Category: Indigenous

A Settler’s Guide to Understanding the First Nations Education Act

This post was republished on

A comment on the title: A lot of people take issue with using the word “settler” to describe non-Indigenous peoples. I recognize that many of us do not claim lineage back to those original settlers who colonized this country and dispossessed its people. It’s important to recognize, however, that we still live in a colonial (or “settler”) society—colonialism is not just an historical phenomenon; it continues today, and all non-Indigenous peoples benefit from colonialism, both past and present. Those involved in Indigenous issues use the word “settler” as a way of recognizing this, as well as to express a desire for this to change.

The First Nations Education Act

You may not be aware of this, but there is an important and heated debate going on among Indigenous communities right now. The issue at hand is a federal bill designed, ostensibly, to return control of First Nations education to the First Nations themselves.

But there’s a larger issue at play—one that those of us who are non-Indigenous would do well to pay attention to. The debate is a uniquely colonial one, the kind that is provoked when one nation refuses to give up control over what is rightfully the jurisdiction of another nation (or in this case, 633 nations). It’s impossible to understand the debate around the First Nation Education Act without an understanding of Indigenous people’s inherent and treaty rights.

What do inherent rights have to do with it?

Inherent rights are the fundamental and existing rights of Indigenous peoples, based on their original and long-standing occupation of and governance over their land. Canada’s top court first recognized Indigenous people’s inherent rights in 1973 in its Calder decision. The key word here is recognized. It’s important to note that Canada has never had, nor ever will have, the power to grant such rights—it can only recognize that which has always existed.

The Supreme Court has since held back from specifically defining what those inherent rights are. Luckily, there are people who are more than happy to do this for you—those who hold these rights: the Indigenous peoples themselves. You can also check out the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada has signed, and which provides a handy list. One of these inherent rights is control over education and educational institutions, in their own languages, appropriate to their own cultures (see Article 14).

This is what people are referring to when they talk about First Nation control over education. Even the official title of the current bill acknowledges this—after recent amendment it was renamed the First Nation Control Over First Nation Education Act.

Now, there are also treaty rights to education. The original treaties that Canada signed with the First Nations granted the colonists access to Indigenous land, with provisions for things like settlement and access to resources. In exchange, the colonists agreed to certain conditions and obligations, one of which was to provide the necessary resources for education. This obligation appears in the first numbered treaties as some variation of: “Her Majesty agrees to maintain schools for instruction.” Later numbered treaties affirm “the policy of the government to provide . . . for the education of the Indian children.”

Rights violated, rights reclaimed

Basically, we are obliged to provide the resources, but they have the right to provide the education. Very quickly, however, this agreement fell apart. Canada’s takeover of First Nations education began immediately, and in earnest, culminating in the notorious residential schools. The residential schools were designed to purge First Nations children of their language and culture, and to turn them into “proper Canadians.” It resulted in systemic abuses—cultural, physical, and sexual—that continue to affect not just survivors but their children and their children’s children. When First Nations say they want control over their own education, their words are tinged with the memory of residential schools. This is also why, when Canada offers a new bill on education, it cannot be received with anything but wariness and suspicion.

The last federally operated residential school closed in 1996, and the Government of Canada apologized for the system in 2008, but First Nations activists began fighting for control of education in the early 1970s, with some significant successes.

And yet Canada has always maintained solid control. And boy have the results been shoddy. Just over half of Indigenous students nationally make it to Grade 12. High school graduation on reserves is at 35.5%, compared to 78% for the whole country.

The main reason for this “performance gap,” as it’s often referred to, is most likely chronic underfunding. The provinces spend an average of $10,000 per student, while the federal government’s core funding for First Nations schools is around two-thirds that, at less than $7,000 (the federal government argues it spends more than that, and it does, but on ad hoc projects and programs). Furthermore, in 1996 the government capped funding increases for First Nations schools at 2% annually, despite the First Nation population growing at least twice that much at the time. This population growth has only increased, which means every year funding must be spread even more thinly.

The First Nation Education Act

Clearly things have got to change. That much, at least, everyone agrees on: thus the First Nation Education Act. So what’s in the bill? Honestly, there’s a lot of really good stuff there. It provides for not just a massive boost in funding, but “adequate, stable, predictable and sustainable” funding. It allows for funding and curriculum to be dedicated to First Nations language and culture. It allows First Nations to develop their curriculums. It calls for ongoing discussions over the implementation of the bill. It’s light years ahead of where we are today.

