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Native veterans launch lawsuit against Ottawa.

By Brian Cross

Windspeaker Contributor


Saskatchewan Indians who fought for Canada in the Korean conflict and both world wars launched a high profile lawsuit against the federal government in early December, claiming they've been wrongfully denied millions of dollars worth of veterans' benefits over the past eight decades.

The Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association (SFNVA) and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) filed a statement of claim Dec. 1 at the Court of Queen's Bench in Saskatoon, suggesting settlements due to First Nations veterans can no longer be ignored.

The lawsuit, initiated on behalf of all Indian veterans in Saskatchewan, their dependents and descendants, said Aboriginal veterans were denied grants, loans, training, farm land and spousal benefits potentially worth tens of millions of dollars while the same benefits were extended to non-Native veterans.

The statement of claim demands a full accounting of all benefits that were offered to non-Native veterans but withheld from Indian soldiers.

The First Nations veterans are also seeking damages for the loss of benefits, breach of fiduciary duty and any associated loss of treaty rights that may have occurred.

According to the claim, the denial of benefits has resulted in a life of poverty and humiliation for many First Nations veterans in the province.

Speaking on behalf of the group, FSIN Chief Perry Bellegarde, said the aggrieved veterans are still willing to reach a settlement outside the court. However, previous attempts to reach a negotiated agreement with Ottawa have failed, Bellegarde said.

The FSIN and SFNVA have contacted Veterans Affairs Canada and the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development on numerous occasions, requesting that a settlement be reached.

Ottawa has hinted it will settle grievances on a person-by-person basis but has stead-fastly refused to settle the issue collectively, Bellegarde said.

Native veterans from Saskatchewan are the first in Canada to launch such a lawsuit against the federal government.

If successful, the Saskatchewan case could clear the way for a series of lawsuits launched by similar groups across Canada.

"The FSIN is strongly behind our Saskatchewan First Nations Veterans Association and we view this as a very legitimate claim by very decent people in an effort to reclaim the dignity that is rightfully owed to them," Chief Bellegarde said. "For us there's a sense of urgency because the veterans are dying off daily as we speak and we want to get some of these grievances settled as soon as possible. The outstanding settlements that are rightfully due to the veterans cannot be ignored any longer. We need to honor the sacrifice that was made by all of the First Nations men and women who served Canada in time of war."

FSIN solicitor Delia Opekokew, who prepared the statement of claim, says the veterans' specific grievances include the denial of spousal benefits offered to non-Native veterans, the denial of off-reserve lands given to returning war veterans and the denial of grant money and training that was routinely extended to non-Native soldiers.

The lawsuit also accuses the Department of Indian Affairs of negligence and discrimination and suggests the federal government breached the legal requirements outlined in the United Nations charter on equality.

Of approximately 800 Saskatchewan First Nations men and women who volunteered for service in the three wars, only about 125 are still living today, said SFNVA Grand Chief Howard Anderson.

"We fought in the trenches side by side with our non-Indian comrades thinking we were fighting for freedom and equality," Grand Chief Anderson said.

"We were first class soldiers in the war but were second class veterans in Canada. We want equal recognition for equal service."

George Cornwell, director of intergovernmental relations for the department of Indian Affairs, says last week's lawsuit came as no surprise to Ottawa.

Federal representatives have been discussing the issue with Native veterans for at least a decade and in the past year alone, the two sides have met on five or six different occasions, Cornwall said.

"They had indicated that if there wasn't anything we could do (to satisfy their demands out of court) then that's how they would respond," Cornwall said.

"There is still an opportunity to have discussions and I think there is a real opportunity that that in fact will happen," he added.

Chief Bellegarde said First Nations veterans groups in other provinces will be watching the process closely and are likely to follow suit pending the outcome of the case.

Bellegarde also said he would raise the issue at the Assembly of First Nations conference in Ottawa in mid December.
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Author:Cross, Brian
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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