Modern Treaties

Trudeau cloaks continued attack on First Nations sovereignty with charm

A ‘Canadian definition’ of the UNDRIP aims to extinguish 8th Fire
Photo: Edward Simpson

8TH Fire draws from an Anishinaabe prophecy that declares now is the time for Aboriginal peoples and the settler community to come together and build the '8TH Fire' of justice and harmony.” – CBC website for the television show 8TH Fire

The Anishinaabe prophecy of the 8th Fire, popularized by a 2012 CBC four-part television miniseries hosted by Wab Kinew, was a beginner’s course on the dark colonial origins of the country of Canada based upon the unjust treatment of First Nations. The TV series was intended to portray a hopeful change in the historic relationship between First Nations and Canadians based upon the prophecy of the 8th Fire, a time of reconciliation.

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However, the current generation of First Nation peoples has just lived through a decade of the racist, colonial ideology of Stephen Harper and his Conservative government implemented through its regressive legislative, policy and budgetary initiatives aimed at First Nations.

First Nation peoples wanted to see a change in the federal government so badly that many voted for the first time in the 2015 federal election, not just in town and cities but on many reserves, too. Some locations reportedly even ran out of ballots.

Despite the talk of nation-to-nation relationships, the Trudeau government is maintaining this municipal model of self-government and extinguishment of Aboriginal title through what are called modern treaties.

There were also First Nation peoples who did not vote in the federal election, maintaining their sovereign right to represent themselves as Indigenous peoples and not submitting to the asserted sovereignty of the Canadian state.

Although some First Nation peoples in northern ridings voted for the NDP, most who voted chose Justin Trudeau and his Liberals, who promised “real change.” As leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Trudeau’s election platform consisted of some big promises on Indigenous policy, which attracted many First Nation peoples, including much of the First Nations leadership:

  • Immediately re-engage in a renewed nation-to-nation process with Indigenous Peoples to make progress on the issues most important to First Nations;
  • Prioritize developing—in full partnership with First Nations—a Federal Reconciliation Framework. This framework will include mechanisms to advance and strengthen self-government, address outstanding land claims, and resolve grievances with both existing historical treaties and modern land-claims agreements;
  • Immediately launch a national public inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada, to seek recommendations on concrete actions that governments, law enforcement, and others can take to solve these crimes and prevent future ones;
  • Enact the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
  • Recognize and respect Aboriginal title and rights in accordance with Canada’s Constitutional obligations, and further those enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
  • Immediately lift the 2 percent cap on funding for First Nations programs, and establish a new fiscal relationship with First Nations – one that provides them with sufficient, predictable, and sustained funding to support the priorities of First Nations communities;
  • Endorse the recommendations in the Eyford report on Comprehensive Land Claims Policy in their entirety and commit to working in partnership with First Nations to fully implement them;
  • Undertake a full review of regulatory law, policies, and operational practices, in full partnership and consultation with First Nations to ensure that the Crown is fully executing its consultation, accommodation, and consent obligations, including on resource development and energy infrastructure project reviews and assessments, in accordance with our constitutional and international human rights obligations.

The 2015 federal election resulted in a majority Liberal government and a Conservative opposition, with the NDP as the third party in Parliament.

A Liberal history without real change

Majority governments are typically arrogant and interpret their electoral promises as they see fit, including whether they will even implement their promises.

Six months in and experienced observers of Indigenous policy can see the differences between what Trudeau and his ministers publicly say and what’s really happening on the ground. This shows how the Trudeau government is interpreting its platform promises.

The Trudeau government’s 2015 promises are reminiscent of 1993, when I was involved in the development of the federal Liberal Aboriginal Platform as vice-president of policy for the Liberal Aboriginal Peoples’ Commission, which consisted of Chapter 7 of the Red Book and a longer Aboriginal platform issued in Saskatoon on October 8, 1993, by the Liberal leader at the time, Jean Chrétien.

There were two Liberal Aboriginal platforms in the 1993 federal election. The Liberal Aboriginal Commission had to fight with the backroom types such as Chaviva Hošek, Eddie Goldenburg and others to be included in the Red Book, which was the centrepiece. What we couldn’t get into the Red Book, we pushed to have included in a longer and more detailed Liberal Aboriginal platform, which we pushed Chrétien to announce on the campaign trail in Saskatoon.

However, as we found out after the election, it was all for nothing, as Prime Minister Chrétien either manipulated, broke or ignored the Liberal Aboriginal promises. The removal of on-reserve tax exemption and municipalization of reserves originated with the Chrétien Liberal government in the 1990s and are a main part of the 1995 Liberal Aboriginal Self-Government policy, which the Chrétien Liberal government unilaterally imposed.

It is the grassroots First Nation peoples on reserve and off reserve who will continue to suffer, not those employed at band offices and First Nation chiefs’ organizations.

Also in 1995, Finance Minister Paul Martin placed a 2 per cent cap on First Nations programs, and he didn’t remove it when he became prime minister in 2003. Martin and subsequent Liberal leaders buried the 1993 Liberal Aboriginal Policy promises.

For the last 21 years the federal “self-government” policy has set out Canada’s negotiating position with all First Nations. It gives all provinces a veto in any negotiations with First Nations on subject matters that affect provincial jurisdiction or laws.

