In the late 1960s I was assigned by the newspaper I worked for, The Montreal Star, to investigate the terrible conditions of housing being suffered by a group of Ojibwa Indians who, years before, during the war, had left their poverty-stricken reserve on the shores of a northern Ontario lake, and wound up living in hovels in Armstrong, a small, isolated town which was the site of a Mid-Canada Corridor station charged with warning of the approach of Soviet missiles, planes or other forms of attack.
Under the guidance of a stalwart chief called Willie John, who doubled as an agent of the Company of Young Canadians, my assignment immediately plunged me into the miasma of Canada’s dealings with “Indians and lands reserved for Indians”, to quote the British North America Act under which Canada was established in 1867.
As I described it in the articles I wrote, I recognized that the Indians in question were living lives similar to those described by Maxim Gorki in his play The Lower Depths which presented, as described in the online encyclopedia.com “a pessimistic, unredemptive portrait of a destitute lower-class segment of society.
On the way back home from that assignment I called into the nearest Indian Affairs department office, and asked them for information about the provenance of this group of stranded people. They steadfastly refused to give me anything, would scarcely even talk to me. So, right out of the gate, as it were, I discovered the strangled, incoherent, self-satisfied bureaucracy that the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development as it was then called, had grown into in the almost 100 years since it was established in 1876 as the father, mother, grandparent and the ruthless boss of Canada’s long-suffering indigenous people.
I tell this because I quickly discovered the full scandal of this relationship as I plunged into the subject. The federal government is the trustee for the interests of “the Indians”, even to the extent of managing their money, and yet it was not fulfilling in any way the legal definition of trusteeship. Within months of the passing of the Act, the Deputy Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs declared that “the legal status of the Indians of Canada is that of minors, with the government of Canada as their guardian.”
For generations this control was virtually never questioned by European Canadians, most of whom knew nothing about it, but it did come under persistent, determined, but always rejected criticism from the indigenous people themselves. The Act at first had 100 sections, but within 30 years these had been expanded by its guardian-government to 195 sections of draconian controls, designed to strip from the charges everything that meant anything to them, and to replace their beliefs, stories, morals, and rules for living, and the economy on which they were based, with an equivalent cornucopia of European values. In other words, the objective has always been to get rid of “the Indians” by making them into white men (and women).
Over all these years, the government has become expert in doing the opposite of what it says it is doing; or to put it around the other way, they have attained an absolute mastery at the art of lying about their objectives, pretending always to be acting in the interest of their charges, while actually trying to bamboozle them with indirection, false hints, and a relentless determination to dictate the agenda.
HOW STRAIGHT IS RECONCILIATION?
And so we come to the present moment, where a government has been elected on promises of seeking reconciliation, of accepting the new rules laid down in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and of faithfully adhering to the promises of Section 35 of the repatriated Canadian constitution of 1982, which says that
“(1) The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal people in Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed. (2) In this Act, Aboriginal Peoples of Canada includes the Indian, Inuit, and Métis Peoples of Canada”.
The half century that has passed since then have been employed in unsuccessful efforts to decide on an agreed meaning of “the aboriginal and treaty rights” guaranteed in the Constitution. Throughout all these years, the government, has always insisted on one paramount clause in any agreement with indigenous peoples, and that has come to be known as “extinguishment”, which means they have insisted that the rights guaranteed in the Constitution must be regarded as extinguished and replaced by the decision laid down in any new agreements. One can imagine the ho-ha that would occur if other Canadians, let’s imagine people of Scottish or Japanese or Ukrainian heritage, were required to abandon their legal rights in order to qualify for assistance from the government. In other words, the indigenous people have been literally forced to let go of rights that have been guaranteed to them by the nation’s Constitution, because if they don’t do that there will be no pot of gold sitting at the end of their rainbow. What kind of guarantee is that, that can be set aside and replaced by something that usually lies outside the parameters of Aboriginal Title? (I remember that during his brief reign as Indian minister from 1984-86, David Crombie, previously the Mayor of Toronto, asked a panel of experts if this extinguishment was still necessary and they recommended extinguishment should be abandoned, but ….Crombie’s civil servants got rid of him before anything could be done.)
