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October 4, 2018

Canada should be ashamed of its abysmal record on Indigenous Human Rights

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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There was considerable irony and an uncomfortable tinge of hypocrisy when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently paid tribute to the late diplomat-activist Nelson Mandela at the United Nations, calling on world leaders to "champion democracy, human rights and the rule of law around the world."

And the same could be said for stripping Myanmar puppet-leader Aung San Suu Kyi of her honorary Canadian citizenship – long overdue, but hardly an action statement. 

While the international optics might be favorable to our current federal government, both events underline Canada’s abysmal at-home record on its treatment of this country’s Indigenous peoples.

For far too long, the response of Canada’s governments, politicians, business elites, media, and even the public at large to the rights and well-being of those who preceded us on this continent by millennia, has drifted between total neglect to even blaming them for their third-world conditions – this after nearly five centuries of colonization.

Moreover, the repression and marginalization of Indigenous and First Nations peoples has never taken centre stage, or even been among the top campaign issues in any federal or provincial election in living memory.

In the same vein, when Roméo Saganash, a Cree Nation NDP MP (Abitibi – Baie-James – Nunavik – Eeyou) recently asked a question in the House of Commons about the Trans Mountain pipeline, he rightly challenged the Prime Minister for not caring about the rights of Indigenous peoples who would be permanently impacted by the project.

But Saganash’s exchange with the PM would not have made any headlines at all had he not, in sheer frustration, “dropped the F-bomb.”

Here’s what he said in context:

“When the prime minister says that this pipeline expansion will be done no matter what, and his minister adds that Canada will not be able to accommodate all Indigenous concerns, what that means is that they have decided to willfully violate their constitutional duties and obligations. Why doesn't the prime minister just say the truth and tell Indigenous peoples that he doesn't give a f*** about their rights?”

In fact, as Saganash knows only too well from spending his entire adult life in the cause of Indigenous rights, very little has changed.

Back in 1975 Dr. Howard Adams (1921-2001) wrote about his Prison of Grass: Canada from a Native Point of View, “This book reveals the infamous record of the federal government in supporting the native people of Canada.”

Adams’ classic book was reissued in 1989 with a cover statement that reads, “The Controversial and Provocative Bestseller Revised and Updated.” Two decades later, it is still telling truth to power.

Howard Adams grew up in a small Saskatchewan Métis community. After attending university in his home province, and earning a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley in 1966 (the first Métis ever to do so), he returned to Canada to teach at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Education.

The iconic Canadian journalist, author and historian, Pierre Berton (1920-2004) wrote: “Prison of Grass is a remarkable book. It is time we looked at our own history and our society though the eyes of its outcasts. With the publication of this eloquent, passionate and scholarly work, no Canadian can ever again boast that this is a country free from the cancer of racism.”

Adams vividly described his difficult experiences growing up Métis in western Canada:

“In my halfbreed ghetto, finding a job was always difficult because the only employers were white. It mattered little that I did not look truly Indian: all local employers knew whether I was halfbreed or white. Seeking employment as a native was more than looking for a job. It was asking to be insulted. The boss did not have to insult me with his words: his actions and attitudes were enough to tell me his racist thoughts. As long as other jobs were available, a native would not apply for jobs he knew were for whites only. Even today, Indians and Métis rarely apply for work as postmen, bus drivers, or for any other position in which they would meet the public. Those jobs are taboo for natives because we live in a white racist society.”

Despite its 1970s vintage, Adams’ book is shocking. What Indigenous peoples had to say for themselves (then and now) Berton continues, “was quite different from the convenient picture of history that even the most sympathetic books by white authors had presented.” I completely agree.

As a Canadian academic, writer and social activist for some 40 years, I felt sad at having to look up what the term Métis actually means, as I had not encountered it in my education or reading.

Again, Berton captures the primary issue: “Until Adams’ book, the cultural, historical, and psychological aspects of colonialism for Native people had not been explored in depth. In Prison of Grass Adams objects to the popular historical notion that Natives were warring savages, without government, seeking to be civilized. He contrasts the official history … with the unpublished history of the Indian and Métis people.”

In 2007, after more than 25 years of arduous diplomatic and consultative work with native peoples all over the world, the United Nations adopted its first Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

At the time, an impressive 144 countries voted in favor of UNDRIP, with Australia, New Zealand, the United States and – shamefully – Canada, voting against it.

In May 2016, nearly a decade later, Canada finally adopted plans to implement UNDRIP. Little of substance has happened since.

On September 13, 2017 Russell Diabo, policy advisor to the Algonquin Nation Secretariat, Tribal Council member and a citizen of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake, QC wrote:

“In my opinion, for grassroots Indigenous peoples in Canada, there is nothing to celebrate on the 10th anniversary of the UNDRIP – not until Canada speaks to its assertion of sovereignty and claim to underlying title to the land, which they take as a given and do not question.

“The [UNDRIP] declaration was established to guarantee Indigenous Peoples individual and collective rights, the right of existence, living free of discrimination, and entitling them as peoples to self-determination under international law.

“Since … 2015 the Trudeau government has taken a top-down, non-transparent approach to changing law and policy affecting Indigenous peoples, without including the Indigenous rights holders, peoples from the communities themselves.

“The federal government issued 10 principles on Indigenous relationships without consulting even the three national Indigenous leaders, let alone Indigenous peoples.”

Around the same time last year as Diabo’s statement above, Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, wrote in an email to the CBC:

“Our government affirms that meaningful engagement with Indigenous Peoples aims to secure their free, prior and informed consent when Canada proposes to take actions which impact them and their rights including their lands, territories and resources.”

However, Mi'kmaq lawyer, professor and activist Pam Palmater believes there is no tangible evidence that Canada is moving forward on implementing the UNDRIP and that the current federal government spends more time boasting about getting the work done than actually doing it. “Canada is fooling people when it says it unconditionally supports UNDRIP,” she asserted.

"All they have done is talk about it and set up processes to engage in more talk about it, but they have not started the legal process of implementation. The biggest challenge is always political will. Governments can literally talk about good ideas, plans and commitments for years and never take any real concrete action. This Liberal government has, for the most part, been more talk and less action. They are skilled in delaying action under the guise of consultation."

Chief Wilton Littlechild, a member of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission, affirms that the UN declaration is a fundamental pillar of the TRC’s calls to action.

"Sixteen of the 94 calls to action are about the UN declaration,” he noted. “The major call to various sectors of Canadian society is to adopt the UN declaration as a framework for reconciliation. It is about the survival, dignity and well-being of Indigenous Peoples; so implementing the UN declaration has the possibility of healing our peoples, strengthening relationships and promoting peaceful co-existence."

But Palmater believes reconciliation is impossible unless the federal government fully incorporates the UNDRIP into law.

"There can be no reconciliation unless the core articles of UNDRIP related to Indigenous self-determination, land ownership, implementation of treaty rights, and respect for Indigenous laws, governments and jurisdictions are part of the legal foundation of what is now Canada.”

For my part – and I’m sure I am not alone – I promise to advocate for including Howard Adams’ Prison of Grass as a core reference book in every Canadian high school Native Studies course, and to make human rights for all peoples in Canada a primary election issue in 2019.

Judging from their shameful performance to date, the Liberals are not getting my vote next year, unless favorable changes of extraordinary magnitude happen.

“Many have long felt voting Liberal means voting promises, not action. In fact, with the Trans Mountain / oil tar scheme, it means polluting First Peoples’ land and water to the channel sea for big Texas oil occupying Alberta,” added Dr. John McMurtry, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Guelph and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

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