I keep wondering, why is it that some of the national Aboriginal organizations (NAOs) continue to look the other way when the Conservatives show their true colours? There is a saying that goes: when someone tells you who they really are, you should listen. So, if a guy tells you on a date he doesn’t want to settle down, you should not be surprised if after dating him for several months that he does not want to get married.

In Canada, the Crown has not only shown its policy objectives through its legal and political actions, but it has made them very explicit in speeches, cabinet papers and written documents. Canada’s underlying objective in Indian policy is to “rid Canada of the Indian problem” and to free up land for settlement and development. Even the joint action plan between Canada and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) focuses on freeing up land to “benefit Canadians.”

Thus Indian law and policy has been based on the fact that Canada still sees the “Indian problem” as temporary and that, despite apologies to the contrary, it views First Nations as inferior and incapable of handling their own affairs. The age-old solution has been assimilation — by whatever means. Historically, that meant scalping laws, small pox-infected blankets, starvation, preventing hunting and fishing or leaving reserves, outlawing culture, residential schools, and now legislated extinction in the Indian Act registration provisions, trying to change reserve lands to fee simple and imprisoning our men and women at alarming rates.

This has not changed over time, although we may have seen some political dancing around the issue. Yet, none of us should be fooled or distracted by the dance. Canada’s progress on relations with First Nations has taken a draconian step backwards with the Conservatives (Cons) in power. Some might say I am biased, but seeing as I don’t belong to any political party in Canada, nor do I make a habit of voting, I think my views are less biased than most. I call it as I see it based on the Cons’ individual and collective actions, decisions, positions and submissions.

I start with the Cons’s appointment of John Duncan as Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC now AANDC). Duncan had a history of being vigorously opposed to what he called “race-based” fishing. He saw First Nations as a races that did not deserve to have their Aboriginal and treaty rights respected, despite their constitutional protection.

Then of course there is the fact that Tom Flanagan, the guy famous for advocating for the assimilation of Aboriginal peoples, was Harper’s campaign manager and then his Chief of Staff. For anyone who has not read First Nations? Second Thoughts or Beyond the Indian Act, Flanagan sees Aboriginal peoples as “primitive” and that “assimilation” has to happen. Imagine the influence he would have had over the PM or his staff regarding Aboriginal peoples. That might explain Harper’s comment on the international stage that there was “no history of colonization in Canada.”

Then, there was MP Pierre Poilievre who, on the day of the residential schools apology, questioned whether the settlement was “value for money.” One might think he is just a lone radical, right-wing voice in the Conservative government were it not for Minister Duncan’s statement yesterday where he said that residential schools were NOT a form of cultural genocide — it was just negative to culture, not lethal.

Wow. Really? Do the Conservatives think we are all stupid? Upwards of 40 per cent of the children who entered residential schools never made it out alive. The express purpose of residential schools was expressed by superintendent of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott:

“I want to get rid of the Indian problem… Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada.”

Even when residential schools became too controversial, they switched over to what is now known as the ’60s scoop, where children were taken from their parents, and instead of being put in residential schools, they were adopted out permanently in non-Indian families. To believe that Indian policy and assimilation is a thing of the past is to be blind to the current reality. To believe that it is not genocide ignores our own Criminal Code and the United Nations own definition of genocide.

The Criminal code defines genocide as not just the murder of an identifiable group, but also includes the creating of conditions that lead to their physical destruction. The United Nations includes the theft of children from an identifiable group. Canada’s habit of deferring issues to study, deflecting issues by blaming First Nations or denying issues like genocide are all strategic ways of allowing assimilation to continue.

This brings me back to my point. Some of our NAOs are working with the Conservatives under the hopes of changing their minds. This reminds me of that saying again — if someone tells who they are, you should listen. If a man continually beats his wife, the wife can expect, with some certainty, that the man will beat her in the future, that the violence will likely get worse, and may even result in her death. Why should we expect anything other than what the Conservatives have promised?

Look at the Conservatives election platform — what was offered for Indigenous people except adult training in the north, the chance to sit on a hunting advisory panel (of mostly non-Indians) and to have input on a park in Rouge Hill. Who the heck asked for any of that stuff? The core issues of sovereignty and jurisdiction, treaties, land claims and equitable funding were all off the list. What they were saying is really: “We, the Conservatives, are promising you nothing — absolutely nothing, but you better be our willing partners or maybe things will get worse.” Thus, some of the NAOs have stopped representing our interests, and have made decisions based on fear and organizational self-interest.

