Nam­ing and Claim­ing


Canada's History - - CONTENTS - by Ray Argyle

The dream of re­gain­ing lost na­tion­hood for his peo­ple fired the mind of a Saskatchewan chief.

The doc­u­ment is faded, its edges are tat­tered, and it has taken on a tint of sepia. It is one of only five known orig­i­nal copies of the Royal Procla­ma­tion of 1763, which rec­og­nized In­dige­nous ti­tle to lands in Bri­tish North Amer­ica that had not been ceded by treaty. A vis­i­tor to the rare books and spe­cial col­lec­tions area of McGill Univer­sity’s li­brary in Mon­treal will find the doc­u­ment framed un­der glass.

While the im­por­tance of the procla­ma­tion is just be­ing dis­cov­ered by many non-In­dige­nous Cana­di­ans, its power has ex­erted a life­long in­flu­ence on Solomon San­der­son, the Saskatchewan Cree chief­tain who brought unity and a com­mon iden­tity to In­dige­nous peo­ple by his in­ven­tion of the term “First Na­tions.”

That cre­ation of Chief San­der­son’s fer­tile mind, which first ap­peared in the 1980 Dec­la­ra­tion of the First Na­tions claim­ing “rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties [that] can­not be al­tered or taken away by any other na­tion,” would prove to be a turn­ing point in the long strug­gle of In­dige­nous peo­ples to gain fuller recog­ni­tion and rec­om­pense as the orig­i­nal oc­cu­pants of present-day Canada.

“I coined the term ‘First Na­tions’ to plant a seed to show we are na­tions en­ti­tled to sovereignty, with a long his­tory of self­gov­ern­ment,” said San­der­son. “The idea came to me when we were work­ing on a new gov­er­nance struc­ture for the re­serves in Saskatchewan that would be based on our tra­di­tional cus­toms and in­her­ent rights. We had many days of de­bate and dis­cus­sion. Our peo­ple were afraid to speak of sovereignty, and many re­fused to be­lieve we could have self-government.

“One night in 1980, I got up about three thirty and sat at the kitchen table, scrib­bling out terms. I didn’t like the term In­dian band, be­cause a band could in­clude peo­ple from dif­fer­ent tribes, like Cree and Black­foot. When I wrote down ‘First Na­tions,’ I re­al­ized that was it. We had been na­tions be­fore Eu­ro­pean con­tact, and it was time to be­come na­tions again, this time First Na­tions.” The term, he felt, was ideal to de­scribe In­dige­nous peo­ple who were not Métis or Inuit.

San­der­son re­mem­bered that the royal procla­ma­tion of

King Ge­orge III re­ferred to In­dian na­tions, and, he said, “this had a strong in­flu­ence on me.” San­der­son had read the doc­u­ment as a boy at an In­dian res­i­den­tial school to which he was sent at the age of fif­teen. Ac­cord­ing to the procla­ma­tion, “the sev­eral Na­tions or Tribes of In­di­ans … who live un­der our Pro­tec­tion, should not be mo­lested or dis­turbed.” San­der­son saw it as a char­ter of rights for In­dige­nous peo­ples — a prom­ise for­got­ten by Canada in its rush to take over land and to push the orig­i­nal oc­cu­pants to the edge of ex­is­tence.

“There were sixty-nine na­tions with highly struc­tured gov­er­nance sys­tems on Tur­tle Is­land when the whites ar­rived,” San­der­son said, re­fer­ring to North Amer­ica by the name given to it by the Iro­quois, among other First Na­tions. “We showed the Euro­peans democ­racy, of which they knew noth­ing, hav­ing come from coun­tries ruled by kings and tyrants.”

To Perry Bel­le­garde, national chief of the As­sem­bly of First Na­tions, the term coined by San­der­son “con­veys the re­al­ity that we are the orig­i­nal peo­ples of this land, and we are na­tions in ev­ery sense of the word, with our own lan­guages, laws, lands, gov­er­nance sys­tems, and cit­i­zens.”

Ask a Cana­dian how long First Na­tions have been in ex­is­tence, and the an­swer will prob­a­bly be “thou­sands of years.” Only in the past forty years, how­ever, have they been known by that name. The fact that the term has won universal ac­cep­tance in such a brief pe­riod qual­i­fies it as a change in it­self but also as some­thing with the power to cre­ate change.

“Some­times chang­ing lan­guage can change how peo­ple see re­al­ity,” said Bob Rae, who has ac­quired a unique out­sider’s un­der­stand­ing of First Na­tions is­sues in his ca­reer as a politi­cian and lawyer. He is now the ne­go­tia­tor for the Matawa First Na­tions on the Ring of Fire min­eral de­vel­op­ment in north­ern On­tario.

