Renegotiate First Nation Treaties

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Graham Lane

Graham Lane

Canada has had 150 years to deal with a clash of civilizations between a pre-existing indigenous population and a massive influx of, initially, Europeans. With newcomers quickly out-numbering the indigenous population, spreading into lands occupied by hundreds of separate tribes, problems were to be expected. And, the lands reserved by treaties for the tribes were rarely choice agriculture land.

A problematic situation was made worse by the slaughter of bison after the American civil war. The slaughter was an effort by the American government to open up land for prospectors and settlers. In Canada, Riel’s success in dragging a few tribes into the 1885 rebellion didn’t help: a resentful Canada first left its indigenous people to a depleting hunting and fishing environment.

The focus was settling western Canada and avoiding absorption into the American empire. With no initial universal education, medical and welfare system, the tribes were dependent on religious orders. Intent on converting them to Christianity, they provided the education, healthcare and skills they thought aboriginals needed to thrive in a country they had no role in creating.

As a result of the approach taken, our aboriginal people have seen 150 years of poverty, misery, premature deaths, and shame. Unfortunately, there is little intelligent and open discussion on what to do to fix what developed. No federal government has truly tried to face the problem.

In a nutshell, here it is.

The reserves are now funded based on the numbers of people living there, about 50,000 in Manitoba. As funding is based on the headcount, with additional expenditures for education, housing and health care, aboriginal citizens are trapped on jobless reserves. As the money flows through the band and not directly to each member, leavers cannot take their funding with them nor obtain alternative funding (excepting for provincial welfare). As a result, most of those who come to Winnipeg remain in dependency, collecting welfare while struggling to find adequate housing, schooling, and employment.

Fortunately, increasingly more aboriginals are becoming well-educated and find meaningful work off the reserves. They leave in search of a better life, as do many other poor rural inhabitants around the globe.

We cannot dictate where non-aboriginal Canadians live, yet we pay aboriginal Canadians to stay on reserves. Section 6.2 of the Canadian Constitution says: “Every citizen of Canada and every person who has the status of a permanent resident of Canada has the right a) to move to and take up residence in any province; and b) to pursue the gaining of a livelihood in any province”.

It is time for First Nations people to have a real chance at a better life through choice, like every other Canadian. Treaty negotiations should be reopened, seeking to unshackle these first Canadians by giving them the same opportunities as other Canadians enjoy.

Chiefs and councils should put aside the advantages of power the current system provides them and their families and engage in renegotiating the treaties. A century and a half of maintaining an apartheid system should end.

If, at first, only a few altruistic chiefs and bands took up this challenge and left ruinous dependency, it would only be a matter of time before other bands followed. Truth if not reconciliation comes next week.

Originally published in the Winnipeg Sun, December 9, 2016