Saturday, January 12, 2013

First Nations, Treaty Rights, Sovereignty, and the Canadian Government. (Or 'SWC's Guide to the Willfully Ignorant on First Nations Issues.)

Come on in and enjoy some left overs.  There's cabbage rolls, there's some turkey sammich stuff, including some wonderful hot mustard, and of course, there's soup being made but we'll share that out at the end.  I brought in lots of blankets and pillows and such, as well as a few benches so we can all fit and all talk, if we want, but first I want to describe and lay out a lot of things that are flying around out there in a fairly simple and straight forward manner, that may include a few funny things as well.

So to start with I'm going to give you a rough outline of how the treaties were created, a little bit of opinion on that and also how the treaties were subverted to be used as a tool of oppression and genocide.  My main idea here is to give as much information as possible so that some more understanding can occur but also so you, the reader, can go out and do some of your own research, your own digging, to find answers that can be added to what I've written, or to outright refute what I've written.  Either way I want a dialogue that will give everyone a better understanding of the various perspectives that are out there without a lot of the negativity that occurs in these discussions.  That's not to say that there won't be some harsh truths or even some negativity but the point is not to make this an attack, but again, a dialogue.

So first off, how were the treaties seen from each side?  Well for the Crown it was a means to unify a fairly large land mass and preempt any military action from south of the border.  The Crown did not have the resources to fight a war and then secure the land so instead sought out negotiated means with which to gain the land and still have the means to develop.  From the First Nations side each band that signed each of the numbered treaties saw it as a means to share what they had with people who were their neighbours.  It was a way to ensure survival in a rapidly changing world that was not entirely to their liking but one that they had no means to combat successfully.  So as one nation to another they chose to sign and give up a massive amount of land in return for some very specific things.

You see up until the treaties things had not been going well.  First Nations were finding their land encroached on illegally.  If you want more info on why it was illegal, I recommend reading up on the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which will be celebrating it's 250th anniversary this year and is the basis for the Canadian constitution, was where the term 'reserve' came from, and was intended to protect the interests of First Nations people as well as colonial settlers.  Anyhow, things were going badly because of these illegal settlements, there was warring among different First Nations due to being forced west because of this expansion, and the Crown was having a hard time figuring out how it was going to incorporate the massive amount of land between Ontario and B.C. In short, no one was happy with what was going on.

So since the Royal Proc said everything past a certain point was reserved land for First Nations use the Crown had to negotiate a way to get those lands, or, you know, just say fuck it to their own laws and documents and start killing people.  Sadly, the reason for the lack of killing had nothing to do with the morality of it instead with the financial costs.  If the First Metis uprising in 1869-70 taught our government anything it was that wars were really really expensive and that the folks they would be fighting had a significant number of advantages that were hard to overcome.  So they went with talking instead.

The interesting thing about this choice is the reaction of First Nations.  At the time, they actually could have put up a pretty decent fight.  They were fairly well armed, could have easily taken a number of key forts and positions, and they could have made it one hell of a fight.  Some even did because they felt they were being dealt with unfairly.  But the majority said 'You know what? We've got a lot here, and there isn't many of us left.  And you know, maybe, just maybe, if we hang around, we can learn some things, and the white folks can learn some things, and we'll grow together and share the bounty of this land.'  But of course, they weren't stupid.  Far from it.  A large number of the Chiefs who signed the treaties also sent letters after the signing to the treaty commission that essentially read like this: 'Alright you guys, we signed the land and we did it for our survival but don't think we just rolled over because you scare us or because it was our only choice, we did it so we could share and survive, now honour the agreements and don't come sniffing around here for more land because I've watched what you greedy fuckers do when you get something, you just want more of it.'  Seriously, they read a lot like that, but, y'know, with good English and no swear words.  Chief Kahkawistahaw was one of them and you can find the film, which includes a word for word recitation of his letter, about what was done to his reserve online.  Great view.

