CORNER BROOK Gerry Byrne says the federal government will open itself up for a legal battle if it imposes a different set of rules for unprocessed applicants hoping for membership in the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band.
In a press release issued Friday by the Liberal Commons member for Humber-St. Barbe-Baie Verte, Byrne warned the Stephen Harper administration about proposed plans to alter enrolment criteria or changing the level of information needed by the remaining applicants.
The final enrolment phase for the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band ended in November, but there is a significant backlog of applications that have not yet been processed. Between the two phases of enrolment, more than 100,000 people applied for membership.
The majority of them were submitted during the second phase.
Because of the unexpectedly large number of applicants, the enrolment process is now under review by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. No changes have been made yet to the process or the requirements, and Byrne said there should not be any changes implemented.
“Don’t even consider making this a two-tiered process with two sets of rules — one for those already enrolled and one set for those who have yet to be assessed — or face serious legal and political consequences,” Byrne said in his prepared statement.
The MP said there is a concern the federal government will try to rein in the membership numbers by establishing different criteria for those applicants that have yet to be assessed, compared to those who have been previously approved. Doing such a thing, according to Byrne, would violate the rights of those still awaiting a decision on their membership and would be “quick and easy grounds” for a federal court to order the original enrolment process to resume.
“The duty of the Crown to First Nations is protected under the constitution and the duty of a fair process is required under administrative law,” Byrne said. “If the Harper government was so ill-prepared that they negotiated and agreed to a process for the recognition of First Nation members that they now regret, the burden of their incompetence will not be borne by the aboriginal applicants, I can assure you. Federal government incompetence is not a justifiable defense in a federal court.”
Legal action against the federal government, added Byrne, would be a certainty if any substantive change to the membership criteria or to the weight of evidence used during the assessment process is made when compared to the previous process.
“To put it bluntly, the same people that stumbled into this process with their eyes closed to the consequences of their decisions may now be stupid enough to think that they can undo it by some secret, backroom deal to get themselves off some hook,” charged Byrne. “Sorry, Mr. Prime Minister, that’s just not on.”