December 08, 2011

Attawapiskat: A Time to Redefine

If you haven't figured it out yet, Attawapiskat will become a defining moment in Canadian history. It will be a defining moment because it is a reflection of who Canada is; where we've come from and, most importantly, who we'll choose to be.

There are a lot of misconceptions out there, so let's take a quick look at the history of Canada's relationship with our aboriginal peoples so we can have a better understanding of how we got to the situation we find ourselves in today.

A Brief History
When Europeans got to North America there were already people living here. Let's call them the First Nations.  The Europeans recognized them as nations and, in their jockeying for control over the Americas, began forming alliances and waging wars. These were nation-to-nation alliances and nation-to-nation conflicts.

After the French and Indian War/Seven Years War, King George III wanted to incorporate Great Britain's newly-acquired "French" territory into its empire and to stabilize relations with the First Nations through the regulation of trade, settlement, and land purchase. To do so, he issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which essentially said, among other things, that the First Nations had title to their land and that nation-to-nation treaties would be required - but that only the Crown could purchase lands from the First Nations. Nobody else was allowed to purchase First Nations lands.

What ensued were a series of efforts where the Crown's primary goal was to secure title over the land. Very little has changed on that front. It's still the Crown's primary goal in its relationship with First Nations.

Several different methods were tried to secure title. First up was extermination through starvation, smallpox-laced blankets, and murder.  Extermination proved unpopular and warfare was too expensive (as the Americans were finding out).  Treaties were seen as the way to go.

The problem with the treaties, though, was and is in their interpretation.  From the Crown's perspective, treaties were about securing title to the land.  From the First Nations' perspectives (and they are various depending on the treaties in question), they were about ensuring protection for their people against waves of immigration, getting access to training and resources to transition to new economies, and/or agreements to co-exist peacefully, among other things.  In some cases, First Nations agreed to give up land title in exchange for this assistance and, in some cases, First Nations did not.  (Not all First Nations in Canada have treaties, by the way.)

Good Intentions

The treaty system amounted to the Government of Canada saying "give us your land - the very land that you use to sustain yourselves and your families - and we'll take care of you. Trust us."

Obviously, it hasn't worked.  Generally, people want to help themselves, but the system was designed to promote dependency through restrictive laws, under-resourcing, and expectations that the federal government will - one-day - fully live up to its treaty obligations.  The truth is, though, why would they?  The federal government got what they wanted and living up to the treaty obligations is expensive - and taxpayers don't like things that are expensive for which they perceive little benefit.

With this in mind, the next move was to get First Nations to go away because, without First Nations, there's no need to fulfil those expensive, ongoing, treaty obligations. So, the federal government came up with a strategy called "Assimilation".  
“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.”
Dr. Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent, Department of Indian Affairs, 1920 
Non-First Nations Canadians really believed that it was the best thing they could do for First Nations people; assimilation was well-intentioned.  Of course, we all know what the road to hell is paved with.  Assimilation was "encouraged" by doing everything possible to make it so hard to be a First Nation person that First Nation people would have no choice but to assimilate. 

Assimilations efforts were extreme.

Children were forcibly taken from from their families, told their parents were "dirty" and that their language and culture was evil.  This was the era of the Indian residential school. It was famously said that if you can't kill the Indian child, residential schools would "kill the Indian in the child".

Many children did die in residential schools, and we still don't know how many. Several mass graves have been documented.  Others are unknown.  It could be in the hundreds.  It could be in the thousands.  Countless children were abused, emotionally, physically, and sexually.  The first residential schools opened in the 1840s as a collaboration between churches and the state.  The last one closed in 1996.  Children were raised without parents, as wards of the church and state.  As you may imagine, the grieving over the residential school experience continues.  The effects are multi-generational and may be felt for generations to come.  There is no quick fix.

Again, residential schools were well-intentioned, but were forced upon First Nations without their input or consent.

Residential schools were just one aspect of the assimilation policy, though.  The Indian Act legislation was designed with assimilation in mind.  It dictates who can be a First Nations person and who cannot; who is "Status" and "Non-Status".  It promoted political instability within the First Nation, outlawing traditional governance and cultural practices.  The Government of Canada made it hard to be a Status Indian to force assimilation.