So the treaties were signed, and there was another rebellion, and more treaties were signed, and eventually we got 1 through 11.  And here's an interesting part of those treaties.  You see, FN people are kind of big on fairness.  I know that's a broad generalization but just follow along for now.  Anyhow, some smart cookie right at the start said 'Oh and one of the things we want for giving you all this land is that if you make an agreement down the line with other FN groups and they get stuff we don't get, then you have to give us that too.'  Actually, the fairness bit probably had more to do with rivalries and some folks not wanting their enemies getting something they didn't, but I love playing on that 'mystic wisdom of the Indians' thing.  What this clause means is that for you to understand ALL of what the treaties give FN people you actually have to read ALL of the treaties.  That way you'll understand ALL of what was promised for a MASSIVE amount of land.  People like to joke that Manhattan Island was bought for beads, well, if you think about the incredible number of resources that were pulled out of the lands the Crown picked up and for what they've given for them, the bead deal suddenly looks pretty good for the FN.  As well every single treaty includes the phrase 'As long as the Sun shines and the Rivers flow.'  This is FN speak that means 'FOREVER AND EVER AND EVER AND EVER.'  But it also evokes a sense of relationships.

So to digress just briefly:  First Nations, again this is a generalization, but I don't have the space, time or energy to detail every single group and how they specific felt towards each agreement, saw the treaties as a living thing just like any other relationship.  It needed to be tended, it needs to be talked about, it needs to be renewed with discussions, gifts, and a place for concerns to be brought forward by both parties so everyone is satisfied.  I'll let everyone think about that and come to their own conclusions about if it happened.

Anyhow, WHAT EXACTLY DID THE FNs ASK FOR YOU SAY?! Because I can feel a few of you getting impatient about that I'll provide a simple list of the major points:

  • Land that would be their own, land that would be their place that could not be taken from them so they would always have a home.  Land that allowed them to continue to grow as people and communities.
  • Education.  That tired old saw about 'the cunning of the white man.'  They wanted all the education they could get.
  • Gifts.  Money and resources that were important at the time so that the Crown would continue to recognize the continually giving gift of the land that the FNs gave up.
  • Health.  They wanted to ensure that they would remain healthy in all ways, this clause includes cultural health as the Crown was to protect their culture and ways to ensure they would not be discarded or disrespected.
  • Financial stability.  The FNs realized the financial worth of their land, don't kid yourselves that they didn't.  So they wanted to ensure that they too would see the benefits of the land they gave up.

And the Crown also promised to do a few things:
  • They would ensure that each reserve was provided with effective tools to use the land they now had.
  • They would take care of the finances until such a time as the FN could do it themselves.
  • Thy promised that any financial dealing with their land had to go through the Crown and they would look out for the best interests of that band.
  • They agreed to help set up governments so the FNs could govern themselves.

Now this is not an exhaustive list of everything that's in the treaties but they are the most discussed and most debated points.  And the most contentious issues that cause the most friction and disagreement because both sides have interpreted these points to their own advantage. 

But here is where the shit hit the fan folks.  Y'see, the Treaty Commission got back to Ottawa with all their documents and the Crown looked at them and went 'Holey fuck, we've set ourselves up a system where we're going to be responsible FOREVER.  And it's going to cost us a lot of money to do what we said we'd do and we're not going to see a return on that investment for AGES.'  They really weren't happy with it, but then some bright light went 'Well ... we could just legislate the treaties, put them under a set of laws that are our interpretations of the agreements and then ... well geez, we do this right and we can do whatever we want!'  And thus was born the Indian Act.  A set of laws that govern a specific group of people in Canada and set rules and limitations on what the treaties could and couldn't do.  And that is really when the problems started. 

Interpretation of an agreement between different parties really should be a joint effort, but the Crown took it upon themselves to just write up their own thing and this is really the biggest reason our country is where we are.  Because one of the governing principles of the Indian Act's creation can best be summed up by one of their earliest commissioners and one of Canada's Confederation Poets: 

I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone… Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill. - Duncan Campbell Scott

