Canada: Indigenous People Are Not Your Incompetent Children

Canada: Indigenous People Are Not Your Incompetent Children

Above photo: Artwork by Rolande Souliere.

When my sister and I were in high school, we thought it was funny to tell our non-Native boyfriends ridiculous things about the rez and see what they believed. We lived on the Six Nations reserve about 25 kilometres southwest of Hamilton, but since the only high school on the rez was Mohawk immersion, and we didn’t speak the language, that meant we had to catch the bus into nearby Brantford, Ont. Even though our rez was just a 20-minute drive away, very few of the non-Native kids we went to high school with had ever been there – the exception, of course, being those whose parents considered cheap cigarettes and gas worth the trek. In other words, most of these kids knew nothing about the rez, or us.

One day, my sister, Missy, was talking to her white boyfriend online. When he asked if she could come over, Missy fired back with, “Sorry, can’t. The gates to the rez close at night. :(” When he responded, “That sucks. Maybe tomorrow?”, we were incredulous. How could he be so gullible? We laughed and laughed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our laughter lately.

I remember thinking that her white boyfriend was so ignorant, but we didn’t know about the Pass System, which was in effect for 60 years in Canada, and required Native people living on the reserve to get permission from a Canadian Indian Agent to leave. Who needs literal gates when you have racist bureaucracy and the Indian Act?

What my sister and I didn’t consider back then – what we perhaps couldn’t consider – was how readily her boyfriend accepted this lie when it was applied to Native people. If she had said the same thing about a non-Native town, he probably wouldn’t have believed it. But something about the way this young man was socialized – even though he grew up right next to a rez, even though he interacted with Native people – made him accept that injustice against our people was normal: that there would be gates to get into the rez, that those gates would close and that, like zoo animals, we would be trapped there until daylight when our keepers let us out. That we would be subjected to whatever form of control or governance Canada chose to impose on us, and that our opinions and consent were not required to do so.

Perhaps, on that last point, he wasn’t so ignorant after all.

Canada has never accepted Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination. In fact, they – the individuals who, throughout history, have represented and made decisions on behalf of Canada – have actively suppressed it. By intentionally cutting essential funding at critical moments, wielding court injunctions to stop our land defenders and legislating the minutiae of our lives through the Indian Act, to name just a few examples, the Canadian government continually prevents us from creating meaningful change in our communities. It stops us from determining our own present and forging our own future. And like every decision Canada makes about us, without us, we’re supposed to smile and accept these arrangements, or laugh defensively, or, better yet, do nothing – regardless of how it affects our families and our lives.

This is a story of how one decision illustrates the centuries-long relationship between a country’s government and the Indigenous people of that land. It is a story of a name change and the breaking-up of a government department, but it represents the breaking of a promise, too. It is a story that illustrates how a government that only acknowledges colonial ways of governing cannot ever hope to create anything else. It is a story whose narrative affects every Indigenous community, including my own, the Six Nations of the Grand River. It is a story of denial, and of consent, two topics that are in the news these days for reasons that are, in some ways, not that different. It is a story whose ending has not yet been written, but one whose ending I fear will not be any more satisfactory than any story Canada has told about us.

This is our democracy. This is our reconciliation. What a way to start a new “nation-to-nation” relationship.

In August, 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau surprised almost everyone by announcing that the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) was not only being dismantled, but was to be replaced with two new departments: Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, and Indigenous Services. As the days passed, it became clear that among those surprised by the news were national Indigenous organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations and the National Women’s Association of Canada, elected band councils (who need INAC to approve everything they do before they can actually do it), traditional councils (who have yet to be acknowledged by Canada), even members of Health Canada and other departments whose funding and organizational makeup will be directly affected.

Basically, everyone who should have known that this was coming was completely caught off guard.

Even more ridiculous, they announced this decision while condemning the “colonial, paternalistic” nature of INAC and the Indian Act – as if deciding what was best for us without asking our input wasn’t reenacting the same colonial, paternalistic attitude displayed by the decades of government that preceded them.

