Aboriginal Self-Government

Many Aboriginal people in the province and the country see self-government as a way to preserve their culture and attain greater control over their land, resources, and administration of laws and practices that affect their lives. Aboriginal groups argue they have an inherent right to self-government because they were the first people to govern Canada and did not willingly surrender their autonomy to European settlers; this argument is supported by the Canadian Constitution and was acknowledged by the federal government in 1995.

Aboriginal governments may take many forms in Canada, but usually provide their members with greater control over political, economic, social, and cultural affairs within their communities. Negotiations toward self-government are lengthy and usually involve Aboriginal, federal, and provincial representatives; land claim agreements are often a part of the process. Aboriginal governments work within the framework of the Canadian Constitution, which provides that they work in relation to other levels of government, whether federal, provincial, or municipal.

Aboriginal groups in Newfoundland and Labrador are at varying stages in their pursuit of self-government and land claim settlements. The Inuit settled a land claim agreement in 2004 and became a self-governing people one year later when they formed the Nunatsiavut Government. The province's Innu, Mi'kmaq, and Métis groups have also submitted self-government or land claims proposals to the federal government.

Federal Policy toward Aboriginal Groups

Aboriginal groups in Newfoundland and Labrador were sovereign nations before the arrival of Europeans. They were self-governing peoples who exploited natural resources in their homelands and did not voluntarily surrender their autonomy to foreign governments. Nonetheless, Aboriginal peoples came under increasing control of European laws and customs after first contact, which often limited their access to resources and threatened their cultures. Today, many Aboriginal groups hope to regain a degree of their former autonomy through self-government and land claim agreements.

Several proclamations, acts, and other official decrees have affected the rights of Aboriginal groups in Newfoundland and Labrador and Canada since the arrival of European settlers. Among the earliest was the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which King George III passed in part to protect Aboriginal inhabitants of British North America. The Proclamation depicts Aboriginal peoples as autonomous political groups and sets out the procedure under which Britain may acquire Aboriginal lands. It stated that only the Crown, and not individual settlers, could purchase land from Aboriginal people, and that Aboriginal groups could only lose title to land they voluntarily surrendered in a public assembly attended by Aboriginal and British representatives.

A century later, the British Parliament passed the British North America Act, 1867 (also known as the Constitution Act, 1867) to create the federal dominion of Canada. The Act gave the Canadian government jurisdiction over Aboriginal groups, which helped establish the country's financial obligations toward Aboriginal residents. Section 35 of the amended Constitution Act of 1982 defines Canada's Aboriginal population as including “the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples.” The term 'Indian,' as used in the Constitution, applies to the Innu and Mi'kmaq people of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Canadian government passed the Indian Act in 1876 to clarify Ottawa's relationship with and responsibilities toward Aboriginal people registered under the Act. It has since undergone several revisions. The Act makes the federal government financially responsible for the delivery of health, education, and other social services to much of its Aboriginal population. However, the federal government did not extend the Act to Newfoundland and Labrador after Confederation, making it impossible for Aboriginal groups here to attain legal Indian status and access federal services. This changed in the 1980s when Mi'kmaq at Conne River registered under the Act.

In 1969, the federal government released a controversial report known as the White Paper, which recommended abolishing the Indian Act and assimilating Aboriginal people into mainstream Canadian culture. The report sparked much protest from Aboriginal peoples, who felt their treaty and other rights were under attack. Although the federal government withdrew the document in 1971, it helped set into motion a nationwide movement by Aboriginal peoples to protect their rights and cultures. Reaction to the White Paper in Newfoundland and Labrador helped lead to the formation of the Innu Nation, Federation of Newfoundland Indians (which today represents many Mi'kmaq people), the Labrador Inuit Association, and the Labrador Métis Nation. In the coming years and decades, many Aboriginal groups in Canada investigated ways of obtaining self-government or settling land claims with federal and provincial authorities.