And yet First Nations criticism persists—even outright rejection—which leaves a lot of people dumbfounded: Doesn’t this bill give them everything they need? What else could they possibly want? To answer this, we have to go back to inherent and treaty rights, and to Canada’s colonial relationship with these rights. For despite everything in the Act, the fundamental problem remains: Canada still refuses to give up control.

Here are some examples: Under the Act, teachers must be certified by the province, and diplomas will be issued by provincial Ministers of Education. Curriculums, while incorporating aspects of Indigenous culture, must meet provincial standards.

There are also these juicy bits: Under the Act, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs has control over who sits on and chairs the Joint Councils (the main decision making bodies under the Act). If a school fails an inspection report, the Minister can unilaterally appoint a “temporary administer” to run the school, and this person can ask the Minister to revoke a First Nation Education Authority’s status.

There’s also this caveat: all new funding is tied to this bill, meaning that if First Nations refuse to accept this bill, there will be no new funding. Even if they do accept it, no new funding will come until 2016.

Details aside, the simple concept of this bill—telling First Nations what they are allowed to do, and granting them powers—is inherently paternalistic. It’s inherently colonial: if we stand by the concept of inherent rights, we can only relinquish our control, we have no right to grant it.

What should Canada do?

The funny thing is, the federal government claims that it does indeed stand by the concept of inherent and treaty rights. According to the Act itself: “nothing in this Act is to be construed so as to abrogate or derogate from the protection provided for existing Aboriginal or treaty rights of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.”

So are we handing over control, or aren’t we? Do we acknowledge their inherent and treaty rights, or don’t we? No we aren’t, and no we don’t.

Acknowledging Indigenous inherent and treaty rights over education would mean funding their schools appropriately, and doing so with no strings attached. We need to accept their own qualifications for teachers, their own standards for high school graduation, their own curriculum, and their own standards for assessing the quality of that curriculum. This is not a foreign concept: if we can acknowledge the educational standards of other nations, surely we can acknowledge theirs.

I realize how unpopular this would be, but we signed the treaties, and that’s the deal. It’s the price we agreed to pay. And not just that: if we want to live peacefully alongside our Indigenous neighbours, and if we want to treat them with respect, we must give them what is rightfully theirs. Anything else just keeps colonialism alive.


37 is too young to die: Indigenous and marginalized in Toronto

Erratum: My original post suggested that urban Indigenous people in Canada may suffer the “worst life expectancy in the world.” After speaking with Dr. Chandrakant Shah from Anishnawbe Health Toronto, however, I’ve corrected my mistake. Dr. Shah’s report discusses “average age of death,” and refers only to those Indigenous people who used the services of the two major Toronto health units used in the report discussed below.

At the end of March, Anishnawbe Health Toronto, a community health centre, presented a report to Toronto city council outlining “premature deaths” among the city’s Indigenous community. How premature? According to the report, the average age of death for Indigenous people using health services in Toronto is 37.

The report shocked the nation, and at times it seemed impossible to escape the constant analysis in the media. The Canadian public was stunned, shocked, and rose up to demand action. I jest, of course: our national public broadcaster didn’t even pick up on the story until nearly a month after the report came out.

Just 37 years—35 for men, 41 for women. These figures are abhorrent. For context, the average age of death for all Torontonians using the same health services is 75, more than twice that of Indigenous people.

My original post compared these stats to the average life expectancy in Canada (80) and Sierra Leone (47.5), which it turns out was not correct (the world of statistical analysis is a strange and murky place). Average life expectancy and average age of death are different beasts. However, it remains helpful for me to know that Indigenous people using health services in Toronto—Canada’s largest (and self-described greatest) city—are still at risk of dying 10 years earlier than the lowest life expectancy rate in the world.

This is not a national embarrassment; this is a national crisis. And we need to start dealing with it, now. Thankfully, Anishnawbe Health Toronto has already done some legwork identifying the root causes:

“Indigenous peoples face some of the heaviest burdens of ill health,” says the report. “This is due to histories of colonization, marginalization, discrimination and racism, which results in a multitude of issues, such as loss of identity, culture, unstable housing and homelessness, a lack of education and stable jobs, and a lack of social supports.”

