A recent poll found that a majority of Canadians favour police intervention to stop Indigenous protesters and activists from blocking railway services.
Are these anti-protesters unaware of the long and brutal mistreatment of Indigenous peoples that led up to these protests? Or do they simply not care about it?
In any case, perhaps a brief history lesson may be helpful, starting after the initial invasion of Canada by European settlers.
Under the infamous British North American Act of 1867, these invaders ruthlessly seized most of the land originally owned and occupied by the Indigenous peoples. It was a brutal imposition of colonialism that stripped more than 60 Aboriginal nations of self-government and self-determination, making them dependent on the federal and provincial governments.
“This massive land grab and our resultant dependency was not only an inexcusable humiliation and impoverishment,” said Arthur Manuel, past chief of the Neskonlith Indian Band, “but a colossal act of racism that devastated our social, economic, cultural and spiritual life. We continue to pay for it every day in grinding poverty, shattered social relations, and, too often, in life-ending despair.
“If we try to stop industrial resource companies from moving onto our lands, injunctions are quickly awarded and the police swoop in for mass arrests. Canadian jails are full of our young men and women, incarcerated for trying to resist the assault on our Aboriginal land.”
Although the pernicious BNA Act was replaced in 1982 by the Canadian Constitution Act, in which Section 35 clearly recognized and affirmed Aboriginal rights, the federal and provincial governments have since adamantly refused to implement its message.
Even worse, when the Supreme Court in 2014 declared that Indigenous peoples are entitled to claim all their traditional territory, Canadian governments still refuse to abide by this ruling.
After the Second World War, the United Nations adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Canada was a signatory. It states that all peoples are entitled to self-determination: the rights to have their own territory, to be self-sufficient and to govern themselves.
However, as usual with all such previous legal and UN declarations, Canada still continues to ignore them.
Is it any wonder, then, that this country’s Indigenous peoples have become outraged by such a blatant political denial of the basic rights to which the Supreme Court and the United Nations say they are entitled?
Their decision to vent their rage with railway blockades is the culmination of more than a century of mistreatment and neglect. It is fueled by desperation, by the horrors of the terrible residential schools, by the slaughter of hundreds of Indigenous women, by the imprisonment of disparate numbers of their young people and by the many suicides that stem from agony and despair.
It’s regrettable that it takes a disruption of the economy to focus the attention of the media, the politicians and the general public on the abysmal abuse to which our Indigenous peoples have been illegitimately subjected for so long.
But sometimes such a protest is an inevitable last resort. If it awakens indolent citizens and prods guilty governments to take appropriate remedial action, its damage to the economy may come to be regarded by many as justifiable.
Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer’s apprentice, reporter, columnist and editor of that city’s daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.