Jean Chretien has been deemed fair game to be called as a witness in a Breach of Treaty and Trust trial in Alberta. The Samson Cree Nation filed the motion in March of 2003 calling for Chretien and (now former) Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Robert Nault to testify in a case that was originally launched in 1989.
The case seeks to have the federal government (including the Department of Indian Affairs) found guilty of breaching its treaty, trust, fiduciary and other obligations and duties to the Samson Cree Nation. More specifically with respect to the management and supervision of the oil and gas relating to the Pigeon Lake Reserve, and the management of the oil and gas royalty moneys that the federal government received and held in trust for the Samson Cree Nation. The Crees are seeking an amount of over $1.385 billion in damages for the loss of revenue and other losses suffered.
They are also asking for a declaration that all moneys entrusted to the Federal Government for the Samson Cree Nation (of approximately $370 million) be put in an express trust in favour of the Samson Cree Nation and must be transferred to the ownership, management and control of the Samson Cree Nation in trust.
The federal government has filed its defence, denying all liability.
Mr. Justice Max Teitelbaum, accepted the arguments on behalf of the Samson Cree Nation that the Prime Minister held many influential positions affecting aboriginal matters during the time on question and that his unique knowledge and experience would be helpful to the Court and this case.
Most remarkably, he was the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs from 1968-1974 and the President of the Treasury Board from 1974-1976, which is the ministry that controls government spending where Chretien monitored where the money went. The judge denied the application to subpoena Nault because he said that the main purpose of so doing would be to engage in political debate and hence unrelated to the issues at hand.
And what does this mean for other Natives in Canada? Only that if the former (or present) PM can be subpoenaed as a witness for one of the biggest trials in the Aboriginal history of Alberta and quite possibly Canada, what is to prevent other nations and bands from doing it as well?
Those that have various ongoing (or upcoming) battles with the federal and provincial governments should do their research and find out if they can have their lawyers make applications to subpoena ministers, those whose signatures are on documents relevant to the case or who were in office during the time the grievances or crimes happened.
Mr. Justice Teitelbaum said it was kosher to subpoena Chretien because Chretien’s name appears on numerous documents relevant to the case. This opens the door to have many other ministers subpoenaed and of course makes one wonder about all the other documents and memos that have floated around Parliament Hill that have in the past and in the future will no doubt be heading for the vortex of a government shredder.
The PM will be under oath when he is called to the bench, which means only that he will be morally unable to lie. Of course, as with most politicians the truth will likely be hidden under a couple of layers, or lawyers, of haziness and doublespeak.
But it is a start. Just look at Chretien’s last few months in office, when truths unheard of seemed to pushing to get out of his mouth every time he spoke. And now, he’s like a modern-day Pinocchio thinking, “Look papa, no strings.” If this is any indication of what could be, having Chretien as the first PM and former Indian Affairs Minister to be called as a witness in a trial for the Natives looks good for a little of that accountability the federal government is always talking about.