Another dangerous feature of the federal “self-government” policy is that Canada intends to keep for itself all of the real powers of sovereignty and nationhood necessary for sustaining an economy, trade and diplomatic relations with other nations in the world. These are not on the table for negotiations with First Nations. There is no real power sharing contemplated in the federal self -government negotiation process. The only role that Aboriginal groups or “bands” would have under the self-government agreements are “delegated authority” under various federal (and provincial) subject areas. The policy also requires that Aboriginal groups or “bands” raise their “own source revenues,” which is Ottawa’s code for taxation or forms of taxation.

This is the policy that many bands are currently negotiating under to get out of the Indian Act — essentially they are converting into a municipal-type government.

Despite the talk of nation-to-nation relationships, the Trudeau government is maintaining this municipal model of self-government and extinguishment of Aboriginal title through what are called modern treaties.

This was confirmed by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould when she told APTN that the Trudeau government will get rid of the Indian Act one community at a time through “sectoral government initiatives” to “bi-lateral self government agreements” to “comprehensively negotiating a treaty under the modern treaty process.”

The federal First Nations Termination Plan

Six months into his mandate, we are only starting to see how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is interpreting his big 2015 Indigenous policy promises.

Budget 2016 was declared “historic” by Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. But First Nations children’s advocate Cindy Blackstock was more accurate when she said, “We will have to wait for the uncertainty of the next election for major investments to be made,” since much of the federal spending on Indigenous peoples is “back ended” until after the next federal election.

The “Canadian definition” of UNDRIP sounds a lot like the Harper government’s position except it is couched as “reconciliation.”

Despite the Trudeau government’s promises to implement all 94 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and recent announcement that it will implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), there is now enough evidence to confirm that the prime minister plans on continuing to implement the federal land claims and self-government policies, which result in extinguishing Aboriginal title and municipalizing Indian bands. Across Canada there are 99 negotiation tables with over 400 bands participating under negotiation mandates that are the same as when the Harper government was in charge.

By the silence of the majority of chiefs across Canada, it seems that the Trudeau government has bought their support at band offices and the federal negotiation tables through its Budget 2016, even though the federal monies flow through the colonial Indian Act and what I call federal termination policies. It is the grassroots First Nation peoples on reserve and off reserve who will continue to suffer, not those employed at band offices and First Nation chiefs’ organizations.

In addition, with the extreme climate-induced fires taking place in Alberta right now, the Trudeau government will undoubtedly have to reassess its budgeting forecasts and spending priorities. Indigenous issues may drop in ranking as a result.

As the wildfire in Alberta spreads, a number of Indigenous peoples’ representatives from British Columbia and the Ottawa River Watershed (Quebec and Ontario) went to Geneva, Switzerland, to call for urgent action from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination about the Trudeau government’s continued use of the federal comprehensive claims and self-government policies to extinguish Aboriginal title and deny the Indigenous right of self-determination.

The Indigenous representatives told the UN committee that the Trudeau government is still pursuing the modified rights (extinguishment) model in its negotiations, specifically with the IN-SCHUCK-ch and the Northern Secwepemc te Qelmucw, which will extinguish Aboriginal title for the St’at’imc and Secwepemc First Nations. They also said the same is happening in the so-called Algonquins of Ontario negotiations, which will extinguish Aboriginal title for the Algonquin First Nations. Canada has no alternative process except going to the Canadian courts, which is expensive and also unpredictable.

The St’at’imc and Secwepemc Indigenous representatives from British Columbia and the Algonquin Indigenous representatives from Quebec and Ontario recommended that the Comprehensive Land Claims Policy be changed to recognize the underlying Aboriginal title and rights of Indigenous peoples.

As these interventions at the United Nations show, when it comes to lands, resources and the Indigenous right of self-determination, the Trudeau government isn’t any different than the previous Harper government.

In regards to the UNDRIP, the federal minister of natural resources recently told a Parliamentary Committee that “the government is in the process of providing a Canadian definition to the declaration.” Then Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett told the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues that that “modern treaties and self-government agreements (are) the ultimate expression of free, prior and informed consent among partners.”

The “Canadian definition” of UNDRIP sounds a lot like the Harper government’s position except it is couched as “reconciliation.”

In fact, the Trudeau government has called on Harper’s top federal terminator to help him continue the process used by the Harper government. Michael Wernick, the former deputy minister of Indian Affairs from 2006 to 2014, was named as clerk of the Privy Council, which is the top job in the federal bureaucracy.

So like his father, Pierre Trudeau, and successive Liberal leaders such as Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is continuing with the Liberal tradition of saying nice things in public to appear progressive, but operating as much as possible by stealth to complete the federal First Nations Termination Plan and extinguish the 8th Fire.

Unfortunately, as the last federal election shows, when Indigenous peoples vote and Indigenous candidates get elected into Parliament, and even appointed as cabinet ministers or senators, they are coopted into implementing Canada’s long-standing First Nations Termination Plan.

As Leanne Simpson puts it in Lighting the Eighth Fire,

In order for the Eighth Fire to be lit, settler society must also choose to change their ways, to decolonize their relationships with the land and Indigenous Nations, and to join with us in building a sustainable future based on mutual recognition, justice and respect.

So if First Nations want to stoke the 8th Fire, they need to continue to find allies and supporters from within Canadian civil society to help pressure the Crown governments and industry to replace their colonial policies of assimilation, extinguishment and termination with more enlightened policies of recognition, affirmation and inclusion of First Nations’ inherent, Aboriginal and treaty rights.

The inherent sovereignty of First Nations and their land rights remains under attack by the Trudeau government, albeit cloaked in nicer language by a charming but dangerous prime minister.

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