How to make ‘nation to nation’ relationship genuine

Posted on December 7, 2016 in Equality Policy Context – Opinion/Commentary – Here are five actions that should be taken to improve relationships with First Nations in Canada.
Dec. 6, 2016.   By NOAH RICHLER

The dispute over the North Dakota Access pipeline has been resolved, but the months-long protest by the Standing Rock Sioux has already served as a beacon to First Nations of Canada feeling the aggravation of their accumulated injuries — the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Laloche, Val d’Or, Grassy Narrows, the Site C Dam, the Trans Mountain pipeline — and for this Canada has only itself to blame.

We take far too many of our political cues from the United States, but need not solutions. We are an open, imaginative country still. This week’s meeting in Gatineau, Qué., of the Assembly of First Nations is an opportunity for more than embraces. Here, then, is a simple five-point plan for addressing a challenge to Canada more grievous and innate than any posed from down south, proposals intended as an adjunct to the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report.

1. Adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is a problematic document but one that provides solutions to the challenges of balancing indigenous rights and state sovereignty in its final clauses. In truth, it is a very Canadian charter, its guiding principles entirely compatible with our own. Let Canada take it on and, through practice, improve it.

2. Make the chief of the Assembly of First Nations a de facto member of cabinet. The next Governor-General is likely to be indigenous but this measure, note, is absolutely not about ceremony. A minister does not need to be a sitting MP, so let the chief of the Assembly of First Nations (with accommodation for Inuit and Métis) into the room as a peer and a participant. First Nations will be consulted on everything from housing to defence and procurement. Make the “nation to nation” relationship more than the stuff of costume and rhetoric.

3. Make the use of select First Nations languages in Parliament a right. Our two “official” languages, French and English, are spoken on the floor of the House of Commons and let this status be extended to Cree, Inuktitut and either Ojibwe or one of the Salish group of languages, the ones most broadly spoken and positioned for survival. Some provincial legislatures and courts already allow this and not to do so in Ottawa denies our communality and heritage. Language is the vessel of a culture and imagine, beyond any questions of fairness, how inspiring this would be to First Nations youth, in particular.

4. Make the completion of a course in aboriginal studies a mandatory requirement to matriculate from high school. Education falls under provincial jurisdiction, but this cannot be an excuse for federal inaction on so vital an issue. Such courses might teach language, indigenous arts or systems of native justice, these taught alongside the historical knowledge of residential schools that, regardless, should be a necessary part of the ordinary high school curriculum.

The aboriginal studies requirement would provide acquaintance in a land where the gift of abundant space means Canadians never actually have to meet unless a concerted effort is made; it would advance scholarly rather than politically correct discussions of indigenous issues, and provide tens of thousands of meaningful well-paid jobs elevating not just the native sense of self.

5. Create and enforce a commons law uniting trails, reserves and national parks. Canada is in dire need of a commons law, variants of which exist in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Norway. Protecting not just native but all Canadians’ rights to share and learn the land is an opportunity that will imminently be lost and that First Nations are in a powerful position to defend.

Making reserves a part of this system is not to detract from the rights of First Nations but to recognize common interests of the panoply of Canadian peoples. A working example of this kind already exists in the functioning of the Torngat Mountains National Park in Newfoundland and Labrador, jointly administrated by Parks Canada and Inuit who have lived within its boundaries for thousands of years.

Entitled property owners and resource companies will resist such a law, of course, while thinking progressively on this score will prevent conflicts such as the one happening in North Dakota that could as easily happen here.

Let the country act boldly and in league with indigenous peoples, to who we owe ways of being as much as royalties and reparations. The alternative is our own Standing Rock.
Noah Richler’s most recent book, published by Doubleday Canada, is The Candidate, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. He is a regular contributor to these pages.

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