The report goes on to identify two specific root causes. The first is the impact of colonial and postcolonial policies (including assimilation, systemic discrimination, and cultural disruption) on the social determinants of health. The second is chronic stress as a result of these policies, resulting in “violence towards self and other, identity issues, mental health challenges, addiction, and social isolation.”

A typical medical chart of someone who has died prematurely includes diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, inadequate housing, tobacco addiction, substance abuse, anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress, and chronic stress. This is the medical manifestation of what one person quoted in the report calls a “broken heart syndrome.”

Although the authors of the report suggest a number of programs be put in place to counteract the problems they outline (one of which they politely refer to as the “empathy gap”), they have refrained from specific recommendations, suggesting everyone involved get together to start finding solutions together.

Yes, let’s begin. Let’s begin now. No one deserves to suffer such deplorably early deaths. Least of all our own neighbours.


The Anishnawbe Health Toronto’s report, “Early death among members of Toronto’s Aboriginal Community: Walking in their shoes,” is available here, and the backgrounder here.

Funding for Native Friendship Centres “streamlined”

Life off reserve can be tough. Increasing numbers of Indigenous people are living in urban areas (currently 56% of the Indigenous population), and like many who move to the city, they can find themselves cut off from community ties and support, and struggling to adapt to city life. For those of us who come from smaller centres, this is easy to relate to. Some of us succeed, some of us don’t. And some of us struggle to survive. Our fate is largely affected by the degree of community support we find.

For more than 50 years, Indigenous people have been able to find this support at Native Friendship Centres—a network of, currently, 119 community centres found in urban areas large and small, all across the country. They provide a wide range of programs and services to assist urban Indigenous people, as well as a space in which they can come together and meet up. And like most non-profit community centres, they rely primarily on federal funding.

Unfortunately, federal funding can be fickle, especially when it comes to Indigenous programming. On February 6, 2014, the federal Conservative government announced an overhaul of Native Friendship Centre funding. No longer will the government provide funding for cultural programming. Starting April 1, all funding will be “aligned” with government objectives, which are, solely, economic.

The government is calling it their “improved” Urban Aboriginal Strategy, which is “focused on increasing the participation of urban Aboriginal people in the economy.” The strategy eliminates four funding programs that covered all program areas—culture, language, sports, housing, health, education, employment—and replaces them with two funding programs focused only on economic programming.

Well, I call it eliminating and replacing; they call it “streamlining.”

The largest of the four funding programs being eliminated—the Aboriginal Friendship Centre Program—is regarded as core funding by Native Friendship Centres. It is funding that they have received for the last 40 years. And they were given less than two months notice that it was being cut altogether.

There is a lot that is problematic with all of this, not the least of which is the lack of a heads up. Mostly I’m concerned about the more basic and essential services that Native Friendship Centres provide to those who are already marginalized and vulnerable—people dealing with a lack of food and housing, those at risk of suicide, those suffering from alcohol and drug abuse.

I also find it distressing that the Conservatives have such a low regard for Indigenous cultural programming—apparently none whatsoever. Indigenous cultures may be vibrant and rich, but in urban centres especially they are also often in great need of nurturing and support—and, thanks to government policy over the last few hundred years, a lot of healing. The whole reason these centres exist is to support people who are at risk of being cut off from their communities and cultures. Native Friendship Centres are, primarily and fundamentally, places of community.

I, too, would like to see more urban Indigenous people find employment, but I see no reason why this must be accompanied by cutting all support for cultural programs. In fact, I see it as just one more reason to support cultural programs. What the Conservatives can’t seem to figure out is that economic activity and community support go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. Nobody in this country has ever built up a healthy work life without a support network. How the Conservatives think that cutting cultural programming will help Indigenous people “participate in Canada’s economy” with any degree of success is beyond me.

This emphasis on economic activity above all else suggests that the Conservatives regard all of us, fundamentally, as economic beings—something that I find particularly offensive. But this is not about me, and it’s worse than that.

When it comes to Indigenous peoples, all of this smacks of assimilation. Frankly, it reeks of it: integrate the natives into proper Canadian society and strip away their cultural connections while doing so. It’s a vile attitude, and it’s a vile policy.


Statement from the British Columbia Aboriginal Friendship Centres

Press release from the government’s Department of Aboriginal Affairs

All you tell are lies!: Elsipogtog and the failure of the media

(This post originally an entry to the 2013 Dalton Camp Award, on democracy and the media.)

