Do Canadians know, or care, about Indigenous issues?

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by Lorraine Rekmans

This is an extract from the podcast series Conversations with David. For the full conversation with Lorraine, listen to the podcast at ngtimes.ca.

I’m always surprised at public forums that people are curious about indigenous issues. Surprisingly, it is relevant to them because they take a lot of pride in being Canadian; they value social justice and wellbeing for all Canadians, they are supportive of universal health care, and they believe that we are a society that takes care of people who have the least. With social media, there is an awareness of the plight of indigenous people and how they have been pushed to the margins. The history of the residential schools has raised awareness about what Canada is doing, and why people do not have fundamental human rights, like drinking water. They (the indigenous people) are part of the founding of this country, and how do we have any moral authority at the United Nations to talk about what other countries are doing, when we are part of the problem?

There is subversive oppression. The history suggests that the intent was to assimilate indigenous people but it wasn’t really about that because of the reserve system; the removal of people from indigenous society would never have occurred if the purpose was assimilation. It started with the treaties with indigenous people; but then came the realization that it was too much effort to honour the treaties. Somebody came up with the idea that the solution was removal and creating a state of dependency. People were put on lands and were told they had to become farmers. Indigenous people were excluded from the economy, arrested for hunting, arrested for leaving their land. It is said that Canada tried to force assimilation on people, but that was not true. There was simply no attempt to incorporate indigenous people into mainstream society, it was removal and genocide.

One of the problems I have right now is reading transcripts in the House of Commons about blatant racism by people who are supposed to be learned. Where indigenous people were successful setting up a business, they were removed and expected to go back to live on the land. There was an odd mixture of motives, where people thought they were doing the right thing, but they were destroying the culture.

Being excluded from participating in the forest economy occurred until 2000. The Province of Ontario decided to turn the forestry over to the private sector. Before that, all of the mills were successful. Then the government signed private deals with industry. If you weren’t in the game at the time, like the First Nations, you were excluded. There was no entry point for inclusion of Indigenous people into that kind of economy. It’s important to talk about how indigenous people enter the system today.

A lot of people don’t recognize indigenous people when they see them. I hear racist talk; I will sit next to people who will talk racist talk right next to me, not realizing that I am indigenous. The fact that most indigenous people live in urban centres doesn’t mean that we are not interested in our homelands.

But there have been a lot of court decisions that have come out in favour of indigenous people. You do have groups going to the United Nations, and the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People paves the way, for that is a way for things to change a lot. But there’s a big difference between legislating and court decisions. The Indian Affairs Act constrains us. So many indigenous people are not being counted under the current registration system.

The Crown has completely ignored basic human rights in terms of housing and education. Reserves were explicitly excluded from early regulations on housing and drinking water. You could have more radioactive materials in drinking water on reserves than in municipalities.

If we look at the Indian Act, it sets up a trust setting the Crown up as the trustee for indigenous people. We set up trusts every day for people who have to make decisions for other people because they are not capable of making them for themselves. It’s about holding assets in trust where you never allow people to access them. If you turn it around, it’s a trusteeship, and the trustees have done a really bad job when they should have protected the trust. They need to be fired. The trust can end at any time.

There is a fiduciary responsibility of the Crown – now it is responsible for the results. If Canada was to report on its actual liabilities in terms of failed trust responsibilities, that would be enormous. Canada is of course terrified but we have to work through it. We’re all here to stay, we have to work it out and negotiate.

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