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Trudeau Junior’s promise to honor treaties is about as far from his father’s Trudeaumania as “God bless us – every one!” gets. In fact, it is a 180 degree turn and it’s unprecedented within Canada.
Just imagine, a Canadian Prime Minister’s son comes to correct history? The prospect invites a dream sequence, or a visitation.
There we were, at the most nightmarish political precipice of a Scrooge-style Christmas Eve, if last month’s federal election is to foretell a reckoning by all three Ghosts. At that moment the Harper government had just legislated what Canada has been howling for since Confederation: the one-way sweep of Indigenous Peoples into incorporated municipalities under Ottawa’s thumb and assimilated totally within the body politic of Canada – Bill C-45.
C-45 does not allow for the honouring of treaties. It provides for cutting non-derogation of Aboriginal and treaty rights; the First Nations Election Act; the First Nations Self-Governance Recognition Bill… a First Nation is a corporation and the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs is the ultimate CEO.
So think back, to just before Hallowe’en, and imagine now that the bells have struck midnight. There are more than a few Jacob Marleys chained up back there. Rattling his extensive rawhide restraints, there is Duncan Campbell Scott: "I tried to get rid of the Indian Problem! ...but they are not the problem! We are! Ah-woooo-oooo," etcetera.
Treaties Past appears, the ghost of a child, and there are many memories to visit.
John A Macdonald allowed the colony of British Columbia to enter confederation in 1871 without so much as the “discoverer” ritual of a British flag having been planted on the soil where the colony was proclaimed to be. He took BC in, on the condition that the Dominion Government would protect the original Peoples from itself; set aside their homelands from the state. And then watched as British Columbia fenced those Peoples into reserves like concentration camps and all but denied their existence. Macdonald was the PM who pretended that one third of the North American continent, “Rupert’s Land” belonged to Britain – so he could pretend to buy it for Canada.
Chief Piapot was holding his country in a military grip to prevent Canada’s occupation of their lands. The fight was legendary; the politics were not. Piapot signed Treaty 4 in 1875 after military defeat and, believing that the Treaty would preserve his people in a smaller country, he gave in to save his people from starvation. Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie took that Treaty, signed under duress like many others, to mean instead that the people Piapot defended would be no more than an Indian Band. Their homelands, tens of millions of hectares, were added to Canada’s accounts.
Mackenzie then approved the Indian Act: legislative amalgamation of each type of criminalization of Indigenous life. Enforcing it provided employment.
By 1910, Sir Wilfred Laurier, 8th PM, had been in office for fourteen years. Eighteen years and five PMs separate Macdonald from Laurier.
Laurier called for an investigation into the land rights of the Indigenous nations of what is today called British Columbia. The Secwepemc memorial declaration in his name, 1910, marks the day he spent in Prince Rupert with 80 Indian leaders who told him, with one voice, that their nations (stretching from Rocky Mountains to sea) were completely dissatisfied with British Columbia and the province’s decision to renege on promises made by the Hudson’s Bay Company, Governor Simpson, and others. Laurier lost the next election.
Ottawa projects a dark shadow over the Pacific Northwest and its interior plateau, from 1846 - when Britain and the erstwhile United States agreed on certain terms of navigation around where the 49th parallel reaches the sea: nothing more. Where British Columbia is mapped today, there was no conquest, no claim, no announcement of British sovereignty. The American quit-claim over anything north of the 49th is hardly such an artifact. But the Supreme Court of Canada apparently has nothing more to go on, so it glosses over the details and refers to 1846 as the effective date of British sovereignty over 30 independent nations. But never quotes a document, treaty, declaration, proclamation: there isn’t one.
Sir Robert Borden succeeded Laurier and he slammed shut the beginnings of discourse between native leaders in BC and the federal government in Ottawa. Borden instead formed a “Reserve Commission” which would last ‘til 1916, and produce results in 1919 – giving rise to a counter-negotiation which was not heard until 1926 under PM Arthur Meighen. That plea, by the Indian Chiefs of BC – delivered by Alex Paul and Peter Kelly, was scuttled in the Canadian court system.
In 1927, under 10th Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, it was made illegal for Indians in British Columbia, and elsewhere “in Canada”, to hire lawyers for the purpose of land ownership disputes, and even meetings to discuss the land issue were criminalized. These laws continued for the entire 22 years of his holding the top office, and were only undone in 1951 when pressure from returning soldiers forced government to acknowledge their Indian Allies in WWII deserved some respect.
