WINNIPEG — The federal government will not appeal a recent court ruling over a long-standing land dispute with four Manitoba First Nations and will instead begin discussions, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday.
"There was a court decision. The government is not appealing that. Officials from the government have met with members of the local First Nations and will continue to do so as we move forward," Harper said while in the Manitoba capital for an unrelated campaign announcement.
The Federal Court of Appeal last month upheld a lower-court ruling that said Ottawa failed to consult First Nations when it closed down a former military base more than a decade ago and made plans to dispose of it.
A 64-hectare section of the base, known as the Kapyong Barracks, sits near a prime commercial part of the city and has been eyed by some aboriginal groups as a potential site for an urban reserve — a mix of stores, businesses and residential development.
The appeal court upheld the lower court's finding that the government never fully fulfilled its promise under Treaty One — the 1871 agreement that covers much of southeastern Manitoba — to give certain amounts of land to the region's First Nations on a per-capita basis.
Four First Nations are still owed land and should have been consulted when the former military base was shut down, the appeal court ruled.
"Some of the traditional lands formerly inhabited by some of the four respondents now constitute the City of Winnipeg. These days, large pieces of available land in an urban area are not commonplace," Justice David Stratas wrote on behalf of the three-member appeal panel.
The ruling does not give the First Nations automatic right to the land — only the right to be consulted. It does not prevent the government, in the end, from selling the land to someone else.
"Canada must be in close and meaningful communication with the four respondents, give them relevant information in a timely way, respond to relevant questions, consider carefully their fully informed concerns, representations and proposals, and, in the end, advise as to the ultimate course of action it will adopt and why," Stratas wrote.
Still, a lawyer representing two of the First Nations hoped that the land will be transferred and the dispute will not drag on.
"The duty to consult comes with also the duty to accommodate the client and their aspirations, and my client's aspiration is to develop the land and to take possession of the land," Norman Boudreau said.
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