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Idle No More: No Justice, No Peace

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 "Canada is a test case for a grand notion - the notion that dissimilar peoples can share lands, resources, power and dreams while respecting and sustaining their differences. The story of Canada is the story of many such peoples, trying and failing and trying again, to live together in peace and harmony.

But there cannot be peace or harmony unless there is justice. It was to help restore justice to the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada, and to propose practical solutions to stubborn problems, that the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) was established."- page ix, A Word From Commissioners

The quote above comes from a publication that is 150 pages in length, and in my opinion should be read by every single Canadian. This publication is called "People to People, Nation to Nation: Highlights from the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples". If you never manage to wade through the five volumes of findings and recommendations published by the RCAP, please at least make your way through the Highlights. (If you want something even less dense, there is a 51 page document that summarises the report and its main recommendations. Included at the end is a nice breakdown of financial estimates for implementation of these recommendations.)

Backing up a little...the RCAP was established in 1991 and engaged in 178 days of public hearings, visiting 96 communities, commissioning research and consulting with experts. In 1996, the RCAP released a five volume report of findings and recommendations.

"We directed our consultations to one over-riding question: What are the foundations of a fair and honourable relationship between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people of Canada?" - page x, A Word From Commissioners

This was the central purpose of the RCAP. To figure out what went wrong, how it went wrong, and what can be done to correct the problems identified.

A lot of people seem to feel lost when it comes to the huge diversity of issues faced by Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and with the obviously dysfunctional system of relationships between indigenous peoples and settlers. You will see this reflected in comment sections, or falling from the mouths of politicians and reporters, or yelled out in frustration over and over again whenever there is conflict between us. What you are witnessing is hopelessness. Helplessness. Confusion does this to people, and that is why I think the RCAP is so incredibly powerful and important.

You see...people really do sit down and identify the problems and try to come up with solutions...and if you feel like you have no idea where to begin to address these problems, then I want you to know that you have a good place to start. You don't need to reinvent the wheel here folks. So much work has already been done to come up with practical solutions to identifiable problems, and it's a damn shame that most Canadians have never read a single word published by this Royal Commission. So let's get to it, shall we?

What's the big picture here?

"Our central conclusion can be summarized simply: The main policy direction, pursued for more than 150 years, first by colonial then by Canadian governments, has been wrong." - page x, A Word From Commissioners.

I know a lot of people reading that conclusion are going to roll their eyes and say "well duh! We know that things weren't done in a fair fashion, but holy! Let's get over the past and live in the present already!"

Except that's not what the Commission is saying. They have not absolved current government policy, or indicated that things have been fixed and now we have only historical injustices to address. Please understand this clearly. Current government policy continues to be wrong. The RCAP was quite adamant about this when they released their final report in 1996, and not enough has changed since then to warrant a pat on the back for making things all better.

I recognise that this is too vague for you right now, but I want you to understand that it is incredibly important to simply admit this one thing. Admitting that historical AND current government policy towards Aboriginal peoples is wrong, is no light thing. You will find strong resistance to this concept, particularly in the contemporary context. The Canadian government certainly does not accept this as true. The vast majority of Canadians probably do not accept that this is true.

So before you ask, "why belabour the obvious, Chelsea?" I want you to remember that getting people to accept this premise on a wide scale is something we have yet to accomplish, and that the rejection of this as truth is the number one reason we have yet to resolve our problems, people to people, nation to nation.

So what do I need to know?

I think the first thing all Canadians need to have firmly rooted in their consciousness is...indigenous peoples are not going away. Ever. Never ever ever.

"Successive governments have tried - sometimes intentionally, sometimes in ignorance - to absorb Aboriginal people into Canadian society, thus eliminating them as distinct peoples. Policies pursued over the decades have undermined - and almost erased - Aboriginal cultures and identities.

This is assimilation. It is a denial of the principles of peace, harmony and justice for which this country stands - and it has failed. Aboriginal peoples remain proudly different.