Aug. 28, 2017: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau congratulates Jane Philpott at a swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. In a cabinet shuffle, Ms. Philpott was given the newly created Indigenous Services portfolio.ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Many of the Liberal government’s supposedly momentous announcements seem to be little more than repackaged versions of old policies. On Dec. 6, Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott announced that First Nations with solid financial track records are now eligible for guaranteed 10-year funding – a move this newspaper celebrated in a recent editorial. This announcement essentially admits the status quo for First Nations communities under the Indian Act has been hundreds of years of insecure and unstable funding. How can a community plan for the future when it never knows if it’s getting the meagre resources Canada has promised? Is it any surprise, then, that one-quarter of First Nations have become so indebted they’ve been put under third-party management? Or that many communities cannot get off third-party management once they’re there? After all, these organizations – which Canada forces First Nations to hire without offering any additional funding to pay for their services – do not have to report to Canada on their progress. This gives them no incentive to get communities out of debt and makes them unaccountable to the very communities Canada forces to pay their salaries. By ignoring these realities, Ms. Philpott implies that only good, financially responsible communities deserve even the possibility of stable and guaranteed funding, furthering the “corrupt Indian chief” stereotype Stephen Harper trotted out before her. This is not real change. This is stasis, rebranded as revolution.

In the cabinet shuffle, Carolyn Bennett was appointed Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister.FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS

When the INAC split was announced, Mik’maq lawyer, activist and politician Pam Palmater wondered in a CBC interview if the move “isn’t more superficiality and less substance,” noting “there seems to be a lot of name changes and terminology changes and announcements out of this government.” I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that name changes and department restructuring have a long history with INAC, probably because it’s such an easy, superficial way to signal change where none actually exists. Before Canadian Confederation, the department was originally known as the British Indian Department. Then, when Indians officially became Canada’s problem, it was called “Indian Affairs.” Between 1860-1966, Indian Affairs was made the responsibility of the snappily named “Crown Lands Department Commissions Responsible for Indian Affairs,” followed by the equally snappy “Secretary of State for the Provinces Responsible for Indian Affairs.” Various other ministers had Indian Affairs stuffed into their portfolio during that time, including the Minister of the Interior and – if one can believe it – the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. The Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development wasn’t even its own department until 1966. In 2011, the department began referring to itself as “Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada,” and, four years later, thanks to Mr. Trudeau’s symbol-loving Liberals, the name changed again to “Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development.” Although Indian Affairs has had to report to numerous people and departments throughout its history, it certainly has never had to report to Indigenous people. That lack of accountability and responsibility has continued for more than 150 years, unchecked.

That’s the problem, though: Canada’s attitude towards Indigenous people has never changed. In the eighties – the same time Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was enshrining “multiculturalism” in the Constitution – Indigenous activists had to fight tooth-and-nail for their voices to be heard. Their hard work eventually prevailed, though, and Canada agreed to include Section 35 in the Constitution, legally enshrining recognition and affirmation of Indigenous rights. Although this has been part of the national Constitution for 35 years, it has not been seriously acted upon by Canada. There have been no moves to change the Indian Act in a way that reflects the Indigenous right to both self-government and self-determination entrenched in Section 35. No moves to right the disproportionate way that Canada has grossly underfunded Indigenous nations while making billions of dollars exploiting their land and resources, ignoring treaties or, in the case of the entire province of British Columbia, ignoring the astounding lack of treaties. There has only recently been acknowledgment of how, despite public apologies and Gord Downie-branded “Reconciliation Rooms” at steakhouses, Canada continues the policies of residential schools today, with Child and Family Services taking more Indigenous children from their families than attended residential schools when they were at their height.

All of these things are done without consulting us, without asking for our consent. Despite Mr. Trudeau’s claims to want to stop the paternalism, Canada’s approach to Indigenous people has always been akin to that of a paternal head of house in a fifties sitcom: Father knows best.