In 1995, the federal government officially recognized that Aboriginal groups have an inherent right of self-government within section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982. It also acknowledged that Aboriginal people across the country have different needs and backgrounds, making it impossible for one system of self-government to suit all groups. As a result, Ottawa revised its negotiations policies to accommodate a broad range of applicants, including status and non-status Indians, Métis, and Inuit people.

Aboriginal Self-Government in Canada

The federal department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) negotiates and puts into effect land claim and self-government agreements on behalf of the Canadian government. Negotiations are often lengthy, lasting for years or even decades, and must go through a series of steps, including a Framework Agreement, an Agreement-in-Principle, a Final Agreement, Ratification, and implementation. Before the process begins, however, Aboriginal groups must first research, write, and submit proposals to the department; the government will either reject or accept the document for negotiation. If rejected, Aboriginal groups may perform more research and submit a revised proposal.

To be effective, Aboriginal governments must have authority and law-making powers over a wide range of areas. The federal government allows Aboriginal groups to negotiate for complete jurisdiction in some areas, but for limited powers in others. Aboriginal governments may attain complete jurisdiction over matters relating to internal affairs and cultural preservation. These include: the establishment of governing structures and internal constitutions; the establishment of Aboriginal courts; the creation of laws similar to those normally created by local or regional governments; health; education; marriage; adoption and child welfare; policing; property rights; agriculture; hunting, fishing, and trapping on Aboriginal lands; property taxes; public works; and natural resources management.

Aboriginal governments must also work in co-operation with other levels of government on a variety of issues and will have only limited law-making powers under these circumstances. These areas include: divorce, emergency preparedness, administration of justice, labour/training, penitentiaries and parole, environmental protection, and fisheries co-management.

Other areas will remain under federal jurisdiction exclusively. These are related to Canadian sovereignty, defence, and external relations, and include international trade, foreign policy, security of national borders, international treaty-making, and immigration. The federal government also retains jurisdiction over issues it deems to be of national interest, including the postal service, national transportation systems, regulation of the national economy, and maintenance of national law and order.

According to INAC, Canada has completed 17 self-government agreements involving 36 communities; 15 of these were in conjunction with comprehensive land claims. The department is now engaged in 80 different negotiations with about 384 communities across the country. These talks are at different points of development.

Aboriginal Self-Government in Newfoundland and Labrador

Aboriginal people in Newfoundland and Labrador are at varying stages in negotiating land claim and self-government arrangements with federal and provincial authorities. The Inuit became a self-governing people in 2005 when they formed the Nunatsiavut Government. They also settled a comprehensive land claim agreement for 72,520 square kilometers of land in northern Labrador, which includes the five major Inuit communities of Nain, Hopedale, Rigolet, Makkovik, and Postville. The Labrador Inuit parliament is known as the Nunatsiavut Assembly; its president and members are elected for four-year terms.

The Conne River Mi'kmaq registered as a band under the federal Indian Act in 1984 and Ottawa recognized the community as an official reserve in 1987, giving residents access to federal programs, services, and grant money. The group has filed land claims with the federal government, although Ottawa has not yet accepted anything for formal negotiations. In 2008, about 7,800 Mi'kmaq not living at Conne River accepted an agreement-in-principle with the federal government to form a 'landless band' under the Indian Act.

The Innu Nation won recognition for its members as status Indians under the Indian Act in 2002. The government also recognized the communities of Natuashish and Sheshatshiu as reserve lands in 2003 and 2006, respectively. Residents at both communities elect Band Councils to represent their needs and concerns. The Innu Nation filed a land claim with the federal government in October 1990, which led to the signing of a Framework Agreement in 1996. The group is currently negotiating an Agreement-in-Principle with provincial and federal authorities; it also began negotiating self-government arrangements in 2006.

The Labrador Métis Nation filed a comprehensive land claim with the federal government in 1991 for land in central and southeastern Labrador; it awaits Ottawa's decision to accept or reject the proposal for negotiation. The group represents about 6,000 Métis people living in Labrador.

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2009, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

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