Richard Saunders is the new interim Chairman of the Cree-Naskapi Commission until Judge Paul returns to duty. Saunders was a former commissioner from 1986 to 1992.
He readily admitted there is a backlog in the Commission’s responses to complaints because there weren’t any commissioners for a while. Saunders said the backlog resulted in a slowdown in preparing this year’s report to the Canadian Parliament, due on June 5.
He said one of the difficulties in preparing the report is that it ends up being in four different languages.
He said they have managed to hold hearings in most of the communities as well as a hearing in Ottawa.
In Ouje-Bougoumou, while the Band Council has made its submission, there will be a community public hearing on April 7th, Waswanipi on the 8th and Wemindji Band Members will be heard on the April 9th.
Saunders said one of the themes he is seeing throughout the Cree territory is defining the role of the Cree justice system. Saunders said one of the complaints is that the circuit courts come through only periodically.
This means there are long delays between being charged for an offense and actually going to trial.
Other justice problems cited by the communities are that Cree police only have jurisdiction in Category I lands.
Saunders said offenses might take place across the road, in the bush or whatever but the Cree police can’t do anything about it except to wait for the SQ to show up. Another delay in time.
Mediation is another common theme. Saunders said the communities are asking that the Commission play a role in mediating disputes.
“As you know there are quite a few lawsuits between various Cree Bands and entities, primarily government,” said Saunders.
He said mediation doesn’t require the time and expense of the courts to be resolved.
Saunders pointed out that the level of trust displayed by the Cree communities in the Commission wasunderstandable. The Crees choose and then Ottawa approves. Saunders was quite
frank saying that in the past relations between the Commission and Ottawa have been tested at times.
“Certainly there have been serious difficulties between ourselves and the previous ministers,” said Saunders, adding that the present situation was fine.
When the first report was given to Indian Affairs back in 1986, he said, “the department spent a great deal of time trying to discredit the commissioners personally.”
Saunders said the Feds weren’t happy with the findings. At the time one of the decisions of the Commission was in favour of the Crees. Proof that the Commission was not just another Trojan Horse for the Crees.
Saunders said he’s pleased with the latest Indian Affairs Minister. She’s “interested in dealing with issues (rather) than just positions,” he said.
Saunders said he finds the role of the CNC to be more than just policing the Cree governments. He says Grand Chief Coon Come has seen the CNC as “kind of an ombudsman role.”
It’s more than just the Crees’ but also the federal government’s and its agencies’ role in implementing the Cree-Naskapi Act, explained Saunders.
On the forestry issues and the Cree forestry court case, Saunders remarked, “It’s unfortunate that it has to go to court but the truth of the matter is the Crees have been attempting for some time to resolve it through negotiations. It’s not making very much progress and they know that the federal government has no alternative but to listen when the courts make a decision.”
He said the Crees were forced into this position and have no other options.
We discussed the Cree concern over the offshore islands. The Cree leadership would like the CNC to be involved in mediating the issue, Saunders said. The problem is the islands are not a part of Quebec, he said.
The islands are considered part of the Northwest Territories. The JBNQA only covered lands within Quebec. The traditional Cree rights still exist for those islands, said Saunders.
“On the islands you still have 100 per cent Cree rights,” he said. He added that the extinguishment clause in the JBNQA did not apply to those islands.
Saunders said the Cree claims also apply to the water and the seabeds underneath the islands. “It’s a pretty substantial claim,” remarked Saunders.
He said that with the rise in development in the North, it is in the Cree interest that the claims be recognized in a formal way. The CNC report to the Canadian Parliament will mention this issue, according to Saunders.
In a recent meeting with the Minister of Indian Affairs, Jane Stewart, she indicated to Saunders that her department would have no trouble with the CNC having a greater role in the Cree communities. To help with this the CNC budget and mandate could be increased in the fiscal year 1999-2000.
“She didn’t give any guarantees but she indicated she thought we should be doing more.She acknowledged that more probably meant more money,” said Saunders.