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We do not have the right to remain silent

in Featured/View From The Mainland by

So another election is behind us, with few surprises coming out of the campaign or the results. I was however, intrigued and dismayed that Aboriginal issues were (almost) completely ignored in this election. There was barely any media attention regarding Aboriginal issues, and the party red/blue/orange books have a bare mention of any principles those parties (pretend to) adhere to.

I find this very interesting, considering it might have changed the outcome in at least three districts on the mainland, and one on the island.

Now I realize when you start talking about Aboriginal issues, especially in this province, peoples’ eyes glaze over at best, and hackles raise at worst. I’m not saying this is a racist province, but I have seen a lot of uninformed opinions floating around out there.

Now why on earth should we care about Aboriginal issues? I’ve got three main reasons why:

1) Indigenous people have rights in Canadian and International Law

2) Recognising those rights, triggers the federal government to pony up the dough

3) What’s good for Aboriginal people, ultimately is good for the province

How we’ve come to be on Aboriginal land

For the first point, my favourite counter argument to hear has always been the saying “My family/people/etc have been here for 500 years so why should anyone have more rights than me?” Funny, considering province wide permanent settlement has only been happening for around 200 years. But that’s not my point. The story has changed over the centuries from peaceful cohabitation with “Her/His Royal Majesties Indian allies”, to one of resentment towards Aboriginal people for being “citizens plus”.

You see, under international law from the colonization era of North America (and today still), land could only be obtained by a sovereign through a couple rules. First, if the land is Terra Nullius, which means nobody lives there, if you colonize it your state may make claim to it. This principle can cause problems (a la Falkland Islands), and has been thrown out by our courts in Canada.

Otherwise we cannot develop ANY resources, we can’t manage any resources, and we don’t know whose laws apply on any given piece of land.

A second principle in international law used to claim territory is through conquest – i.e. completely eradicate the indigenous population(s) and thus create terra nullius. This is about the most despicable thing that humans are capable of doing and unfortunately happened on the Island to one First Nations people (but not the other).

The third, and generally more pleasant way to claim lands (or the right to occupy lands), is to make the local population citizens of your sovereign. Most of North America’s indigenous population have signed some kind of historic treaty (often under duress like in the US of A). The regions of Canada where we have not included direct mention of land rights in peace and friendship type treaties are areas where our government(s) have set out to rectify the situation through comprehensive claims, or modern treaties.

The reason to do this is simple – it sets out certainty over who can do what, and on what lands. That’s why there was a huge push to settle the Innu claim, at least in principle, so that the province could legally proceed to dam the river. Canada, Newfoundland, and Aboriginal people need this certainty. Otherwise we can not develop ANY resources, we can’t manage any resources, and we don’t know whose laws apply on any given piece of land.

We are all treaty people

So in this province we’ve made modern treaties with the Mi’kmaq, Northern Labrador Inuit, and depending who you believe, we’re on our way to doing that with the Innu. Now wait, why did I say northern Inuit? Well, because a governor of Newfoundland made a treaty with the Inuit of southern Labrador. While apparently this is not a fully complete document, it does form part of a claim submission to render certainty over land for the Southern Inuit descendants represented by the NunatuKavut Community Council.

Ok, so big whoop right? Who cares? Well, we ought to care because our courts have told us we have to deal with outstanding Aboriginal title. We don’t want to be going to court to settle land claims since the risk (cost) is too high that Canada/Newfoundland may lose, thus it’s much better to negotiate with Aboriginal peoples than to lose in court and that’s why this policy exists in Canada.

We got nothing of substance from either of the candidates who were vying to represent those people.

The trouble is, nobody in the province’s political history has been interested in recognising the benefits of dealing with the last Aboriginal group with outstanding issues. Well Danny did once: days before an election in 2003 this letter was hand delivered. Years later, the Queen’s Minister responsible for dealing with Aboriginal issues in the province retracted those promises by doing this, and this.

So I guess I can understand when politicians get nervous of making statements in elections to support or not support Aboriginal peoples. But to say nothing? I, and many other people, were asking all the MHAs and party leaders for a simple answer as to where they stand on Aboriginal claims. We got nothing of substance from either of the candidates who were vying to represent those people. In most cases these candidates are or were members of these different Aboriginal groups, and at least one of which will likely be the next Aboriginal Affairs Minister.

Why should I care?

But if you’ve read this far, I assume you’re still wondering WHY should you care? Besides the fact that the government has a legal obligation to deal with land claims, besides the fact that the province is proposing to develop Muskrat Falls and run power lines over unceded lands (and could land in court over it), besides the fact it is the right thing to do – we must push to settle land claims because it’s good for the economy and the provincial coffers.

One previous MP for Labrador once said that the biggest industry in Labrador is the Aboriginal industry. Settling land claims brings federal capacity development, federal infrastructure money, federal education dollars, and, history tells us, it increases self sufficiency.

Settling land claims isn’t just the right thing to do because it gives us a nice, warm feeling. Settling land claims isn’t just a tool to avoid litigation or protest. Settling claims reduces the province’s financial burden in the settlement region. Increased self sufficiency also leads to increased economic development – increased private partnerships, all of which leads to further direct and indirect revenues for the province.

A hand up not a hand out

Aboriginal people aren’t asking for a handout when asking to settle land claims, they are asking for a hand up. They’re looking to make life better for their people. What’s good for Aboriginal people is good for the province, whichever way you slice it. I, for one, hope when MHA’s of all political stripes (eventually) get back to the province’s speaking house, they don’t wait for the feds to make a call on Aboriginal issues. I hope they are a little more proactive, and help the province grow.

Why wait for the feds to make a decision? Alberta didn’t when dealing with its non-status Aboriginal populations. Newfoundland isn’t generally known to be shy about going it alone. And hey if this whole thing still bothers you, then at least once they’re self governing they can’t come complaining to the province any more, right?

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