The recent penchant for symbolic change can only be viewed as superficial. This is the undiscussed problem with “political correctness”: complying with the rather small request to change terminology has been used to shield racist institutions from harsh, necessary criticisms. By making shallow “politically correct” changes – for example, going from “Indian Affairs” to “Aboriginal Affairs,” or “Aboriginal Affairs” to “Indigenous Affairs” – these institutions appear as though they are making real change.

But if their structure, attitudes and policies don’t reflect that desire, then what good is their political correctness?

If you’re refusing to let my community enact our inherent right to self-determination and self-government, while intentionally underfunding the services we rely on to survive, it hardly matters if you call us “Indians” or “Indigenous peoples.” We know what you mean.

Broken promises

Here’s what’s even more galling: While Mr. Trudeau made sure to mention that splitting INAC was one of the 440 recommendations in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), a comprehensive report that was originally released more than 20 years ago, he ignored some key information. For instance, there was no word on the numerous RCAP recommendations that were supposed to be implemented alongside the splitting of INAC. A Royal Proclamation outlining the new relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples was recommended. New legislation that would clearly lay out Canada’s intention to create new treaties with Indigenous nations, which would form the basis for all true nation-to-nation relationships going forward. Perhaps most importantly, there was supposed to be financial and structural support for Indigenous nations to transition from dependent band councils to independent self-government. All of these recommendations were supposed to be enacted concurrently. If they didn’t, there would be no real structural change, and meaningful gestures would become nothing more than inadequate, misleading symbols.

And, of course, Mr. Trudeau neglected to mention that, in the same section RCAP suggests splitting INAC, it admits one of INAC’s biggest problems has been its “tendency to move relatively quickly on policy initiatives without adequate consultation with those affected.” It would seem this version of INAC has decided they can make changes without consulting those affected at all. For a government that claims that they want to fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), this type of negligence makes one wonder if they’ve even read it. Articles 3 and 4 assert Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination, particularly in regards to self-government. Article 18 specifically states, “Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures.” If the splitting of INAC is not merely a cosmetic change, as new Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett insists it is not, then the fact that no Indigenous people were consulted is even more puzzling. How can they claim they want to implement UNDRIP one day, then completely disregard at least three of its articles the next?

How can this government make bold statements about “nation-to-nation” relationships when the only nation whose opinion they will consider is their own?

It’s obvious the Liberal government sees splitting INAC as the next bureaucratic step on the path to truth and reconciliation. Indeed, Ms. Bennett once referred to herself as the “Minister of Reconciliation.” But what kind of reconciliation is possible when Canada chooses all the terms, refusing to give Indigenous people the chance to propose any terms ourselves? What kind of “nation-to-nation” relationship can be built when Canada refuses to acknowledge the traditional governments of our nations – governing bodies that we chose? When they underfund, undermine and ignore the same band councils they forcefully imposed through the Indian Act? When they require every decision band councils make to be approved by INAC before they can be enacted?

Considering how many disastrous decisions this government has made on Indigenous peoples’ behalf, why should we trust them now? They’ve put in place a faltering Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry; refused to meet three compliance orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to stop discriminating against Indigenous children; approved the Site C dam, the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion and Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline despite Indigenous nations’ protests; refused to correct gender discrimination in the Indian Act until faced with massive pressure from the Senate; and have yet to significantly address Indigenous people being found dead in Thunder Bay’s waterways on an increasingly regular basis. To suggest they’ve come even close to delivering on their campaign promise to build new “nation-to-nation” relationships with Indigenous peoples thus far would be, frankly, delusional.

