Today marks the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation, an agreement-turned-treaty that established the nation-to-nation relationship between Canada’s First Nations and the British settlers, and became the foundation for the Numbered Treaties that followed. It established an equal coexistence, and affirmed First Nations sovereignty over their lands.
Yes, well. We all know how that turned out.
Today also marks the arrival to Canada of the United Nation’s special rapporteur on indigenous rights, James Anaya. Anaya will spend the next nine days meeting with government and First Nations leaders and looking into the condition of Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Anaya will present his report next year to the UN Human Rights Council.
Anaya will, inevitably, hear the serious and legitimate complaints of Canada’s First Nations, and encounter a system of institutional discrimination keeping an entire peoples at a fundamental disadvantage.
We can only guess at the recommendations he will come up with for the Canadian government to finally deal with the issues involved, though perhaps they will mirror past attempts at major correction, such as the landmark 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, or even the Kelowna Accord, which Harper abandoned upon taking office in 2006.
Anaya’s report cannot be anything but damning of the Canadian government. And the government knows this—it’s the reason they refused for a full year and a half to let Anaya come to Canada. The UN requested an official visit back in February 2012, but was given the official cold shoulder until now.
You’d think Harper would have used the time in between to clean up Canada’s act, but the opposite has happened. You could argue that the need for a visit from the UN’s special rapporteur has never been greater. Canada desperately needs just this kind of international scrutiny—a public shaming on the international stage could help change the direction of Canada’s relationship with its First Nations.
(On the other hand, we are becoming adept at standing steadfast in the face of overwhelming international criticism. See, for example, Canada’s environmental record and Canada’s stance on Palestine.)
Here, as briefly as I can, is a partial rundown of the current situation:
This summer we learned about nutritional experiments done on Aboriginal children at residential schools, followed by Harper’s refusal to apologize. Last year also saw a suite of government bills (revealing a government agenda) that together erode First Nations treaty rights and ignore their constitutional right to consultation. There is also persistent lack of consultation on resource extraction projects on First Nations land—the most prominent being the Northern Gateway pipeline project, which will likely end in conflict if it goes through under the current process (recent comments by Harper that the pipeline will go through no matter what do nothing to alleviate these concerns). Chronic underfunding of reserves has led to immense inequality and exacerbated crises in such areas as water, food, housing, education, crime, suicide, health and policing (First Nations routinely receive less funding for services than other Canadians, including child welfare, over which the Conservatives recently went to the courts, arguing otherwise on a technicality, and lost). Continued land-treaty negotiations are routinely delayed in the courts for years or decades (even for more than a century in some cases). Unfounded accusations by the Conservatives of widespread corruption by reserve governments have fueled suspicion. And absolutely nothing substantial has been done since the supposedly important meeting between First Nations and the government in January—a meeting that came about in an (unacknowledged) response to a massive grassroots movement and a (both ignored and belittled) hunger strike by a prominent First Nations leader.
On the other hand—if the still-strong Idle No More movement is any indication—this is also a time of unprecedented Indigenous self-empowerment and mobilization, and nation-wide collaboration and solidarity. Things are indeed ripe for change.
The Royal Proclamation gave First Nations self-determination and autonomy over their lands, way back in 1763. That may seem a long time ago, but the Royal Proclamation is not only relevant today, it is also enshrined in Section 25 of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
No other section of our Charter, however, has been violated so egregiously, so often, and for so long. First Nations sovereign rights have been stripped away over time through a persistent agenda of assimilation. A full one-third of original Indigenous title has been taken by the nation of Canada since the Royal Proclamation was signed—a great many of us live, quite literally, on stolen land. And we all benefit from this transgression.
That is, all of us settlers do. Canada’s first peoples have not fared as well. And this is what the UN’s special rapporteur on indigenous rights is about to find out.