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June 21, 2013

First or Last Nations?

SS Editorial

Idle No More

Since the federal apology in 2008 for residential school abuse, and the holding of the first Conservative/First Nations conference in January 2012, some aboriginal leaders, like Sean Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, hope for a renewed relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canada – a relation that appeared to be renewed by the 1994 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Report and the Kelowna Accord of 2005 – with a promise of five billion dollars over ten years to address native poverty to create a more self sufficient future.

Supreme Court decisions – like Delgamuukw compelling consultation; the recent Manitoba Metis Federal Court decision to compel compensation given the national government’s failure to implement the terms of the 1870 Manitoba Act; and the recognition of non-status aboriginal and metis people as having national rights – all seem to reinforce the need for a new respectful relationship.

But those hopes are fading. Despite four hundred and forty recommendations by the Royal Commission, the Harper Conservatives repudiated the Kelowna Accord for an old emphasis on tighter regulation to squeeze more value out of existing monies to native people. The duty to consult has been treated as no more than a formal exercise, since there is no legal compulsion to seek consent. Wherever possible, the government appeals or disrespects court decisions as in not providing evidence to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (on Residential Schools).

One of the latest blows is to cut aboriginal advocacy funding by one third.

A Record of Oppression

Aboriginal peoples have a complex relation with the British Crown and the Canadian settler state. Early European governments, French and English, and trade corporations like the Hudson Bay Company as the colonial government of western Canada, practiced some reciprocity with first nations; reliant on aboriginal peoples as economic and military partners, formal treaties were often necessary and implied a nation to nation relation. This history explains why some native people still insist on a direct relationship with the British Crown, as Theresa Spence, the Cree chief on hunger strike, did in demanding the Governor General be present at the meeting with Harper.

However, the Canadian nation state viewed treaties as a necessary evil, securing prairie lands against an expansionist United States and to eliminate the expense of military conquest (though such would happen as in the 1870 and 1885 metis resistances). Far better to develop a superior-inferior relation, embodied in the 1876 Indian Act, that became increasingly oppressive as settlers established demographic, economic, and cultural dominance.

In some parts of Canada, where dominance could be asserted without formal accommodation, there are no treaties – in parts of the Maritimes and the North, and, especially, mainland British Columbia where a modern treaty commission has labored for twenty years to only arrive at two treaties (and with first nations in $420 million of debt as the cost of negotiations).

This ongoing history of oppression has left a bitter legacy.

Demographically, the aboriginal population plummeted to less than 1% of the national population by 1940. But, with creation of the welfare state and the extension of some of its provisions to native people, the numbers of native people rebounded. Today, as of the 2011 census, the aboriginal population stands at 1.17 million (the majority of whom are under the age of 25), about 3.75% of the Canadian populace.

Native people self identify politically in a number of ways. About 60% of native people have ‘status’, i.e., they are legally recognized, with certain rights, as aboriginals through a treaty with the federal government. Status native people are organized into more than 600 tribal nations spread geographically across more than 2200 reserves. This group makes up the national Indian lobby, the Assembly of First Nations.

The smallest group is the Inuit, about 60,000 people, the majority of who live in the territorial government of Nunavut in the eastern Arctic. The other two major groups are non-status native people, represented by the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, and the Metis National Council.

An important demographic/geographic feature to note is that as many aboriginal people live in cities as on rural reserves. Here pan-Indian institutions like Native Friendship Centres are key and the political focus is on urban ‘accords’ as with the cities of Winnipeg and Edmonton. But the political reality is that rural, tribal based nations are still the fundamental units of political organization where aboriginal rights are based.

In this complex political ecology of aboriginal groups terrible material conditions predominate.

Native people live shorter lives (five to ten years less); have twice the rate of single parent families (34%); are less educated (only 56% are high school graduates); and less employed (with extremely high rates of reserve joblessness). Recently it has been revealed that one half of aboriginal children live in poverty.

A national disgrace is the number of aboriginal people in jail. 20% of all federal prisoners are aboriginal. Corrections Canada itself published a special report in 2012 demanding the federal government fund healing lodges and support non-correctional remedies to anti-social behaviours that are clearly the result of social ills. An Angus Reid poll, in fact, showed 70% of Canadians support non-incarceration. But the Conservatives’ Crime ‘Omnibus’ bill will do exactly the opposite by increasing the number and length of mandatory jail sentences.

A horrific example of the outcast status of native people in Canada is violence against native women. The Native Women’s Association of Canada estimates that over 600 aboriginal women have been murdered (or ‘disappeared’), with no one brought to justice. And the Conservatives still refuse a national inquiry.

The National Struggle

In the recent past Canada debated two national questions – on Quebec and on First Nations. After a momentous struggle with the Liberals, who tried initially to abolish first nation rights, these rights were constitutionally entrenched in the 1982 Constitution Act. Treaty rights, non-treaty rights, citizenship rights have been progressively defined and built upon. The Indian Act was rewritten in 1985 to allow a degree of band autonomy and individual rights were established in regards to gender equity in marriage and access to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (since 2008).

Integration, not assimilation, is now the formal policy of the state. This reform, however, did nothing to recognize national self-determination outside the Canadian state (explaining Canada’s fierce resistance to UN initiatives to acknowledge aboriginal sovereignty – though few first nations have treated this as a serious option).

But is the new formal policy of equality going to come undone - and a new round of assimilation begin?

The Harper Conservatives have proposed a package of ‘reforms’ to redefine state-first nation relations – as a means to free up natural resources, especially in regards to oil and mineral development.

  • an Education bill to consolidate reserve education boards as regional-provincial entities – with no new funding – to find ‘efficiencies’ to develop the growing native youth labour pool as the majority non-aboriginal population ages.

  • A First Nations Property Ownership bill to create fee simple title (absolute private property rights) to allow reserve lands to be developed by non-aboriginal investors as done in the United States.

  • A Transparency bill to further regulate band elections and finances – an approach two Auditor Generals have condemned as overregulation – when the real issue is the 25% funding gap between reserves and non-aboriginal municipal infrastructure and services budgets (with CSIS spying on aboriginal activists who have challenged this disparity before the Human Rights Tribunal).
Combine these ‘reforms’ with environmental review deregulation (both in water and energy management), and what this incremental strategy threatens is to do to native people what Israel is doing to the Palestinians – create ‘new facts’ that promote the interests of the oppressor – though in the case of aboriginal Canada, to also promote a minority bourgeoisie that elites can do business with - in the form of native resource corporations.

The Popular Struggle

While there have been armed clashes between first nations and the state, as at Oka and Gustafsen Lake, the real potential for a mass, pan-Indian mobilization, that can also connect with the non-aboriginal majority, is with the new movement Idle No More. Frustrated with the lack of progress in reforming first nation-Canada relations, rank and file activists have banded together to engage in consciousness raising events to educate, shame, and force the government to act. It was Theresa’s Spence’s hunger strike over the disgraceful housing conditions at Attawapiskat that forced the first national meeting between Prime Minister Harper (elected in 2006) and the Assembly of First Nations in January 2012.

In these oppressive conditions, with the operation of the Residential Schools Inquiry, and the consciousness raising events of Idle No More – from the Northern Quebec Cree youth winter march to the civil disobedience of this year’s Summer Sovereignty campaign (against the pipeline 9 project in Southern Ontario) – a very necessary popular pressure is brought to bear to honour aboriginal peoples’ rights and to halt their further erosion. There is also a necessary formal political struggle as when Pam Palmeter challenged Sean Atleo for AFN leadership in questioning his incremental cooperation with Harper’s fine words and stealthy deeds.