The truth about Reconciliation: it’s really not that complicated

Assiniboine hunting buffalo – Paul Kane – National Gallery of Canada

Reconciliation with First Nations has been described as many things: complex, difficult, and multifaceted. I’ve even seen it described as a “shitshow.” One is tempted to throw their hands in the air and walk away in confusion and dismay.

When it comes down to things like the details of exactly how to proceed, or how to alter Canada’s institutions, or how to move past the Indian Act, this may be true. But broadly speaking, to make concrete, permanent progress in all of these details the solution is quite simple

So simple that most of the answers have already been given to Canadians. Both First Peoples themselves and various Canadian and International commissions have provided recommendations for the first steps to progress. 

Canada simply has to acknowledge First Nations’ rights as titleholders and decision-makers on their own land. 

That’s the first step that the Canadian government has refused to take. This has been true since before 1867; this is an appalling lack of political will.

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A roadmap for reconciliation

Arthur Manuel was a widely respected Indigenous leader and activist from the Secwepemc Nation who passed away in January 2017. In his book The Reconciliation Manifesto, he lays out a convincing argument for how to proceed toward meaningful reconciliation. His six-point map towards decolonization is summarized as follows:

  1. Formally denounce the racist “doctrine of discovery” and “terra nullius.” These ideas simply mean that the land in Canada was “empty” and therefore was not owned by anyone prior to European contact.
  2. Recognize First Nations right to self-determination.
  3. This right to self-determination must be in accordance with international human rights standards.
  4. At this point, only then can we turn to talks of “who [Indigenous people] are, and what we need, and who [Non-Indigenous people] are, and what you need, and we can then begin to sort out the complicated questions about access to our lands and sharing the benefits.”
  5. Clear jurisdictional lines of authority based on free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous people. 
  6. Striking all colonial laws from the books, while making Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution comply with UNDRIP.

In short, Canada must give the land back. First Nations must be given the ability to have a say in how their lands are developed. Having a say doesn’t mean merely having an opinion heard, as is usually the case so far. An opinion heard can easily be discarded. On the question of land development, it means being able to definitively say yes, no, or yes with conditions.

Land is wealth

Currently, Indigenous people occupy (not own) 0.2% of land in Canada in the form of the colonial reserve system. Reserves are a creation of the Indian Act, which has served as an oppressive, paternalistic force against First Peoples. Reserves are not in any way a form of ownership of land for First Nations; in fact the very opposite is true. It is a system of denying land and title rights. As First Nations throughout Canada expand in number, the size of the reserve stays the same, leading to overcrowded conditions on reserves.

It must be understood that land itself is a significant form of wealth. It has sustained nations across Canada for thousands of years. The Canadian government has systematically taken away a significant source of wealth from these communities.

What if First Nations’ title and land rights had been respected as Canada grew as a nation? What if they had a significant say and a share in the wealth Canada produced? 

It is no surprise then that 1 in 4 Indigenous people and 4 in 10 of Canada’s Indigenous children live in poverty. Poverty has many negative downstream effects that also disproportionately affect First Peoples in Canada. This includes discriminatory treatment from all areas of society, including the police.

Treaties: We stole the land fair and square

The legal justification for Crown land, that is land owned by Canadian federal and provincial governments, is summed up by Arthur Manuel as, “Okay, we stole it. But we stole it fair and square.”

The land of Canada was far from empty when Europeans arrived. Most estimates put the population of North and South America in the range of tens of millions of people. This is roughly the same as Europe at the time. 

Terra nullius, the doctrine of land being uninhabited, was often combined with the “doctrine of discovery” as a main legal underpinning for Crown ownership of land. Clearly, this idea is bankrupt both factually and morally. 

A good chunk of Canada including parts of British Columbia, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador did not make any treaties with the local Indigenous population. Therefore we can say that the Crown simply stole these areas, not so fair and square.

Aside from this, much of Canada is covered by a patchwork of still legally-binding treaties between the Crown and various Indigenous communities. What exactly those treaties cover is another story. The signing of a treaty doesn’t necessarily mean that a nation has ceded their land ownership claim. There are a few reasons for this:

Cree Chief Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear)
  • Some saw the decimation of their traditional economies, such as buffalo hunting on the Prairies. Signing a treaty thus was an act of coping with this destruction.
  • Some First Peoples sought protection from the Crown, both from other nations and colonizing forces. Any treaty signed on these grounds could easily be invalidated by the genocidal intent of the Indian Act and the residential school system. 
  • Many First Peoples considered treaties to be offensive in principle. Cree Chief Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear) refused to sign Treaty 6 calling it a “rope around our necks.” He resisted the signing the treaty with settlers for years until the threat of starvation became too real. With the buffalo population disappearing and not enough other food sources available, Chief Mistahimaskwa signed the treaty in order to prevent the starvation of his band.

Most nations that did sign treaties did so under their own understanding of land ownership and according to their own customs. These differed wildly from Crown interpretations:

Even in modern times, the federal and provincial governments tend to interpret treaties in legalistic terms, contending that Indigenous peoples “ceded, surrendered, and yielded” their ancestral rights and titles through treaties. In other words, treaties can be seen as real estate deals by which the Crown purchased Indigenous lands and provided them with reserves and one-time or continual payments in return.

This narrow view of treaties has produced a huge divide between the Canadian government’s perspective and that of Indigenous peoples. On the one hand is the government’s view of treaties as legal instruments that surrendered Indigenous rights. On the other is the Indigenous view of treaties as instruments of relationships between autonomous peoples who agree to share the lands and resources of Canada. Seen from the Indigenous perspective, treaties do not surrender rights; rather, they confirm Indigenous rights. Treaties recognize that Indigenous peoples have the capacity to self-govern. Bridging the gap between these two views of treaties poses a huge challenge to people and lawmakers in Canada.

The Canadian Encyclopedia – Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada

Moving Forward

One of the most striking aspects of Arthur Manuel’s six steps toward reconciliation is that the first three do not require much from Non-Indigenous Canadians at all. Simply recognition and acknowledging First Nations right to title on their own lands. 

That’s it. Only after that can we all move forward towards real, meaningful reconciliation.

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