When I moved almost 37 years ago to the Bruce Peninsula – formerly known as the Saugeen, or Indian Peninsula – I naively believed Aboriginal people should be treated as equal citizens of Canada. The year was 1979, 10 years after the now-infamous “white paper,” formally called the Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy.
It was intended to be part of then, newly-elected Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s concept of “The Just Society.” It would have involved elimination of the Indian Act, which has controlled the lives of Aboriginal people since 1876 and was already considered badly out-of-date in 1969. That Trudeau government thought freedom from oppression, and equal rights would give Aboriginal people the opportunity among other things to revitalize their traditional cultures.
But Aboriginal people saw it as the path to disaster, a thinly disguised attempt to destroy Aboriginal cultures through assimilation. “Indians understand that the path outlined by the Department of Indian Affairs through its mouthpiece, the Honourable Mr. (Jean) Chretien, leads directly to cultural genocide,” said Harold Cardinal in his first book, The Unjust Society, published in 1969. He was an Aboriginal writer, lawyer, activist and leader who rose to prominence soon after the white paper came out.
In fairness to the government of the day, the white paper was a misguided attempt to deal with pressing socio-economic problems Aboriginal communities were facing. Then, as now, they included poverty deplorable housing, as well as a high rate of infant mortality, lower life expectancy and lack of educational opportunities.
Fast-forward to the current crisis in the remote, northern Ontario First Nation community of Attawapiskat, which declared a State of Emergency a week ago after 11 young people tried to commit suicide in one day. For the second time in a matter of days the desperate living conditions in many Aboriginal communities in Canada has made international headlines. How can that be, in a rich country like Canada? That’s the question being asked.
At the request of Charlie Angus, the MP for the riding that includes Attawapiskat, the House of Commons held an “emergency debate” this past Tuesday evening.
Lately, I’ve been making a point of looking for Aboriginal Television Network (APTN) reports to get an Aboriginal perspective, and fresh insight. What the APTN coverage noted was revealing and troubling: 20 out of a total of 44 NDP members, including Angus, were in the house, as were 50 Liberal MPs from a caucus numbering 184, and just five Conservatives out of a caucus of 98. The Conservative numbers rose to 11 when the party’s Aboriginal Affairs critic, Cathy McLeod, stood to speak; and most of them “sat around her for the benefit of the House of Commons camera.”
That’s at best 81 MPs out of a total of 326 to attend the emergency debate. Under the circumstances it was a disgrace.
The consensus seems to be something has to be done. But what?
Well, for one thing, be present, as Canada and First Nations finally, once and for all, begin the difficult, complex task of building a new and better, and most of all hopeful, relationship on the basis of nation-to-nation respect.
It took me a while – too long maybe – to understand why equality is not good enough, and why First Nation people have that kind of “special” relationship with Canada. It’s about honour and trust: keeping your word, abiding by treaties, and respecting Sec. 35 of the Canadian Constitution recognizing Aboriginal rights.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, Justice Minister in Canada’s new Liberal government, and a First Nation person, spoke persuasively during the emergency debate:
“The nation-to-nation relationship is one of the most challenging public policy issues of our time and I challenge all members of this House to work with us in building this relationship. There are no quick fixes to these issues, a substantive nation-to-nation discussion with Indigenous peoples is needed. We need to sit down and work jointly to ensure Indigenous communities are strong and healthy and in control of their own destiny.”
There was a time when the people who first lived in the land we now call Canada were more than willing to be part of a mutually respectful relationship. They welcomed the newcomers and shared their knowledge of the land and waters and how to live on and from them. First Nation warriors fought alongside British regular troops and Canadian militia to defend against American invasion in the war of 1812.
A high proportion of First Nation people volunteered for Canadian military service in both world wars. Locally, the community center at the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation at Cape Croker (Neyaashiinigmiing) is dedicated to the extraordinary number of veterans from that community who fought, and in many cases died for Canada. In 1972 the National Memorial (Silver Cross) Mother for all of Canada was Mary Louise McLeod, of the Nawash community. She laid a Remembrance Day wreath at the National War Memorial in Ottawa that year on behalf of all Canadian mothers who had lost children in the wars. Two of her six sons who enlisted during the Second World War were killed, two others were wounded. A daughter also served.
Yet, time and time again First Nation people, including in this area, have had their trust betrayed, and worse, suffered greatly from the oppression and lack of respect shown them by the governing powers and other Canadians.
Of course, many First Nation communities and people are struggling. Of course there is anger and despair, much of it turned inward. But there is hope too, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government can be believed, that this time good words will actually mean something, that they will lead to a better, nation-to-nation, respectful relationship, and not the same old, same old.
There must not be another betrayal.
Originally published in The Sun Times April, 2016.