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Justice Ron Veale

Canada accepts fault in negotiating financial agreement

The federal government has accepted it failed in its obligation to the Teslin Tlingit Council.

By Chuck Tobin on February 15, 2019

The federal government has accepted it failed in its obligation to the Teslin Tlingit Council.

Ottawa had until 4 p.m. yesterday to appeal the Jan. 15 ruling by Justice Ron Veale of the Supreme Court of Yukon.

No appeal was filed.

Veale found Canada had not fulfilled the funding arrangement it agreed to in 1995 when the Teslin Tlingits became a self-governing First Nation.

While the court ruling is specific to Teslin, it’s widely felt the decision carries over to the funding agreements with the other 10 self-governing Yukon First Nations who’ve also been at odds with Ottawa over their annual financial transfer agreements.

The Teslin Tlingits filed their lawsuit against Ottawa in December 2017. The matter was heard this past December.

In his ruling, the judge directed Ottawa to correct the matter with Teslin by March 31, the end of this fiscal year.

Chief Richard Sidney of the Teslin Tlingit Council could not be reached this morning for comment regarding Ottawa’s decision not to appeal.

The Teslin Tlingit Council told Veale during the three-day trial that the federal government continues to insist on negotiating the financial transfer agreement with the Tlingits based on the number of status Indians on the First Nation’s citizenship list.

A fundamental principle of the land claim and self-government agreements – a principle Ottawa agreed to – was to remove the federal government from the equation of deciding who was a Teslin Tlingit, the council argued.

The council also argued that Canada agreed to negotiate the financial transfer agreement with Teslin based on the entirety of its citizenship list, status and non-status Indians.

But Canada continues to discriminate between status and non-status and continues to base its annual funding on who it defines as status Indians, with no provision for the 25 per cent of Teslin Tlingits who Ottawa classifies as non-status, Veale heard.

The council told the judge the First Nation agreed to surrender its aboriginal rights and title to 90 per cent of its traditional territory in exchange for an agreement with Ottawa that included reasonable funding to support its self-governing authority.

Ottawa is tens of millions of dollars light in the relationship the Tlingits had envisioned, the court heard.

During the three days of trial, even Judge Veale once characterized the federal government’s position at the negotiating table as one of take it, or leave it.

He also expressed surprise that Ottawa was still using its definition of status and non-status Indians when it came to the financial transfer agreement for the Teslin Tlingits.

The judge said in court he thought a fundamental principle of the Yukon land claim and self-government agreements was to do away with Ottawa’s definition of status and non-status Indians.

Federal lawyers did tell the judge in December the federal government has been working closely with Canada’s 26 self-governing First Nations to create a new approach to negotiating annual financial transfer agreements since the election of the Liberal government in 2015.

The court heard a document had even been sent to the federal cabinet in 2017, though nothing as yet has been tabled publicly.

In an interview following Veale’s decision last month, Chief Sharon Nelson of the Selkirk First Nation said the victory for Teslin was a victory for all of the Yukon’s self-governing First Nations, as did Grand Chief Peter Johnston of the Council of Yukon First Nations.

Johnston said he couldn’t see how Ottawa could entertain fixing Teslin’s financial transfer agreement without fixing the other 10.

In an interview following Veale’s decision, Chief Sidney said if Ottawa wanted to roll up its sleeves, there was a shot at reaching a new financial transfer agreement with the Tlingits by April 1, the beginning of the 2019-20 fiscal year.

The court heard in December how Ottawa has had a comprehensive, detailed list of what the Tlingit Council believes would be an appropriate level of funding to support its self-government authority, but has had no response.

When Justice Veale told the parties in December that he was reserving his decision, he also told them he was aware there was some urgency to the matter, in reference to March 31 being the end of this fiscal year.

There was a time when Canada’s Indigenous people had to surrender their status as a status Indian – as defined by Ottawa – if they wanted to vote, or enlist in the armed forces to help defend Canada.

A statement received shortly after noon from the office of federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett reads: “Self-government agreements entered into by Indigenous governments and the Crown are solemn agreements that set out the relationship for ongoing reconciliation between Indigenous governments and the Crown.

“Canada has reviewed the decision of the Yukon Supreme Court and neither we, nor the Teslin Tlingit Council, will be appealing. Our government believes that the best way to address outstanding issues and achieve reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is through negotiation and dialogue, rather than litigation.

“We are committed to honouring our mutual agreements and to negotiating the renewal of the Teslin Tlingit Council Financial Transfer Agreement, and those of 10 other Yukon First Nations with Final and Self-Government Agreements, in good faith.

“Negotiations with the other 10 self-governing Yukon First Nations continue to proceed positively. We look forward to resuming negotiations with Teslin Tlingit Council in the spirit of partnership.

“We hope to conclude renewed Financial Transfer Agreements with all self-governing Yukon First Nations in the near term.”

The Teslin Tlingits told Justice Veale they were at the national table with the other self-governing First Nations to discuss a new approach to financial transfer agreement. But they decided to leave in 2016 when all they could see coming out of Ottawa was more talk, talk they’d put up with for more than 20 years, the judge heard.

The Tlingits then followed up with their lawsuit.

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