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Hunger Strikers Demand Indian Act Chiefs of Nova Scotia Withdraw from Comprehensive Land Claim Table

Lives on the line as hunger strike enters sixth day

by Miles Howe

Hunger strikers Young and Sock discuss with Chief Gloade and grassroots Mi'kmaq at Millbrook Porcupine Lodge. [Photo: Bryson Syliboy]
Hunger strikers Young and Sock discuss with Chief Gloade and grassroots Mi'kmaq at Millbrook Porcupine Lodge. [Photo: Bryson Syliboy]

MILLBROOK FIRST NATION, Mi’kma’ki (Nova Scotia) – Shelley Young, from Eskasoni First Nation, and Jean Sock, from Elsapogtog First Nation, have entered their sixth day of a water-only hunger strike that they vow will continue until the Indian Act chiefs of Nova Scotia step away from the tabling of the 'Made In Nova Scotia' process.

The process involves negotiations between the Federal government, the provincial government of Nova Scotia, and the Kwilmu’k Maw-Klusuaqn Negotiating Office (KMKNO) – on behalf of the chiefs - that the strikers say are following a nationwide template meant to extinguish Aboriginal sovereignty and title across Canada.

The 'Made in Nova Scotia' process, along with the over 90 tabled negotiations currently taking place across the country, are at different stages in the negotiating process. All involve numerous legal steps and benchmarks. If the chiefs do not withdraw from the process, grassroots organizers note that a final agreement in Nova Scotia, to be known as the 'Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia Accord', is expected to be signed April 1.

“I’m doing this because our treaties are in jeopardy,” said Young. “Basically our leaders are signed into this framework agreement, the ‘Made In Nova Scotia’ process, that will extinguish our treaty rights. They don’t have full understanding of that because of what their lawyers told them. They’re basically replacing our treaties with an agreement with the bands councils - no more nation to nation. They would not recognize nation to nation or international treaty law.”

There are several causes for concern in relation to these Comprehensive Land Claims and self-government agreements, many of which are outlined in the Shadow Report in response to Canada's 19th and 20th periodic report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Perhaps most importantly, say the strikers, despite promises of economic development and opportunities for self-government, the sovereignty of the Mi'kmaq Nation – and others across Canada - would necessarily be signed away in the eyes of international law.

The potential of billions of dollars in trade agreements and resource development strategies would be freed from the necessity of involving Indigenous Nations in the process, as one-time financial payoffs in the form of 'modern treaties' would modify existing treaties into 'fee-simple' arrangements with respective provinces, who would then potentially have veto rights over First Nation involvement.

Chiefs and bands, through this lengthy and as yet poorly-productive process, have also in many cases horribly indebted themselves to their negotiating partners. In the case of Nova Scotia figures are not readily available, but grassroots organizers note that the chiefs have received stipends for attending negotiating meetings.

Critics worry that these stipends will have to be paid back in one manner or another – either off the top of any financial package included in the final 'Made in Nova Scotia' process, or, if in the case of withdrawing from the negotiations, from already massively indebted band offices. Estimates for this already-accrued debt-through-attending-meetings in Nova Scotia range from $40-90 million. In British Columbia, where 20 years of similar negotiations have produced only two treaties, a 2012 report noted that First Nations are now over $420 million in debt to the process.

Also of concern is the notion that the original treaties of peace and friendship signed between the Crown and the Mi'kmaq Nation, treaties that never ceded title and whose validity is legally embedded in Section 35 of the Constitution Act, have been already weakened through agreements such as the Mi'kmaq Education Act. The strikers and their supporters say that funding for some band services may no longer be guaranteed, and instead could potentially be withheld or distributed, depending on band compliance with the Made in Nova Scotia process. 

Funding for other projects has also been placed under the Tripartite Forum, whose budget could potentially be at risk in relation to band buy-in with the process.

In Mi'kma'ki, which today spans the colonial territories known as Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, the Gaspe, and much of Maine, there are currently five tables in various degrees of the negotiating process. Various bands in these regions could strike different deals at their respective tables, thus de-legitimizing the traditional sovereign strength of the Mi'kmaq Nation.

There are, however, signs that the immediacy of Young and Sock's hunger strike is having the desired effect. There are now daily protests outside of the KMKNO office in Millbrook, and yesterday Chief Rufus Copage and the six councillors for the Shubenacadie Band formally removed themselves from the process.

Chief Bob Gloade of Millbrook First Nation and Chief Leroy Denny of Eskasoni have also met for extended periods with Young and Sock. Earlier on Tuesday, Gloade noted that the issues afflicting the Mi'kmaw Nation are not related to existing treaties, but are directly related to having Canada and the province recognize their validity.

“Our treaties are sacred as they are. Our treaties are valid and our treaties don’t need to be changed,” said Chief Gloade. “We need to be able to protect them because we already know who we are as people and we already know what our rights are. And we have to start as people exerting our rights. The thing is we have to get the other parties involved to recognize them and acknowledge them and to accept them for what they actually are. They are treaties signed many years ago by our ancestors and that’s what we want to be able to uphold. We want them maintained. We want them to stay in effect. We don’t want them touched.”

Shelley Young, for the moment remaining strong and in good health, agreed.

“Our ancestors fought and died for these treaties, and for us to even contemplate sitting down and renegotiate them, and have them abolished? We can’t let that happen.”

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