Well, I have gone into his background with my sketchy and incomplete outline and set it against the federal government’s customary negotiating methods, because the current Trudeau government is embarking on a “reconciliation” initiative designed to overcome the traditional blockages against honest negotiations. Or so they say. They have done so by issuing what they call a “Recognition and Implementation of Indigenous Rights Framework”, within which a totally new arrangement governing the relationships can negotiated. Although the government claims to have consulted indigenous peoples widely, activists claim that the Framework was simply sprung on them without consultation, except possibly with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) which the activists claim has simply been co-opted by the government that finances their operation.
RECONCILIATION THE SAME AS WHITE PAPER 1969?
Some of these activists have hearkened back to the infamous White Paper of 1969, proposed by Trudeau the father, which, although arrived at after a similar round of consultations, was something that not one Indian in the consultations had suggested, namely abolishing the Indian Affairs department and transferring management of Indian questions to the provincial governments which at that time --- and one might say the same today in most cases --- had never shown any sympathy with the indigenous people living within their borders.
These activists revolve around the Idle No More and Defenders of the Land movements. Here is the burden of the case, as presented by the widely respected policy analyst, Russell Diabo, a Mohawk from the
In a vigorous campaign he has been conducting all over the country, Diabo has taken to calling the Framework agreement the White Paper 2.0 “which involves co-opting the Assembly of First Nations….to manufacture consent through various co-development tables…. giving the illusion that First Nations want these Bills, policies and changes. The Federal Government is imposing an overwhelming ‘shock and awe’ strategy of massive changes to legislation, policies and new funding agreements that are designed by the Prime Ministers’ Office and the federal bureaucracy to complete the assimilation-Termination objectives of the 50-year-old 1969 White Paper on Indian Policy.” He says that some 400 of Canada’s 600 Indian bands are already working on so-called tables with federal negotiators.
He says the Framework was announced on Feb14 2018 and its first aim has been “to remove bands from the Indian Act and turn them into federally recognized ‘Indigenous Governments’ or ‘Nations’ that will have authority delegated to them by the Government of Canada. They will be subject to the Canadian Constitution as a 4th order of government—below not only the federal and provincial governments but also with less power than municipal governments.”
He accuses the government of “taking advantage of our poverty to change administrative agreements and funding that forces us to accept policies that impact our sacred Treaties & Inherent Title & Rights, while directly attacking our sovereign jurisdiction. This is genocide through law and policy.” In addition Daibo says that issues of central importance to the indigenous people have been rushed into Parliament as add-ons to other bigger bills in order to get them through the legislative process without adequate, and in some cases without any debate.
IMPORTANT DECISIONS HIDDEN IN OMNIBUS BILLS
The bills he has in mind are three:
Bill C-97 – dissolving the Department of Indian Affairs & Northern Development, a policy announced in August 2017, but crammed into a 400-page Budget bill in April this year, creating two new federal departments: one for Indigenous Services and one for Crown-Indigenous Relations.
Bill C-86 – a 900-page Omnibus Bill that became law in December 2018, making substantive amendments to the: First Nations Land Management Act, First Nation Fiscal Management Act, Additions to Reserve and First Nation Matrimonial Property Act – (to) facilitate eliminating reserves by transitioning communally-held reserve lands into a new land regime that eventually leads to individually held private property (fee simple) that would come under provincial laws and lands registry. (My note: a policy tried in the US in the 1930s which literally opened the way to stripping Indians of their traditional lands.)
Bills C-91/92 – language and child welfare legislation, intended to take existing Inherent Rights and convert them into federally-defined section 35 rights, which are subsumed under Crown Sovereignty (to be dictated by the limitations stemming from section 35 federal doctrine/court decisions).
Diabo has a remarkable mastery of the minutiae of indigenous-government policy, but it is a tough policy to explain simply. His overall message rings loud and clear: the government appears to be up to its traditional age-old tricks of bamboozlement and indirection. “It’s the worst it’s ever been in my lifetime,” he says. This perhaps explains the unreasonable haste the government is imposing on these changes, which after all, are responding to conditions that have been entrenched for more than 150 years. There seems no imperative, except perhaps the imperative for the Liberal government of the impending general election, that all this legislation has to be in place by June 21, a mere six weeks away, with much of the legislation currently stuck in committee in the Senate.
Anyone who would like more information on this crisis for the indigenous people can contact
Tori Cress at E-Mail: info@IdleNoMore.ca
Sylvia McAdam, Idle No More Organizer, Cell: (306) 281-8158
Rachel Snow, Spokesperson, Cell: (403) 703-8464
Russ Diabo, Spokesperson, Cell: (613) 296-0110