The Thursday election of former Roseau River First Nation chief Terrance Nelson to a three-year term as grand chief of the Southern Chiefs Organization is not all that surprising, given the current state of aboriginal-Canadian government relations.
Long demonized by the main stream media — including this paper — as a “controversial” aboriginal leader who routinely threatens rail blockades and civil unrest to further the interests of Manitoba First Nations, his ascendency to the leadership of the SCO comes a year after the federal government announced severe budget cuts to aboriginal organizations, including the SCO and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.
These cuts will be realized in April of this year and will severely restrict their ability to operate unless funding alternatives are found.
In a press release he issued last week in which he formally announced his candidacy, Nelson promised to help the SCO raise cash outside of government institutions through the private sector and through the creation of new reservation lands. Specifically, he has promised:
• five new urban reserves in Winnipeg;
• eight to 11 new rural reserves in southern Manitoba;
• a $500-million bond on Treaty Land Entitlement claims in Manitoba;
• the construction of a huge office complex on an urban reserve located in or near Winnipeg;
• a permanent road on the east side of Manitoba, built by First Nations themselves;
• and formal written offers from the federal government of settlement of all flooded First Nations by June 2014.
Nelson also made very specific promises to First Nations in Westman, including the conversion of Rolling River land just north of Brandon to full reserve status within a year of his election and new reservation lands for Manitoba’s Dakota people. He also promised to force the NDP government of Manitoba to complete promises of casinos for Swan Lake and Sioux Valley.
These are highly ambitious promises for any leader to make, but most surprising is Nelson’s assertion that all of this can be accomplished without railway blockades or threats to government. All that needs to happen, he says, is for chiefs to force the federal government to adhere to the aboriginal treaties and address outstanding land shortfalls.
As noted on the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada website, several Manitoba First Nations did not receive their entire land allocations called for under the treaties signed with the Crown in the 19th century. Under the Treaty Land Entitlement program, the federal and provincial governments have committed to paying millions of dollars in compensation and adding up to 1.1 million acres to First Nation reserve lands.
When it comes to land claim issues, Nelson has a successful track record. Only a few months before he was ousted as reserve chief in September 2011, he helped complete a $80-million federal land claim settlement for the Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation. The Roseau River First Nation’s claim related to a land transaction that took place in 1903 in which the reserve lost nearly 60 per cent of its land.
That followed a 2007 agreement with Roseau and the federal government to convert 75 acres owned by the band in the RM of Rosser (near Winnipeg) into reserve status.
“Most people think that I got the land in Rosser converted in six weeks by threats of a railway blockade,” Nelson wrote. “That is not true. I understand shortfall and I understand how to create reservation lands in spite of (the federal Additions to Reserve program). That is why I can promise five urban reserves in Winnipeg and eight to 11 new reservations in rural southern Manitoba.”
We’re not fans of Nelson’s political tactics, nor his decision to seek friendship and funding from the international pariah state of Iran. There also remain outstanding questions over financial irregularities that occurred on the reserve under Nelson’s leadership — a situation that eventually prompted his ouster as chief in 2011.
However with the federal government seemingly intent upon dictating terms to its First Nations, the SCO’s election of a scrappy rabble rouser with a track record for drawing controversy may be what the organization needs.
Especially if he is somehow able to deliver on even a few of his many promises.