultation and ublic information work related to the FNGA.

"We question that. We are told that there are 18 teams alone in Ontario advocating, promoting and pushing the government's initiative in the province of Ontario," Fox said. "We also know that other Aboriginal organizations that are working with the minister have been funded, even for international forums, to promote the government's initiative. So we're asking the auditor general of the government of the day to do a forensic audit of those expenditures."

He worries further budget cuts will come.

"The fact of the matter is the dollars that are ear-marked for our communities are being swallowed up for this initiative. And that's just for one piece of legislation. We have nine pieces of legislation coming down. Can we expect the same type of approach, the same type of action by the minister and this government? We need to know that. We're asking the auditor general to review. And we want the ethics commissioner to review the antics, the bullying tactics in promoting his agenda," he said.

Jamieson said personal attacks have been leveled at her by the minister and his director of communications.

"We're here to blow the whistle on the kind of behavior that continues to characterize the minister's treatment and regard for our leadership. There's no question that the relationship between First Nations and the minister, and as a result government and even Parliament, is deteriorating. The kind of generalized comments that disparage our leadership, made by the minister and his spokesperson Alistair Mullin, do nothing but disparage our leadership, try to undermine our leadership. Why? Because we're standing firm and strong for the rights of our people. The attempt to divide and dismiss our people and our leaders will not succeed because we are here today united in calling this kind of behavior for what it is," she said. "We're calling it to the attention of Parliament as a whole. I echo the comments of the national chief. Callthe ethics counsellor in. Call a special Parliamentary review committee. We've seen that the conduct of Indian Affairs will not bear the scrutiny under the light of day under the auditor general's watch and I don't think this behavior will bear that kind of scrutiny, either."

She explained that one of the offending quotes from Mullin appeared in a Canadian Press article on Dec. 10.

"He said, 'Government has repeatedly worked with assembly leaders only to have their efforts voted down by relatively few chiefs with competing priority.' I think it's an intentional strategy. This individual is carrying out the same sort of approach that the minister has been pursuing. We call also this behavior to the attention of the public," Jamieson added.

Earlier that day Jourdain told his fellow chiefs he had "fired" the minister.

"I chose the word 'fire' because the minister has openly stated he does not have the mandate and authority to deal with us in a manner of substance. He has openly stated he does not have the authority to talk about the Canadian Constitution under section 35. He does not have the mandate to discuss with us the treaties. So what's there? At this point I have no reason to talk to him. To me, he's absolutely useless," he said.

Windspeaker asked the national chief what he thought of that move.

"I think it's echoing the frustration and the anger among our constituents and among our leadership here where there's a gross abuse of power and an imposition of one's will on other people. The onus is upon us to take a stand, ask for a Parliamentary review, call on the ethics counsellor or the speaker of the house or the prime minister. It is time to intervene. We are here to ask even the public to help us," he said.

The AFN has been bitterly divided by some aspects of the minister's legislative agenda. Jamieson was asked if chiefs with a good working relationship with the minister could be described as agents of the Crown.

"I'm not sure I would say agents ofthe Crown, but I think a lot of our people have felt that there is a pattern where if you agree you're rewarded and if you disagree you're dismissed or worse. In some cases, punished. This sort of attempted treatment of our people as wards, as children, will not be tolerated," she said.

Saskatchewan Vice-Chief Perry Bellegarde told the chiefs during the Confederacy that he and Coon Come had met with Canada's most senior bureaucrat, Alex Himmelfarb, clerk of the Privy Council, the Prime Minister's senior deputy, to discuss the limits of the Indian Affairs minister's mandate. He discussed this meeting during a meeting with the Minister Nault.

"We did meet with the guy [Nault] who's going to be fired, yesterday (Dec. 9). We talked about a process to implement section 35. He made it very clear to us that he doesn't have that mandate for treaty implementation. I can't go out and tell our chiefs and councillors in Saskatchewan that this First Nations governance process is involved in treaty implementation, because that's not what it is. So I told him it's a B.S. process and I'm not going to support it either," he said. "I also brought up the fact that our national chief met with Alex Himmelfarb and I met with Himmelfarb. We're trying to elevate things to a higher level, not just this one minister, to deal with the whole Crown and all its institutions. [Nault] said 'Himmelfarb won't be there because there's going to be a change.' I said, 'Maybe you won't be there, so maybe we'll wait.'"

Windspeaker met with Nault outside the House of Commons after Question Period on Dec. 11. He didn't seem concerned about the allegations that he was abusing his power.

"This seems to be the normal Christmas occasion for them every time they come to town, to suggest they're not happy with our agenda and/or their agenda. I can't really understand for the life of me what the argument is. We've increased economic development from $25 million to $125 million. We've increased our band suppor