Indigenous Peoples in Canada

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girl in native dress UN Photo - Evan SchneiderAlthough the term is gaining acceptance, the use of Indigenous Peoples in the Canadian context can be misleading, as it masks their quite intricate and heavily codified status in Canada. Indian collectively describes all the Indigenous Peoples in Canada that are not Inuit or Métis, and can be further divided into Status, Non-Status and Treaty Indians. Only Status Indians are recognized as Indians under the Indian Act and are entitled to specific rights and benefits under the law. To make matters even more complicated, in the Constitution Act of 1982, along with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, enshrined in the Constitution, Aboriginal Peoples is used to refer to Indians, Inuit and Métis.

Section 25 of the Charter was crafted in a way not to derogate or abrogate previous aboriginal rights, treaty rights or any other rights recognized either by the Royal Proclamation of October 7, 1763 or by land claims. By law, the Federal government has constitutional responsibility and authority over Aboriginals and any land that was to be reserved for them. From the get-go, Aboriginals were therefore seen as children under the supervision of their federal parent.

Since Confederation in 1867, things have been changing. Many politicians sought to alter this state of domination, some more successfully than others. The Conservative government currently in power in Ottawa decided to remove the word ‘Indian’ from the name of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, instead using the more accepted ‘Aboriginal’. It is one in a series of events that have marked the changing relationship between Canada and its First Nations. The Government changed the procedures in order to accelerate the resolution of land claims and offered an official apology for the residential schools fiasco that had led to the forced assimilation of native people into the ‘modern’ Canadian society –with all the cultural problems that came with it. However, it also went back on the Kelowna Accord put forward by the previous Liberal government which sought to better the education and living conditions of Aboriginals through a series of programs funded by the federal and provinces. This same Conservative government also showed itself to be hesitant in signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

This mixed record demonstrates the fragile position Canadian Aboriginal peoples are in. Lack of clean drinking water, no sewerage system, bad education, alcoholism and violence are still the everyday lot for many people living on reserves. A recent humanitarian crisis in the Northern Ontario Attawapiskat Reserve created a national debate on the situation of Aboriginals. Many were outraged by the Third World living conditions that these populations have to suffer, in such a prosperous country.

On Tuesday, January 24, Prime Minister Stephen Harper held a summit in Ottawa, welcoming the First Nations in the capital city. Discussions on governance and financial autonomy were on the agenda. However, the Indian Act that many First Nations Leaders want to abolish seems there to stay: “Our government has no grand scheme to repeal or unilaterally re-write the Indian Act. After 136 years, that tree has deep roots. Blowing up the stump would just leave a big hole,” said Harper. Assembly of First Nations National Chief, Shawn Atleo, however, called this legislation “a painful obstacle to re-establishing any form of meaningful partnership.” Given the absence of Métis, Inuit and Non-Status Indian at this meeting, it seems there is still quite a long way to go to reach a new agreement that satisfies all parties.