This is really frustrating for me as a grass-roots person. These organizations were all created to represent our interests politically and some of them have failed to do so by being co-opted by the endless funding dance where the Conservatives essentially say, “play nice with us and we give you minor funding to keep your organization alive, but play against and lose your funding.” OK, that is a reality that sucks as we could really use some coordination, research and representation at all levels. However, acquiescing to our own extinction — legal or otherwise, is hardly a viable alternative.

Things like ec dev projects, consulting contracts and project funding are short-term gains that will result in long-term pains (loss of lands and legislated assimilation) and that is not in anyone’s best interest.

Playing nice may win individuals Senate seats, Porsches or media fame, but it does little to protect our people — those who are suffering the most. Just because the Conservatives think it is OK for our PM to live in luxury and travel the world, while poverty and homelessness is rising in Canada, that does not mean that we as Indigenous governments should emulate that form of society.

Yet, time and again, some of us are shocked when we hear unbelievably racist comments come from the Minister of Indian Affairs or PM Harper. Why the shock? They have told us many, many times who they really are and how they really feel about our issues. Our wishing it wasn’t so won’t change that. What we can change is whether or not we continue to prop up the Conservatives and their ludicrous ideas, or whether we stand together against it. There are other Canadians out there who see the benefit of a more equitable and just society that lives in harmony with nature — we have allies both home and abroad.

Our power has always been in our unity and our unity is what defeated the White Paper, what defeated the the First Nations Governance Act and many other assimilatory plans and policies. Nothing has changed in the Conservative government except how they are going about our assimilation. Instead of proposing massive and immediate assimilation, they now have a more insidious plan which accomplishes assimilation over a longer term through many different measures which appear neutral, but spell our demise. They also use our people as their spokespeople for assimilation under the guise of “progress” and they distract us with red herrings so we don’t see what is really happening.

Perhaps one bill won’t result in our extinction, but if you look at the entirety of their plan — disappearing Indian status, non-natives occupying reserve lands, turning reserves into fee simple for sale, provincially controlled education, loss of funding for languages, non-existent land claim resolution and delayed self-government, you see a very clear pattern — one that has not changed since Duncan Campbell Scott, the White Paper or Flanagan.

If they wait long enough, there will be no Indians left to negotiate self-government, exercise treaty rights or live on reserves. Reserves will all be used for mineral development, Wal-Marts, or residences for non-Indians. When our children look back at how this all happened, we will see the smiling faces of our national leaders shaking hands with Canada, promoting these things as “good for us.” What our children will also see are organizations that used to exist until Canada accomplished what it intended to do and then finally cut off funding for those national organizations.

In the words of Canada’s own demographic expert, we will “author our own demise.” So, instead of relying on the naive hope that the Conservatives will do something good for us if we play nice and act as “willing partners,” it’s time our national leaders grew a backbone and started representing us like our ancestors did — with a sense of realism, foresight, and self-sacrifice. Otherwise, every time one of us, like Sharon McIvor, wins a small victory in the ongoing battle against our assimilation, we will all lose when our national leaders make deals on her behalf and let the world know our rights are for sale.

I see a great future for our children if we take action today to protect them. I know it is possible to save our languages and cultures if we refuse to submit to federal control. I see larger, stronger Nations if we make some short-term sacrifice. I also see more empowered leaders if they would start relying on their people — the grass-roots citizens who have a great deal to offer. Leaders were never meant to go this alone, nor were our women, our children or our men. We can turn around the number of Indigenous kids in care, murdered and missing Indigenous women, over-incarcerated Indigenous men and grass roots Indigenous people who are disconnected from their communities and Nations.

Canada through the Indian Act and its various Indian policies divided our Nations into small communities; divided our communities between on and off reserve, member and non-member; and divided our families into Indians and non-Indians. This is called divide and conquer and it is designed to make us think we are all alone in this struggle against oppression — when in fact we are all in this together. There is nothing wrong with us as Indigenous people. We are not genetically inferior. This is not about a great system that once used to work and is now broken. The system is working exactly how the colonizers designed it — to facilitate our assimilation. While the worst culprit is the Conservative Party today, all Canadian governments have had their hand in Indian policy at one time or another.

We are strong as peoples and we are even stronger when we all work together. Every single one of us has a responsibility to stop the destruction of our people and our way of life. Our future is not for sale.

Write to your NAO and let them know how you feel. It’s time they started taking their mandates from the people again.


Pamela Palmater

Dr. Pamela D. Palmater is a Mi’kmaw lawyer and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick. She teaches Indigenous law, politics and governance at Ryerson University and is the Ryerson...