To complicate things further, many Canadians seem to place unfair expectations on Indigenous people. There is an alarming tendency to consider 634 distinct Indigenous nations as one homogeneous group with some sort of hive mind. When Indigenous people have different opinions or needs or preferences, this illusion is shattered, leaving those non-Indigenous Canadians strangely confused. This makes discussion of self-government difficult. For example, one Indigenous nation might want to keep their elected band council, while another might look to transition to a more traditional governance structure. Both are valid exercises of self-determination. Supporting self-government for Indigenous peoples requires there to be space for these types of differences – a nuance that is discussed at length within the very pages of RCAP. There is no need for all of us to agree in order for all of us to be respected.

I’m unsure, though, that Canada can make this sort of distinction. It has always relied upon colonial repression of Indigenous peoples for its land, wealth and power. It has always treated us as one indistinguishable group. How, then, can Canada ever be okay with Indigenous self-governance and self-determination?

1838: Joseph Brant, or Thayendanegea. By the early 19th century, Brant was already facing Canadian denial of the promises made to the Haudenosaunee as allies of the Crown.LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

A condensed history of Canadian denial

While we’re arbitrarily changing terminology, let’s shift our focus from truth and reconciliation to denial and consent.

In her newest book, My Conversations with Canadians, Lee Maracle writes, “To be a white Canadian is to be sunk in deep denial.” I personally wouldn’t let Canadians of colour off the colonial hook so easily, as I’ve witnessed some rather fantastical takes on Indigeneity by people of colour, too, but I agree that there is something about Canadian identity that seems to require a sort of colonial amnesia. Quite simply, Canadians know very little about their own history. As far as I can tell, that denial of history has always characterized Canada’s engagement with Indigenous peoples. And when Canada can no longer deny its history, a slightly different denial takes effect: 1) denial that horrific actions Canada has enforced over the course of its history have had any measurable effect on the present, and 2) denial that those horrific actions are still happening today, albeit in different forms.

The following is a brief summary of some of the distinctly Canadian denial I’m aware of. To be clear, there are 634 Indigenous nations in Canada, each of which have their own specific histories with the Crown. As I mentioned, I am a Tuscarora woman of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and I come from the Six Nations of the Grand River community specifically – so I can only speak about my own community’s tumultuous relationship with the Crown.

1898: Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s central government meet at Grand River. In the 1920s, the Canadian government installed its own Indian Act band council at Six Nations by force. The INAC-approved, elected band council has been in tension for decades with the traditional Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council over land and governance.

First and foremost, there’s the denial of the treaties that form the foundation of Canada. For my people, that includes the Two Row Wampum, which was originally made with the Dutch, but the British Crown accepted and passed down to Canada to uphold. It was a friendship treaty, which affirmed that while the Haudenosaunee went down the river of life in a canoe, and Canada went down the river of life in its boat, they would remain on peaceful parallel paths, neither nation interfering with the culture, religion, government or affairs of the other. Obviously, Canada failed in its obligations to uphold that treaty, or any other treaty, including the Silver Covenant Chain Wampum, which was accepted in the 17th century and is one of the oldest legal agreements in this country.

Almost the entire Haudenosaunee Confederacy supported the British during the American Revolution (the Oneidas sided with the Americans). Although Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant led many successful battles against the Americans, when the British Crown was negotiating their surrender with the Americans, they did not consult with their Haudenosaunee allies. Instead, they gave away Mohawk territory that was not theirs to give. On top of that, many other Haudenosaunee nations had their towns burned down by the Americans during the war. As restitution, the 1784 Haldimand Proclamation granted six miles of land on either side of the Grand River to the Haudenosaunee for their service as allies to the Crown. By 1819, however, Chief Joseph Brant was already facing Canadian denial, having to tell a council, “We are surprised to find that [the] Government says that we own the Lands to the Falls [modern day Elora, Ont.] only as we have the Writings to prove otherwise.” Another problem was the number of settlers who squatted on Haudenosaunee lands. Canada continued to assure the Confederacy it would put a stop to this – as long as they signed over more of their land. While Canada got the land it wanted, it delivered nothing that was promised.