“This is cer­tainly the case with the phrase ‘First Na­tions,’” Rae added. “The phrase im­plies sovereignty, self-government, and a sense of pri­or­ity. It brought a his­toric shift in sen­si­bil­ity.”

Alan Mid­dle­ton, a pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at York Univer­sity and an ex­pert in brand­ing, said the ex­pres­sion “First Na­tions” has worked be­cause “it is an all-en­com­pass­ing term that unites Abo­rig­i­nal bands and gives them a com­mon national in­ter­est.” As such, he noted, “It has raised the pro­file and cred­i­bil­ity of In­dige­nous peo­ples.”

Solomon Ge­orge San­der­son was born in 1941 on James Smith re­serve, now a First Na­tions com­mu­nity near Prince Al­bert, Saskatchewan. His par­ents op­er­ated a mixed farm grow­ing wheat and bar­ley and rais­ing cat­tle, pigs, and chick­ens. The fam­ily spoke Cree at home, and San­der­son ab­sorbed a tra­di­tional cul­ture of shar­ing and support.

“I came to no harm at the res­i­den­tial school but I did learn about pol­i­tics,” he said. “I put out a stu­dent news­let­ter that was sent to par­ents at home, but the school put a stop to it. We got only one is­sue out be­fore we lost our free­dom of the press.”

Loss runs through San­der­son’s re­count­ing of his life and times. First as chief of his home re­serve, and later as chief of the Fed­er­a­tion of Saskatchewan In­dian Na­tions from 1979 to 1986, he wit­nessed the strug­gle of his peo­ple to re­claim a lost des­tiny as sov­er­eigns in their own land.

“From the time of their ar­rival Euro­peans tar­geted the desta­bi­liza­tion of our gov­ern­ments, cus­toms, prac­tices, laws, and cul­ture,” San­der­son as­serted. “They im­ple­mented in­te­gra­tion, as­sim­i­la­tion, and liq­ui­da­tion. They de­stroyed fam­i­lies, communities, and na­tions. We lost to­tal con­trol of our lives. The con­se­quences are un­em­ploy­ment, sui­cides, drug ad­dic­tion, and home­less­ness. ”

San­der­son came of age in the tu­mul­tuous 1960s. A white pa­per by the then newly elected fed­eral government of Pierre El­liott Trudeau pro­posed the abo­li­tion of the In­dian Act and sent shock waves through In­dige­nous communities. Although they re­sented the act’s con­trol over their lives, they feared that its abo­li­tion could lead to what Al­berta Cree writer, teacher, and lawyer Harold Car­di­nal called “cul­tural geno­cide.”

San­der­son joined the protests against the pro­posal. He re­calls driv­ing to a rally in Regina in an old Model A Ford. He slept in it for sev­eral nights, un­til the de­ci­sion to fight the fed­eral government had been made. The fight was suc­cess­ful, and the government never acted on the white pa­per.

Af­ter study­ing at a busi­ness col­lege in Prince Al­bert, San­der­son served as ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Fed­er­a­tion of Saskatchewan In­dian Na­tions be­fore be­ing elected its chief.

When Trudeau de­clared his in­ten­tion in 1980 to repa­tri­ate the Bri­tish North Amer­ica Act in or­der to give Canada a new con­sti­tu­tion — one lack­ing recog­ni­tion of the na­tion-build­ing con­tri­bu­tions of its first cit­i­zens — the re­sponse from In­dige­nous peo­ple was rapid and force­ful.

Af­ter fail­ing to se­cure a meet­ing with the prime min­is­ter, San­der­son led a del­e­ga­tion that met with Gov­er­nor Gen­eral Ed­ward Schreyer to ask him to in­ter­cede with Par­lia­ment. The

Ot­tawa Cit­i­zen quoted the rep­re­sen­ta­tives as ask­ing for recog­ni­tion that First Na­tions’ “pow­ers and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties ex­ist as a per­ma­nent, in­te­gral fact,” just as set out in the royal procla­ma­tion of two hun­dred years ear­lier.

The group gave a copy of the new Dec­la­ra­tion of the First Na­tions to the Gov­er­nor Gen­eral. It marked the first pub­lic pre­sen­ta­tion of the dec­la­ra­tion and the first for­mal claim to the sta­tus of First Na­tions. In re­port­ing the meet­ing, the Ot­tawa

Cit­i­zen care­fully used the ex­pres­sion “first na­tions” in quo­ta­tion marks and with­out cap­i­tal let­ters.

Af­ter ral­lies across Canada and mis­sions to the United Na­tions and to Lon­don, Eng­land, where the Bri­tish Par­lia­ment was con­sid­er­ing the new Canada Act, San­der­son con­fronted Jus­tice Min­is­ter Jean Chré­tien at a news con­fer­ence in Canada House.