On October 19 in Rexton, New Brunswick, five men—all from the Elsipogtog First Nation—approached several reporters and photographers who had gathered around the charred remains of six police vehicles, burned by anti-fracking protesters two days earlier during a confrontation with police. According to Sun News reporter Kris Sims, one particularly aggressive man threatened them, shouting, “Get the fuck out of here or I’ll break your fucking cameras! All you tell are lies!”  Sims got into her vehicle and left. When two other reporters from Global TV and CTV News attempted to do the same, the men seized their vehicles and camera equipment.

Officially, the situation was quickly rectified: vehicles and equipment returned, apologies made. Everyone agreed that it was the actions of a small group who didn’t speak for the larger community. But for one moment, for a few protestors, the struggle wasn’t against the industry or the government or the police, but against the media itself. It was a momentary, but significant, shift in the focus of protester anger.

What happens when citizens lose faith in their media? And how is that faith lost? How was it lost for the group of men from Elsipogtog?


Several issues had brought the protestors, a mix of native and non-native, together. The most obvious was environmental—over the potential dangers of shale gas extraction, known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Another issue was democracy—large numbers of people (some polls suggested the majority) opposed the province’s push to exploit its shale gas.  For the Elsipogtog First Nation, one of New Brunswick’s Mi’kmaq nations, there was also the issue of sovereignty—government and industry were ignoring their constitutional duty to consult with First Nations.

Protesters had peacefully opposed shale gas exploration throughout the summer of 2013, and again in the fall when Texas-based SWN Resources moved in for another wave of seismic testing. The national media swooped in when things turned violent on October 17, when heavily armed police moved in to disrupt the three-week old protest, triggering a chaotic confrontation.

The intimidation of the media two days later by a small group of protestors inevitably left many Canadians suspecting that perhaps the Elsipogtog community didn’t want the truth about what everyone now assumed was the violent nature of their protest to come out. The community, it seemed, was barely tolerating the media.

This view is problematic, however, considering that several media outlets had been reporting closely on the protest since it had begun, without intimidation. These included the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) and the Media Co-op, through its Halifax representative, journalist Miles Howe.

“I have been camping at the current blockade along highway 134 since the inception of the encampment, filing almost daily reports for the Media Coop,” Howe begins his comprehensive report on the events of October 17. “During June and July of this year, when protests against shale gas exploration in New Brunswick were of far less national interest, I was doing the same.”

Howe filed 29 stories between June 9 and July 30, and another 22 between Sept 28 and Oct 24. Although he did not hide his sympathies, Howe was diligently professional in his work, and his reporting remains the most detailed and comprehensive coverage of any media outlet, and is invaluable for understanding the protest.

You could argue that no journalist knew as much about the protest as Howe, and yet he remained off the radar of all major media sources. His arrest on October 17 also passed them by. There were, in fact, not 40 protestors arrested that day but 39 and one journalist—a worrying event about which PEN Canada expressed concern. (PEN also expressed concern over the later intimidation of the media.)

Whether or not the mainstream media took notice of him, there’s no arguing Howe put in the hours, gained the acceptance of the community, and produced a detailed catalogue of events that together provide the necessary background for understanding the protest—no small feat. None of the reporters who descended onto Rexton and Elsipogtog after October 17 had a similar wealth of knowledge and depth of perspective.


These reporters stayed professionally distant, filing functional, efficient, and religiously balanced news stories. The writing they produced was relentlessly and obsessively passive. Take this sentence, from Melanie Patten of the Canadian Press (CP): “The Mounties said six police vehicles including an unmarked van were burned and Molotov cocktails were tossed at them before they fired non-lethal sock rounds—beanbag type bullets—and pepper spray to defuse the situation.”

Who threw Molotov cocktails? At whom did the police fire non-lethal sock rounds? Who is assumed to be involved in “the situation,” and who is not? When journalists are this careful to avoid blame and fault, they end up avoiding motivation and context as well, let alone simple causality. This may seem the criticism of a cranky copyeditor, but it affects a reader’s comprehension at a fundamental level. By establishing—rather than avoiding—causality and fact, journalists equip readers for moving on to larger matters and more pressing questions. By confronting the who, we are then compelled to confront the why. A passive approach can also infect the structure of an article, the choice of information included, and the way that information is presented. Passive writing leaves gaps that readers must then fill with their own assumptions.

