While the saga of who will attend tomorrow's meeting between Harper government representatives and First Nations leaders continues, we can be certain that justice will be absent.
For obvious reasons, there will be no justice for the Inuit, as they will not be represented. Nor will there be any justice for the Métis and non-status Indians, who this week won a court battle to have the federal government recognize its obligations toward them, because they aren’t at the table either.
And despite having representatives in the room, there will be no justice for First Nations, nor for Canada.
Socrates, according to Plato, argued that the idea of justice could not be reduced merely to that which is to the advantage of the stronger. With possibly one brief exception, no federal government in this country’s history has accepted the idea that justice was any less than whatever it could get away with when it comes to Indigenous peoples. The current Government of Canada is no exception. It does what it can get away with doing and having done that, it tries for more. That is why we’re in this mess.
Since before confederation, Canada has pursued a single policy objective vis à vis Indigenous peoples; make them go away by making them like everyone else. The titles of early legislation made this obvious, such as An Act to encourage the gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes in this Province, and to amend the Laws respecting Indians. Bureaucrats like Duncan Campbell Scott also were clear about it, famously admitting that, "Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department." And while they would avoid these exact words, what member of today’s cabinet would disagree with the sentiment that, “The happiest future for the Indian race is absorption into the general population, and this is the object and policy of our government”?
It is this insistence on following the same failed strategy generation after generation that underlies the frustration we now see manifest on the streets. When you hear Indigenous people talk about the treaty relationship, nation-to-nation dialogue and respect, understand this means completely reversing the entirety of Canada’s policy approach to date. It is an inversion at a philosophical level, which is why it is so difficult for people to see.
The current Prime Minister claimed to understand once. “Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country,” he said. Either he misunderstood his own words or he didn’t mean it. Nothing has changed.
A government that wants to assimilate Indigenous people would go after their rights, certainly, but the real fight comes when they go after more land.
In an ongoing effort to deny Indigenous rights, Canada’s ironically named Department of Justice spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year in court. The appeal it inevitably will launch against this week’s decision in Daniels v. The Queen is one example. The ongoing fight to prevent the Canadian Human Rights Commission from even hearing the merits of the case on First Nations child welfare discrimination is another. A recent book adds up over 150 court cases that First Nations have won concerning resource extraction.
The government’s method is always the same, fight as hard as possible at every step, lose, interpret the decision as narrowly as possible, and fight the next case on the same issues in the same way. The purpose is to exhaust the funding and energy of the opponent while continuing to exploit the resources. That accomplished, you can then claim that the pursuit of traditional livelihoods makes no sense anymore because all the trap lines have been bulldozed and the fish poisoned. Therefore, nearby reserves are unviable and should be abandoned. Which conveniently leaves them available for more plunder. That’s Canada’s version of justice.
And to point to just one legislative initiative by way of example, the Harper government -- adopting a Tom Flanagan proposal (see yesterday’s discussion of Flanagan) -- promises to “give” First Nations property rights. First Nations citizens already have the right to buy land off reserve, same as everyone else. With this legislation, they gain the right to use reserve land-- their communally held homelands -- as collateral, while they stand to lose everything that hasn’t been taken already. It means placing First Nations lands at risk of purchase or foreclosure by non-band members. That leads to the destruction of communities as the land disappears, just as it did in the U.S. when they introduced the Dawes Act.
Progress relies on Canadians understanding the fundamental nature of this conflict so that they can respond to the change it demands. Assimilation policy hasn’t worked yet -- for anyone -- and it never will. Indigenous people will not just disappear into mainstream Canada. Their legal rights cannot be willed away and will not be drained away by lawyers or more legislation. They will remain wedded to the land.
A new relationship, based in respect, reflecting the original nation-to-nation relationship can work, but both sides need to try, honestly and wholeheartedly, at last.
Until that happens, there will be no justice. And, as Idle No More protesters have been chanting: no justice, no peace.