“When Mr. Chré­tien saw me he turned pale and an­gry,” Chief San­der­son re­called. “I gave him a pack­age of pa­pers to show to the Queen. In­stead, he threw them back at me, right over my head.” The in­ci­dent was re­ported in the Que­bec me­dia but not in English Canada, San­der­son said.

On April 17, 1982, Queen El­iz­a­beth and Prime Min­is­ter Pierre Trudeau signed the new con­sti­tu­tion at a cer­e­mony in Ot­tawa. With the fu­ture of In­dige­nous rights far from set­tled, the National In­dian Broth­er­hood reached a fate­ful de­ci­sion: It would throw out its ex­ist­ing name and be­come, as San­der­son ad­vo­cated, the As­sem­bly of First Na­tions. A week af­ter the Queen’s sign­ing of the con­sti­tu­tion, nearly four hun­dred chiefs met in Pen­tic­ton, Bri­tish Columbia, to re­place their loose fed­er­a­tion with a new, more cen­tral­ized or­ga­ni­za­tion. Saskatchewan del­e­gates put for­ward the three mo­tions that cre­ated the AFN, and a Saskatchewan chief, David Ahenakew, was elected national chief.

In a his­toric nod to the na­tion-to-na­tion re­la­tion­ship that was emerg­ing be­tween Canada and In­dige­nous peo­ples, Trudeau in­vited First Na­tions el­ders to meet with him and with the provin­cial pre­miers in a first min­is­ters con­fer­ence in 1983. The idea of chiefs sit­ting down with the prime min­is­ter and pre­miers to work out their fu­ture was some­thing new for Cana­di­ans to grasp, as was the “First Na­tions” la­bel the chiefs had at­tached to their cause.

It took three meet­ings, all of which San­der­son at­tended, be­fore an agree­ment was reached for Canada to rec­og­nize not just “ex­ist­ing” treaty rights but also those that “may be so ac­quired.” That prin­ci­ple, set out in Sec­tion 35 of the Con­sti­tu­tion Act, has since been re­flected in such treaties as those signed with the Nisga’a and Tsil­hqot’in First Na­tions in Bri­tish Columbia, rec­og­niz­ing their rights to self-government and giv­ing them ex­ten­sive con­trol over re­source de­vel­op­ment on their lands.

At sev­enty-six, San­der­son re­mains ac­tive in ef­forts to im­prove the lives of his peo­ple. His First Na­tions Fo­rum, a think-tank that de­vel­ops ed­u­ca­tional cur­ric­ula grounded in Abo­rig­i­nal philoso­phies, builds on his long in­ter­est in ed­u­ca­tion. He was a founder of the First Na­tions Univer­sity of Canada that has grad­u­ated four thou­sand stu­dents since 1976.

When the chiefs of the sev­enty-four na­tions mak­ing up the Fed­er­a­tion of Saskatchewan In­dian Na­tions (since re­named the Fed­er­a­tion of Sovereign In­dige­nous Na­tions) met in 2016, San­der­son re­counted the changes he had seen over the fifty-nine years he had spent work­ing on In­dige­nous is­sues. “I’ve been at it since I was fif­teen,” he said, adding, “I need more than your re­spect now. I need your per­mis­sion to im­ple­ment the wis­dom of Solomon.”

Two hun­dred and fifty-five years have passed since the royal procla­ma­tion rec­og­nized the ex­is­tence of In­dige­nous na­tions, and it has been thirty-six years since the As­sem­bly of First Na­tions came into be­ing. Nearly 1.5 mil­lion In­dige­nous Cana­di­ans — First Na­tions, Métis, and Inuit — may at last be on the cusp of se­cur­ing their right­ful in­her­i­tance as the first sov­er­eigns of this land.

Saskatchewan Cree chief Solomon San­der­son in the mid-1970s.

Above: The Royal Procla­ma­tion of 1763. Right: Young Solomon San­der­son mid-1960s.

Above: Prime Min­is­ter Pierre Trudeau at­tends the Fed­eral Provin­cial Con­sti­tu­tional Con­fer­ence in Ot­tawa on Fe­bru­ary 13, 1969.

Left: Harold Car­di­nal (stand­ing), pres­i­dent of the In­dian As­so­ci­a­tion of Al­berta, ad­dresses Prime Min­is­ter Pierre Trudeau in Ot­tawa, June 4, 1970. Car­di­nal re­quested that treaties with First Na­tions be handed over for set­tle­ment to a “truly im­par­tial...

Solomon San­der­son in Fe­bru­ary 2016 at the Se­nate en­trance to the Cen­tre Block on Par­lia­ment Hill dur­ing Se­nate meet­ings.

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