Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Robert Nault has threatened to walk away from as many as 30 stalled native claims and self-government negotiations, blaming the other side of the table — especially lawyers, writes Terrence Belford in a report for the Globe and Mail.

“I am not in the business of building an industry for lawyers and consultants,” Nault said.

No one knows exactly how many lawyers are involved in Mr. Nault’s industry, as Indian Affairs cannot provide statistics on lawyers representing Ottawa.

Gina Wilson, executive adviser for claims and Indian government, says lawyers are the exclusive purview of the Department of Justice. Justice says it doesn’t keep a running tally.

Ms. Wilson did say, however, that last year Indian and Northern Affairs Canada paid $6-million to hire 35 chief negotiators on contract. Their rates vary from $100 to $255 an hour. That averages out to more than $171,400 each.

Also, she says, the federal government to date has made loans to 100 native groups to cover the costs of all forms of negotiations. Currently $350-million in face value plus another $50-million in interest is outstanding.

Lawyers who represent native communities say Mr. Nault’s words are more spin than substance. First, they say, in their experience government lawyers from both federal and provincial levels almost always outnumber those representing native interests, no matter what the issue. Second, they add, the process is so stacked against native claims — by federal design — that delay has become one of the few negotiating tools remaining in native hands.

“There is no question the Department of Justice controls the process,” says Roger Jones, legal counsel for the Assembly of First Nations. “The federal government sets the policies. It says how to get started, how to go about it and even decides how lawyers representing native claims get paid and when.” Lawyers for native groups say a major problem is often one of attitude. Though the federal government is obliged to protect native interests, it usually doesn’t do so unless forced to by the courts.

“The problem there is that the courts really don’t want to get involved,” says Mr. Jones of the Assembly of First Nations. “They have held that these are matters better suited to negotiation. In a court case one side wins and one side loses. That is not what native claims are supposed to be about. They are supposed to reflect what is fair to both sides.”