The policy right from the beginning of the Act was to assimilate and get rid of FNs people.  Can't keep paying folks who don't exist.  As well a huge number of laws about disenfranchisement were created.  Marry a white man?  Well then you lost your status.  Move off the reserve?  Loss of status.  Get an education past grade 9?  Loss of status.  Get a job that was off reserve?  Loss of status.  They came up with a bunch of different ways to make it impossible to not lose your status if you wanted to, you know, prosper. 
So here's the thing, the treaties were meant to be a partnership.  Something where both sides can come together, learn from one another, and grow.  Instead they got manipulated into being a means through which to oppress and destroy a group of people.  And this, despite how much people hate to hear this, is an act of genocide.  Want the definition of genocide?  Here ya go:
Article II:  In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
So yeah ... every single one of those things has happened to FNs communities both on and off reserve.  Sadly they continue today.  They happened every time someone says 'Why can't we all just get along?  I didn't sign the treaties, I shouldn't be held responsible for what they say.'  Because in effect, when you make this claim you are saying that the country you live in should not be held accountable for their agreements and should be allowed to wipe out anyone who stands in the way of its prosperity.  You may not intend that, but it is the end result.  Because the treaties are a two way street here folks.  Canada got the largest portion of land ever given up in exchange for specific conditions.  If you want a simple way to look at it, it's a rental agreement.  The FNs give up the land in exchange for specific actions that can be seen as rent.  But that is seriously oversimplified and flawed.  I prefer to think of it like this:  The treaties are the means through which my country was able to flourish and grow.  Without them we'd be much different than we are.  Because these agreements were meant to be flowing, living, changing things I find it offensive that they've been locked up in the cage of the Indian Act and are used as a means to oppress and destroy part of my cultural heritage.  And I don't just mean as a Status Indian, I mean that they destroy the fabric of my country because they are shameful and disgusting.  Sadly it continues and no one seems to care.

So how does that place us here, with things like Idle No More, Chief Spence's hunger strike to demand a meeting with the PM and the GG, and a general unrest occurring across Canada among aboriginals and their supporters?  Well to be honest, folks are just plain fed up with the status quo.  I've just given you the introduction to how the treaties came about and I'm sure there's a ton of things you can already say about how they were not honoured.  Land seizures, laws against FNs culture, residential schools, the pass system, blood quantum and incomplete re-enfranchisement laws.  Not to mention the outright starvation of FNs during hard times, or the delayed help when it came to natural disasters.

Folks are fed up with a system that is essentially broken and no amount of amendments or changes will make it better.  We should realize that at this point we need honest communication, we need honest understanding, and we need to stop assuming each side is out to get the other.  Because even in those acts of genocide, the Crown thought they were doing the right thing.  Sad but true.  I'm not apologizing or justifying the actions, but I am pointing out that back then, understandable, now, not so much.

But there seems to be a willful ignorance within Canadian society.  It's like a 5 year old who is fighting sleep, and every time someone tries to put them to bed they pitch a fit and deny reality.  Our country is not founded on principles of justice and good will.  It's founded on duplicity and homogenization.  Our country isn't some beautiful place where people can come to be whoever they want to be, it is a country that is slammed every year by the UN Councils on Human Rights and the Rights of Indigenous People.  Our country is not one where everyone can succeed, it is a country that actively keeps various groups of people oppressed because having a group of people like that is worthwhile.  Don't get me wrong, I love Canada, am proud of all of my various backgrounds, of my citizenship and my status.  But I'm far too concerned with truth and with positive actions moving forward to keep thinking my country is in any way, shape, or form, a just and fair place.

In regard to that, if you feel the protests, the so called 'benefits' that FNs get are too much, or that you are being made to feel guilty for your privilege I want you to really stop and think about why you feel defensive.  Is it because you truly feel attacked or that things are unfair for you, or is it just the rejection of the reality that Canada is not so great, is not some shining beacon of morality, that we still have SERIOUS race and social justice issues that need to be addressed?  Because that is a very uncomfortable truth and one that makes quite a few people uncomfortable.

