By: Anna Malinovskaya
On January 24, 2012, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Governor General David Johnston, and 12 Cabinet members held a historic Crown– First Nations Gathering with indigenous leaders in Ottawa. This high-level meeting has revealed many problems that indigenous peoples in Canada are facing.
Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, the current national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the aim of the meeting was to “reset the relationship” between the Crown and First Nations, a relationship that stalled six years ago when the current conservative government abandoned the Kelowna accord, a five-year, $5-billion plan to improve the lives of First Nations negotiated by the Liberal government of Paul Martin.
John Duncan, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, stated that the meeting accomplished its goal to reestablish and strengthen the Crown-First Nations relationship, but some members of Parliament present at the event and aboriginal TV network APFN expressed severe criticism over the situation of many indigenous peoples in the country. Guelph MP Frank Valeriote’s stressed the urgent need to address what are not political but human rights issues.
Ryerson professor and lawyer Pam Palmater emphasized on APFN that there was nothing in anybody’s speech about addressing the serious issues in Attawapiskat and similar communities. The Attawapiskat First Nation is a remote community in northern Ontario comprised of about 1,800 members. Many of its members lived in the fall of 2011 inunheated shacks or trailers, with no running water. The situation became even more serious as winter was approaching the area. The Attawapiskat crisis stirred many Canadians and became a reason for deep concern of James Anaya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.
According to the UN News, in December 2011, Mr. Anaya asked Canada to clarify what it is doing to address the “dire” socio-economic conditions of the Attawapiskat aboriginal community, noting that “The social and economic situation of the Attawapiskat seems to represent the condition of many First Nation communities living on reserves throughout Canada, which is allegedly akin to Third World conditions.” He also noticed that “Yet, this situation is not representative of non-aboriginal communities in Canada, a country with overall human rights indicators scoring among the top of all countries of the world.”
Another issue raised at the summit is the problematic legislature that governs the relationship between the federal government and First Nations people. The primary legislative act guiding this relationship is the colonial-era Indian Act of 1876, which according to the Ontario daily newspaper Guelph Mercury, has been viewed by some as extremely paternalistic because it has regulated every aspect of indigenous peoples’ lives. University of Toronto professor Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux referred to the paternalistic benevolence of the federal government as a form of social violence that fails to build capacity and self-reliance.
This acute problem became evident when one of the aboriginal communities, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake (ABL), gathered outside the Old City Hall to rally against what they say is an unwanted and illegitimate council imposed on their community by the Canada government. The ABL have been protesting since August 2010, when the Canadian government’s Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, the ministry that oversees indigenous issues, announced that a new chief and council had been elected by “acclamation” according to Section 74 of Indian Act.
Indian Country Today, a Native Americans and indigenous peoples’ network, reports that “The federal government-run ‘election’ in 2010 yielded fewer than a dozen ballots, but it announced nonetheless that a new chief and council were elected. A overwhelming majority of the community members had boycotted the so-called election. Of Barriere Lake’s total population of about 500 people, including children, nearly 200 members signed a resolution rejecting the entire process.” However, the illegitimate council still remains in place.
The ABL community website explains that “Up until August 2010, when Section 74 was imposed, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake governed themselves by their ancestral constitution, the Mitchikanibikok Anishnabe Onakinakewin – a customary code that connects them to the land, to the animals, to each other, and to everything that grows. They have been using this code of governance since time immemorial.”
Indian Country Today points out that “the ABL are among just two dozen First Nation bands that follow a customary leadership selection process”. It refers to the community members who say that “their inherent right to do so is protected not only by Canada’s Constitution, but also by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples [that was adopted by Canada in 2010].” These people, according to Indian Country Today, “attribute the strength of their community, language, knowledge and protection of the land to the endurance of their customary governance system and say losing it will have devastating consequences on their way of life.”
The Crown-First Nations Gathering official website has published a comprehensive agenda. But will the outdated Indian Act remain as a primary legal guide on the relationship between First Nation peoples and the Canada government? Will any concrete actions be taken to address the socio-economic and political problems that indigenous peoples in Canada currently face? Will the voices of indigenous peoples be heard?
UN expert concerned at poor living conditions of Canada’s indigenous
Crown-First Nations summit didn’t address many crisis issues
website of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake community
Algonquins of Barriere Lake Continue Protest Against Imposed Council
First Nations to raise ‘bread and butter issues’ with Crown
Photo source: Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press