Treaties did not ex­tin­guish any Abo­rig­i­nal rights

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - OPINION - DOUG CUTHAND

In­dige­nous recognition of the rights frame­work bill pro­posed by the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment is meet­ing in­creas­ing op­po­si­tion from First Na­tions lead­ers.

On Feb. 14, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau an­nounced that his gov­ern­ment would ta­ble a bill rec­og­niz­ing In­dige­nous rights be­fore Christ­mas and it would be passed be­fore the elec­tion in the fall of 2019.

Seven months into the process, lit­tle has been done to achieve an agree­ment be­tween the First Na­tions and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

When Sec­tion 35 was in­cluded in the Cana­dian Con­sti­tu­tion, it con­cluded that Abo­rig­i­nal and treaty rights were “rec­og­nized and con­firmed.”

The ac­tual rights were never listed or de­fined. The First Na­tions lead­ers felt they didn’t have to be de­fined. They ex­isted in the numer­ous treaties that were signed be­tween the First Na­tions and the Crown. We re­garded Sec­tion 35 as a full box, and what had to be done was im­ple­men­ta­tion. The gov­ern­ment, on the other hand, felt Sec­tion 35 was an empty box and our rights had to be de­fined.

Three First Min­is­ters con­fer­ences were called to de­fine our rights, but that process ended in fail­ure. Fed­eral and pro­vin­cial politi­cians have been con­tent to ig­nore our rights and kick the can down the road for some fu­ture gov­ern­ment to worry about.

Now the First Na­tions are armed with some very im­por­tant Supreme Court de­ci­sions and can bring na­tional projects like pipe­lines to a screech­ing halt. When it comes to defin­ing our rights, we are com­ing to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble from a po­si­tion of strength.

As the say­ing goes, most peo­ple don’t read the writ­ing on the wall un­til their backs are up against it. The Lib­eral gov­ern­ment has now de­ter­mined that it is time to pro­vide leg­is­la­tion that de­fines treaty and Abo­rig­i­nal rights.

Right away, their as­sump­tions are prob­lem­atic. First Na­tions re­gard Abo­rig­i­nal rights as rights that we never gave up by sign­ing treaty or in any other process. They are rights that we kept for our­selves. We main­tain the right to gov­ern our­selves, speak our lan­guages and prac­tise our cul­ture and re­li­gion.

When we signed treaties, the gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives ac­cepted our chiefs as our lead­ers and they signed on our be­half — recognition from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment that we had our own form of gov­ern­ment and le­git­i­mate lead­ers.

In spite of colo­nial re­pres­sion and res­i­den­tial schools, our rights re­main in­tact to this day. The churches and In­dian agents only as­sumed that we had no Abo­rig­i­nal rights. No other gov­ern­ment has the right to in­ter­fere; they can only ac­knowl­edge our rights that come from the Cre­ator.

Defin­ing our Abo­rig­i­nal rights is an easy process in this pro­posed leg­is­la­tion. All the gov­ern­ment has to do is recognize our right to gov­ern our­selves and main­tain our lan­guages and prac­tise our cul­ture and re­li­gion. We have more than 50 lan­guage groups and numer­ous na­tions, and each one has the right to con­duct their af­fairs in a man­ner that suits them.

The sec­ond part of defin­ing treaty rights must be broad and open-ended. The fed­eral and pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments must recognize that our treaties are liv­ing doc­u­ments. What was promised in 1876 does not ap­ply to­day be­cause of ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy and so­cial evo­lu­tion.

Re­gard­ing ed­u­ca­tion, for ex­am­ple, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has a re­spon­si­bil­ity un­der treaty to pro­vide the fi­nan­cial re­sources to teach us “the cun­ning of the White­man” as stated by lieu­tenant-gov­er­nor Alexan­der Mor­ris dur­ing the ne­go­ti­a­tions for Treaty Four. Our peo­ple, on the other hand, main­tain the right to run our own in­sti­tu­tions and de­velop or adopt cur­ricu­lum that suits our needs.

We must keep in mind that the treaties have two sides, one for Canada and one for the First Na­tions. Canada and the prov­inces have gone far be­yond the orig­i­nal agree­ment that the treaties were ne­go­ti­ated for set­tle­ment. To­day we have cities, man­u­fac­tur­ing, oil and gas, min­ing, power gen­er­a­tion and so on that were not men­tioned in the treaties be­cause the po­ten­tial was not known at the time.

Canada ben­e­fit­ted im­mea­sur­ably from the treaties. The coun­try went on to be­come one of the great mod­ern democ­ra­cies and a mem­ber of the G7. Our peo­ple, on the other hand, were left be­hind.

The rights recognition frame­work must al­low us room to grow and be driven by the First Na­tions; oth­er­wise it will just be one more failed ini­tia­tive.

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