Assimilation policies failed because Aboriginal people have the secret of cultural survival. They have an enduring sense of themselves as peoples with a unique heritage and the right to cultural continuity." page x, A Word From Commissioners.

Many Canadians are still clamouring for assimilation. You can see this again in all those comment sections, in all of the dialogues about 'how to fix the Aboriginal problem'. The solutions are invariably, "Make them more like us! Private property! Get them out of isolated communities and into the cities with the rest of us! No special rights! No differences! Treat them the same!" and so on.

It's all been tried. It really has. You might not know all the history yet so perhaps you think your ideas are novel. I suggest starting with Volume One of the RCAP Report, titled "Looking Forward, Looking Back". Go ahead and skip to the sections on the Indian Act, Residential Schools, and Relocation of Aboriginal Communities. Pretty much every suggestion currently being given to assimilate native peoples has been actively tried before, with disastrous results and ultimately, a failure to actually assimilate us.

Stop it. It didn't work, and it isn't going to work, no matter how much cooler you think you are than the policy makers of the past. Accept the fact that we are here, and we aren't leaving, and that we recognise you aren't leaving either. It would do us all a world of good if we could be on the same page on this one.

Where do we go from here?

"After some 500 years of a relationship that has swung from partnership to domination, from mutual respect and co-operation to paternalism and attempted assimilation, Canada must now work out fair and lasting terms of coexistence with Aboriginal people." - page 1, Looking Forward, Looking Back.

The truth is, the status quo isn't working, and contrary to what you may believe, the status quo is colonialism. This is something many people have recognised over the years as they have examined the history and the current reality the relationship between indigenous peoples and Canada.

The Commission quite conveniently outlined four reasons to commit to building this new relationship:

  • Canada's claim to be a fair and enlightened society depends on it.


  • The life chances of Aboriginal people, which are still shamefully low, must be improved.


  • Negotiations, as conducted under the current rules, has proved unequal to the task of settling grievances.


  • Continued failure may well lead to violence.


Don't buy it? Then perhaps you can explain how repeating the mistakes of the past (assimilation, relocation etc) is a more intelligent approach? I don't know about you, but I'm definitely ready to try something different.

What did the Commission have in mind?

"The first and perhaps most important element is the need to reject the principles on which the relationship has foundered over the last two centuries in particular -- principles such as assimilation, control, intrusion and coercion -- and do away with the remnants of the colonial era. As a beginning, we need to abandon outmoded doctrines such as terra nullius and discovery. We must reject the attitudes of racial and cultural superiority reflected in these concepts, which contributed to European nations' presumptions of sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and lands. The renewed relationship needs to be built on principles that will return us to a path of justice, co-existence and equality." - Chapter 14 of Part 3, Volume 1.

I know I keep coming back to this, but it's important. The way forward needs to be guided by accepting these two related points as true:


  • The main policy direction, pursued for more than 150 years, first by colonial then by Canadian governments, has been [and continues to be] wrong.
  • We need to reject the principles on which the relationship has foundered over the last two centuries in particular -- principles such as assimilation, control, intrusion and coercion -- and do away with the remnants of the colonial era.

Until we have that firmly set in our minds, we are all going to spin our wheels, because a great many of the people 'coming to the table' will continue to hold on to ideas that will actively sabotage any attempt to create new relationships.

But let's pretend we all agree, and move on.

Restructure the relationship? How?

Volume Two of the RCAP final report deals with precisely this issue. The Commission makes concrete suggestions about restructuring and renewing treaties, for example, to return them to living agreements rather than historical artifacts. This includes changing the approach to so called 'modern' treaties which are still very much based on a model of 'we talk about this once, we sign, and we never ever discuss it again'. No other kind of treaty works that way and the Commission provides some good recommendations about how to change the process both of addressing historical treaties, and approaching modern treaties.

