Road to full citizenship leads back to Kelowna – Opinion – Road to full citizenship leads back to Kelowna
Apology was historic but native peoples still are denied full equality as Canadian citizens
July 28, 2008
Kathleen Mahoney

June 11, 2008, was an iconic day for Canadian citizenship. The apology offered by the Government of Canada to aboriginal peoples for the 150-year residential schools experiment in assimilation was a clear and unequivocal affirmation of their entitlement to the full civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights denied them for so long.

At the same time, it affirmed Canada’s reputation as a fair-minded, decent country that respects the human rights of all its citizens. But saying “sorry” for taking citizenship rights away in the past is far different from ensuring the enjoyment of them in the future.

If one examines just the direct aftermath of the residential school debacle – to language and culture, to education and child welfare – there is a huge “rights gap” yet to fill.

For example, today, 27,000 aboriginal children are in foster care – triple the number who were in residential schools at peak enrollment.

There is a 22 per cent shortfall in child welfare funding compared to that for non-aboriginal children, which is now being litigated against Canada under the Canadians Human Rights Act. Chronic underfunding for aboriginal children’s education – 30 per cent less than that received for non-aboriginals – has put First Nations education into crisis, yet the government refuses to add any new money. And of the 55 aboriginal languages that the residential school policy sought to destroy, 52 are dying, yet the government has cut back funding for the preservation of indigenous languages by 68 per cent.

These realities go to the heart of the apology. The provincial and territorial premiers who met this month in Quebec City understand. Not only did they express deep concern with the continuing disparities between non-aboriginal Canadians and aboriginal citizens, they challenged the Prime Minister to seize the opportunity the apology presents. It is a win-win-win for the First Nations, his government and the country.

Moreover, the premiers pointed to a blueprint they and all aboriginal leaders agree upon – the Kelowna Accord. They want a first ministers meeting with the Prime Minister to reinvigorate the holistic Kelowna approach. Depending on the Prime Minister’s response, he may change the direction of history.

Looking back at the evolution of Canadian citizenship, particularly this year as we mark Quebec City’s 400th birthday, it becomes clear that the guarantee of equal citizenship has been consistently narrow and selective. When expansion has occurred, it has been sporadic and always resisted by the state.

At Confederation, Canadian identity and citizenship meant membership in one of two groups – English or French. Aboriginal peoples were left out.

The 1867 Constitution gave the federal government exclusive control over “Indian lands, property and funds,” enabling the 1876 Indian Act that took almost total control over every aspect of Indian life. The goal was assimilation. To speed up the process, the federal government launched the residential schools project to, in the words of the then deputy superintendent of Indian affairs, “kill the Indian in the child.”

The Indian Act defined who was an Indian. If persons fell within the definition of “Indian,” they acquired Indian status but not full citizenship. As much as they hated it, for Indians the Indian Act represented the only recognition of aboriginal citizenship, unique treaty status and aboriginal rights, which were coveted.

Canada, on the other hand, wanted Indians to relinquish their Indian status and assimilate through a system of incentives. For example, status Indians could not drink alcohol in a public place, vote in elections or obtain a university education. Indian veterans could not qualify for the veterans’ pensions or compensation other soldiers received.

The law also disqualified Indians from their status for doing things other citizens did freely without penalty. A classic example was when Indian women married non-Indian men. Wives and children automatically lost their Indian status and took on the citizenship of their husbands.

Even on divorce or widowhood, wives could never return to their reserve to reclaim rights under the Indian Act.

Although the incentives to give up Indian status were great and the refusal to do so punitive, the assimilation scheme was a complete failure. The vast majority of status Indians resisted the conditions for citizenship, despite the great cost. Under the negligent paternalism of the Indian Act, Indians continue to experience underfunding and bad management, poverty, chronic illness, substandard housing, poor drinking water and extraordinary suicide rates.

The right to vote didn’t come until 1960, 93 years after Confederation. Indian representation in mainstream political institutions is still almost zero. Not until 1985 was there partial restoration of full Indian status to Indian women who married non-Indians and to others whose status was unfairly disqualified.

Once the prohibition on hiring lawyers to litigate land claims was lifted in1952, aboriginal peoples began to use the courts in their struggle for full citizenship. From 1970 to 2000, nearly 60 cases were taken before the Supreme Court of Canada. Prior to that time, only 10 cases had been litigated in more than 100 years. In 1982, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms provided a springboard to negotiate land claims settlements and other aboriginal and treaty rights for the first time.

The consistency and determination of aboriginal peoples to resist assimilation over the past four centuries in spite of the most difficult and debilitating structural, political and economic barriers imposed by the state at every step of the way, is instructive. It speaks to the imperative of equal citizenship that respects difference.

In the apology of June 11, the Prime Minister finally acknowledged this imperative. The challenge the premiers made to the Prime Minister in response, therefore, cannot be ignored. Their call to fill the citizenship gap with meaningful action is one that must be heard not just by him, but by all Canadians. It can no longer be the prerogative of one prime minister or one government to reject a unanimous accord that would restore citizenship rights to Canadians who have been denied full and equal citizenship for far too long. Just as the apology belongs to all of us, so does the accord.

Kathleen Mahoney is author of the article Evolving citizenship: What difference has 400 years made? in the Summer 2008 issue of Policy Options, the magazine published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy,

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