1948: Six Nations representatives hold up a copy of the Haldimand Treaty of 1784, which they used to press Ottawa for compensation for lands taken or flooded in the building of the Welland and Grand River canals in the 1830s. The treaty promised land on the Grand River to the Haudenosaunee for helping the British during the American Revolution. HANDOUT

In the early 1920s, Cayuga Chief Deskaheh (Levi General) went to the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, on a Haudenosaunee passport to argue for our confederacy’s sovereignty from Canada. The Canadian government, embarrassed, used international pressure to sway the growing support for his cause. In addition, the RCMP put pressure on our people by building a barracks on Six Nations, searching homes and prohibiting any Indians from cutting wood on their own lands. Less than a year later, while Deskaheh stayed in Geneva to try to gain an audience with the League, the Canadian government planned a coup of the traditional Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council (HCCC). The RCMP forced our chiefs out by gunpoint, stole our wampum belts, organized an election and installed the Indian Act band council with only 56 votes. They couldn’t even find 12 people willing to run for office without relying on those already employed by the Canadian government.

Meanwhile, 800 Six Nations residents signed a resolution opposing Canada’s clear violation of the Two Row Wampum. Canada denied their voices. This was the “democracy” that Canada imposed on my community.

Today on Six Nations, the tension between the elected band council and the traditional Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council (HCCC) is stronger than ever. Six Nations continues to have the lowest voter turnout of any reserve in Canada at 5 per cent. Despite this lack of public support, the elected council has recently been fighting the HCCC for jurisdiction over the Burtch Tract. During the 2006 land reclamation of Kanonhstaton (Douglas Creek Estates), a team of HCCC chiefs led by Mohawk Chief Allen McNaughton negotiated the Burtch Tract back to Six Nations. After more than 10 years of waiting, the province of Ontario did not get in contact with the Confederacy to make arrangements for the land; it instead instructed the elected band council to set up a numbered company to hold the land in trust.

While the Confederacy had been leasing land to local farmer Kris Hill and others for years, the elected band council said nothing about their apparent moves to claim ownership of the land. Not until this past summer, when they issued an injunction against her, which the Ontario Provincial Court upheld. Now, the Six Nations elected band council is seeking $5-million from Ms. Hill, a community member who has donated more than $45,000 to local schools and organizations that have been hung out to dry by INAC.

This move by Ontario – to deliver land to the band council instead of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chiefs Council that it originally negotiated with – has divided the community further, culminating in a month-long blockade that remained peaceful until it was removed by OPP in early September. Both Ontario and Canada deny any responsibility for creating or fuelling this division. In August, Carey Marsden, spokeswoman for the Ontario Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, said Ontario had “honoured their commitment” to Six Nations, adding, “We remain hopeful that all parties will be able to work together in a spirit of mutual respect to ensure the land benefits all the people of Six Nations.” The federal government has remained quiet on the issue, with Mr. Trudeau, for all his talk of “nation-to-nation” relationships, choosing to bypass the area entirely instead of engaging with protesters when he was in nearby Hamilton this summer.

1984: Queen Elizabeth II greets children at Her Majesty’s Chapel of the Mohawks near Brantford, Ont. The chapel was built in 1785, a year after the Haldimand Treaty was signed. In 2010, the Queen would reaffirm the Silver Covenant Chain treaty made with the Haudenosaunee in the 17th century. Canada has so far failed in its obligations to uphold that treaty.ERIK CHRISTENSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Considering the long-standing history my people have had as allies of the Crown, and the fact that what was once INAC is now called “Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs,” I reached out to the department to ask when they will be re-establishing their historic relationship with our traditional government. In 2010, the Queen herself reaffirmed the Silver Covenant Chain Treaty with my people, so I was curious how this would manifest in future nation-to-nation relationships. What role would band council play? After all, RCAP admits that “Indian Act band governments… are perceived as a form of self-government; but in fact they are a form of self-administration, not self-government.” Or, as Ms. Maracle more bluntly puts it in her latest book: “We do not get to elect our own government. You [Canadians] elect our government. We elect a band council that is beholden to your government, the Canadian government.”

