Volume 10 Number 3
First Nations Put Healing First
01 June 1997

Do Canada's aboriginal people hold the key to national unity? Keith Newman examines a controversial report which calls for a new relationship between First Nations and settlers and describes efforts to bring about healing.

In the summer of 1990, Canada looked on in horror as a Mohawk protest, over a proposal to extend a golf course onto land sacred to them, escalated into armed confrontation. For three months, Mohawk warriors faced first the Quebec police, and then the Canadian army, across the barricades in what came to be known as the Oka Crisis.

The crisis spurred the federal government to set up the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which presented its findings last November. Its report challenges Canadians to rebuild their relationships on new foundations of recognition, respect, sharing and responsibility. Its suggestions on how to do this have caused considerable controversy.

The Commissioners took five years to prepare their report. They commissioned 370 studies, visited 96 communities and heard 27,000 pages of testimony-at a cost of $58 million. For the first time, the oral history of the aboriginal people was given equal weight with the more conventional historical record.

The 4,000 pages which resulted reveal a history of arrogance, ignorance, duplicity and fraud on behalf of Canada's settlers which calls into question the very foundations of the nation that the UN has frequently named the best place in the world to live. 'The main policy direction, pursued for more than 150 years first by colonial, then by Canadian governments, has been wrong,' the Commissioners state unequivocally.

The report calls for the government of Canada to make a clear commitment to renewing the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people and makes 444 specific recommendations on how this should be achieved.

The fundamental issue, the report states, is for Canadians to accept that aboriginal peoples are nations-'with a long and shared history, a right to govern themselves and, in general, a strong desire to do so in partnership with Canada'. It points out that they had lived as nations for thousands of years before European settlers arrived in Canada.
'To this day,' the report continues, 'aboriginal people's sense of confidence and well-being as individuals remains tied to the strength of their nations. Only as members of restored nations can they reach their potential in the 21st century.'

The Commissioners feel that what is needed is a fundamental commitment to a new relationship. To that end, they have called for a Royal Proclamation by the Queen-'a major, symbolic statement of intent, accompanied by the laws needed to turn intentions into action'.

They have historical precedent on their side. In 1763, in a Royal Proclamation which is sometimes called the aboriginal peoples' Magna Carta, George III summarized the rules which were to govern British dealings with aboriginal people. They were not to be 'molested or disturbed' on their lands; land transactions were to be negotiated properly between the Crown and 'assemblies of Indians'; aboriginal lands were only to be acquired by treaty or purchase by the Crown.

'The Proclamation portrays Indian nations as autonomous political entities, living under the protection of the Crown but retaining their own internal political authority,' comment the Commissioners. 'It walks a fine line between safeguarding the rights of aboriginal peoples and establishing a process to permit British settlement.'

Over a hundred years later, in 1867, the Confederation of Canada allowed for similar power-sharing between the federal and provincial governments. 'But,' points out the Commission, 'the first confederal bargain was with First Peoples.'

The new Proclamation would be presented to the people of Canada in a special assembly. In its preamble, the Commissioners recommend, it should:

• reaffirm Canada's respect for aboriginal peoples as distinctnations;

• affirm their right to fashion their own lives and control their own governments and lands;

• acknowledge harmful actions by past governments;

• acknowledge that justice and fair play are essential for reconciliation;

• state that the new relationship rests on a foundation of respect, recognition, sharing and mutual responsibility.

By April, the Canadian government had not made any definitive comment on the report; but Ron Irwin, the Minister for Indian Affairs in the federal government, had commented that the Proclamation was a 'non-starter'.

A second controversial recommendation concerns Canada's system of government, generally seen as comprising two independent orders-federal and provincial-between whom powers and responsibilities are divided. The report proposes that the First Nations should constitute a 'third order', with exclusive powers of their own. The Commission explains, 'the three orders are autonomous within their spheres of jurisdiction, thus sharing the sovereignty of Canada as a whole.'

This concept is complicated by the fact that about 44 per cent of the aboriginal population live in urban areas-outside land reserved for the exclusive use of aboriginal people. This percentage is increasing, because of the lack of economic and educational opportunity on the reserves.

One commentator writes: 'The idea that aboriginal societies should live parallel with non-aboriginal Canada-a parallelism which would include an aboriginal parliament, passports containing both aboriginal and Canadian nationality, 50 to 60 aboriginal governments with powers akin to those of the Canadian provinces-underlines a kind of "separate-but-equal" approach that Canadians will find hard to stomach.'

Equally hard to stomach, at a time when the federal government is trying to reduce a $17 billion annual deficit, is the Commission's call for $1.5 billion extra per year to be spent on health, education and economic development for aboriginal nations over the next 20 years.

Irwin, the Minister responsible, says that this increase in spending is not possible. He hopes that consensus can be reached on the aims, 'and then work it backwards-how can we fit this into existing budgets, how can we do this better, what additional funds are needed'.