In 1963, the Liberal party under Lester Pearson campaigned for change. Their proposed Indian Claims Commission, designed in consultation with Indigenous leadership across Canada, would review “all matters” pertaining to the land question, and result in: “full equality without loss of aboriginal, hereditary and usufructuary rights…”, and they were elected to government in 1964. Trudeau Senior took leadership of the party in 1968 and won the Liberals a second term.
But no more was ever heard of the Indian Claims Commission.
When Pierre Trudeau took over the Liberal leadership, he immediately set about legislatively stripping every kind of right or privilege connected to Indian Status.
The mass mobilization of Peoples from coast to coast, however, defeated the White Paper Policy of 1969. And shortly after that, three Supreme Court judges decided in Calder 1973 that the Nisga’a Indian title had not been extinguished by British Columbia, or Great Britain before it. But that land case did not produce a decisive result, with three judges in favour of the Nisga’a argument, three against, and one refusing to decide.
30 years later, the federal Comprehensive Claims Policy is still the basis of negotiations between Canada and Indigenous Peoples. That Policy was the direct result of the failed 1969 policy and the unprecedented recognition of existing title in Calder. The CCP prescribes the baseline result that, no matter what is being negotiated, Canada will end up with underlying title to the land and the Indigenous will release Canada of any obligations; and assimilate.
Trudeamania rounded out its time in Canadian power by creating a Canadian constitution. That document “recognizes and affirms aboriginal and treaty rights” – but the trump went to the government who decided it did not know what those are.
When Brian Mulroney came to power with the Conservatives in 1984, he turned the clock back a century and again attempted a policy of starving the original nations out. The Nielsen report he commissioned, on balancing the budget, recommended gutting financial transfers to Indian Bands and slashing welfare, education and health subsidies to people with Indian Status.
Chretien was Prime Minister for ten years. He was in office for a total forty years, from 1963-2003, with only two short terms unelected. Running for leadership of the Liberal party during the Oka siege of 1990, and as PM in 1995, Chretien watched silently as the Canadian military and various special ops attempted to wipe out Mohawk, Lil’wat, Secwepemc and Algonquin peoples in four different sieges.
Paul Martin thought he could buy aboriginal rights for $5 billion. And Steven Harper realized Canadians could care less.
A trip to the Present? Treaty Peoples on the Plains still organize for their annual treaty payment day: $5 per person. $15 for Chiefs. Orphans (native children stolen from their families) die preventable deaths. Ignorance (among Canadians) and Want (among Indigenous) contrive to strew women’s bodies across the lands.
And then a looming figure, shrouded in the black ink of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's findings of genocide. We zoom in, details clear and close to the present. It’s September 2007 and the Harper government votes “no” to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, stating that Canada’s Constitutional protections of aboriginal rights are superior law. A year later, Canada will not support an American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples unless it specifically states Canada is no part of it. And in 2012: Bill C-45.
The vision of a tombstone is discernible amid a drifting sea of greenhouse gases condensing along the ground. It’s unmarked. It stands for the end of the Peoples of the Land, continuing the denial of place and identity and ancient history by its wordless, dateless presence.
It’s a nightmare.
Wake up. What day is it? It’s a day to turn around to a future worth having, where the tombstone Future points to is a certainty. It’s engraved: “R.I.P. Canada 1867-2067 Here lies a myth exposed: / An imperial warehouse / Masqueraded as a society / While the displaced of the world / Rendered these lands / To lumber and oil and gas and coal. / Here we remember / A rude, if brief, interruption / On Turtle Island.”
When the Committee for Decolonization admits their cases of genocide and ecocide, and when freedom and independence is restored, the places that were briefly altogether called Canada will reappear, from Haida to Mi’kmaq. The Bob Cratchitts in this story are not going to get a raise, they’re going to take back the company.
If Justin Trudeau is going to buy a meaningfully oversized turkey and carve it up at the treaty tables, if he is going to honour treaties, then he is going to have to do so as a Canadian, engaging with other, distinct peoples; non-Canadians. There are no treaties between a state and its own citizens.
The best Boxing Day sale is No Taxation Without Representation. Indigenous individuals with Indian Status don’t pay tax on the Reserves that were set aside, explicitly removed from Canada’s claim until Canada had bought some land it could claim. Governments can’t tax people they don’t represent. Hopefully the new Trudeau understands what that means, and that treaties are agreed to and honoured by two parties: not dictated and interpreted by one.