Aboriginal Treatise

National Aboriginal Day should be a day to celebrate all of our history together as Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians – to reflect on how we have come to be on Aboriginal Land and on the status of our relationship

So for this week’s column I sat down and started to write on a couple of other topics. One of which was the latest degradation of our democratic institutions through the squelching of the access to information laws – and decided others have covered this topic well – but thought I’d give a “ditto” response regardless. But then I thought, gee look at the date that my column happens to come out and decided to park that one for a while to focus on who and what it is we recognize on June 21st.

Yes, folks, I’m talking about sending out a grand and joyous “Happy National Aboriginal Day!” to each and every treaty person out there (and those treaty people in waiting). And that means YOU. For you see we are all treaty people – Aboriginal and non Aboriginal people alike are beneficiaries of historic Treaties (well except those people and lands that are not yet subject to Treaties – don’t worry I’ll cover that topic later in this column). This is a key concept. We should all celebrate this day: after all, if only veterans came out on Remembrance Day we’d be missing the point.

How are we all Treaty people?

I know for some the first reaction is going to go something like “How am I a beneficiary? – It’s those Aboriginals (or whatever term you use to express it) that get all the benefits (skidoos/pickups/free education/health care/or whatever other perception you use to justify this position)!” When in fact the reality is, non-Aboriginal Canadians are the supreme beneficiaries of the Treaties. Just look at the socio-economic comparisons between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

Yes, in fact we all benefit from the Treaties, albeit to a much lesser extent for the ones who the Treaties purported to be helping  in the beginning. For a quick refresher on some of my previous points regarding how we’ve come to be on Aboriginal Lands, and the associated legal obligations, pop on back to here. The quick and dirty: we can’t legally inhabit this province (or any other) without making and abiding by Treaties that surrender, or cede land to the Crown (of whom non-Aboriginal people are a subject if they live here).

Long story short, guess who benefits from the continent anyhow?

With the exception of the territory that was made into Terra Nullius by committing genocide on the Beothuk, the only other Treaty dealing with our right to occupy/live on/use ANY land in this province was with the Labrador Inuit Association. The 1765 Treaty made by (Sir) Governor Hugh Palliser with the Southern Labrador Inuit (NunatuKavut) was simply a Peace and Friendship type Treaty – specifically mentioning that they (subjects of the Crown) would “take nothing from them” (p47). We still need to get surrenders from the Innu, NunatuKavut, and Mi’kmaq so that we can all have certainty as to whose land and whose laws that will apply (Aboriginal/Provincial Government). Until then, resource development will (not) continue in uncertainty.

Besides, did you know that many of the “benefits” Aboriginal people receive are a result of those Treaties? Meaning, non-Aboriginal inhabitors get the Land and resource(s) revenue(s) for a mere pittance. Furthermore, did you also know that we spend less per capita on Aboriginal people than we do for non-Aboriginal Canadians? There’s little provincial government spending on Aboriginal people, often because of Constitutional bickering about who’s responsible for maintaining the poverty, rather than about who wants to unlock the potential of the fastest growing, and already local, population.

That digression aside

There are many things that we should all be celebrating on this National Aboriginal Day. Since the first contact (Norse? Cabot? The Celts? Chinese? Columbus?) Aboriginal people have been shaping and molding the course of our combined histories. There’s a few authors that have written on this subject if you wanna take a look sometime – I’m currently winding my way through this one (there’s two volumes).

But “A Fair Country” by John Ralston Saul is also an interesting read. Saul (husband of a previous representative of the Queen) essentially lays out how the development of our country, its values and tenets, was guided by the influence and interaction with Aboriginal people. In fact our cultures have become quite hybridised in many aspects, and literally so with Métis and mixed cultures, such that Canada would not be the multicultural, accommodating country it is supposed to be today without those Aboriginal contributions.

Further, Aboriginal people have fought and died alongside subjects of the Crown for centuries, particularly in both World Wars.

But perhaps the most notable (and sadly notably uncelebrated) is the War of 1812 – of which this year is the BICENTENNIAL. If it were not for the participation of His Majesty’s Indian Allies, the unchecked American empire to the south might have fulfilled its Manifest Destiny. And one might even question just how differently the continental government might have crushed other uprisings, and twisted itself far beyond the war machine that it is today across the globe.

But that’s pure speculation – just be thankful there’s a Canada, and that there’s a Labrador and Newfoundland within it, as we know it. Even though the benefits of the deal are questionable on the Aboriginal side, the continued relationship with the Crown is arguably a far cry better than what our cousins have south of the border. You see, Aboriginal rights for Aboriginal people are thoroughly entrenched in our legal and constitutional framework in Canada.

Non-Aboriginal Canadians are here at the grace of the Crown

The Crown, in turn, was given this permission by the sovereign, self governing First Nations and Inuit through their special Treaties. This was affirmed by the Royal Proclamation of 1763 – in that only the Crown may “alienate” lands from Aboriginal people, and only by agreement. Further, only the Crown may permit settlement of those lands by its subjects (Canadians are still subjects today).

These principles were re-affirmed by the British North America Act in 1867, and again in the Canadian Constitution in 1982, which still recognize the right of self government. They also point to the rights of Aboriginal people to harvest natural resources in their traditional territories, as they existed prior to the effective control of the sovereign Crown. Further, many specific rights or benefits are recognized in specific legislation, or Treaties. So yeah, those rights are pretty entrenched. So get over it.

But with rights comes responsibility

So I point my discussion towards the self professed stewards of the land, the Aboriginal people(s) and their governments. On National Aboriginal Day, we have to also reflect on  our officially (and unofficially) recognized Aboriginal Governments who officially (and unofficially) manage the exercise of hunting and fishing rights. For example, if we have a severely declining caribou population in Labrador, we must look to Aboriginal peoples to use traditional knowledge of the animals and their habitat for their protection. Likewise for the fish populations.

While Aboriginal people have first right of access to, and management of, fish and wildlife species (and rightly so since their societies rely on them more for sustenance, social and ceremonial purposes, as well as commercial and recreational purposes) they ought to use that power to exert a measure of restraint. This means that yes, you get the “quotas” (otherwise they would be given to other parties) and then you don’t harvest it. Walk the talk of sustainable living – of being one with the earth and so on.

So Happy National Aboriginal Day to all. Remember we are all Treaty people, and we are all responsible for making the relationship work. Regardless of the legal framework, we all have to live together and move forward. To deny our Aboriginal heritage is to deny ourselves; to celebrate and continue to learn and reinvigorate our relationship is to honour our history. And hey! We already celebrated Cabot and the Vikings in this province. Now’s the time to start planning to celebrate the 250th anniversary of this province’s momentous first Treaty in 2015.

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