So here are some specific points to touch on about comments I've heard recently that I find offensive or troublesome:

  • Why can't we all just get along?  Why are things that happened so long ago still such points of contention?  It wasn't me or even my great grandfather that had anything to do with this so why should I be responsible?  Answer:  Because no matter how far away these things happen a large segment of our society is not benefiting from the same advantages most others have because of a piece of legislation.  Just as you would never tell a female who got raped to 'just get over it' because it happened 10 or more years ago, it is the height of insensitivity to expect people who are still suffering from genocidal acts to just 'get over it.'  Not only that, these things are not part of some distant past.  They are happening RIGHT NOW!  Want to know when the last residential school closed?  Early 1980s.  Why?  BECAUSE TOO MANY KIDS WERE DYING!  Know what the Highway of Tears is?  It's the stretch of road in B.C. where hundreds of FN women have disappeared from.  If the serial killer Picton teaches us anything it is that our policing services care little for FN women as he said he targeted them because he knew the cops wouldn't investigate.  Sentencing for FN youth is usually twice as severe and FNs make up a disproportionate amount of inmates.  They are sentenced harsher and given less chances for rehabilitation because of damaging stereotypes and precedents.  While the level of corruption on reserves is not statistically higher than that in any other small civic government or business it is given disproportional media attention.  And in most cases, the leaders we have now are the very victims of the residential schools as they were badly parented, separated from their culture and homes and then rejected from the culture they were told to be like.  They have NOTHING to grasp as an anchor so do what any other person in that situation would do, look out solely for themselves.  We can't all get along because the system is set up to discriminate and destroy a section of our society and until that changes, until it is recognized and worked on, no one is safe from losing what they have.
  • How can FNs claim sovereignty?  You can't have a nation inside another nation.  Besides, we defeated them!  Answer:  The claim to sovereignty is not one that rejects Canada but that forces Canada to recognize the third part of its formation.  John Ralston Saul's book 'A Fair Country' is wonderful in describing this point of view.  YES there are factions who believe that FNs should be viewed as their own nations and our lands should be treated as such.  I don't ascribe to that view, but I do believe we need to be recognized as sovereign pre-contact, and sovereign now, and that we not only deserve the right to govern ourselves as we see fit but in a form that is more suited to our beliefs and systems of philosophy.  Oh and yes you can have a nation inside another nation.  Another removal of blinders folks:  Quebec is essentially a nation within our nation.  It may not be law but they follow a different set of civic and social laws, have seperate beliefs and languages, and exercise them at their will.  Deal with it.  We can be one country once we start to recognize how we were truly formed and where our true strength lies.  Oh and FNs never 'lost' to anyone.  In fact, were it not for timely help from FNs Canada would have lost the few wars we've had on home soil, and the one where the French did reject FN help ended disastrously against a terrible general who sucked at his job.  
  • We need solutions that bring us together, not that separate and categorize us as different.  Answer:  Yep, I agree here ... except ... it can never happen as long as the Indian Act survives.  Also those 'bringing together' solutions cannot be 'if you just act like us and believe what we believe everything will work out fine.'  Because that is cultural homogenization and a little tiny baby step removed from genocide.  The 'citizen plus' idea that was the response to the 1969 White Paper was and still is one of the dumbest things ever.  And it comes directly from the influence of the Indian Act.  The dialogue has to start differently and work itself towards recognizing the treaties as nation to nation agreements that need to be worked on constantly.  There are hundreds of people on both sides of the debate who are incredibly qualified to undertake these kinds of actions ... but the Indian Act says it cannot be done.  Seriously folks, go read that thing, and don't forget to catch the part that refers back to the Human Rights Code.  The part in there that says if there is something in the Indian Act that could be challenged under the HRC, it cannot be.  Yep, the Indian Act says that as someone who is covered by the act I am not quite a human in the eyes of the law.  Welcome to the club Metis! :)

Overall, it's a pretty complicated issue but it is one that requires that we go out and learn more about it rather than just put up a defense and demand that we not be made to feel bad.  In fact, every time I hear that response I have an overwhelming urge to stalk off to the wilderness and leave you all behind because I just can't take the willful ignorance anymore.  Don't get me wrong, that's not to say I don't have my own moments, but when they're pointed out to me I do get defensive to start with but then I let the rational parts of my head, the spiritual parts of my soul really start to mix and lead me to an answer that my heart can accept as true.  Which is usually me admitting I was an ass for being defensive and I was wrong to be willfully ignorant.  And I hope, truly hope that this bit of information does indeed help start a dialogue so everyone who wishes to join can be heard and understood.