Tanya Talaga is an Anishinaabe author and journalist, and the first woman of Ojibwe descent to deliver the CBC Massey Lectures. Her book Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City won the RBC Taylor Prize and the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.
Recently at a salon in Toronto’s east end, there was an older woman sitting near me, getting her hair washed. She loudly said, “Can you believe those Natives? What should we do with them?”
She paused for a minute before she answered her own question.
“Lock them up and throw away the keys.”
I walked up to her and said I was one of “those Natives,” and that Canada’s inconveniences of rail blockades, economic loss and protests snarling traffic was nothing compared to more than 150 years of colonialism.
She replied with, “I disagree.”
Every single First Nations person living in Canada has experienced a similar moment in the past two weeks. A snide comment as you walk by, a sideways sneer from across the street, or a loud pronunciation or racist comment hurled at you out in public somewhere. It speaks to the great divide between us – the line you can’t see – that undercurrent of quiet racism that runs undeterred throughout Canada’s history, causing an explosion onto the rails, into the malls and spontaneous round dances occurring from coast to coast to coast.
It is a line that says, “I know what is best for you,” and that patronizing attitude has resulted in the Indian Act – legislation that has governed the lives of every Status Indian in this country from birth to death since 1876 – and Indian Residential Schools, where 150,000 children were taken away from their families, their language, their communities and put in government funded, church-run institutions. The last school closed in 1996.
That undercurrent runs strong through the federal government’s refusal to adhere to treaties, the laws of this land agreed to between the Crown and by the First Nations peoples. Treaties are legal documents and not bills of sale.
All of these things have helped lead to a violent separation of Indigenous people from the land, the state separation of children from their families via residential schools, the mass incarceration of our people, and the unacceptably high number of our children in the foster care system.
Indigenous people are the land. It provides us with language, ceremony, food – the land gives us a sense of belonging, tells us who we are.
As Senator Murray Sinclair said to me recently, when you speak to most senior government officials, bureaucrats and captains of industry, they have been raised to believe Indigenous people have no rights. “And they’ve had a history of 150 years of court decisions that have supported that very principle that Indigenous people have no rights and that their rights are non-enforceable in Canadian law,” Mr. Sinclair said.
“Therefore, when they see Indigenous people protesting against the taking of their land or demanding more recognition of their traditional territorial rights, they see that as an unreasonable position, as a position that is going to go nowhere and is just stopping good ideas and good development and is preventing them from making money.”
In Canada’s failure to acknowledge and truly repatriate the damage done by 150 years of treating Indigenous peoples as unequal, in Canada’s failure to adhere to its own laws, Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies have come out by the thousands to say, “Enough.”
This is what disagreement looks like, Canada.
Now, how are we going to get out of it?
Reconciliation is dead.
That is the phrase heard loud and clear across the country. It is spray-painted on signs on railway track blockades, used on banners in street protests and being spoken clearly by First Nations people.
The fact is, reconciliation never truly existed.
It’s always been a slogan uttered by politicians who, as Ojibwe commentator Jesse Wente said, were trying to seem progressive, show that they care, make things right.
The root of the word reconciliation means the coming together of two equal parts – but that is not the case in Indigenous-Canadian relations. The sides have never been equal. Justice Marion Buller, the chair of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, told me she prefers to use the word “rebuild,” instead of “reconciliation.” Rebuild signifies you understand the relationship is broken, needs to be fixed. You can rebuild with “respect, knowledge, human and Indigenous rights.”
The truth is, most politicians and business leaders never wanted to do the heavy lifting that is required in order to truly rebuild what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau once called Canada’s most important relationship. Especially when the rebuilding calls for economic fairness and owning up to whose land we are truly standing on.
But his love is fickle. He speaks glowingly of our relationship then takes off to Africa, trying to win friends and influence countries on Canada’s human-rights record in his relentless campaign for a United Nations Security Council seat.
This is rich, considering Canada’s human-rights record – there have been nine non-compliance orders issued against the federal government by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal for discriminating against First Nations children.
All this as the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and Amnesty International implore the Liberal government to stop with lofty words and aspirational promises and to start treating the land defenders of Wet’suwet’en with respect, not throw them and countless others in jail.
The RCMP’s actions in Wet’suwet’en earlier this month have set off a firestorm. Arresting Wet’suwet’en matriarchs and land defenders, bringing down the red dresses adorning the Morice River Bridge – dresses symbolic of the thousands of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in this country – and the threatened arrests and intimidation of journalists – have shown us what Mr. Trudeau’s love looks like.
Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan hereditary chiefs have Canadian law on their side. The Supreme Court of Canada held up their responsibility to ensure aboriginal title rights on land they have protected for thousands of years – land that is not part of any treaty with the Government of Canada. This was the landmark Delgamuukw decision of 1997. The decision is backed up by Section 35 of the Constitution.
