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Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould addresses the First Nations "Expanding the Circle" conference, in Ottawa on Wednesday, February 15, 2017. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould addresses the First Nations "Expanding the Circle" conference, in Ottawa on Wednesday, February 15, 2017. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Globe editorial

Indigenous peoples, and the need for a way forward made in Canada Add to ...

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould painted a harsh but accurate picture of Canada on her visit to South Africa last week, when she spoke to the law faculty of the University of Cape Town.

A member of the We Wai Kai Nation in British Columbia, she said that, for Indigenous people, it is “hard to celebrate 150 years of colonialism.”

We can’t argue with her. But her contention in her speech that the post-apartheid era in South Africa offers “many important insights” and “parallels” for Canada should be approached with caution.

Read also: The Story of Us is not the story of Canada

It’s difficult to assess the population of what is now Canada when Europeans first arrived in the 15th century. But most of the Indigenous population were hunters and gatherers, so most of the land was quite thinly populated. The Europeans came to trade and gradually began to settle and colonize as farmers and later manufacturers – and eventually became the majority.

In contrast, black South Africans were the majority when Europeans arrived in their country, and are still the majority by far. This is a critical difference.

The Indigenous peoples of Canada have suffered greatly through disease, the Residential Schools, the Sixties Scoop, missing and murdered women, and a deep sense of despair among some of their young people. Many remote reservations, and even some not so remote ones, are lacking in clean water and other basic amenities. Colonialism has not been kind to Indigenous people.

Still, there is a hopeful trend in greater Indigenous participation in recent Canadian elections – Ms. Wilson-Raybould is a shining example of that – and in entrepreneurship, including in oil-and-gas projects. The Supreme Court has ruled, too, that native treaties must be respected.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould is leading an effort by the federal government to make sure “that our laws and policies are pointing in the direction of the future of reconciliation and transformation – not the past of colonization.” Fair enough. But it would be a mistake to build a new Indigenous model based on anything other than Canada’s unique history.

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