At the end of June, The Nation took part in a native media teleconference interview with Ron Irwin, the federal Minister of Indian Affairs. We shared the panel with John Coplin from Alberta News, Diane Lewis of Wawatay News in Sioux Lookout, Anne Sillibeck of CHON-FM from Whitehorse, Yukon and journalist Dianne Miller.

Ron Irwin, the latest in a long line of Ministers of Indian Affairs, comes from Sault St-Marie, which he claims is a little cooler than Ottawa. He has been in his cabinet position for a little more than six months. He has been the subject of much controversy over everything from a lack of sufficient native housing, dismantling of Indian Affairs in Manitoba to comments made on Quebec sovereignty and the rights of natives.

Ron Irwin on forestry:

“It generally has been a cut-and-move philosophy in this country for 150 years. It hasn’t worked.”

The Nation: You’ve recently stated that in the event of Quebec seceding from Canada, native peoples and their territories could stay within Canada if they chose to. How would you ensure this given the Parti Quebecois claims of territorial integrity? And speaking hypothetically, what status would these territories have within Canada?

Ron Irwin: On this issue I made it clear when I was in my two meetings in Quebec. My line on this is I’m not repeating what I said but I’m not withdrawing what I said. I went through four scrums [when a politician gets mobbed by reporters] nearly every night for a whole week. And my position is I’m not repeating it but I’m not withdrawing it. Beyond that, it’s just words describing a hypothetical situation. I think it went a Tong way in declaring the position of the federal government. And I know the 10 First Nations in Quebec [actually, 11 are-recognized by Quebec’s National Assembly were surprised that I would say that and happy I did. Can we leave it at that?

Sure. Given the fact that your department has said that it will abolish the extinguishment policy in negotiations and treaties, when can we expect this and what op-position do you expect within and outside your party?

The word “extinguishment” in a number of treaties has such a derogatory meaning. In each one of them. Look at those number threes, on our side we had to provide so many acres for each family of four or five, the medals, the suit of clothes for the Chief, and the hunting and fishing. Then the extinguishment of huge pieces of land and that’s the thing that stays with you.

Several Chiefs have said if there was one item in the treaties that was bizarre, it was that you took our land. So we’re talking extinguishment. It has such horrendous connotations that it’s just a bad word. So how is it accepted within caucus and the cabinet [all the ministers] is generally well. Because if we define what we mean as we go along, we’re not talking about extinguishment.

For example, there are trade-offs if we’re moving jurisdiction and education or administration and health or so there are trade-offs. This is done but the extinguishment of broad rights is terrible and I’m staying away from it. Well, it’s part of our red book policy and generally supported by the party, the Prime Minister and cabinet. Public, did you mention public? I don’t think I’m going to have trouble with the public if we explain what we’re doing as we go along. The public wants two things, us not to waste money and a better system than is in place. As long as we’re on those two tracks, I think we’ll have broad public support and so far I think I do have it. I’m not getting many complaints about what we’re doing. There’s a minority, but the majority of Canadians want the right thing to be done and they want it to be done honourably. It makes a better Canada in the long run.

One of the things our Elders and trappers have seen is that the opening up of roads into their traplines has caused an influx of non-native fishermen and hunters coming in. They disturb sensitive areas. Would the Department of Indian Affairs be willing to push for some sort of role for the native trapper, harvest or or talleyman assisting in the creation of quotas and seasons and the protection of sensitive areas?

Very much so. The co-management models that we have out there are being looked at by the Saskatchawen government, the FFN, FFIN and the Tribal Council of the Montagnais and Restigouche. That’s

a very significant portion of co-management, just what you just said. Everything from wildlife to forest management, not tree mangement. Let’s get away from this idea of growing trees for lumber. Forest management, the sacred sites to medicine and so on.

Not only am I more confortable with that then the present current practice, but I thought that aboriginal people have to be involved in the management of these areas was a plus for the country. Because I don’t think we’ve done too greatly so far. It generally has been a cut-and-move philosophy in this country for 150 years. It hasn’t worked. It’s important to me as a Canadian that the First Nations are deeply involved in forest management.

Irwin on extinguishment:

“It’s just a bad word.”

Ron Irwin on numbers

Ron Irwin also spoke about discrepancies in the numbers of registered native peoples in Canada.

Critics have suggested that Indian Affairs is overestimating the number of natives by 25 per cent and that it’ wasting money by spending on natives who don’t exist. Irwin said the department is trying to improve its statistics on native peoples.

“The bottom line is that we cannot be making payments for non-existent people,” Irwin said. “It’s something we’re working on. I’m sure we’ll find a solution.”

Irwin finds the 25-per-cent number hard to accept, and feels if it was right, the Auditor-General would have picked up on it

“Twenty five per cent of the First Nations don’t exist… It’s a little hard to accept that,” Irwin said.