First Nations people pack courtroom

March 8, 2010

More than 50 First Nations people, many of them elders, are packing a downtown federal courtroom this morning, hoping to persuade a judge to make public more than 250 documents that could prove Ottawa culpable for the hydro-dam flooding that devastated three northern reserves.

The elders, from Grand Rapids, Chemawawin and Opaskwayak, will argue that Ottawa doesn’t have the right to keep the documents confidential under provisions of lawyer-client priviledge.

“We have a problem,” said Grand Rapids Chief Ovide Mercredi as court staff scrambled to accomodate the standing-room only crowd. “Too many Indians.”

The case, which started in the early 1990s and has dragged on for years, began when the bands sued Ottawa for failing to protect their interests when Manitoba Hydro and the province built the Grand Rapids dam in the mid-1960s.

The case could be worth tens of millions in compensation to the bands, if the First Nations can prove Ottawa knew or ought to have known that it shirked its duty as the trustee of aboriginal people.

The hearing on the documents could take three days and it’s possible the Canadian government will ask for the hearing to be held behind closed doors to protect the secrecy of the contested documents.

The Winnipeg Free Press is expected to opposed any attempt to go in-camera or impose a publication ban.

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