The Commissioners, however, are clear that 'piecemeal reform' will not do the job and argue that extra spending now will save money in the long run. Because of past neglect and present dependency, the government spends twice as much per capita on education, health care and welfare for aboriginal peoples as for the rest of the population.

If nothing is done, the Commission maintains, total spending on aboriginal peoples will rise from $7.5 billion a year today to $11 billion in 2016. Higher spending today, on the other hand, would cut health, welfare and prison bills in the future, by raising living conditions and employment.

Most comment on the report, both by the media and the government, has centred on the cheque book issues. But, as Robert Sheppard wrote in The Globe and Mail, the challenge is not only economic. 'To make the plan work at all,' he commented, 'first a wounded spirit has to be healed, and real hope has to be restored to young native people after having been absent for too many generations. This is not the kind of thing you can change with a cheque book or the flourish of a pen.'

Cree-Ojibway leader and Member of Parliament Elijah Harper agrees. Harper represents Churchill in northern Manitoba, one of Canada's largest electoral districts, in the federal parliament. He says that the recognition of the nation status of aboriginal people is primarily a spiritual matter, which goes to the heart of who controls the peoples' lives.

Harper became a hero to the aboriginal people when, in 1990, he brandished an eagle feather in the Manitoba provincial legislature and blocked the ratification of the Meech Lake Accord on Canada's constitution, on the grounds that it did not allow for adequate participation by aboriginal people.

He has watched the rising militancy among his people since 1990 with concern. In 1995 two major conflicts erupted; one at Gustafsen Lake, which fortunately ended without loss of life; and one at Ipperwash Provincial Park, where a young Chippewa was killed in a violent confrontation with Ontario Provincial Police.

In the fall of 1995, the Minister of Indian Affairs invited Harper to accompany him on a visit to the site of the Ipperwash stand-off. There, with the Minister's support, Harper launched the idea of a 'Sacred Assembly' of spiritual leaders to seek wisdom and healing.

Two thousand attended the first Sacred Assembly in December 1995-spiritual leaders from the First Nations, churches and other faiths, as well as elected officials and the general public.

'We want very much to be involved not in a struggle for power but in a mission to heal our country,' Ovide Mercredi, national Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told the assembly. 'When the Prime Minister and [provincial] Premiers talk about unity, they do not use words like "healing", "harmony", "sharing". They talk about power and the division of powers. Perhaps that is the error.

'Lately some leaders have spoken of the need for reconciliation. This is a good start, but we do not see reconciliation being achieved without justice.'

Representatives of the churches which had sent missionaries to convert the First Nations reiterated apologies for past mistakes which they had already made at different times and places. As the days progressed and traditional leaders were able to speak frankly about 'cultural genocide', a new openness developed and understanding grew.

'Apology alone doesn't go far enough,' said Elijah Harper. 'It requires both sides. If we don't forgive we can't be totally free. The act of forgiveness releases both sides, the victim and the oppressor.'

The final communiqué from the Sacred Assembly outlined the principles and priorities for a new relationship. It recognized the supremacy of 'Creator God' and 'the special right and responsibility of aboriginal peoples to ensure the continuing integrity of the land and the unity and well-being of its inhabitants'. It asserted that reconciliation must be rooted in 'a spiritual understanding of land as a gift from the Creator God'. It called on both aboriginal and non- aboriginal people to take concrete action to overcome historic injustices and 'to bind up the wounds of those who have suffered'.

After a list of the steps that individuals, communities and the government could take, the communiqué ended with a ringing call to action: 'Let us go forth from this Sacred Assembly with the commitment to walk side by side with the Creator in a common search for justice and reconciliation. For we firmly believe that the blessings of the Creator will not flow upon this land until the aboriginal peoples are healed, receive justice and are able to take their rightful place in the country we now call Canada.'

The Royal Commission's report complements the Sacred Assembly, by specifying the steps that need to be taken. Across the nation, groups are meeting to study the report, and churches are urging the government to take it seriously. The Prime Minister has replied that, with an election imminent, the report will not be addressed in the lifetime of this parliament.

Harper believes that First Nations people have an important part to play in Canadian unity. 'Canadians need to sit down and begin a dialogue rather than confronting each other,' he says. 'The aboriginal people can provide leadership. We need to forgive as individuals and as a nation.'

It is widely held among the First Nations of North America that the Creator has given them the task of bringing the four colours of humanity (black, white, red and yellow) into harmony. They feel that the Royal Commission report, if implemented, would give them the recognition and authority they need. But they are not waiting for it.

Several spiritual initiatives are being considered. The most immediate is a second Sacred Assembly in August at Saugkeen Reserve north of Winnipeg. It will provide the chance to review the past year and a half, and to assess what new steps should be taken in the healing process.
Keith Newman

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