Stories written by Patten for CP on October 17 and the days that followed made their way into the Globe and Mail, all Postmedia newspapers (the National Post and its accompanying metropolitan papers, as well as, the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, Macleans, Huffington Post, and Global—nearly every major Canadian publication.

This illustrates another major problem: that of corporate media concentration. What sort of breadth and diversity of observations and perceptions, let alone interpretation and analysis, is available to readers if one article by one reporter can theoretically—if not literally—appear in every publication in the country with any notable circulation or readership?

Of course, newspapers do have their own journalists to whom they assign their own stories, and a survey of relevant content can shed light on certain editorial preferences. In the days following the police crackdown, for example, the National Post published a surprising number of articles on the economic merits of shale gas extraction (see, for example, “Fracking code aims to quell fears; Sector under attack,” from October 31, 2013).

The debate around fracking is, obviously, a major element of the story, and one worth exploring. But it is just one element. The issue of democracy, as already mentioned, is also at play. Another issue was excessive police force—200 RCMP arrived that day, many in riot gear, others in full-camo who approached from the woods, pointing sniper rifles at a group that included young children and the elderly. Hours before any police vehicles were set on fire—by far the most reported event of the day—protesters had faced mass arrests, police dogs, pepper spray, tear gas, sock rounds, semi-automatic weapons, and, allegedly, rubber bullets.


Perhaps the most fundamental issue, however, is aboriginal treaty rights—something that, as far as I can tell, never made it into the National Post’s staff-written news and editorial pieces in the two weeks following the police crackdown. “At the end of the day, the real question is the title of the land,” said Elsipogtog Chief Arren Sock on October 24. “Once we can distinguish who actually is the rightful owner, then we can start talking about extracting natural resources.”

How is it possible that a national newspaper can fail to mention the primary issue for the protesters? Surely anyone turning to that paper for news of the protest will come away with an incomplete and skewed understanding. And surely these same readers will produce incomplete and skewed arguments in later conversations about the protest—though the fault is hardly theirs. For when the range of issues is narrowed, so is the national debate.

Readers of much of the mainstream media missed out on impressively bold statements made by Elsipogtog Chief Arren Sock, former chief Susan Levi-Peters, and the Signitog District Grand Council. Statements by these leaders highlight their vastly different, yet entirely valid, understanding of the balance of power in this country. Canada needs to take note.

The Signitog Grand Council issued an eviction notice to SWN Resources on July 24. Chief Sock did the same on October 1, but he also made another, more incredible, announcement: both his band and the Signitog Grand Council were reclaiming control of all unoccupied ancestral lands, effective immediately.

“For centuries, the British crown claimed to be holding the lands in trust for us, but they are being badly mismanaged by Canada, the province and corporations,” he said, as reported by the CBC. “We are now resuming stewardship of our lands to correct these problems and restore our lands and waters to good health.”

Canada and the Mi’kmaq signed Peace and Friendship Treaties in 1760 and 1761.  According to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs’ own website, under these treaties “the Mi’kmaq and the Maliseet signatories did not surrender rights to lands or resources.”  With Chief Sock’s announcement, the Mi’kmaq were assuming stewardship of all unoccupied New Brunswick—in other words, all Crown land—and they seem to have done so legally.

First Nation land claims tend to stall in the courts for decades, thanks to procedural delays exploited by federal and provincial governments, yet their success rate is through the roof. According to the CBC, aboriginal groups have won 186 lawsuits over resource development since the mid-1980s, at a 90% success rate.  If the Mi’kmaq take their claim to the courts, as they intend to do, and if they succeed, it will, inevitably, take all National Post readers by surprise.

Such surprise—based in a simple lack of awareness and understanding—breeds frustration and, all too often, anger and contempt. Is it any wonder, then, that protesters may come to not fully appreciate the media?


Perhaps the most informative and well-written piece on the Elsipogtog protest was Martin Lukacs’ piece, “New Brunswick fracking protests are the frontline of a democratic fight,” published in Britain’s exceptional Guardian newspaper. Lukacs weighs the power relationships between government, industry, and the people, considers the historical context of the protest, and places the protest within the wider struggles for First Nations rights and for government accountability. It was the kind of comprehensive analysis that was largely missing from the Canadian conversation.

