Prime Minister Stephen Harper deserves credit for meeting with aboriginal leaders on January 24 to discuss ways to resolve the many challenges which confront Canada's native peoples.
The meeting was characterized by an acknowledgment from the Prime Minister that changes are needed in the current status of the country's first nations which comes as no surprise to those who have lived under the heavy hand of the 1876 Indian Act.
Change has to begin by recognizing that without the contributions of the First Nations there would be no Canada, either in name or national status. During the critical times of Canada's development the aboriginal people not only gave this land an identity but fed, clothed, guided, taught, fought and died for the nation.
This is particularly important to note in this, the bicentennial year marking the War of 1812 when a Native alliance initially led by the magnificent Shawnee leader Tecumseh joined forces with the British to hold back the American invasions into Upper Canada. Without Tecumseh's military genius the red white and blue would be flying from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico, from St. John's to Victoria.
That is but one instance of the enormous historical and physical debt owed to aboriginal people. It can only be repaid by liberating the First Nations from the suffocating grip of the Indian Act and other forms of institutional bondage. The Indian Act has no place in a free nation and has to be repealed.
Secondly, the reserve system must end. Canada has to concede that the "Crown" does not have underlying ownership to native lands but that territorial status is retained by the Native nations based upon aboriginal title. The Native nations must also have direct, unimpeded access and control over the natural resources of their respective territories including water, minerals and airspace. The definition of aboriginal territory should be interpreted to mean all areas not specifically ceded by treaty and indigenous to a specific native nation.
Third, First Nations must also be free to engage in unimpeded commerce among themselves regardless of location. Native nation to nation trade is an inherent extension of an aboriginal right, an historical practise which saw goods from the east carried by Native traders far into the Canadian interior. This kind of trade brought great material prosperity to the Iroquois among other nations and must be revived.
Fourth, the 1794 Jay Treaty must also be formally enacted into law by Parliament. The Treaty required Britain and the US to allow the free passage of Native goods across the border but while Canada abides by all agreements entered into by the Crown prior to securing its dominion status in 1867 it will not concede to the treaty's provisions.
This is illogical and has been the source of great controversy among the First Nations.The smuggling crisis among some First Nations in the Great Lakes region will end only when the nations themselves are empowered to control the flow of goods across their lands.
Fifth, Canada has to acknowledge that treaties are the supreme law of the land. When Canada entered into these agreements it recognized the right of Native nations to enter into these contracts based upon their status as politically distinct entities. If Canada wants to abandon the treaties then the parties are restored to their former condition and if not the federal government has to concede that unilateral laws such as the Indian Act no longer apply.
Sixth, all federal agencies must be required to respect the status of First Nations through active, ongoing consultation before any regulation or policy is enacted as it effects native peoples. This includes notoriously defensive federal departments such as the Canadian Border Security Agency. Nothing causes as much bitterness and resentment among aboriginal people as the suffocating regulations imposed upon them by bureaucracies who have yet to abandon a colonial mentality.
Seventh, First Nations must also be free to form their own regional alliances based upon their natural inclination to join forces and share resources. The federal government expends enormous sums to the nation's 1.2 million aboriginal people with much of that directed towards keeping management well fed. This can be reduced through direct payments to the First Nations but not before the nations are unchained from the Indian Act to emerge from the notoriously ineffective and corrupt "band council" system into indigenous forms of government, ones which were at one time fully capable of responding to their people's needs.By forming alliances and confederacies the First Nations will be able to develop economies and provide for their own.
The humiliations of being utterly dependent upon the federal government may come to an end; the pride and dignity of Canada's first peoples can be fully restored only be recognizing the First Nations as free and equal partners in a time of social liberation.
Doug Gerge-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the former editor of the journal Akwesasne Notes and the author of "Iroquois on Fire" among other books. He is a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association. He may be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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