Canada Votes 2015

First Nations and the federal election: An exercise in self-termination

Photo: Dennis S Hurd

For the past several weeks, I have observed with increasing frequency a call for First Peoples to get out for the upcoming federal election. The mainstream media and now the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, are urging Indigenous people to vote, particularly since it is looking like a three-way race between the federal leaders and their parties (sorry, Elizabeth May).

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The main reason some First Nations leadership are putting out the call is to get rid Stephen Harper and his dreaded racist Conservatives.

I took particular notice of an opinion piece by Tasha Kheiriddin in the National Post. Kheiriddin was responding to Regina Crowchild, a councillor with Alberta’s Tsuu T’ina Nation, who said that she would not want to see “an alien government’s polling station” on her reserve, adding that “if we join Canada in their election system, that’s a part of genocide.”

Here was Kheiriddin’s counterargument:

The reality is that, paradoxically, if First Nations are truly interested in more autonomy, they will never get it without cooperation from the federal government. That means electing a government that is sympathetic to their perspective — and they will never do so unless they go to the polls. Voting is not capitulation, but a recognition that in a democracy, you need to participate if you want your voice to be heard.

Despite the mainstream media’s pleas, we must remember as First Nation individuals we are connected to our families, communities and nations. Therefore we have collective or group rights, which Canadian citizens — whether founding settlers or recent immigrants — cannot claim.

In fact, Canada (including the Supreme Court of Canada) bases its asserted sovereignty and territorial integrity on the racist, colonial Christian doctrine of discovery. Kheiriddin’s argument makes sense only if Indigenous peoples already consider themselves as “Canadians.”

Survivors of the Canadian settler-state

I urge all First Nation peoples to never forget we are Indigenous peoples who are survivors of genocide and colonialism. We have pre-existing sovereignty, along with our own tribal law and governance systems, which have survived the creation of the Canadian settler-state. And we have the international right of self-determination as Indigenous peoples.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) recognizes that both the United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights apply to Indigenous peoples. These covenants provide that “all peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

On September 13, 2007, the UN General Assembly passed the UNDRIP in a vote of 143 to 4. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States voted against it, with 11 countries abstaining.

John McNee, Canada’s ambassador to the UN at the time, explained why the country rejected the UNDRIP:

Canada’s position has remained consistent and principled. We have stated publicly that we have significant concerns with respect to the wording of the current text, including the provisions on lands, territories and resources; free, prior and informed consent when used as a veto; self-government without recognition of the importance of negotiations; intellectual property; military issues; and the need to achieve an appropriate balance between the rights and obligations of indigenous peoples, member States and third parties.

Canada does not like the UNDRIP because the prime minister, his cabinet and a federal steering committee of officials continue to implement a federal First Nations Termination Plan through an amended Indian Act and negotiations at land claims and self-government tables.

The core mandates of the federal negotiators at these termination tables are to get First Nations’ signoff on legally binding agreements to extinguish (modify) First Nations land rights and create private property (fee simple), release Canada from any liabilities for past theft of lands and resources, and convert First Nations from Indian Act bands into ethnic municipalities.

Let’s be clear: These are federal Liberal land claims and self-government policies the Harper government is implementing.

When the UN Human Rights Committee asked Canada in 2005 how the right of self-determination was being exercised by Indigenous peoples, this was the response: “indigenous collectivities and other peoples living within the existing state of Canada participate in the exercise of the right of self-determination as part of the people of Canada.”

In other words, First Nation individuals who run, campaign or vote in the upcoming federal settler-state election for any of the federal settler-state parties will be playing into the termination plan to assimilate First Nations into the Canadian mainstream as “Aboriginal Canadians” or Canadian citizens, thereby undermining their Indigenous communities’ and nations’ right of self-determination.

These limits are clearly set out in Canada’s approach to Aboriginal self-government:

The inherent right of self-government does not include a right of sovereignty in the international law sense, and will not result in sovereign independent Aboriginal nation states. On the contrary, implementation of self-government should enhance the participation of Aboriginal peoples in the Canadian federation, and ensure that Aboriginal peoples and their governments do not exist in isolation, separate and apart from the rest of Canadian society.

The federal self-government policy is based on a concurrent law and harmonization model, which means those First Nations negotiating under this policy must accept the two colonial orders of government (federal and provincial) and their laws along with First Nations law, then harmonize those laws — meaning First Nations get converted into municipal-type governments from Indian Act bands while agreeing to implement federal and provincial laws.

The goal of the Indian Act from the beginning in 1876 was to assimilate individuals and bands of Indians into the social, economic and political mainstream of Canada. Indians were (and are) treated as children under the Indian Act, and the Minister of Indian Affairs (now Aboriginal Affairs) has discretion over about 75 per cent of the Indian Act. The federal goal of the 1969 White Paper on Indian Policy, which has informed Harper’s legislation in over 14 bills pertaining to First Nations, was to remove the legal distinctions between Indians and Canadian citizens.

