Media outlets have been having a heyday reporting on the apparent conflict amongst First Nations regarding the implementation of historic treaties. Prognosticators and pundits – many of whom only have the faintest glimmering of understanding of the context and complexities of historic treaties between First Nations and the Crown – have been forecasting a weakening of the Assembly of First Nations, as the organization gathers for its annual meeting Tuesday, in the face of a nascent “treaty alliance.”
Lost in the reporting are some basic facts and realities about historic treaties, the responsibility to implement them, and the role of organizations such as the AFN in treaty implementation.
I am the chief of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, one of the few Nations in British Columbia to have a historic treaty. Our treaty is pre-Confederation, entered into with James Douglas when he was governor of the colony of Vancouver Island. Our treaty – often referred to (somewhat offensively) as a Douglas Treaty – recognized our way of life, culture, economy, and social structures, as well as our title to lands and resources. In exchange, the settlers gained access to valuable coal deposits to build an economy for the new colony.
Like my First Nation brothers and sisters across Canada, our treaty was quickly violated, ignored, forgotten, and disrespected. When I became Chief four years ago, I was dismayed, but not entirely shocked, to find the Crown still pretending there was no treaty relationship between the Crown and Snuneymuxw.
My response to that reality, along with the response of my council and our people, was to recognize that the responsibility to implement our treaty, and the responsibility to force Crown implementation, lay with no one but our nation.
In short order, we developed a systematic implementation strategy that involved co-ordinated political, legal, educational, communications, and negotiation actions. The result has been spectacular. Land and resource decision-making in our territory was effectively brought to a standstill while arrangements were worked out. Large numbers of the non-Snuneymuxw public became educated about the treaty and joined us as allies on the pathway to implementation. Provincial and municipal governments began to recognize that new patterns had to be found, and to their credit both of those levels of government have taken steps forward with us. Some federal entities also recognized the new reality of treaty implementation as they saw their plans shift and change.
To be clear, there is a very long way to go – particularly with the federal government, which continues to play a pernicious game of hide-and-seek with Aboriginal peoples everywhere. But my point is this: We never expected the AFN or any alliance or organization to negotiate or lead treaty implementation, never understood they would or could play that role, and no organization, including the AFN, has ever interfered in any way. Treaty implementation begins, and ends, at home.
In all my interactions with National Chief Shawn Atleo over the past number of years, he has pursued the role that national organizations should play in treaty implementation. Namely, to help create space for First Nations to pursue their own goals in treaty implementation, by advocating for changes in Federal policy and conduct, all under the guidance and direction received by the AFN’s membership.
The notion that some Aboriginal leaders are suggesting – that the AFN is involved in negotiations around First Nations’ historic treaties – is not something I have ever seen take place. What the AFN has been doing, similar to what regional Aboriginal organizations have done, is to help advocate for paths that sovereign First Nations can pursue as they overcome the Crown’s history of denial. We need that advocacy, and National Chief Atleo has shown courage in trying to advance the agenda in the face of an utterly intransigent federal government.
First Nations from coast to coast to coast have teachings of unity that they hold dear. The basis of such teachings is the understanding that unity, which respects our diversity with dignity, is the source of our strength. The conflict, and perceptions of conflict, being reinforced by current events, will only serve to weaken the cause of treaty implementation. At a time when we face fierce forces of Crown denial, we should be standing strong together while focusing and leading our own struggles at home to implement our Treaties. Everything else is a sideshow that benefits no one but the Crown.
Douglas White III Kwulasultun is Chief of the Snuneymuxw First Nation.