2008: A sign on the road to Six Nations. The reserve has the lowest voter turnout of any in the country, 5 per cent, as friction continues between elected band leaders and the traditional council.JULIE GORDON/REUTERS

While spokesman James Fitz-Morris said, “It is up to communities to decide for themselves who represents them. Our government is committed to hearing from all partners,” he also ignored Canada’s role in dividing my community specifically, and made no statement about how Canada could repair the damaged relationship. “As you know,” he wrote, “there is a dispute with in the [Six Nations] community over representation – our government doesn’t want to interfere in this internal discussion.” And there it was again, more evident and embarrassing than ever: denial. How can you claim to be fostering Crown-Indigenous relations if you refuse to do the hard work of repairing those relations? If you don’t even acknowledge the problems that arose when INAC overthrew my traditional government in 1924? Where is the reconciliation for that?

This is where consent comes in. This is a particularly interesting time to be discussing consent, considering the many allegations of sexual assault and harassment that have recently come to light. I don’t think these conversations – between consent for sex and consent for land – are unrelated. There is a reason the land gets compared to a woman, mother nature. There is a reason the colonial treatment of land is often referred to as rape. Indigenous peoples are responsible for the care and maintenance of the land. We have always been conscious of concepts the West has only recently taken on, such conservation and environmentalism. Yet Indigenous peoples’ consent has never been a prerequisite for any of Canada’s actions in regards to the lands we have historically cared for, lands we consider part of us. There is a duty to “consult and accommodate” Indigenous peoples in decisions that affect us or our Treaty rights, but there is no legal obligation for our nations to consent. Are we allowed, then, to say no? Or are we trapped in situations in which our “no” will be ignored regardless, leaving us with the difficult task of finding a way to make our pain as bearable as possible?

Actor, writer and producer Brit Marling recently wrote about the economies of consent, claiming that women who are preyed upon by men such as Harvey Weinstein exist in “a grey zone where words like ‘consent’ cannot fully capture the complexity of the encounter.” Consent, Ms. Marling argues, “is a function of power. You have to have a modicum of power to give it.” When your very livelihood depends on saying yes to something you don’t want, how much of a choice do you really have?

Canada has often relied upon tactics such as this to get Indigenous people to fall in line – everything from taking our children, to starving us, to killing us, to outlawing our ways of life. Even Canada’s modern day treaties, such as those being signed in B.C., act to disempower the nations they are negotiating with. As Arthur Manuel details in his book Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-Up Call, by signing any deal with Canada, an Indigenous nation is relinquishing title of their lands to Canada, a certain amount of which Canada then agrees to graciously give back to them. Canada also requires Indigenous nations to pay for their own lawyers during negotiations, which means that much of the financial settlement that is ultimately agreed upon goes straight into lawyers’ pockets, never reaching the Indigenous community it is supposed to benefit.

How can Indigenous people fight this? In the courts? That hasn’t worked out well for the Ktunaxa. The Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled that a Jumbo Valley, B.C. ski resort had more right to the Qat’muk area than the Ktunaxa, who were concerned that the Grizzly Bear Spirit, an essential part of their religion, would leave if the development went through.

Can Indigenous people fight by protesting? Considering the way land defender and Inuk grandmother Beatrice Hunter was jailed in a men’s prison last year, and told to stay away from her peoples’ land as part of her initial bail conditions, that doesn’t seem likely. When Canada takes away all avenues with which we can say no, it disempowers us and makes our consent both unnecessary and unimportant, the same way all predators make the consent of their victims unnecessary and unimportant.

How can you know someone considers you a person if you can’t say no? How can you know a nation considers your traditional governance a nation if you can’t say no? If you aren’t even acknowledged?

