First Nations peoples and the honour of the Crown

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On Friday, January 11, in the Langevin Block, across from Parliament Hill, the Prime Minister hosted a working meeting, attended by Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and some others from the AFN, but boycotted in anger by treaty Chiefs from Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and elsewhere.

Later in the day, the Governor General convened, and addressed a ceremonial meeting of Chiefs that included Chief Theresa Spence, a focus of attention since she announced her hunger strike over a month earlier.

Though her campaign from a teepee on Victoria Island had led the Harper government hastily to convene a meeting with the AFN, Chief Spence had refused to join the Langevin Block event. She had wanted the Governor General to be present with the PM to meet with First Nations representatives, and for the agenda to focus on the treaty relationship in Canada.

Canadian Press reported that Chief Ovide Mercredi and two other emissaries of the AFN had been refused conditions and terms for the meeting that would satisfy the full AFN leadership (including Chief Spence).

Notably, through his Chief of Staff, the Prime Minister said no to having the Governor General present at his side in Langevin to meet with the Chiefs, and no to widening the meeting to include more Chiefs. Mercredi told CP that Chiefs were outraged when they heard what the PM had decided.

Why did Chief Theresa Spence, Chief Ovide Mercredi, and other Chiefs expect the Governor General to attend the meeting? The short answer is that since 1763 when the Royal Proclamation established the constitutional basis for Aboriginal treaties, First Nations have recognized the Crown (represented today by the Governor General) as their treaty partner.

First Nations livelihood, identity and links to Canada are tied to the treaty relationship.

In the Royal Proclamation -- considered a treaty -- the Crown recognized Aboriginal rights over a vast territory of the North American interior. The Crown negotiated and signed numbered treaties with Aboriginals after Confederation.

The historical attachment of First Nations peoples to the Monarchy and its Vice Regal representative has been well documented as a fiduciary relationship (or one based on trust) that engages "the honour of the crown."

As the representative of the Queen, among other duties, the Governor General assents to legislation, and approves treaties. The Governor General acts as Head of State, and owes allegiance to Canada as a whole. The Prime Minister heads the temporary government of the day, and may remain beholden to supporters, as can be seen in recent legislation and military spending plans.

The Idle No More movement has called for the repeal of Harper government omnibus budget bills C-38 and C-45 since they threaten the environment and clearly violate the spirit of the Peace and Friendship treaties between the Crown and First Nations peoples that date back to the 1763 Royal Proclamation, and earlier, to the French regime.

The omnibus bills withdraw the main pieces of Canadian environmental legislation and protection. Without free, prior, informed consent as required by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Harper government has opened the door to wider, uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources, on lands covered by numbered treaties agreed to by the Crown. These treaties go well beyond reserves and cover vast territories in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and elsewhere. They must be honoured, say grassroots Idle No More activists and Chiefs alike.

As Greenpeace revealed (using documents obtained under Freedom of Information requests), the repeal of the environment laws obtained with Bills C-38 and C-45 was demanded by Big Oil. Brazenly, industry associations thanked the Harper government for co-operating with oil and gas producers. 

When the Canadian Constitution was patriated, and amended in 1982, the new Charter of Rights included Section 25 acknowledging Aborginal rights back to the Royal Proclamation. In addition, Section 35 of the 1982 Constitutional Act "affirms" the treaty rights of Aboriginals (and defines them as Indians, Métis and Inuit). This provision was adopted following intensive mobilization by First Nations, and as result of meetings at both levels of government.

In a press conference late January 11, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs announced that Bills C-38 and C-45 were compatible with the constitutional protection afforded Aboriginals under Section 35, but produced no legislative analysis, or even proof that one had been done.

In her report on the Langevin meeting, University of Victoria Professor Judith Sayers documented its failure to engage with First Nations, and assessed what could have been achieved. In an end-of-the-year open letter, she had appealed to the Prime Minister to do what is necessary for Chief Spence to end her hunger strike before she dies.

With the Langevin meeting, the Harper government is betting the campaigns to restore legislative protection to Canadian waterways, forests, plains, and wilderness are going to fail, that his government can divide Aboriginal leaders, and crush grassroots opposition. The Harper government thinks it can discredit and ignore Chief Spence.

As Conservative PM Brian Mulroney found out, underestimating Aboriginals does not always work. While a celebration was breaking out at the Government Conference Centre following the signature of the 1987 Meech Lake Accord, Manitoba Chiefs Ovide Mercredi and Phil Fontaine followed the proceeding on television with mounting anger, from across the street at the Hotel Chateau Laurier.

They decided there and then, that since it did not in any way address First Nations issues, the Accord on Constitutional reform would not go ahead. Good to their pledge, and with the support of Manitoba NDP MLA Elijah Harper, and the respect of the Manitoba legislature for his lone dissenting vote -- and what it represented -- Meech Lake failed.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Brent Patterson

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