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Financial settlement pending

Andrew Raven
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (July 08/05) - A financial settlement for former residential school students could be completed within the next several months, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine said Tuesday.

"This is a real opportunity to bring closure to a tragic (time) in our history," Fontaine told hundreds of delegates.

The federal government recently appointed former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci to lead negotiations with the assembly, in the hopes of reaching a settlement by next spring.

The assembly proposed a lump sum payment of $10,000 for each student plus $3,000 for every year they attended residential school.

The assembly estimates there are 87,000 living residential school students.

In a pre-recorded address to delegates, Prime Minister Paul Martin said the government was prepared to move forward on a settlement.

"There is no doubt in my mind... we must bring reconciliation to the tragedies of the past," Martin said.

There are nearly 13,000 lawsuits by former students before the courts, creating a massive backlog that could take years to settle.

Fontaine urged members to consider the lump-sum payment. "This is a good deal. This is a terrific agreement."

The current process for settling the claims out of court has been widely criticized as inefficient; 40 per cent of the over $1 billion the government set aside to resolve the cases was slated for "administration."

That led the assembly to renew their push for an new deal, Fontaine said.

Though he cautioned no financial settlement will ever erase the devastating legacy of residential schools.

"This issue will never disappear," he said. "We cannot erase the effect (that period) had on our people."

Changing climate

Global warming could destroy Northern Aboriginal cultures if left unchecked, warned Dene National Chief Noeline Villebrun.

"We are experiencing changes. This could wipe out our nations," she said.

Climate change was a pressing topic for many delegates, with Villebrun highlighting a laundry list of environmental changes in the North.

Rising temperatures could drastically alter traditional activities like hunting, and trapping, delegates said.

"Things are happening and the North is going to be the first area to experience the changes," said Rick Simon, regional chief of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

Villebrun said the North has suffered the consequences of Southern emissions and called on the federal government to consult with aboriginal groups in the territory when it comes to addressing climate change.

Layton speaks

New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton called on the federal government to pour money into social housing for First Nations.

Layton said hundreds of millions of dollars are necessary to ensure aboriginals across the country have access to affordable housing. The comments were greeted by loud cheers from the hundreds of assembly delegates.

The New Democrats are committed to pushing the aboriginal government on Parliament Hill, Layton said.

During contentious debates over the federal budget, money for aboriginal housing was a crucial component of NDP support for the teetering Liberal government, Layton said.

"We made that condition. Otherwise the government would fall."

Layton spent Wednesday and Thursday talking with media outlets about the potential for NDP inroads into the territory, where candidate Dennis Bevington lost by 52 votes to Liberal incumbent Ethel Blondin-Andrew.

Thursday morning, just hours after the Layton address, Blondin-Andrew announced $1.2 million in funding for a homeless shelter in Yellowknife.

AFN weighs in on pipeline

Industry needs to recognize the "inherent right" of aboriginal groups to control their land and resources, Assembly of First Nations vice-chief Bill Erasmus said Tuesday.

"The message to multi-nationals is: This is our homeland. We still believe we have the inherent right to govern ourselves."

The statement was a departure for high ranking officials in the Assembly of First Nations, who have largely remained silent in the debate over the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. The $7 billion project would siphon natural gas from Beaufort Sea into Northern Alberta and has been challenged by aboriginal groups in the territories.

Erasmus told reporters the AFN has purposefully remained on the sidelines, preferring to provide support to the communities along the pipeline route and allowing them decide the issue for themselves.

Sandpits controversy

The Yellowknives Dene used their opening remarks Tuesday to highlight a dispute with city hall over a 64-acre parcel of undeveloped land on the outskirts of the capital.

Dettah Chief Peter Liske criticized the territorial and municipal governments for blocking their plans to build a residential community in the area, commonly known as the sandpits. "Why are (they) trying to stop us from doing business on our own land?" Liske said. "They say there is a process in place (for resolving land claims.) But it is my land first."

Newly elected Ndilo chief Fred Sangris said the city has grown "on the doorstep" of the Yellowknives and the groups have lived in peaceful co-existence for decades. But he later cautioned all levels of governments need to respect their treaty rights.

Yellowknife mayor Gord Van Tighem, who spoke after Liske, avoided the issue during his opening remarks, saying only: "We enjoy a relationship of respect and trust with the Yellowknives Dene."