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Land and Rights in Canada

January 14, 2010

By Arthur Manuel

The Dominion

COLDSTREAM, BC—We have reached a very critical time in our struggle for our land and human rights as Indigenous Peoples. The Canadian government knows this and has been doing everything in their power to trick us into extinguishing our Aboriginal Title through negotiations under their policies—including their Comprehensive Land Claims and Self-Government Policies. Canada’s courts have been the alternative to negotiations, and there we have had measured success. But the establishment Indigenous organizations, like the Assembly of First Nations, have been stuck with what the government is dictating to them.

As Indigenous Peoples we need to think about what to do now. In early August 2009, Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl sent a strong message to the British Columbia Treaty Commission (BCTC) Common Table, a group of First Nations from different BCTC negotiating tables who came together to raise concerns regarding consistent obstacles they all faced in negotiating land claims agreements in BC. He said that the federal government will not change the existing Comprehensive Land Claims and Self-Government Policies.

The federal government has ignored all objections from groups who do not negotiate and groups who are inactive in their negotiations. Now they have stated clearly to those actively negotiating that they will not review their land and self-government policies.

It is important for Indigenous Peoples who have not signed treaties surrendering their Title to realize that we are all under the federal Comprehensive Land Claims and Self-Government Policies. We must realize that any land claims and self-government agreement will be determined by these policies. Right now, this will mean that the best deal Indigenous Peoples can get is the Nisga’a, Tsawwassen or Maa-nulth Final Agreements. This requires the extinguishment of Aboriginal Title, according to what the government has put on the table under the Comprehensive Land Claims and Self-Government Policies. Indigenous Peoples will have to give up their tax-exemption, take their land in fee simple, and agree to be under provincial control.

There needs to be a fundamental change in Canada’s Land Claims and Self-Government Policies. These policies need to address the direct link between Aboriginal Title and our human rights as Indigenous Peoples. Canada must abandon their existing policy of extinguishment and assimilation and adopt a plan of recognition and co-existence. This dramatic change must be forced on the federal government by direct action from Indigenous Peoples and our supporters. We get a lot of support for taking direct action. We just need faith and courage to stand up for our rights.

The 1980 Constitution Express, an international grassroots campaign that involved sending a train with hundreds of Indigenous protesters from the west coast to Ottawa, secured section 35(1) in the Canadian Constitution 1982. We need similar collective action to get Aboriginal Title recognized.

A lot has changed since the 1980s.

The Delgamuukw case judicially recognized Aboriginal Title in 1997. The World Trade Organization and the North America Free Trade Agreement recognized that Canada’s policy not to recognize Aboriginal Title was a subsidy to Canada’s resource industries. The British Columbia government now has to report Aboriginal Title as a contingent liability in their annual balance sheet. And the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples despite the fact that Canada voted against the Declaration.

Our real problem is that the federal and provincial governments do not want to recognize Aboriginal Title because it ousts their jurisdiction over our Aboriginal Title territory. They want to continue to mutually and exclusively make all decisions regarding our land. Everything comes from the natural wealth of our land. We need to unite, not around our weakest positions in negotiations, but around the strongest defenders of our land. In British Columbia, participating under the BCTC over the last 16 years has had dismal results: it has produced only the Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth Final Agreements, plus the rebuked Common Table Report and the rejected BC Recognition and Reconciliation Act.

Introduced in the spring of 2009, the proposed BC Recognition and Reconciliation Act was originally praised by the BC First Nation Leadership Council, a grouping of the Union of British Colombia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), the First Nations Summit representing those involved in the BCTC process, and the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations. The proposed Act did not recognize Aboriginal Title, and for this reason was rejected by the BC All Chiefs Assembly in August 2009. All the Recognition Act recognized was that Crown Title also existed where Aboriginal Title existed. It would have been nothing more than a Bill of Sale for the BC government. The Chiefs and People saw through it and rejected provincial legislation resoundingly.

The term “recognition” was manipulated by the province just like “self-government” has been manipulated by the federal government. I remember my late father George Manuel(pictured above) really struggled to develop the term “self-government” when he was president of the Union of British Colombia Indian Chiefs. But after the federal government came up with their “self- government” policy, he rejected the term “self-government” because weasel word doctors at the Department of Indian Affairs totally undermined what self-government meant from my father’s perspective.

The province had me in the same boat: I have been fighting for recognition of Aboriginal Title, but I too was forced to fight against the “recognition” offered by the province under the Recognition and Reconciliation Act. This can be confusing because fighting for “recognition” sometimes requires us to fight against words that favour the status quo at our expense. Any definition or term must be decided by us and not the federal and provincial governments.

Indigenous Peoples must realize that these circumstances require us to have strong leadership. We need to assert our Aboriginal and Treaty Rights and not demand money for more programs and services. We need a fundamental change from the existing Aboriginal Land Policies and a National Treaty Policy. We need to take action before the 2010 Winter Olympics against Canada’s Human Rights Record. Our lack of opportunity and our impoverishment are directly related to the fact that Canada does not recognize our Aboriginal and Treaty Rights. Recognition of Aboriginal and Treaty Rights is a fundamental aspect of our Human Rights as Indigenous Peoples.

We cannot support the 2010 Winter Olympics unless Canada adopts and implements the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. First Nations that have agreed to allow the 2010 Winter Olympic Torch through their territory should seriously reconsider that decision in view of how Canada is playing sports with our Human Rights as Indigenous Peoples. Canada will be using any endorsements by First Nations at the international level to polish its image, and to persuade people that Canada’s Indigenous Peoples still support the government despite the fact that Canada voted against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

We need to be strong. The 2010 Winter Olympics and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a direct link that connects Canada’s human rights record at the international level. Canada will not change its mind unless we insist, through band council resolutions, not to support the Torch Relay, and to engage in direct action. We must stand up for change. We cannot let Prime Minister Harper play political hockey with our human rights.

Arthur Manuel is the spokesperson of the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade.


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