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Lingering Questions: Progress on Indigenous Rights in 2013

An Idle No More protest outside of Canada's Parliament. (Photo: rabble.ca / cc via flickr)Last New Year’s eve, rabble published an op-ed I wrote about a relatively new phenomenon called Idle No More.  While hopeful about the attention being garnered by the rise in activism, I cautioned that whether “INM leads to increased awareness, a change in policy, or a change in government is an open question.”

A year later, that question can be answered only in part.

No doubt awareness of Indigenous issues has grown.  That is an accomplishment in which all those who have participated, through INM or otherwise, can take pride.

Despite that progress, with federal and provincial governments continuing to deny their legal obligations, and with right-wing think tanks and pundits continuing to obfuscate history and perpetuate stereotypes, there remains much educating to do. 

There is also no doubt that the past year has not led to any change in policy. 

Indigenous leadership continues to insist on constitutionally required consultation and accommodation of Indigenous rights.  Instead, resources are taken and bills are passed, and First Nations fight through the courts to have their rights respected.  Hundreds of wins later, the Crown’s behaviour doesn’t change; each new battle begins from the same point of conflict and conditions only get worse.  The obstinate refusal of the Harper government to respect the rule of law has not moved one iota in seven years nor is it ever likely to.

The reasoning is simple.  Respecting Indigenous rights in law as well as in fact means that some projects will not move forward, while others will proceed more slowly, with greater attention to environmental and social consequences and with a greater economic share going to Indigenous nations.  That all detracts from the immediate bottom line and short-term greed supersedes all other considerations.  Until now, it has been much simpler to operate without regard for treaties and the constitution, let citizens suffer and destroy the environment.

But there is a dawning recognition in industry and the public, if not the government, of the stakes in letting the conflict grow.  Doug Eyford’s recent report to the Prime Minister, a three-year project begun by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute, even a paper from the Fraser Institute, all reflect a growing concern that the failure to respect Indigenous rights stands in the way of $650 Billion worth of development. 

For their part, Indigenous peoples and their allies appear prepared to force Canadians to confront the fundamental hypocrisy in denying Indigenous legal rights while expecting Indigenous people to obey Canada’s laws.  Without the full acceptance of that truth there can be no reconciliation, and without the application of that truth in law, the looming battles over fracking or the Northern Gateway pipeline will be messy indeed.

The one thing that could avoid pending confrontation is a federal government prepared to respect treaties, the constitution and international law.  And while a change of government could be in the cards for 2015, supporters of Indigenous rights have yet to organize sufficiently around an alternative.

Some believe participating in Canada’s electoral process detracts from the assertion of Indigenous sovereignty, while some are compelled to official neutrality by reliance on government funding and others are distracted by internal disputes.  Mostly, people are busy with their own daily struggles, turned off by generations of lying and abuse of privilege and sceptical about all politics, just like the rest of Canada.

But infighting, apathy and other excuses only distract from the one course of action that could enable all other change: organizing to elect a federal government that understands the issues and is committed to respecting the law.

Had Indigenous voters turned out in sufficient numbers, the Harper majority in 2011 could have been stopped.  That’s the electoral math.  Yet Indigenous turnout trailed even the paltry 60% who bother to vote in Canada.

If Indigenous rights are to be recognized, the federal government must be willing to participate.  There must be a willing partner on both sides.  Indigenous citizens and their allies are going to need to step up to the challenge, assess the options and help steer the results of the next election toward such a partner.

My article last New Year’s Eve ended with the thought that “(t)hrough INM, Indigenous people are posing a question to Canada. The answer will require all of us to come together, respecting all our relations.”

On the cusp of 2014, I leave with this question instead: what better way to stand with non-Indigenous Canadians in solidarity for a better future than to choose, together, a government that is committed to the rights of all of us?

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