There are good reasons for Canada's Native people to be at the point where frustration, impatience and anger rush together in a blend of powerful emotions bordering on rage.
It is to the credit of Native people that they have adopted peaceful, non-confrontational tactics as they march across highways and bridges or gather in malls and city centers in flash mobs to let the nation know they will no longer accept the dictates of the federal government, that the time has come to compel Canada to abide by its treaty obligations and remove the shackles of the Indian Act.
When Canada adopted the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Rights on November 12, 2010, it committed itself to working in partnership to secure the health, safety, self sufficiency and prosperity of Natives while acknowledging an inherent right for aboriginal peoples to make their own decisions and manage their own affairs.
Bill C-45, now federal law, was enacted in direct contradiction to the Declaration as it assumes the federal government has the ultimate right to decide how Native lands may be developed or indigenous title extinguished. It makes it easier for band councils to open their territories for exploitation while omitting any mention of the federal government's treaty obligations. It further entrenches the authority of the band council system to undermine, manipulate and extinguish treaties or aboriginal land title with the compliance of the minister of Indian Affairs.
The people are upset because the lack of consultation in the passage of Bill C-45. They are angry because they believe the federal government is removing environmental protection from millions of hectares of land, much of which was taken from Native people in breach of treaty and aboriginal land title. These areas may well be subject to formal land claims or considered an essential element of an indigenous economy and lifestyle which is intimately tied to the environment. By waiving environmental protection those lands will inevitably be exploited by domestic and foreign companies without the need to consider the effects on aboriginal people or the natural world.
There is anger at the empowerment of a band council system which is alien to how Natives governed their affairs prior to the arrival of the Europeans. As contemporary research has proven Natives had their own way of administering to human needs in a manner which insured the ecological integrity and health of their lands. For thousands of years Native governments oversaw trade, delivered services, provided security and worked to sustain a culture and lifestyle within specific jurisdictional areas. That they had the right and capacity to do so was obviously acknowledged by the European colonial powers through formal treaties, that most fundamental of contracts between sovereign nations.
By entering into treaties or trade compacts the Europeans recognized that Native nations were their equal under international law and under that law the unilateral breach of a treaty returns the signatory nations to their previous condition. As the demonstrators have said, Canada is free to abrogate its treaties with Natives but in doing so the land and all of its resources revert back to its former aboriginal status.
For decades non-Native academics, politicians and writers have sought to obscure the complexity and sophistication of aboriginal culture before and during the colonial era. They have used profane language and images in labeling Native people and as a matter of formal policy sought to destroy aboriginal identity. After the treaty era concluded the physical, intellectual, social and spiritual abuse of Native people was accentuated and became a shameful part of Canadian history. Whatever was left of indigenous self determination was wiped out to be replaced by an inefficient, corrupt and alien form of local administration-the band council.
These councils were imposed upon Natives to replace the indigenous governments, often at force of arms. They had nothing to do with the traditional governing methods but instead enacted a system of absolute reliance on the federal government which retains, even to this day, the power to veto any law or action undertaken by the band councils. That such entities are not reflective of indigenous principles of governance is another source of anger for Native people. That these councils are inefficient and often corrupt, created in part to extinguish treaties and make fatal compromises on resource development is a primary concern of most Natives who are infuriated that the federal government is now prepared to give these colonial entities even greater opportunity to exploit their own people.
But what do Natives want? Start with by rescinding the Indian Act followed by a series of national Native congresses to replace the band councils with genuinely aboriginal governments. Make a firm, unqualified commitment to abide by treaties and acknowledge these contracts as agreements between sovereign entities. Break the destructive reliance on federal money by regional resource management agencies based upon open commerce with free trade among Native nations. Have the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights made into federal law and binding on all provinces and agencies including the Native nations themselves. Work with Native people as they revive their ancestral governments and re-establish regional confederacies. Acknowledge that Native nations have the right to develop their own resources independent of federal interference and remove "Crown land" status across the nation. And recognize that there is a need to place more resources into removing the myths and lies which have distorted aboriginal history through the creation of a National Aboriginal Museum in Ottawa.
Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is a co-founder of the Native
American Journalists Association, a former member of the Board of Trustees for
the National Museum of the American Indian and the author of many books and
articles about Native history and current issues. His latest book is "Iroquois
on Fire". He may be reached via e-mail: Kanentiioaol.com. Kanentiio resides on
Oneida Iroquois Territory in central New York State.
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