Miles Report No. 06
January 29, 2012
Crown - First Nations meetings
The public speeches given by representatives of the Crown - the government of Canada - and the representatives of the First Nations demonstrated that there is still a significant divide between what the government wants and is doing and what the First Nations are striving for.
Generally, when the government representatives spoke, the topics generally covered items of money and dollars, of small actions taken under the influence and direction of the Indian Act. The First Nations speakers - not those on the government side - spoke eloquently and forcefully concerning two main items: first, the need to get rid of the Indian Act; and secondly the need to honour the treaties made up to several centuries ago.
John Duncan, the dour Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, spoke well within the Conservative party line. He spoke of specific items that had been agreed to, and in general targeted education and technology for “unleashing the potential of the First Nations people.” He spoke of “targeted investments” with results being “built from the ground up,” to create “focussed and responsible government.” These are fine “public platitudes” - to quote Stewart Phillips, Grand Chief of Union of BC Indian Chiefs - but are still the comments of the benevolent white father lecturing the less civilized heathens about the role they are to play in our society, a society in general run by corporate rule and financial power rather than the oft quoted democracy and freedom agenda.
I diverse, but not without fairness.
Jody Wilson Raybould
The second speaker spoke very articulately, with an obvious wealth of knowledge and spirit that revealed wisdom beyond her years. Jody Wilson Raybould, Regional Chief for B.C. for the Assembly of First Nations, indicated she had been asked to speak about economic development for First Nations.
Her first statements after her introduction indicated “we are in fact making economic progress,” and supported it with economic statistics about the billions of dollars contributed by First Nations to the Canadian economy. She used the GDP figures that economists are so proud to roll out to support their economic demands, a misleading figure to start with, but metaphorically one needs to fight fire with fire. This was immediately followed by her comments on the reality, the disparities, within the native community, where “deplorable conditions” exist within “crippling poverty,” all within the “worst recession in modern history.”
She then followed with her main thesis: that in order to have economic development what is truly needed is “governance reform. As economic wealth in Canada comes from the resources of the land more than elsewhere, then given First Nations governance of their own lands, then economic independence and growth will spring naturally from that.
The main culprit is the control the government has on all Indian Affairs through the Indian Act. As an interjection, I found it interesting that some government members referred to the Indian Act as a treaty, as if the aboriginal population had any say in it. Perhaps I heard wrong, but it surfaced several times...interesting how words are manipulated to create an incorrect image. The problem with the Indian act is just that it is written by the occupying population in order to maintain control and governance of those who originally occupied the land. It acts as an administrative act, and as noted “administering in to self-government,” it is not “where your governance rebuilds our governance.”
Ms Raybould said the Act is “fraught with legal and political problems at many levels [applause],” and what was not needed was to “tinker around the edges of the Indian Act…an exercise in neo-colonialism.” She emphasized that what was needed was “legislation developed by our people,’ with a “legal framework to achieve economic goals,” only then would Canada have strong and self serving First Nations [applause] with “fair access to lands and resources [applause].”
Ms Raybould concluded that “Economic opportunity follows” from political rights, while also recognizing what many corporate financial managers do not, that “economics is a means to an end…a better quality of life with a practicing and thriving culture.” It is, she said, time to “smash the status quo.”
Ovide Mercredi, former Chief of the First Nations, followed Ms Raybould and extended her thoughts on economic development by emphasizing the need, the requirement under international law, to honour the treaties made by the Crown as their power extended across the land. He described the Indian Act as “an obstacle…that stands in the way of economic progress,” and “who we are as a people.”
The treaties, he argued, should be the foundation of our relationship, not the “meagre contributions” we get now for health and education [perhaps a direct reference back to John Duncan’s words]. They “should not be set aside in a National Archive.” The First Nations have “waited a long time for treaties to be enforced [applause],” and what is needed is “dialogue from the government…to begin to implement our own treaties with their spirit and intent,” in order to create a “way out of poverty [applause].” I must interject again, wondering about those original spirits and intents on the part of the government, always a proposition that should be held in doubt.
Economic arguments entered his presentation. He spoke against “incremental change,” recognizing appropriately that the “wealth of Canada comes from a one sided interpretation of treaties.” In this respect he quoted Justice Lord Denning in the British House of Lords when the constitution was being repatriated,
There is nothing so far as I can see to warrant any distrust of the Government of Canada, but in case there should be…[First Nations] will be able to say that their rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Crown…of Great Britain…of Canada. They should be honoured by Canada…the promise must never be broken.
