There’s been a lot of talk in Canada recently about the treaty rights of various Native bands across the country. The thing is a lot of people don’t really understand what those rights are. They make comments about lazy buggers who get more than they deserve in the first place, or they lost a war so screw them.
Well the problem is that treaty rights in some cases were settlements for losing that war. When nations agreed to terms of surrender with the government of Great Britain, who ruled this land in those days, they were ceded control over certain territories in perpetuity. As the saying says: “As long as the grass is green and the water runs,” they were promised full sovereignty over those lands under the Kings and Queens of England.
For some other tribes their lands were given to them as reward for loyalty to England. During the revolutionary war that brought about the birth of the United States, certain members of the Iroquois Nation sided with the British. Chief among them were the Mohawks and the Oneida.
Both nations were given large tracts of land in Southern Ontario to resettle in, as they had to leave their home territories in the United States after the war. As with the treaty rights of other nations in other parts of Canada their new territories were guaranteed to them forever.
Of course this was in the days long before anyone considered the value of what could be under the ground, or that a golf course would work really well there. In the dark ages of Canadian and Native relations, when the federal government was trying to solve the “Indian Problem” by committing cultural genocide with residential schools, they also ignored governments at the provincial and municipal levels developing and selling treaty lands.
Anyone with ready cash was allowed to do whatever they wanted from building gravel pits to housing developments. Trapped on their reservations and kept ignorant of their past through federal policy, most nations had no idea what was being done to them. Occasionally in attempts to make things look kosher, a government would agree to “lease” the land from the nation affected on condition that it would be returned when they were done with it.
But most times they didn’t even bother and would just sell it out from under them. Some nations wised up before others. On the West Coast the Niska nation began fighting in the courts for the return of their treaty lands in the 1950’s.
By the time they won their case some forty years later in the 1990’s they were the proud owners of large chunks of expensive sub-divisions that had been built on their territory illegally. There was a great hue and cry from the right wing about “Indians” throwing people out on the street without having to pay for the houses.
What happened instead was that the tribe simply became the new municipal government and collected property taxes, made sure the garbage was collected and basically nobody’s lives were affected in the least. Property values might have fallen slightly but that wasn’t the Niska’s fault. Hate and fear mongering can go a long way in making things unsettled and that was the case in this situation.
In the 1970’s when the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) was getting active in the United States and speaking out for the right of Native Americans, Canadian Natives started to come out of their stupor as well. The first thing that meant for a lot of people was recovering the cultural identity that had been stripped away from them by years of government policy.
Along with the rediscovery of self came political awareness and understanding of what had been going on for the past nearly two hundred years. Tribal bands began gathering together evidence of the old treaties and finding out exactly what land had been originally ceded to them by the governments when they were originally awarded their territories.
The Lubicon Cree in Northern Alberta discovered how much land had been sold out from under them by the Alberta government to Oil and Gas companies; in Saskatchewan a tribe woke up to discover the government was diverting a river that ran through their territory without their permission; but it was 1990 and Oka Quebec that woke the country up to the size of the problem.
The mayor of the sleepy little town of Oka Quebec was also chairman of the local golf club. The club wanted to expand from nine holes to eighteen and so the mayor convinced city council to sell some “vacant land” to the golf course. That vacant land was part of the land ceded to the Mohawk nation whose territory boarded the town of Oka.
When the Mohawks blockaded the road leading to the site the Quebec Provincial Police (La Surete de Quebec) charged the barricade – in the resulting exchange of fire one young officer was shot. What had begun as a peaceful protest escalated to the point where the Prime Minister of Canada decided to call out the army to end the blockade.
Thankfully the Canadian Armed Forces are much better disciplined than the Surete de Quebec and the affair wound down peacefully. But the issue remains unresolved with the land claim still on the books and the golf course made on the disputed territories.
In 1995 it was Ontario’s turn, and this time a Native was killed. At Iperwash Provincial Park Chippewa were protesting the fact that the land used for the park was treaty territory and a traditional burial ground. The documentation asserting their claim is held by the federal government and nobody denied that the land was legally theirs. But nothing happened except Dudley George of the Chippewa First Nations was shot by an Ontario Provincial Police officer for no apparent reason.
Over the years federal governments of every political persuasion have been dragging their heels on dealing with land claims. The longer they stall the more cases come to light. In the past year alone we’ve seen the occupation of the site of a housing development in Caledonia Ontario, the blockading of rail lines along the main east-west passenger corridor in the heaviest populated area of Canada, and various other protests across the country about the delays in settling lands claims.
While you can’t blame the current government for the backlog, you can blame them for not doing anything about it and for their negative attitude towards Native affairs to begin with. This is the government that cancelled an agreement worked out between all the provinces, the Assembly of First Nations (who represent all the reservation Natives across Canada) and the federal government for financial assistance over ten years to all bands across the country.
They claim they have set up a special committee to deal with land claim settlements, but that they won’t do anything as long as barricades are up anywhere across the country. But what guarantees do the Native people of Canada have that this will happen quickly, and why should they trust any government of Canada after what they have experienced in the last two hundred years.
How many times can you lie to, cheat, and deceive a people before they are justified in not believing anything you say anymore? Land claims and treaty rights have reached the stage in Canada where Native Canadians are within their rights to demand some show of good faith on the part of any government if they are to be expected to surrender any means they have of keeping up the pressure to force the issue.
Successive Canadian governments at all levels have not shown themselves to be very good about honouring treaties that were signed by their forefathers, so if Native Canadians are feeling suspicious can you blame them? From there point of view the grass has gotten pretty brown and the running water has slowed to a trickle.