Traditional territory includes East Side

Posted on March 29th, 2007

By Don Sullivan

Source: Winnipeg Free Press

GERALD Flood’s column, (Province might cede East Side, March 24), expresses an old-fashioned colonial attitude. Flood’s assumption that the land was terra nullius or empty is exactly the approach that the colonialists took to remove First Nations from their traditional territories in the first place. This Doctrine of Discovery has and continues to have a detrimental impact on First Nation in Canada to this day.

First, the concept of traditional territories is very well-defined, so much so that for better or for worse, these territories have been written into the numbered treaties and further refined, at least in Manitoba, at the community level by the registered trapline system.

These traditional territories are based on continued use of the land by First Nations, such as trapping, once the backbone of Rupert’s Land’s (Manitoba’s) economy.

Thus, based on these two facts, First Nations on the East Side do not have to claim that it is their traditional territory — it only need be asserted practically and through the rule of law by First Nations.

Contrary to Flood’s assertion, these claims do have force in law. They are recognized in the treaties and affirmed in Sec. 35 of the Constitution.

It’s unfortunate that governments tend to ignore their legal obligation to accommodate these claims. In fact, it is at the heart of the problems and conflicts that continue to this day between First Nations and the Crown.

Access to the land and its resources is paramount to the cultural survival and economic well-being of First Nations.

This sentiment was best expressed by Jim Mochoruk in his book, Formidable Heritage: Manitoba’s North and the Cost of Development, when he stated:

“(W)hen all of Manitoba was given in 1670, sight unseen, to a group of entrepreneurs (the Hudson’s Bay Company) whose primary goal was to exploit the natural resources of the region, a precedent was set that would be replicated all too many times in Manitoba’s history, for this grant was both careless and callous in regard to the region’s resources and to the rights of its inhabitants.”

The attempts by the current government of Manitoba to rectify this situation by providing financial resources to First Nation communities on the East Side of Lake Winnipeg to undertake community-based land-use planning is commendable as a first step and long overdue.

As for the so-called secret Draft Protocol Agreement that Flood alludes to, anyone who is interested in this Draft Protocol Agreement need only spend a couple of minutes surfing the Internet to find it.

Should the government of Manitoba have the political will to proceed with ratifying this version of the Protocol Agreement, an unlikely scenario at this time, it would allow, for the first time, those First Nation communities on the East Side most affected by large-scale resource development the opportunity to be at the planning table at the start of the process rather then at the end, which is often the case.

In addition, the Protocol Agreement, if and when implemented, would give First Nation communities a real and meaningful opportunity to participate in creating an economy based on the resources in their traditional territory — occurring for the most part at the exclusion of these communities. It will, in the long run, save lengthy and expensive litigation between First Nations, the Crown, and industry and will allow for co-management opportunities, benefit agreements to be negotiated between First Nation and third-party interests, and stimulate much needed First Nation community economic development.

Should Flood’s status quo attitudes prevail in Manitoba, we will all suffer as a whole.

Don Sullivan is a former member of the Eastside Planning Initiative and executive director of the Boreal Forest Network.