Canada’s First Nations have been serial newsmakers ever since Prime Minister Stephen Harper began pushing through omnibus legislation.
The majority of the momentum is attributed to two separate forces in the First Nations community. First, the Idle No More grassroots movement has used peaceful demonstration with the occasional blockade or occupation to make their voice heard. According to their press release on Jan. 14 the message is “peace and solidarity,” as they continue to fight for democracy, human rights and environmental protection.
The leadership of the First Nations then called for action, both pressured and strengthened by the mass of protesters who are tired of seeing their rights abused. Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence went on a six-week hunger strike until she saw a written and timelined commitment to enact policy in the interests of Canada’s aboriginal people. This commitment includes the environmental agenda of Idle No More while broadening the scope to combat the poverty and poor infrastructure that plagues First Nations communities. The Liberal and NDP caucuses have signed their commitment, so that Spence could bow out gracefully while talks are underway.
There are several important things to realize about these issues. First, Canada has a history of abusing the native population. From economic oppression to the establishment of residential schools, we carry the weight of our past during times of civil unrest. It is also important to note that Spence and many other Chiefs are demanding direct Crown involvement, since that is the original party with whom treaties were drafted. In terms of a wider public support, the environmental agenda seems to resonate with Canadians. The technicalities of treaties, though, are issues about which the average Canadian may shrug, pleading ignorance.
It is important that these issues are finally garnering enough attention to put the negotiations on level ground, if not equal terms. The calls to involve the Crown are symbolic, yet the fact remains that the Governor General has extremely limited powers in modern Canada. In the end, First Nations will have to work within the legislative process that defines today’s Canadian system of governance. Trying to resolve it any other way (i.e. directly with the Crown) does not answer to the realities of our time; the Prime Minister and the federal political parties can provide the only source of authority for First Nations.
That said, Canadian members of parliament and senators must accept that their handling of this delicate matter will be a reflection on our nation and its people. We have a chance here to make positive and effective change, an opportunity that deserves more than a patchy solution.
It’s not as though the blame falls squarely on one party or another. Audits have shown that the majority of First Nations communities need to keep better records of their transactions to ensure transparency and secure government aid in building their future. Politicians are no less set in their ways, and should be encouraged to make radical changes to current treaties. These documents need to be brought up to date so we can handle these matters fairly and efficiently.
This is an opportunity to dispel myths and tell the true story of Canada and our Aboriginal citizens. We’ve been too quick to ignore the needs of these humans and their culture. We’ve been practising a foreign aid model of throwing money at problems in hopes that they will go away—a foolish policy that has no place in a society as intellectually capable as ours. Let us concentrate on the future, and not just six months from now; 50 years from now we could be harmonious and healthy. Or we could have civil war.