The protest and its eventual confrontation resulted from the interplay between differing interpretations of the law and the structures of the state; of where power lies and how it may be used to support—or limit—the democratic system and the rights of citizens. This is the basic framework that any analysis of the protest must work within.

That Lukacs’ article did not appear in a Canadian publication is telling. What does it say about the state of our national media when our sharpest writers look to international sources for publication? Why are our newspapers failing to hire our best young writers? It is also worth noting that Lukacs, like Howe, is deeply involved in the Media Co-op, suggesting once again that media organizations that are both committed to a story and open to its complexities will produce the most relevant journalism.

The mainstream media does have moments of promise. The CBC published a substantial backgrounder that touched on treaty rights and tied the Elsipogtog protest to wider national struggles, and it gave a good amount of space to these issues in the weeks following October 17.  Several letters to the editor in the major papers managed to at least partially balance out the discussion and provide it with some level of depth and nuance.

But none of this amounts to a robust, vigorous conversation. The issues involved with this story are difficult and complex, and deeply relevant to the political, social, economic, and cultural fabric of Canada—to our understanding of our nation, our place in it, and our relationship to each other. As citizens, we need to have these conversations. We need to tackle these issues head on, together.


Just because this conversation is not happening in the mainstream media doesn’t mean it’s not happening at all. It is happening, and it’s lively and intelligent and constructive. It’s happening in the so-called alternative media—in progressive magazines and news websites—and on social media and blogs. It’s happening in teach-ins and discussion panels, in seminars and webinars, and among writers and filmmakers and activists and community organizers across the country.

You could argue that the mainstream media is missing out, but this would fail to recognize its sheer influence—the alternative media simply does not have the resources to reach the same numbers and diversity of audience. Such an argument would also fail to recognize the media’s basic obligations. For if the media is missing out on this conversation, then Canadians are missing out on this conversation. By failing to participate, the mainstream media limits Canadians’ ability to not only properly inform themselves but to think about and discuss the issues critically, and thus to act appropriately.

By failing to engage effectively and reflect critically, the media creates an environment in which stereotypes and misinformation flourish. This is, perhaps, what the five men from Elsipogtog understood, and what drove them to threaten certain members of the media. Pursuing important issues, engaging with them, asking complex questions and spending time mulling over the answers—and doing so with conviction and professionalism—this is not just media: this is relevant media.

The Royal Proclamation turns 250

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.

The GG is not invited: How Harper just doesn’t get it

As I write this, Chief Theresa Spence is winding down her 35th day on hunger strike. Having brought about a meeting between the government of Canada and First Nations, it would be easy for her to be satisfied with her protest, but she is not. And why? Because she made a simple request, and it wasn’t granted: the Governor General was not invited.

To Harper, the request lacks all logic. The GG is symbolic, only. Ceremonial. In all practical senses he has no power to speak of. He certainly has no role in government discussions, and therefore no role in negotiations with First Nations.

It’s true, all executive power of the Queen has been transferred to the government of Canada for quite a while now. Everyone knows this. Even Chief Spence knows this.

So why does she insist on the GG’s presence? Because to say that the GG’s position is symbolic only, greatly understates the significance of that symbolism—and because inviting the GG would be an important gesture on the part of Harper, acknowledging the significance of the symbolism and that he is therefore taking all of this seriously.

A serious gesture is important, because the kinds of talks that Chief Spence is calling for are serious, unprecedented, nation to nation. This isn’t the kind of meeting that Harper—that all Canadian governments since confederation—have been hosting, full of empty talk and baby steps. This is a re-boot, a do-over.

The situation is this: The treaties were signed between nations, the treaties have been broken, it’s time to go back to the treaties. The Crown’s representative was there when each treaty was signed, and now that we’re (ostensibly) returning to that moment, it makes a lot of sense for the Crown’s representative to be there yet again. It’s symbolic, sure, but it’s awfully serious symbolism—there’s a lot of baggage behind it, and the best way to rid ourselves of that baggage is to get all the original players back together and start over.

The GG’s presence would also be a nod not only to the historical nature of the treaties, but to their relevance as living history—that they are at once historical and contemporary. The presence of the Crown would act as a sort of historical compass, allowing us to better see where we’ve come from, and how far we’ve fallen—and thus to (re)position ourselves accordingly.

