Dear Minister Miller,
The National Claims Research Directors (NCRD) writes to you urgently regarding the severe shortfall in specific claims research funding for the 2023-24 fiscal year. It has come to our attention that in response to its annual call for proposals, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada’s (CIRNAC) Negotiation and Support Directorate (NSD) received 160 applications for specific claims research funding from Claims Research Units (CRUs) and individual First Nations, totaling $30.5 million. CIRNAC’s annual budgetary allocation for specific claims research funding is $12 million, resulting in an $18.5 million shortfall.
We understand from NSD that 98 First Nations have been denied funding on the basis that all available funding has been allocated. Many of these First Nations are in the middle of researching and developing their claims and this work must now be put on hold indefinitely unless the annual budgetary allocation for specific claims research is increased significantly to ensure all First Nations have fair and timely access to justice for the redress of their historical claims. We call on you to take immediate steps in the short term to ensure that First Nations who submitted proposals for specific claims research funding in the current fiscal year receive the resources to continue their critical work. We also call on your government to work in full partnership with First Nations to attain a substantial increase in the budgetary allocation for specific claims research funding being conducted according to the existing Specific Claims Policy to ensure First Nations’ access to justice for their historical losses as required under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN Declaration).
As you know, specific claims are historical grievances brought against the federal government by First Nations when Canada fails to fulfill its lawful obligations as set out in statutes, treaties, agreements, or the Crown’s reserve creation policies. Canada has publicly acknowledged many times over that the fair and just resolution of specific claims – addressing its lawful obligations to First Nations – is integral to achieving reconciliation between the Crown and Indigenous peoples.
Canada provides specific claims research funding to First Nations to offset the enormous discrepancy in resources that exists between the federal government and First Nations. Historical research is the entry point for First Nations seeking justice for their claims and research funding is the means of accessing the specific claims process in its entirety. Canada’s Specific Claims Policy requires First Nations to provide a thoroughly researched historical report as well as copies of primary and secondary documents to support all specific claim allegations made against Canada. A claim cannot be deemed filed by your office if this material is not submitted. Funding for the research, development, and submission of specific claims is administered by NSD. Since 2019, the annual budget allocated for the research and development of specific claims has officially been $12 million.
In 2021, NSD and the Specific Claims Branch (SCB) of CIRNAC unilaterally developed new research funding guidelines and published them on the CIRNAC website as part of your government’s effort to inform First Nations about the availability of research funding to participate in the specific claims process. The NCRD met with NSD and SCB on several occasions, pointing out that Canada’s efforts to inform First Nations about the availability of research funding would be counterproductive without a corresponding and substantial increase in research funding dollars to support all First Nations wanting to undertake research to develop their claims. We also noted that NSD was creating a situation whereby First Nations would be competing against one another for limited resources, and that the absence of any transparent criteria for how funding dollars are allocated would create confusion and unfairness. This situation would contravene the entire rationale for Canada providing specific claims research funding to First Nations, create barriers to justice, and undermine reconciliation. In the fiscal year that followed (2022-23), NSD received research funding proposals totaling over $16 million – a $4 million shortfall – without any corresponding increase in available funds.
We are seeing a potentially catastrophic situation unfold in the current fiscal year, with a shortfall that exceeds $18 million and is 4.5 times greater than it was last year. The 98 First Nations who have been denied funding this year are frustrated and understandably mistrustful of Canada’s funding policy and decision-making processes as they are cast into uncertainty regarding their claims.
Additionally, NSD requires First Nations to submit annual funding proposals no later than January 31st to be eligible for funding for the fiscal year beginning April 1st. However, it is common practice for NSD to notify CRUs and First Nations about the status of their funding proposals well into the new fiscal year, often as late as August. Since Canada requires First Nations to demonstrate research progress when applying for funding, CRUs and First Nations continue their work into the new fiscal year so they are able to show that research has advanced, even if they have yet to receive confirmation of funding. This has been the accepted practice for decades, with actual funding flowing one-third of the way into the new year.
The 98 First Nations who have been denied funding in the current year found out in the middle of July and are now facing enormous upheaval as they must determine how they are to pay for any debts incurred to cover staff salaries and infrastructure, and decide how to follow through with information requests at government agencies and record repositories, and carry out legal work to move their claims forward. They will be forced to decide whether to reallocate funding from other community programs, disadvantaging them further and creating barriers to justice. First Nations are also acutely aware of reports of CIRNAC failing to spend large portions of its budget last year and wonder whether the “reprofiling” of this money is taking place as promised, and whether it could address the dramatic shortfall in available research funding.
It is particularly concerning that NSD failed to contact either the NCRD or the CRU members of the existing CRU-NSD Working Group established in the mid-2000s to promote constructive collaboration and support First Nations’ research funding needs, given the foreseeable outcome of SCB’s decision to publish the new funding guidelines and promote the program without providing increased funding. We note that CIRNAC regularly circumvents existing mechanisms for dialogue between First Nations, their representative organizations, and the federal government, established to address issues of this nature. Representatives from NSD and SCB attended the NCRD’s annual research directors meeting in Ottawa in May and told us nothing about the scope of anticipated research funding shortfalls. This is unacceptable and contravenes Canada’s duty to uphold the honour of the Crown.
Research Directors are aware that there is currently a process underway to develop an independent specific claims resolution centre that eliminates Canada’s conflict of interest in managing and assessing specific claims. SCB has reported that this work includes developing independent funding mechanisms that would ensure fairness and appropriate resourcing for First Nations to resolve their claims. First Nations are being asked to support this process, and trust Canada’s good will in working toward meaningful reform. However, trusting Canada’s intentions to build a just future must be predicated upon evidence of Canada upholding the minimum standards articulated in the UN Declaration and honour of the Crown in its current dealings with First Nations.
To ensure First Nations have full and fair access to mechanisms of redress for historical losses as articulated under Article 28 of the UN Declaration, and to ensure that the federal government complies with its legal obligations under the UN Declaration and upholds the honour of the Crown, we urge you to take the following immediate steps:
- Provide additional funding for the 2023-24 fiscal year so that all First Nations who applied for funding to research and develop their specific claims in this fiscal year are able to continue their crucial work.
- Renew the five-year funding envelope for the research and development of specific claims at an amount that will provide all First Nations with sufficient research funding dollars to advance their specific claims and support full access to justice.
- Direct senior CIRNAC staff to convene an emergency meeting with First Nations and their representative organizations to address the critical issues raised in this letter, including research funding over the short, medium, and long term, and to answer questions regarding criteria, communication, and timelines, ensuring an open, transparent, collaborative, consensus-based approach as articulated in Article 19 of the UN Declaration.
We look forward to your immediate response.
National Claims Research Directors
Stefan Matiation, Director General, Specific Claims Branch, CIRNAC
Interim National Chief Joanna Bernard, Assembly of First Nations
Assembly of First Nations Chiefs Committee on Lands Territories and Resources
BC Specific Claims Working Group
House of Commons Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs
Senate Standing Committee on Indigenous Peoples
BC Assembly of First Nations
First Nations Summit