Image: PMO/Adam Scotti

In the late 1980s, because of my Indigenous policy background, I was convinced by a close friend to get involved in efforts to create an Aboriginal Peoples’ Commission within the Liberal Party of Canada. The Liberal Party already had a Women’s and Youth Commission so the model to change the Liberal Party’s constitution was already there.

I agreed to get involved because the Mulroney era was a disaster. In 1986, a secret federal Cabinet document was leaked called the “Buffalo Jump of the 1980s,” which recommended — like the 1969 White Paper on Indian Policy — the termination of Indigenous rights through various policy measures including off-loading federal responsibilities for “status Indians” onto the provinces.

In June 1990, during the Liberal Leadership Convention that elected Jean Chretien as leader, the Aboriginal Peoples’ Commission (APC) was created via amendments to the Liberal Party’s constitution. I was also elected at that convention to the founding executive of the APC as Vice-President for Policy.

Weeks later, on July 11, 1990, the SQ riot squad stormed the pines at Kanehsatake.

The APC was involved in advising the new Liberal leader and the Liberal Party through this difficult time; although Chretien had his own misguided ideas on Indigenous policy, as many of us know.

In the lead-up to the 1993 federal election, the APC was active in advising the Liberal Party on what should be included in the party platform on Indigenous issues. There was resistance from the party establishment, people running interference for Jean Chretien, like Chaviva Hosek, Liberal Party Research Director and Eddie Goldenberg, Chretien’s senior political advisor, but the APC held public policy forums soliciting input. We largely controlled the pen that developed what became the 1993 Liberal Aboriginal Platform in the Red Book and a longer version released in Saskatoon by Chretien during the campaign. 

Unfortunately, once the Liberals won a majority government in 1993, Chretien set out to break or ignore the Liberal promises on Indigenous policy. Chretien named one of his cronies, Ron Irwin, as Minister of Indian Affairs, who started his term by trying to amend the Indian Act to give Ottawa bureaucrats greater control over Indigenous communities. The proposed changes were worse than the status quo.

The Chretien-Irwin Indian Act amendment package failed as another federal election was called and Ron Irwin left politics, but Chretien didn’t give up. He named Robert Nault as Minister of Indian Affairs, who tried to force passage of the previous Indian Act amendments through Parliament as the “First Nations Governance Act.” Again, this proposed law was defeated with the help of the NDP and Bloc Quebecois MPs who stalled the Bill in Parliament.

Chretien and Irwin also unilaterally imposed the 1995 federal so-called Inherent Right to Self-Government policy, which essentially converts Indian Act bands into municipal type local governments while replacing tax exemptions with the ability to raise “own-source revenue” for local programs.

In short, I and the other founding executive members of the Liberal Party’s APC were betrayed by Jean Chretien, who killed our efforts to improve federal Indigenous policy. The 1993 Liberal Aboriginal platform was buried by Chretien and subsequent Liberal leaders and the long-standing federal objective of terminating Indigenous rights continued.

Trudeau’s Betrayal 

One year into this federal government’s mandate, I see history repeating itself. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is using his majority government to break or manipulate his 2015 Indigenous platform promises, aided and abetted by his Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and his Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett.

To me, Trudeau’s biggest betrayal so far is his backsliding on his promise to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

In May 2016, both Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and INAC Minister Carolyn Bennett were dispatched to the United Nation in New York to announce Canada was removing it’s “objector status” from UNDRIP and were adopting it “without qualification” — a bald-faced lie, because they did qualify it: they stated Canada was adopting UNDRIP “in accordance with Canada’s constitution.”

The Trudeau government is attempting to take the international minimum standards of Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ contained in the Articles of UNDRIP and interpret them through a Canadian constitutional framework, which continues to be used to dispossess, impoverish and oppress Indigenous peoples. Canada’s founding constitution, the British North America Act of 1867, helped the fathers of colonialism immorally and illegally take the lands, territories and resources of Indigenous peoples, largely without compensation.

Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, repatriated Canada’s constitution in 1982 as Prime Minister. After the failure of political talks with representatives of four national Aboriginal organizations in the 1980s, the federal government interpreted Section 35 as being an “empty box” to be filled up by agreements negotiated through unfair, one-sided, land claims and self-government policies. All of these policies have been worded to terminate Indigenous rights and assimilate Indigenous People’s into becoming, as Justin Trudeau calls it, “Indigenous Canadians.”

The Supreme Court of Canada has added to the federal government’s injustice by setting out a constitutional analytical framework of legal tests that continue to rely on the racist, discredited Doctrine of Christian Discovery while placing the burden of proof on Indigenous groups to prove they have “existing” Aboriginal or treaty rights. 

These legal tests cost millions of dollars to meet and the collection of evidence in order to sustain a constitutional challenge in the courts is immense. They are unaffordable for most Indigenous Peoples, which is why most Chiefs and Councils across Canada are at what I call “federal Termination Tables,” negotiating away their peoples’ rights.

In July 2016, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told the Chiefs at a National Assembly of First Nations Assembly in Niagara Falls that:

“adopting the UNDRIP as being Canadian law are unworkable and, respectfully, a            political distraction to undertaking the hard work required to actually implement it….Ultimately, the UNDRIP will be articulated through the constitutional framework of      section 35.”

Minister Wilson-Raybould’s statement to the Chief’s across Canada should be viewed in comparison with NDP MP Romeo Saganash’s private members Bill 262, “An Act to ensure that the laws of Canada are in harmony with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” Saganash’s bill has been endorsed by many Indigenous and supporting groups, including The Coalition for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Replacing ‘Consent’ with ‘Consult’

By interpreting UNDRIP in accordance with Canadian constitutional law (as interpreted by the federal government and the Supreme Court of Canada), the Trudeau government is replacing the high international standard in UNDRIP of Free, Prior, Informed Consent with the lower domestic legal standard of the Crown’s duty to consult with Indigenous groups. All the government has to do is justify infringement of Indigenous rights for the public good and, voilà, you can approve the Site C dam project in the Peace Valley the Liquified Natural Gas project on Lelu Island, and probably the Kinder-Morgan pipeline.

Justin Trudeau is continuing the proud Liberal tradition of betraying Indigenous peoples — and this is only year one of his mandate.

Russell Diabo is Editor and Publisher of an online newsletter that covers First Nations political and legal issues, the First Nations Strategic Bulletin. He is a member of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake, Quebec, and has been an activist on First Nation issues since the age of 16 and is part of the Defenders of the Land Network. He works closely with Idle No More under a joint agreement between these two networks to work together.

This article was originally published in Iori:wase, Volume 4, Issue 28 on October 27. 2016.

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Image: PMO/Adam Scotti