Ignoring the obvious

But the GG has not been invited, and the nature and significance of what he represents is not being taken seriously.

As for Chief Spence, Harper has not just written off her request, he’s written her off as well. The PMO never utters her name, never acknowledges her influence. The recent meeting came about, overwhelmingly, because of two major (and twinned) factors: Chief Spence’s hunger strike, and the Idle No More movement. Yet to listen to the PMO, both are but a slight murmur.

The PMO statement in which Harper conceded to a meeting doesn’t even mention Chief Spence, despite the meeting being bumped ahead out of fear for her health. The words “hunger strike” are similarly avoided. After being pressed for comment on CBC radio’s The House, Greg Rickford, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, eventually acknowledged Chief Spence, then belittled her hunger strike by calling it an “exercise in limited caloric intake.”

Harper, of course, doesn’t want to look like he’s caving (as if any of this has to do with saving face). He’s gambling she’ll pack up her tipi and run back to Attawapiskat, forgotten and disgraced. For her part, Chief Spence is staying put, and has written up her will.

A new spirit of dialogue

The same dismissive attitude is applied to the meeting itself. Harper downplayed the importance of the meeting from the very beginning, suggesting in the same statement mentioned earlier that it would simply be a continuation of a Crown-First Nations meeting a year ago, held January 24, 2012: “It is in this spirit of ongoing dialogue that, together with Minister Duncan, I will be participating in a working meeting with a delegation of First Nations leaders coordinated by the Assembly of First Nations on January 11, 2013.”

This is hogwash. Not only would the recent January 11 meeting never have taken place (and certainly not with such urgency) without the immense pressure of Chief Spence’s hunger strike and the Idle No More movement, it was by no means held “in the spirit” of previous meetings. The whole point of the meeting was to break free of the spirit of previous meetings: to finally shed the endless and frustratingly useless talk and to start over, start again. The old approach had proven dysfunction and futile; a new approach was needed—a true fresh look at the treaty relationship.

Which takes us back to Chief Spence’s request for true nation-to-nation talks, in the presence of the GG.

For having stirred up such a fuss, Spence’s request is remarkably simple. As mentioned, no one doubts the powerlessness of the GG. It follows, then, that there is nothing to lose in inviting the GG to a meeting. If he’s so inconsequential, then what’s the harm?

The point is that to Chief Spence and the chiefs and thousands of others who support her, it’s important that the GG be present. That should be enough. If Harper is serious about this, he needs to understand the seriousness of her request, and treat it accordingly.

Some thoughts on Idle No More

I spent quite a bit of time over the Christmas holidays reading postings on the âpihtawikosisân blog, getting myself up to speed on the grievances of First Nations and other Aboriginal groups, in light of the Idle No More movement.

On one of âpihtawikosisân’s more recent posts, she wrote something that made everything click for me. It was very simple: “Canada has forgotten it is a Treaty nation too.”

It’s true: We “settlers” are taught that First Nations signed treaties with us, but we have forgotten that we signed those very same treaties as well. Yes, we signed treaties with them, and the reason our relationship is so strained—the reason First Nations across the country are in a state of crisis—is that we haven’t been living up to our end of the bargain.

And then I saw the term “First Nations” in a new light: First Nations. “Nation” is not a word we toss around lightly (just look at the kerfuffle that ensues every time it comes up in the context of Quebec). If these truly are nations—and not just nations, but nations with whom we’ve signed treaties—then where do we get off treating them in such a colonial, paternalistic manner?

Bills without consultation

The media likes to report that Idle No More is a reaction against Bill C-45, the omnibus budget bill. But there are, in fact, eight bills currently in the house (and at least two more forthcoming) that came about without consultation and that violate treaty rights. They are as follows:

  • Bill C-45: Jobs and Growth Act, 2012 (the omnibus budget bill)
  • Bill C-428 Indian Act Amendment and Replacement Act
  • Bill C-27: First Nations Financial Transparency Act
  • Bill S-2: Family Homes on Reserve and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act
  • Bill S-6: First Nations Elections Act
  • Bill S-8: Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act
  • Bill S-207: An Act to Amend the Interpretation Act
  • Bill S-212: First Nations Self-Government Recognition Bill
  • First Nation Property Ownership Act (proposed)
  • First Nation Education Act (proposed)

Pamela Palmater (lawyer and Ryerson professor), who I heard about on the âpihtawikosisân blog, does a good job of walking through each of these bills and outlining the ways in which they are detrimental to First Nations (in this Indigenous Waves radio interview and this video presentation).

