Native rights expert says Canada at crossroads in relations with aboriginals 

Canadian Press
Friday, November 10, 2000 

FREDERICTON. A new book on aboriginal rights says Canada is on the threshold of a new relationship with native people which will lead either to a stronger country or to another 100 years of legal wrangling and ugly confrontations like those at Burnt Church, N.B. 

The Marshall Decision and Native Rights, by history professor Ken Coates of the University of New Brunswick, explores the fallout from the landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision in 1999 in the case of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq fisherman Donald Marshall Jr. 

The decision upheld 18th-century treaties giving the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet people a right to commercial use of natural resources. It also set off a firestorm of controversy that raged across the country and highlighted divisions between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities. 

Coates, a non-aboriginal born and raised in the Yukon, describes the events, personalities and conflicts that touched off dangerous and frightening confrontations on Maritime waters over the past two years. 

He says we should brace for more trouble to come. 

”The government is responding to the Marshall decision as if it was the end of a process when, in fact, what it really represents is the beginning of a process,” Coates says in an interview. 

He says the outlook is grim for any resolution to the dispute over aboriginal rights to resources and lands. Part of the problem, he says, is a lack of political will to grapple with the issues and force a settlement. 

He has special criticism for Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who maintained a studiously low profile during the aboriginal fishing dispute, even when violence flared at the Mi’kmaq community of Burnt Church in northeastern New Brunswick. 

”I’m astonished at how a prime minister, who is supposed be the nation’s leader, gets away with leaving this in the hands of relatively second-tier ministers,” Coates says. 

”This is one of the most important confrontations the Maritimes put up with in the past five years, and the fact that the prime minister just handed this over to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is a bit of a shock. The federal government has tried to compartmentalize, saying this is a DFO issue. It isn’t, actually. It’s a government-to-First Nations issue, and it’s a very large political and legal matter.” 

Coates says the federal government’s reluctance to confront aboriginal claims is a tragedy for Canada. 

He says that in territories and countries where these problems have been approached forthrightly and intelligently, the result has been stronger, more cohesive nations. 

Coates grew up in the Yukon during land claims cases there and he has studied aboriginal issues in places like New Zealand where accommodations have been struck between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities. 

”You can trim the whole process of resolving these legal issues into a nation-building exercise,” he says. 

”You can make a better society as a consequence of confronting both history and legal responsibility. It’s quite exciting. The Yukon is a significantly better place now. It’s a more engaged, integrated, collegial society than it was in the 1960s. New Zealand is significantly stronger as a consequence of facing up to the whole issue of Maori rights.” 

Coates says Canada is at a crossroads on aboriginal rights. 

He says it can continue with slow, court-by-court challenges of old and obscure treaties, or it can take the bull by the horns and forge a new treaty and a new relationship with aboriginal people. 

”First Nations issues are going to be resolved one way or another,” he says. 

”We’re either going to have 25 Marshall decisions coming down every two years for a very long period of time with all the uncertainty, anger and frustration, or we can actually grab this issue at one time and say, ‘Can we find an arrangement that meets the needs of all the people at one time?’ You’re going to get to roughly the same place one way or the other.” 

Coates said the next ”Marshall decisions” will address native rights and resources such as timber, minerals and oil and gas. Timber cases are already being fought in Maritime courts. 

”We’ll be fighting these cases for a century,” he predicts. 

The Marshall Decision and Native Rights, Ken Coates, McGill-Queen’s University Press, $24.95 { au: Chris Morris dt: 11/10/00 sc: cpress}