Status Indians were only given the vote in 1961 (1968 in Quebec), when it was granted by a Conservative prime minister, John Diefenbaker.

The Conservative Party has always promoted individual rights to erode and undermine collective ones. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is no different, imposing a suite of legislation to do just that:

  • First Nations Financial Transparency Act
  • Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act
  • Indian Act Amendment and Replacement Act
  • First Nations Election Act
  • First Nation Education Act (pending)
  • First Nation Private Property Ownership Act (pending)

The Liberal legacy

All federal settler-state political parties have their own methods of encouraging Aboriginal participation in their party, including candidacy for becoming an MP, but after the election is done the Parliamentary Wing and the party establishment run the party.

Recent history has shown that Aboriginal MPs, cabinet ministers and senators are routinely used by the sitting prime minister to support federal Aboriginal policy and legislative initiatives, whether the federal policies or laws are supported by Aboriginal peoples or not.

My own experience is with the Liberal Party of Canada. From 1990 to 1994, I served as vice-president of policy for the party’s Aboriginal Peoples’ Commission (APC). From the late 1980s I was involved in lobbying within the party to establish the commission using the existing commissions for women and youth as models.

The APC was created in June 1990 at a Liberal leadership convention. Through lobbying efforts with the Liberal leadership candidates, Aboriginal delegates received “contingent delegate” status. Following a successful vote to amend the party’s constitution, Aboriginal “contingent delegates” exchanged their lanyards for full delegate status, and the first APC meeting was held and the founding executive was elected. Jean Chrétien was elected Liberal leader at the convention as the Meech Lake Accord died and two weeks later the so-called “Oka Crisis” began.

Despite much resistance from within the Liberal Party from Jean Chrétien’s chief of staff, Eddie Goldenberg, on down to MPs, senators and staff, the APC succeeded in getting a 1993 Aboriginal electoral platform adopted, including chapter 7 of the Red Book and a longer version, which Jean Chrétien announced in October 1993 on the campaign trail.

However, once the Liberal Party formed a majority government in November 1993, it became clear that Chrétien and Goldenberg had their own ideas, and they systematically broke or manipulated the 1993 Liberal Aboriginal Promises.

Chrétien named his crony Ron Irwin as Minister of Indian Affairs. Without consultation, Irwin imposed a 1995 Aboriginal self-government policy, which they called an “inherent right” policy when it is anything but that.

On top of that, Finance Minister Paul Martin — who was co-chair of the 1993 Liberal Platform Committee — imposed a 2 per cent cap on all First Nation programs.

In 1996, while ignoring the Liberal Aboriginal platform promises, Chrétien and Irwin launched an Indian Act amendment process. It started with a few innocuous clauses such as extending terms of office for chiefs and council, but turned into a major rewrite of the Indian Act to give Ottawa bureaucrats more power to control and manage Indian Act bands.

That same year, I became the AFN Indian Act amendments coordinator under then national chief Ovide Mercredi. After analyzing the Indian Act amendment package I advised the chiefs-in-assembly that the proposed changes were worse than the status quo.

The chiefs agreed, and we launched a campaign to oppose the proposed Indian Act amendment package. Irwin introduced it into Parliament as Bill C-79, the Indian Act Optional Modification Act, but it died on the order paper when the 1997 federal election was called. Irwin didn’t run again so Chrétien rewarded him with an appointment as the ambassador to Ireland, where the residence is said to be spectacular.

As AFN national chief, Mercredi burned the Red Book in front of the Ottawa Convention Centre while the Liberal Biennial Convention was taking place in 1996. I was there with my fellow APC founding executive members, David Nahwegahbow and Marilyn Buffalo, to support Mercredi. We told the national media then that Chrétien had personally betrayed and deceived us by breaking the 1993 Liberal Aboriginal promises.

Following that, in 2000 the Chrétien government tried to impose a re-packaged version of the Indian Act amendments as the First Nation Governance Act, along with a suite of legislation that was contrary to the 1993 Liberal platform. The First Nation Governance Act was defeated — some say by Paul Martin — but that would take away from the strong First Nations resistance and filibustering at the House of Commons Standing Committee on Indian Affairs and Northern Development by NDP MP Pat Martin and Bloc Québécois MP Yvan Loubier.

After my experience both inside and outside of the Liberal Party (I ceased to be involved after 1994, and I haven’t been affiliated with any party since), I have to say it is a bad idea to get involved in the federal voting process as individual First Nation persons.

I have yet to see any platform from any federal party that convinces me they will stop implementing the First Nations Termination Plan and respect our pre-existing sovereignty and right of self-determination as Indigenous peoples.

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde and other regional First Nation leaders who promote participation in the upcoming federal election are already compromised by representing those chiefs and First Nations who are at a termination table. The outcome of negotiations will be final agreements to extinguish inherent, Aboriginal title and historic treaty rights and to become ethnic minorities and Canadian citizens, which the federal government calls “Aboriginal Canadians.”

Any First Nation person involved in the federal electoral process will be, wittingly or unwittingly, part of implementing the government’s termination plan.

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