“It’s ridiculous to think people would say: I have all this land, millions and millions and millions of acres of land, I’m giving it to you for a piece of land that is 5 miles by 5 miles and a few dollars a year. To put it in terms of a real estate transaction, it’s preposterous, it doesn’t make any sense.”
—As reported in the Vancouver Observer by Linda Solomon Wood
In Fort McMurray today, Bob Rae called treaties a “trillion dollar exchange” that took place in one of the world’s biggest real estate negotiations between the crown and First Nations as Canada was born.
The former head of the Liberal Party stood at the podium of the “As Long as the Rivers Flow: Coming Back to the Treaty Relationship in our Time” conference and gave a powerful speech on the need for governments to develop a new way of negotiating.
Rae spoke of “two separate narratives” that have evolved between “two separate worlds” and of the need to bridge these worlds.
“Whatever arrangements were worked out a hundred years ago clearly don’t work out today,” the former Ontario premier with piercing blue eyes told the group. “We aren’t getting good governance for First Nations people, getting support, getting revenues…A lot of people say the reserves don’t function. Whose fault is that? Who built that system? It was built as a way of setting First Nations aside. Let’s have the courage to move beyond how history has defined some of these relationships and say this just isn’t working.”
His voice rising with emotion, Rae said, “It’s ridiculous to think people would say: I have all this land, millions and millions and millions of acres of land, I’m giving it to you for a piece of land that is 5 miles by 5 miles and a few dollars a year. To put it in terms of a real estate transaction, it’s preposterous. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“One of the reasons that governments and first nations have such difficulty talking to each other is there is such a gap in understanding of the issues and such a difference in perspective,” Rae told the audience at the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation-organized conference, co-sponsored by the law firm, Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP, where he is a partner.
“I’m not someone who is opposed to development. I do not have a philosophical view that any or all such development is evil or wrong or immoral. I don’t share that perspective, but I do share a perspective that says we have not yet as a country fully embraced who we really are, or understood the fact that long before European settlement arrived in any part of the country were people living here who lived here for thousands and thousands of years,” he said.
“That Indigenous people had a language and government and economy and way of life which had endured for generations and was never respected by the people who came. The people who came somehow thought their economy and religion and government was superior to the one they found. And there was a sense of racism and a sense of contempt for the culture that already existed and had the deepest roots in the country from one coast to another coast. And history now records a history of violence of disease, of discrimination, where people’s very existence was denied. Where it was asserted in legal terms that this was no man’s land. That we can claim sovereignty because no one actually lives here.
“When you consider the brutal untruth of that statement, you realize some of the bridges we have to cross to get to equality and understanding.
“When Canada became a country in 1867, one of the first pieces of legislation that was passed was the Indian Act, a piece of legislation that defined who Indigenous people were. Where they could live, where they could go, what they could go. They were not allowed to vote. In some cases they could not leave the little reserves that had been assigned to them. When the movement of the economy and the railroad came further and further , the buffalo disappeared. Within the space of a decade, the animal that had been the basis of the economy was wiped out. And people were starved into submission and signed a treaty.
“From the perspective of the government of Canada and of provinces, what the treaty said was this, First Nations give up all claim to the land, surrender absolutely any claim to the land, in exchange for which, they would get, depending on the treaty, either 4 dollars of 5 dollars a year, the right to continue to live on a reserve, the right to continue to hunt on traditional territory and some sense that they were being protected by the crown. The treaties were set up by the crown. The treaties were set up to create the space for development.
“Clearing the Plains”: getting people off their land
“The problem we have is that from a First Nations’ perspective, that interpretation of the treaties doesn’t make any sense, for a whole bunch of reasons, first of all because they would not see themselves as having title to the land in the same sense that Europeans would,” Rae said.
“The First Nations view of land, land belongs to the creator, the water belongs to the creator, the air belongs to the creator. The relationship is not one of ownership but of stewardship, caring in perpetuity. That’s a different concept. As one chief said to me, how can it be said I gave up something I never had? How can I give up title? I don’t ‘own’ title. But neither do you, Mrs. Crown or Mr. Crown.
“The federal and provincial governments are now saying we have to talk. We have modern day discussions and in those modern day discussions, you have land being transferred, you have resource revenues being transferred, you have arrangements with respect to how prosperity will be shared.
“We have two worlds. We have two narratives. We have two understandings. And we have these gaps. As the world of resource extraction moves further north and further west and the prospect of even more development is all around us, and the challenges of pollution and environmental damage are in front of us all the time, First Nations are saying, something’s wrong with this picture.
Some glimmers of light
“While we know that thanks to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Section 35, …We’ve begun to see some hope of glimmer and light in what an interpretation of the law might be.
“I’m one who thinks we have to rely on politics as well as just litigation and going to court. And in so doing, we have to almost shame the provincial and federal governments into saying, how can you possibly maintain that relationships that were enforced by you at the same time you were forcing children into residential schools? How can you say that can produce a relationship that can come to sharing resources?
“We cannot allow the Indian Act to define the nature of Indigenous status and culture in the country today. We cannot allow someone else’s interpretation of treaties to define who First Nations people are. And that is going to require a greater degree of discussion as we try to see if it’s possible to move the discussion in a completely different direction.
“I’m the lead negotiator on behalf of 9 First Nations. We have a framework agreement in which the province says we will have an environmental assessment process which must be negotiated with you. We will negotiate how to improve education health care and we will negotiate revenue sharing with you. Is it perfect? no. Does it go far enough? No. It took a year to get that far. But it’s also a sign if people get together and assert authority and jurisdiction, this is the dialogue that needs to happen.
“That is the challenge we face today in Canada and to a much greater extent than people realize, how that development goes is going to be more up to First Nations than people might think.
“Beyond legal regulatory power, there is something called social license. The concept of social license changes over time. There was a time when people could do things to the land and people would just say well that’s just the way it is. People would build pipelines without any conservation. Those days are gone. And it is important for us as we go forward to continue a dialogue not only with governments and with industry but also among First Nations to build a deeper and stronger consensus and then with broader Canadian society.”
**Photo by Simon Hayter