In-depth discussions and recommendations related to governance, lands and resources, and economic development, can also be found in Volume Two. If you are curious about any of these things, please use this resource to learn more about the issues. Again, the important thing about this report is that it does not just leave you with the problems identified (a step that is undoubtedly important), but also provides you with concrete solutions that you can roll around in your head for a while to see how you feel about it.

Volume Two is very much about building a vehicle for change.

Even if we change the relationship, how is that going to fix the problems Aboriginal communities face?

Volume Three of the RCAP is titled, "Gathering Strength". It deals with many of the issues that have been raised recently in the context of Attawapiskat, such as housing, education and health. It also addresses family, culture and language, and social policy in general.

Volume Three is about how where we're going to drive that vehicle for change.

Volume Four provides us with a diversity of Aboriginal perspectives on a range of issues, providing us with historical information, current issues and needs and recommendations for integrating these different perspectives in a way that ensures any sight-seeing we do along the journey doesn't leave anyone out.

What if I just wanted to see a roadmap for how any of this would actually work?

Volume Five lays out a twenty year plan to implement all the recommendations of the Commission. It provides the sort of cost/benefit analysis that seems to tickle some people to no end, so if that's your thing, feel free to skip straight to the 'nitty gritty'. If you simply want to overload on practical suggestions for identified problems, then mosey on over to Appendix A, which contains all 444 recommendations for change proposed by the RCAP.

Wait, 20-year plan? But this report was released over 15 years ago, surely we're close to implementing all these recommendations?

Ahahahahahahhaaa.......ha. No. Even if we're generous and start the clock ticking after the release of the final report in 1996 rather than with the creation of the Commission in 1991 (in which case 20 years would be up), we have seen precious little improvement in 15 years.

The Assembly of First Nations released a Report Card 10 years after the RCAP, detailing the dismal implementation record to date.

A conference in 2006 that discussed Life After the RCAP, was pretty disheartening. That conference provided some very interesting information on what impact the RCAP has had, even absent full implementation, so if you want a quick discussion on the pros and cons of how the Commission went about fulfilling its mandate, and on how the report has been received non-officially in the courts and so on, please take a gander! In particular, I suggest reading the summary of Alan C. Cairn's breakdown of some of the inherent problems with the Commission's approach to nationhood. The RCAP was not without its flaws.

Why hasn't there been more progress?

Aaaaand this is why I take you back to those points I kept hammering away at earlier. You know, these ones:

  • The main policy direction, pursued for more than 150 years, first by colonial then by Canadian governments, has been [and continues to be] wrong.
  • We need to reject the principles on which the relationship has foundered over the last two centuries in particular -- principles such as assimilation, control, intrusion and coercion -- and do away with the remnants of the colonial era.

It is my firm belief that Canada has not yet accepted these two points as true, and because of this, there has been little in the way of progress.

If you actually believe that native culture is inferior, then you don't value it and you sure as heck aren't going to take it seriously. If you don't understand the history of relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, then you aren't going to believe that current conditions faced by Aboriginal peoples aren't almost entirely self-imposed. If you know nothing about Aboriginal governance and think Indian Act governance is 'traditional', then you probably aren't going to have much faith in native self-government. If you don't know what has been attempted before (assimilation, relocation, etc) then you're going to think that you're coming up with something really radical when you suggest similar things in the current context.

This country is woefully ignorant, on a grand scale, and we will never succeed in rebuilding relationships until we address that ignorance. I can't stress this enough...without education, there can be no justice. And until there is justice...there will be no peace.

My purpose here was to introduce people to the RCAP, both as a starting point for further investigation into the many issues faced by native peoples in Canada, and also as proof positive that practical solutions have been suggested. That latter part is important, because people need to stop believing that there is no other way 'out' besides just assimilating us once and for all. It might seem so much simpler to just legislate us out of existence, make us all 'the same' to satisfy liberal notions of equality, but it won't actual solve anything. The RCAP is a good place to start if you want to know why such attempts are doomed to fail, and what alternatives have been proposed.


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