Clearly, the RCMP forgot to adhere to Section 35 before they entered onto Wet’suwet’en territory.
Mr. Trudeau must understand “reconciliation” will never happen by force.
That was what happened in the “old” Canada.
A Canada that in 1924 overthrew Six Nations governance and forced it to adhere to the elected band council system outlined in the Indian Act.
The band councils ignored and nullified traditional matrilineal governance and instead put in place elected chief and councils, modelled after British tradition.
But Indigenous law and the role of matriarchs and hereditary chiefs have not been forgotten or erased by the people they serve.
It came as no surprise to any Indigenous person that the Haudenosaunee Confederacy came out and strongly showed solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs.
Haudenosaunee barricades went up on Tyendinaga, outside Belleville, on Kahnawake near Montreal and outside Six Nations of the Grand River. They snarled GO train commuter traffic in and out of Toronto, Via Rail travel throughout the Montreal to Niagara corridor and halted freight train movement for weeks, which has resulted in job losses.
Once Bay Street started to feel it, patience wore thin and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, not to mention leadership candidate Peter MacKay, showed their complete lack of understanding of this country’s history.
On Feb. 14, Mr. Scheer made a nonsensical comment, “These protesters, these activists, may have the luxury of spending days at a time at a blockade but they need to check their privilege.”
Check their privilege? This, from a man who lives in the taxpayer-funded Stornoway and whose political party paid his children’s private school fees.
Mr. MacKay is even worse. He seemed to be supporting vigilante justice in a tweet made on Feb. 19 (later deleted) that praised Albertans who took it upon themselves to dismantle a barricade outside Edmonton.
For the presumptive front runner in the current Conservative leadership race – and possible future prime minister of Canada – to endorse such behaviour shows just how great the gulf remains, and how much wider it could yet grow.
B.C. became the first province in Canada to enact legislation modelled after the 46 articles in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It was introduced with much fanfare in Victoria last October, heralded as a model of what could be done and how all laws in B.C. would conform to UNDRIP’s principles. One of the main objectives was ensuring free, prior and informed consent – especially when it came to resource exploration and extraction. When B.C. Premier John Horgan introduced UNDRIP on Oct. 24, he promised the province’s future would be better than a past full of confrontation, litigation and negotiation.
The first test of B.C.’s legislation was an escalation of events in Wet’suwet’en territory.
But B.C. failed.
So has Ottawa.
Prime Minister Trudeau vowed during his recent re-election campaign to enact UNDRIP-like legislation. Yet earlier this month CBC reported the Liberal government was going to postpone introducing its promised bill on UNDRIP.
Days later, Mr. Trudeau told Canadians enough was enough, the blockades had to come down and the onus was on “Indigenous leadership” to make sure it happened.
By saying this, the Prime Minister abdicated his responsibility and gave all police forces a blank cheque to move in and clear the blockades. It was clear the Prime Minister, who repeated incessantly that he does not control and cannot order around the police, turned the other way.
Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald of Taykwa Tagamou Nation said what many felt:
“Prime Minister Trudeau has abandoned First Nations and our land protectors and has put our lives at risk in his latest statements warning that the onus is now on the Indigenous Leaders to end the blockade.”
First Nations, Métis and Inuit are not paid protesters or all unemployed or criminals with nothing else to do but hang around rail tracks. We are lawyers, doctors, PhD holders, language speakers, authors and artists and traditional knowledge keepers.
On Monday, we watched on livestream as the OPP began arresting folks at one of the Tyendinaga camps – meanwhile, the Ontario government started a new tradition of playing God Save the Queen in the legislature the first Monday of each month when it is sitting. Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa, who hails from Kingfisher Lake First Nation, declared reconciliation dead in Ontario.
Schools, lawyers and judges also need to understand that treaty rights are the laws of the land. Mr. Sinclair remembers when he was in law school, treaties were always taught as if they were documents that were not quite legal, just “political documents.”
“Court decisions have to start behaving more fairly and justly and recognize in fact that there are some very significant legal issues at stake here that need to be decided in a better context and with knowledge about what this history is all about.”
Education, as Mr. Sinclair has often said, got us into this mess and it will be education that gets us out of it.
One must understand treaties are not a total surrender of sovereignty. And Canada’s own laws, starting with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, promises that the Crown will respect Indigenous sovereignty.
So what is Canada’s move now?
To move forward, all the land defenders that have been arrested must be released.
Full transparency is needed now on every effort Ottawa has made to date to negotiate and how they have done so.
Has the Prime Minister picked up the phone and called for a team of Indigenous lawyers, professors and senators to step in and begin the hard work of getting to the heart of the crisis?
Words, images and public relations matter. Reconciliation will not happen at the end of a gun.
Rebuilding an inequitable and harmful relationship is not easy. But for the good of all our children – Indigenous and not – the hard work must begin.
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