Not too long ago, leaving the reserve meant you lost your status. You had to get permission from the Indian Agent if you wanted to leave or run a business.  If you got a job outside of the reserve, you lost your status.  You had no right to use the court system (you couldn't sue) and you couldn't vote.  First Nations people didn't get the right to vote until 1960.  Essentially, First Nations were governed (and most of them still are) by a government that could not be held accountable except through public opinion.

If you were a First Nations person and wanted rights equal to those of Canadians, you had to give up your cultural identity.  If you wanted to engage in the economy, you had to give up your cultural identity.  Could you imagine being told that you had to convert to a new religion and turn your back on your family and your nation just to have the same rights as the people who lived just across the way?  And even if you did, you'd still be discriminated against?

The Indian Act was well-intentioned, but was forced upon First Nations without their input or consent.

Non-First Nations people believe that First Nations people today have it good - that First Nations people get all sorts of things for free, don't pay taxes, and have special rights - and that this is manifestly unfair to regular Canadians.  For the most part, though, that's untrue.  The vast majority of First Nations people pay taxes just like any other Canadian.  It is true, however, that First Nations people have special rights - but those rights are little more than the right to hunt and fish and the right to be consulted when the Crown's actions may infringe on aboriginal rights and title.  First Nations constantly have to fight to preserve those limited rights.  For the most part, through the Indian Act, First Nations continue to be repressed politically, economically, and culturally.  Does that sound like a sweet deal?

Unsurprisingly, the assimilation policy hasn't worked but many Canadians still call for it today.  They truly believe that it's the best thing for everyone.

Where We Find Ourselves Today
Today in Attawapiskat, there is a crisis.  There are crises in many First Nations communities across Canada.  These problems are an accumulation of well-intentioned policies forced upon First Nations from the Government of Canada.  Well-intentioned programs and policies continue today - but will they work?

Likely not.

The history of Canada's relationship with Canada's First Nations has been one of paternalism and confrontation.  The Government of Canada truly believes it is doing the best thing for First Nations but is frustrated that its efforts keep failing and is frustrated that First Nations keep resisting its efforts - it must be the First Nations' fault, of course.  

The First Nations are frustrated that the federal government keeps trying to impose self-serving "solutions" on First Nations that aren't based on an understanding of First Nations' needs, goals, or the reality of their daily lives.  Even when a First Nation proposes a solution that requires funding, it must be approved by the federal government and the support is usually under-resourced, short-term, and takes too long to arrive.  It must be the Government of Canada's fault, of course.


Time for a New Policy

So how do we fix this?  How to we fix this situation so we don't have people in Canada living in third-world conditions?  How do we ensure that First Nations are healthy and thriving and contributing to the patchwork quilt of cultures we call Canada?

It's simple, really.

WE START COLLABORATING.  We, as Canadians, need to start recognizing the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit as partners and not "problems".  Only by working in partnership and by having an understanding of our mutual challenges and interests will we succeed.  Only by empowering First Nations will they succeed economically, socially, and culturally - and when First Nations succeed, we all benefit.

This collaborative approach, while not the norm, has been used successfully in the recent past.

A Defining Moment
So, how will Attawapiskat become a defining moment in Canadian history?

Canadians and the Government of Canada have a choice to make - do we continue to impose well-intentioned "take it or leave it" solutions on Attawapiskat (as Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Minister John Duncan has been doing so far), or do we change the way we approach our relationship with First Nations?  First Nations have been calling for a partnership relationship since the beginning.  They're ready and willing.  Will we as Canadians finally wake up and see that collaboration is in our best interests, too?

A Call to Action
If you believe that the time has come to adopt a new "Policy of Collaboration", please e-mail Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Minister John Duncan and tell them.  Tell them until they can't help but listen.  Tell them until they can't help but understand that First Nations can't do it alone, and neither can the Government of Canada.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

I'd seen headlines referring to Attawapiskat but (as a Brit) had no clue what it meant. Thanks for providing an opportunity to expand my education.