Category Archives: aboriginal peoples

Good News, Shameful News

This just in: The United Nations has adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which “sets out the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues.” It also “prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them, and their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development.”

Canada joined Australia, New Zealand, and the United States as the only four countries to vote against the declaration, which was supported by another 143 nation states. Meanwhile, our Aboriginal peoples still have lower life expectancy, less access to education, a much lower average income, and a much higher suicide rate than the rest of the country. Heck, many Aboriginal communities still don’t even have potable water. Try and imagine our government allowing any village of white children to go without clean water for more than a few hours. Try and imagine them voting against the “rights to culture, language, employment, health, and education” of any other group and getting away with it.


Day of Action

Let’s start with a confession. On the right-hand side of this blog there’s a list of all the categories I’ve written about over the past year, and beside each category is the number of posts I’ve made. Every time I look at it, I’m a little ashamed of the number “2” that sits beside the first item on the alphabetized list: aboriginal peoples. There’s a strong argument to be made that of all political issues, none is more deserving of attention yet receives so little then the plight of Canada’s First Nations.

My learning and understanding of Aboriginal affairs has largely come through my work with the United Church of Canada, mostly at the General Council level. Due to what is hauntingly called “the legacy of residential schools,” for years this national governance body has struggled with questions of apology, reconciliation, and compensation. One of the most common mental-roadblocks that people come up against (including, initially, myself) is this idea that what’s done is done, what’s past is past, and that everyone should just move on. If only it were that simple; learning otherwise is a long, painful, and emotional process. Ultimately, however, if we are to take credit for the accomplishments of our ancestors, we must also take responsibility for their sins.

For context, a government report that applied the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI) and Community Well-Being Index (CWB) to Canadians using census data from 1981-2001 found large discrepancies between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals. Life expectancy for Aboriginal men and women is lower than the rest of Canada, while the rate of infant mortality is higher. Education is significantly less accessible, and suicide is significantly more frequent. The gap in real average annual income between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals widened between 1981 and 2001. The UN itself has stated that if Canada were “judged solely on the economic and social well-being of its First Nations” peoples, our human development ranking would drop from 7th to 48th out of 174 countries. This is an international made in Canada shame.

In 1996 the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) was released after five years of study. The five-volume, four thousand page report began with a simple statement: “there cannot be peace or harmony unless there is justice.” Now, over 10 years later, the report’s hundreds of recommendations remain ignored.

A quick run-down of the headlines regarding yesterday’s Day of Action (Day of Action stops traffic, Blockades snarl traffic across Ontario, Canada Indians Protest Delays Travelers) demonstrates that we still don’t get it. When faced with so much injustice, our main concern is how we’re going to keep moving our cars around. Here in Ontario, (Progressive?) Conservative leader John Tory keeps spouting nonsense about “illegal occupations” and the need for Aboriginals to respect “the law,” as if the governments of Canada and Ontario had never violated legal agreements with our First Nations. As if we’ve never been accused of being illegal occupiers.

I think one of the main reasons I haven’t written about this as much as I’d like is that it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the scope of the problem. And yet, there sits the RCAP, full of solutions, just waiting to be dusted off. Just as yesterday’s day of action followed years of inaction by us and our leaders, it will take years of action by our governments and our society to find justice. Yet, like so many crises, the longer we avoid taking action, the more difficult and costly the solutions become.

One final thought. The fact that yesterday’s demonstrations were almost completely peaceful is remarkable, and can’t be taken for granted. We know from international and domestic examples that oppressed, poor nations of people within nations of relative wealth rarely stay peaceful for long.

A Made In Canada Shame

There has been, of course, a lot of noise and criticism of the Harper government’s shameful betrayal of Canada’s commitment to the Kyoto accord, citing preference for a “made in Canada” solution. Less attention has been given, however, to another “K” accord that represents a possibly even more shameful made-in-Canada betrayal. From the day Stephen Harper’s government was elected with a mere 36.3% of the vote, despite some feeble public relations exercises to the contrary, the Kelowna Accord never had a chance.

Signed by Paul Martin in what he didn’t realize was the twilight of his government’s life, the Kelowna Accord represented a historic agreement between the Government of Canada and Aboriginal peoples that sought to “improve the education, employment, and living conditions” for Canada’s natives. Two Conservative budgets and a private member’s bill vote later, the agreement is effectively dead. Harper apparently didn’t consider it a priority, and we know how he feels about priorities.

Adding to the disgrace (regular readers will note that “disgrace” and “shameful” are not words I use often or take lightly) this week was Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice, who is refusing to apologize for native residential schools, again despite a written commitment from the previous government.

Some quick background. Starting in 1874, native children were forcibly removed from their homes by the RCMP and taken to these schools. They were not allowed to speak their own language, even amongst each other. They didn’t see their parents for months. Many were physically and sexually abused. A 1909 report found that the mortality rate at residential schools in Western Canada was 35%-60% within five years. The explicitly stated goal of these schools was the assimilation of native society into European culture. And the last school did not close until 1996.

I happened to visit the site of a former residential school this past weekend. Keeping the above in mind as we drove down the tree-lined driveway towards a grandly intimidating building at its termination was, shall we say, chilling. Keeping the above in mind while listening to Jim Prentice explain that Canada has nothing to apologize for because “the underlying objective [of residential schools] had been to try and provide an education to aboriginal children,” was, quite literally, infuriating.

Let’s not mince words. Either Prentice is shockingly ignorant of history or he is defending what were racist policies designed to eradicate Canada’s first nations through forced assimilation. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence pointing towards ignorance.

An apology would be only a modest first step in the right direction, and this government is walking the other way.

Beyond Caledonia

“Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?”
-Les Misérables

If you only got your information about the Caledonia land-rights dispute from the news, you might get the idea that the government owns the land that’s in dispute, and that the native protesters were a bunch of rogues with no rationale for their position.

If you traveled to the non-native side of the barricade, you’d have to acknowledge that this country still has a lot of racism to deal with. One man carried a sign that said “Where’s John Wayne when you need him?” A woman on the radio news a few weeks ago reasoned that “these people have already said they’re not Canadians, and if you’re not a Canadian you’re a terrorist.” Makes you wonder what comments were deemed too stupid or offensive to broadcast.

You may also have started to get an idea of why the UN continues to criticize Canada for the way we treat Aboriginal issues.

It’s only when you travel beyond Caledonia to the Six Nations reserve that you start to see a more complete picture. That’s what I did about a week after this latest dispute became inflamed. I learned that the Six Nations have hand written records of meeting minutes going back to the 1800s, clearly documenting that the banks of the Grand were leased, not sold, to the government. (As far as they can tell, at one point someone in the government unilaterally decided the agreement was a sale, not a lease.) They also have a strong cultural context indicating the near impossibility of the elders at the time agreeing to a sale. I also learned that many of the natives at the barricades aren’t uneducated rogues, but rather treaty experts.

Now that the barriers are coming down in Caledonia, we have to remember that this is far from over. As the Green Party of Ontario recently outlined, and as John Ibbitson further explains today, urban sprawl means that we are encroaching on more and more treaty land, with little regard to the agreements of our ancestors. Beyond today, there are hundreds more Okas, Ipperwashes, and Caledonias waiting to be encroached upon.

Our choice is clear. We can either deal with (ie, acknowledge and respect) treaty rights at the provincial and national levels, or continue like this, case by case, barricade by barricade.