Liberal letdown
Aboriginal leaders disappointed with current government in Ottawa

by Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

NNSL (May 07/97) - Aboriginal leaders in the North have a lot to say about the Liberal government, but not much of it good.

"I'd be very pleased to see a minority government or a change in government," said Bill Erasmus, national chief of the Dene Nation. "It doesn't matter to me whether it's NDP or Conservative or even Reform."

Erasmus said that when the Liberals swept to victory in the last election, he expected to see big changes to the way aboriginal issues are dealt with.

In particular, Erasmus was hoping to see the government remove the requirement that aboriginal groups give up, or "extinguish" all legal rights to other lands when they sign land claim agreements.

He was also hoping an independent body would be set up to deal with land claim issues.

Neither has been done.

"They have the impression they can do anything, and regardless of what people think, they'll do what they want," said Erasmus. Clem Paul, president of the Yellowknife Metis Council, one of three Metis groups that makes up the North Slave Metis, agreed with Erasmus' assessment of the Liberal government.

"They've completely ignored every plea," said Paul, when asked how the Liberals have dealt with land claim negotiations.

"We've written countless letters to Ron Irwin. We've lobbied different levels of government. I've made a dozen phone calls to Ethel (Blondin-Andrew, MP for the Western Arctic). She hasn't returned a single one."

Paul said that last week on the campaign trail was the first time he had met with the incumbent MP since she took office.

In her campaign literature, Blondin-Andrew notes the government signed a $450,000 training agreement with the North Slave Metis Alliance.

"We didn't get any help for the government," said Paul, referring to the agreement, which gave the Metis money that previously came through the Dogrib First Nation.

"They just completely ignored us. The only time it got changed was when we attracted the attention of other groups in the same situation. The Liberal government created the chaos to begin with."

Rae Dogrib chief Joe Rabesca painted a different picture of the Liberals.

"Our land claim has been going well since the Liberal government has been in," said Rabesca. "I'm not having any problems with the minister that's there now. Every time I've made a call to the minister, he's returned my call."

Rabesca noted one big advantage Blondin-Andrew has in her bid for a third consecutive term in office is the ability to speak to Dogrib in their own language.

Stormy relations

One of the harshest criticisms of Liberal handling of aboriginal issues came from within their own party.

The Aboriginal People's Commission, established in 1990 through an amendment to the party's constitution, drafted the platform on aboriginal issues used during the 1993 election campaign.

At a press conference last year, two members of the commission called the newly crafted Federal Aboriginal Self-Government Policy "a complete sham."

"In our opinion," concluded the members, "it is clear the Chretien government has defaulted on the promises made in the aboriginal platform."

Since taking power, tension between Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin and national aboriginal leaders has steadily increased.

Rather than deal with aboriginal leadership from the top down, Irwin dealt directly with regional and local leaders, cutting leaders such as Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Ovide Mercredi out of the decision-making process.

"That was only because he had a personality conflict with Ovide," said Dene Nation chief Bill Erasmus. "He bypassed the AFN because he didn't like Ovide. A politician is supposed to see the greater good for people, and get beyond things like that."

Erasmus said the decision to deal on a regional level resulted in an inconsistent approach to land claim and self-government negotiations.