Going through all the issues crammed into ten bills (one of them an omnibus bill) takes time, and the information is dense. But the more the grievances pile up one after the other, the more the Idle No More movement makes sense, the more you realize how necessary it is.

For the sake of example, here are two things that struck me as particularly egregious:

Under Bill S-8 (Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act), the federal government, which has long underfunded reserve water sanitation systems, can set new rules and regulations for these systems. That’s the good news. The bad news is that all responsibility for these systems will be transferred to the First Nations themselves, with no extra funding. Even though First Nations are already chronically underfunded, all necessary money will be taken out of the same funds that pay for things like housing and social assistance. Fantastic. On top of this, the government is off the hook if government contractors mess up—First Nations will not be allowed to sue, and doing so could result in jail time. Yes, jail time.

It gets scarier:

Under Bill S-6 (First Nations Elections Act), anyone challenging the legitimacy of a First Nations election can be fined $5,000 and/or imprisoned for up to 5 years. I kid you not. Ironically, this clause does not apply to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs: Under this bill the Minister can unilaterally dissolve any legally elected First Nations government that the Minister deems, with his or her own discretion, to be illegitimate.* Somebody please tell me what happened to democracy.

[* This ministerial power has been “disputed,” and used by the Harper government in the past. In 2010 the government replaced Barriere Lake’s Chief and Council with a government-approved leadership. The new leadership, it should be noted, was much more in favour of industrial activity on First Nations land, the issue at hand.]

Fighting against full assimilation?

Not only has the Harper government tabled bills that directly affect First Nations without first providing consultation—a direct violation of Aboriginal rights under the Canadian Constitution (section 35.1)—the bills are completely destructive to First Nations, chiseling away at their power, authority, and rights; and abdicating the federal government of their responsibilities.

People like to complain that the demands of Idle No More are vague, which is the same malarkey they tried to pull with Occupy. Just because something is complex doesn’t mean it has no direction. Idle No More’s demands are far-reaching, but clear as day: repeal the bills violating Aboriginal rights, and begin talks, in good faith, to “reset” the relationship between Canada and First Nations.

The fear of Aboriginal peoples is legitimate: that all of these bills are a part of a greater objective—to re-introduce the policies of the much-loathed 1969 White Paper, which proposed full assimilation of First Nations people.

Full assimilation. What treaty-signing nation would possibly stand for that?

To cease to be the distinct nation that you know you are: that is the fate of First Nations people across this country if they do not rise up.

And rise up they have

The radio interview I mentioned earlier with Pamela Palmater took place on December 4, 2012, back when Idle No More was just in its infancy—#IdleNoMore had only become a hashtag four days earlier, and Chief Spence wouldn’t begin her (now 25-day) hunger strike for another week.

In light of the vast and effective force the movement has become, the end of the interview is quite exciting. A call for action went out, and the people responded. I’ll leave you with part of what they said:

Russell Diabo (also interviewed): “First Nations need to get out and hit the streets, and say, We want you to suspend the bills currently before the house, and not impose any other legislation until there’s an agreed upon process for addressing these things. And that’s going to take a coordinated response from all the regions. And I don’t know if that’s likely to happen. Because the reason you don’t see much about this, in terms of the silence from the leadership is because they’re dependent on the federal funding and they’re afraid to be cut off. So if it doesn’t come from the grassroots it’s not likely to happen.”

Palmater: “… If we’re going to make a difference we have to make a difference now. We’re being judged by what we do now. You just take the people who are willing to go, hit the streets, and people will join.”

Diabo: “It’s got to be more than rallying [against] the omnibus bill, C-45. It’s got to be the whole suite.”

Palmater: “The whole suite. All of it. Harper’s whole aggressive assimilatory agenda, the way he treats First Nations, the way he disrespects leaders, the way the people have no voice—all of it. It’s got to be part of a whole movement. It’s starting across the country, and we just have to kind of go with it and push it. And what do we have to lose? There’s going to be more funding cuts, more legislation. This is the do-or-die time. We don’t wait until all of the legislation is passed and all of our funding is cut, because then we have even less capacity. For me it’s do-or-die, and I think we should start today.”