The right to reconciliation

There are some hopeful signs, such as the Liberal government’s decision to set up a law and policy review to ensure that all laws and policies in Canada align with Section 35, UNDRIP and what Mr. Fitz-Morris calls “our commitment to a new relationship.” This was a point AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde was particularly optimistic about, saying he hopes it will be an important move “towards recognition of rights and title, not termination of rights and title.” Considering Kahnawake Mohawk policy analyst, writer and activist Russ Diabo has famously referred to modern-day treaty negotiation tables as “termination tables,” it is obvious Canada still has a very long way to go.

I, however, remain less optimistic. The Hill Times recently reported that Minister Bennett will lead six months of consultations with “Indigenous stakeholders on how to restructure the government’s approach to Indigenous affairs ahead of the tabling of legislation to dissolve INAC and create two new departments.” When I asked Mr. Fitz-Morris what Indigenous nations, groups, organizations and people would be consulted, he replied vaguely: “Minister Bennett is discussing this issue with literally every community, elder, chief, Indigenous person, and expert she meets. These will be broad consultations.”

Since the office of Crown-Indigenous relations apparently doesn’t want to interfere with “internal issues” in my community, I wonder whether Ms. Bennett will be discussing anything with members of my community – or any community that has so-called “internal issues.” It’s funny, though, that my community is considered too fractured and divided to discuss, while Canada itself has four different major political parties with vastly different ideologies. Canadian MPs have been known to heckle and swear at one another in Parliament, nearly erupt in fist fights and even, last year, block other MPs from moving (try as we might to forget “elbowgate”). These certainly don’t indicate a unified government, moving in perfect harmony. One might even refer to them as internal issues, but I suppose, since this isn’t Indigenous government we’re talking about, we’re supposed to deny that as well.

The most frustrating part of this conversation is that Canada has known what a respectful nation-to-nation relationship should look like for hundreds of years. It was laid out clearly in the Two Row Wampum, the first treaty that Canada ever accepted. Unfortunately, Canada has continually failed its treaty obligation to respect Indigenous nations’ right to steer our own canoes, instead choosing to high-jack them and pilot us towards destruction. Where Canada has steered us has made it difficult for our nations to get back on the right path – to regain control of our own canoes, our own destinies. But we will get there. The fact that I’m even here to write this is evidence of that.

But before we can regain control of our destinies, before can engage in nation-to-nation relationships, or give empowered and informed consent, Canada needs to get out of our canoe already and focus on its own boat – which, to be honest, has more than its share of issues. The Canadian government will need to say in no uncertain terms that band councils are not required for our people to have discussions with their leaders. They will need to say that they support Indigenous communities’ right to determine our own governance, and will respect our decisions. And, most importantly, they will need to acknowledge the Indigenous nations of this land are sovereign nations, respect us as sovereign nations and consult and negotiate with us as sovereign nations. Anything less is politically correct posturing.

The way I see it, the Canadian government needs to earn its right to discuss reconciliation – and that won’t happen until attitudes change. Canada has to stop its habit of national denial and acknowledge our peoples’ right to consent, our right to say no – even if that “no” interferes with Canadian politicians’ and powerful companies’ plans. We need assurance that Canada won’t pull our communities’ funding if we do say no; that it won’t punish us with third-party management as it continues to underfund essential services; that it will give us the opportunity to develop our economies and communities so we don’t need to rely on the Canadian government for anything again. Instead of viewing us as incompetent children, Canada needs to view us as equal partners – and from there, we can work together towards common, mutually beneficial goals. That is a nation-to-nation relationship. That is something I can be proud to pass on to my child, and her children, and their children after that. It’s something Canada can be proud to pass on, too.


Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations, currently living in Brantford, Ontario, and author of the forthcoming book A Mind Spread Out on the Ground.

Anishinabe visual artist Rolande Souliere, who is a member of the Michipicoten First Nation, was born in Toronto and currently lives in Australia with her family. Her work has been exhibited in Canada and internationally.

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