M. Mercredi argued the “Legal onus on government to implement treaties and aboriginal rights,” and “not depend on Supreme Court of Canada.” He concluded, “It’s time to act [applause].”
Matthew Coon Come
Another former First Nations Chief and now Grand Chief of the James Bay Cree, Matthew Coon Come, continued the same line of presentation. He argued, “Canada must take practical measures…to remove barriers…to rights of self governance.” Instead of the current “inequalities and chronic lack of resources,” the First Nations needed “participation in the wealth developed in our traditional lands.”
He continued the same line of argument that self management of resources would lead to stable funding and stable governance in turn enabling further economic viability. Negotiations should be “nation to nation,” not the current approach, but requiring “solutions tailor made to respect our diversity.” He re-emphasized that economics and governance are two sides of the same coin, concluding, “We have extended our hands…we have solutions.”
The Regional Chief for New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island spoke last. His speech spoke more of the spirit of the people rather than comments about the economic facets of the discussion. He spoke if the “responsibility [of First Nations] to support each other,” to share ideas, and he spoke of the young, who are saying, “We are watching you…walk with integrity and honesty and we will follow you.” He then referred to the current government, saying we now extend the challenge to the National Chief [Harper] to work with us.”
Ms Aglukkag spoke last for the government. As Federal Minister of Health she listed off the many aspects of what the current government is doing for the First Nations, citing a “new approach” and a “new model” in which First Nations must be a partner in delivering these programs. It was a nice speech, but really represented more pro-government advocacy for the status quo than anything new or advancing.
She obviously had not listened to her own people speaking about their own ability to govern themselves, that if given the treaty rights and associated rights, and the recognition under the UN Charter and the UN Indigenous Rights Act, that the First Nations could care for themselves.
Generally, I would have to say as I did at the introduction, that the government speakers spent most of their time talking about the many smaller initiatives that they had undertaken for the First Nations, without any comment about self-governance, treaty rights, of the need to be rid of the Indian Act. Conversely, the First Nations readily identified the need for self-governance and that self-governance and economic development are co-joined ideas, indicating that this could not come from the Indian Act and its impositions of rules and regulations on every aspect of life, but would come from recognizing the treaty rights of the First Nations and the abolishment of the Indian Act.
I would have to agree. I have no idea what that would signify for my future if anything, but it is time to recognize that the Indian Act is a piece of colonial settler legislation intended on keeping the Indian in their place. It is time to recognize that treaties are signed and remain in effect, and more specifically under international law,
A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose. (Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1969)
That certainly could be a provocative issue for the current government. The ordinary intent of the treaties, especially as indicated from the Crown - First Nations speeches - is that the treaties were between two nations, that they guaranteed specific rights for the First Nations. The “ordinary meaning” would indicate exactly what that says, the First Nations should have access to and control of their resources as the treaties were originally understood, not as concocted by some legal finessing within the Indian Act, or any current “tinkering“ with the Act.
Should the Act be abolished? Of course it should, fully and completely. Harper’s complaint that it is too “fully entrenched” is another dodge against native rights. It also stands in contradiction to an earlier government pronouncement on another topic that previous legislation can readily be changed by the current government.
This government is obviously under the control of the large multinational corporations who wish to extract our resources for their own gain and retaining the Indian Act will help their access to Canadian resources. The government also argues that there is nothing to replace the Act. Well and good, start with the Treaties as the basis for negotiations towards First Nations self governance and their will be no need for a new act, other than what is mutually agreed upon by both governing bodies, those of the First Nations and that of Canada.
As a final note, I have to reiterate the agenda of the government as concerns the Alberta Tar Sands. The proposed pipeline will have to traverse many Indian lands, and in B.C. in particular, it is proposed to traverse land for which the native people have unextinguished land title, for which there are no treaties. Harper is in a rush to push the project through. I hope the First Nations will be able to stand up for their rights in this regard and not fall victim to short term arrangements with corporations and governments that “tinker” with their land and rights. A pipeline in the construction phase will create a few jobs (how many will be native?); in the long term, it is simply a pipe in the ground filled with a toxic corrosive crude mixture that could do serious damage to the land and waters of the First Nations people.
It is not just oil, it is also diamonds, timber, uranium, natural gas, hydro power, and other minerals and resources desired by the corporations of the world for maximizing their wealth and power over the peoples of the world.