During a recent teleconference with Indian Affairs Minister Ron Irwin The Nation got to ask a few questions. The minister talked about issues near and dear to Native hearts but couldn’t be nailed down to any concrete promises by interviewers. No guarantees on housing, negotiations or assistance to northern communities were given but the minister promised to look at the intent of treaties and agreements rather than just the wording.
One feeling I had was it seemed a lot of money is spent on government employees rather than the Natives. In B.C. alone there are fwe negotiating tables with 50 negotiators with a budget of $125 million. And this just to talk when Natives face a housing crisis and social and economic problems.
Minister Irwin: Is there some sort of order here is The Nation going to start first? The Nation: Yeah sure.
Go ahead, shoot… I mean that only figuratively! (polite laughter) There has been some concern among the James Bay Crees over the fact that housing has been cut to 43 houses this year from 70 last year. Needs continue to grow— therefore is the Minister going to increase funding for housing? Well, I can’t give you a specific number going to anyone but I’m consumed with this problem. You know we’ve been over this before. We have to get the housing up to a level table. At the same time you know the problem (Finance Minister Paul) Martin had with the budget, and Dave Dingwall (minister responsible for social housing) and I have been putting as much pressure as we can without being nuisances here in Ottawa to bringing the problem ahead and it’s current.
Has the Operations and Maintenance Funding for the Cree communities seen any resolution? I’ve had a couple of meetings with Matthew Coon Come and the negotiators. My deputy minister and assistant deputy minister are hands on this file to see if we can get some resolution on this. I find that if you sort of let these things wander off time goes by and nothing gets accomplished. So at the last meeting we decided to put a concentrated effort on this and get the O&M budget done.
Has a negotiator been finally chosen to deal with implementation of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement? It’s been my understanding that this search has taken over a year.
This bothers me too. You’d think we could get a negotiator quicker. We’ve had some good one-on-one discussions on a negotiator—direct negotiations with the Grand Chief—and I want to get this done. I want a negotiator named as soon as possible, as he does. You can’t negotiate if you don’t have a negotiator.
Do you see one being found soon? I do.
Is there a possibility of financial assistance to the remote northern communities who only got in part of their supplies due to the short winter road season? As I understand the funding on this—and I’m not an expert—this is taken into consideration on the winter roads. Soon of the Chiefs who have come up to me and for one reason or another, climate or whatever, are hung up on the transportation costs, I don’t do those negotiations myself, but I’m aware that they are having some problems on that, but at this stage I can’t answer that—it’s a very broad question. I can’t answer with a specific a First Nation is getting X amount of dollars because they couldn’t get their supplies in because of the weather.
But is assistance being looked at, at all, as a possibility? Yeah, sure it is. I mean we can’t operate in a vacuum but that’s not a carte blanche to say that anybody who has trouble is going to get extra money. We try to deal with it on an individual basis.
Are you going to give me an idea of what soon means? I can’t But I usually move fairly quickly.
What are your objectives for this year? What are you really going to be doing? Well, at this point that’s a tough question. I spent all weekend mulling it in my mind. I’d like to move on about 30 different fronts. They range from oil and gas, inherent right to self-government, spirit and intent on treaty, to Aboriginal forestry, to dismantling the Indian Act review. I think as we get these things going and as treaty bodies and tribal councils gain the experience to do it, if I can accomplish those 30 areas, then it will be quite a year.
Is your department looking at updating some of the treaties and agreements in conjunction with the Aboriginal groups or peoples involved? The treaties aren’t going to change as far as the wording. I’ll give you an example. A number of the treaties talked about school and they get kind of chincy as you get closer to the last treaty. Nowadays First Nations are quite comfortable with their own universities. So rather then changing the wording of any treaty why don’t we look at the spirit and intent in today’s atmosphere. What does this mean? It no longer means one school per band; this means a university. I don’t think you’ll be seeing us changing the wording of a treaty but we’ll be changing what we are doing.