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article imageIndigenous people and land rights: The thin red line - Part 1 Special

By Grace C. Visconti     Oct 21, 2013 in Environment
Vancouver - UBCIC Grand Chief Stewart Phillip gives a comprehensive summary into the background of Aboriginal land rights, the dissolution of the Indian Act, and the struggle to maintain their distinct culture, heritage, and sacred spiritual practices.
Indigenous people and land rights: The thin red line Part 1
On October 6, 2013, I had a fascinating discussion and interview with Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC). I was curious as to how and when the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs formed. Essentially, it ended up being an important inquiry that gave a broad perspective of the First Nations journey and their struggles to maintain their distinct culture, heritage, and sacred spiritual practices.
The question I asked Grand Chief Stewart Phillip was, “What were the circumstances surrounding the emergence of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs?” Flashback to when Pierre Elliot Trudeau was elected as the Liberal Prime Minister in April 1968. After the government was formed, Jean Chrétien became Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jean Chrétien crafted “The White Paper 1969.” This paper would abolish the Indian Act and dissolve the established legal binding relationship between Aboriginal people and Canada. First Nations people fought back and prevented this from happening. The attempt to change the relationship between First Nations and government is exactly what Prime Minister Stephen Harper is currently proposing, namely, the repeal of the Indian Act which would dissolve the Indian Reserve system and force assimilation into mainstream society.
Without proper collaboration with First Nations, the dissolution of the Indian Act could be a detriment to the government and First Nations people, causing more friction than necessary. If a proper fair assimilation does not occur, it could mean disaster for First Nations people and Canada.
As Grand Chief Stewart Phillip spoke of Aboriginal history, I was drawn in when he described the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs’ emergence in support of Aboriginal people. This is how it went down. “There was a backlash from First Nations people that was instantaneous over ‘The White Paper 1969.’ In British Columbia, there was an emergency meeting of all Chiefs in the province of B.C., about 200. During the third week in November, the meeting was held in Kamloops and it lasted 4 days. At the end of 4 days, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs was born. We were faced with being legislated out of existence by the stroke of a pen.” The backlash reverberated across the country as it gave rise to what was known as “The Indian Movement.”
After 4 days of collaboration, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs came to some fundamental decisions: to seek a just resolution of the land question in B.C., to protect and support the Aboriginal right to self-determination. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip has been involved for the past 40 years with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. “During all of my years involved with the UBCIC, I have never witnessed anything like this in the last six years since Prime Minister Stephen Harper was elected to office,” explained Grand Chief Stewart Phillip.
The denial of the Kelowna Accord was just the tip of the iceberg. The Kelowna Accord resulted in 18 months of intense roundtable consultations leading up to the First Ministers’ Meeting in Kelowna, B.C. (November 2005). It was defined as “First Ministers and National Aboriginal Leaders Strengthening Relationships and Closing the Gap.” Aboriginal leaders saw this accord as progressive since it involved cooperation and consultation that brought all parties to the table. Paul Martin was the Prime Minister at the time but his position was short-lived when he got voted out of office in 2006. The $5 billion was to be spread out over a 5 year period and would have greatly enhanced the lives and education of First Nations people across Canada.
With the current PC government, their stance is unyielding and shows no sign of changing Aboriginal status for the better. Rather, it is very divisive and any cooperative progress that was gained has now been reduced to anger. The ramming through of Bills C-38 and C-45 that gutted environmental laws was the biggest outrage for many people. Conflict over the Enbridge Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines added to the friction. Then the pending ratification of the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA or FIPPA) made resource development the priority in favor of corporate interests for the next 31 years.
What happened to debate and collaboration with the elected representatives in Parliament about FIPA? In this Digital Journal Interview, MP Don Davies of the Vancouver Kingsway riding described how collaboration and discussion about FIPA could have taken place in Parliament among all parties, experts and First Nations but instead it was drafted in secret.
Other important groups were formed around the same time UBCIC emerged and it’s a very long list of Associations in every province. The late Herald Cardinal, a Cree writer, political leader, teacher, negotiator and lawyer, led the Indian Association of Alberta. As a very outspoken and respected leader of his people, he wrote a booked called The Unjust Society. On behalf of First Nations people, he consistently demanded the right to be “the red tile in the Canadian mosaic” and fought passionately for Aboriginal rights. To this day, the book is an important contribution as The Unjust Society describes a pivotal point in the history of First Nations people and their changing relationship with Canada.
In the 1800s, B.C. wasn’t interested in joining the Confederation since it had operated up to that point as a colony and were doing quite well. But Canada needed B.C., the natural resources, and access to the Pacific Ocean. Though B.C. was reluctant to sign on, terms were negotiated and articles taken into consideration, in particular, the 13th article.
“This 13th article stated that the Government of B.C. would continue to treat the First Nations like they did in the past. There was a policy vis-à-vis the treaty whereby every man, woman and child represented 650 acres. This was the formula for establishing the Reserve system. B.C. didn’t think they would accept this policy but the Dominion agreed to the articles including the 13th article,” explained Grand Chief Stewart Phillip. One problem remained; there were no treaties in B.C. that would benefit the defense of their titles.
The defense of their land claims continued into the 1900s. “There was the North American Indian Brotherhood, Native Brotherhood, and all of these groups were politically active. They petitioned Ottawa. There were historic agreements known as memorials that were statements resulting from meetings between First Nations and the Government of Canada officials who came to B.C.,” explained Grand Chief Stewart Phillip.
“In 1927, there was legislation passed which made it illegal for the native people in B.C. to gather in groups of 3 and 5 or discuss the Outstanding Land Question (land claims…these prohibition lasted until 1951). It was illegal for us to assemble politically, to discuss outstanding land questions or get legal advice from a lawyer. From 1927 – 1951, it was illegal for us to travel freely. We had to have a pass and I ironically, the other people who were totally repressed at the same time were the Chinese people. Furthermore, during this same time, it was illegal for us to do our spiritual practice,” he added.
In 1951 all of this was repealed but it took from 1951 to 1969 to make the changes only to be presented with “The White Paper 1969” which would have obliterated the Aboriginal peoples’ way of life with the stroke of a pen and no collaboration with First Nations. The Harper government has revived this unwelcome option again causing the relationship between Canada and First Nations to move backwards not forwards.
In an ironic twist of fate, the Pacific coast and protection of B.C. resources are at the focus of yet another fight in this time continuum due to the potential installation of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. As Grand Chief Stewart Phillip suggested, “Don’t take your eye off the ball. It’s all about the natural resources.” This time, everyone will be affected in Canada especially if foreign investors are given 31 years to extract Canada’s natural resources and have more rights than the people who live in Canada. Check out Canada-China FIPA: The Facts.
For the complete Historical Timeline of First Nations from 1700s to the present, this link on the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs website gives a comprehensive chronological overview of the First Nations history with Canada.
Go to UBCIC Grand Chief endorses a collective vision for Canada Part 2 for the 5 question Interview with Grand Chief Stewart Phillip.
Breaking Down the Indian Act with Russell Diabo
9 questions about Idle No More (CBC, January 5, 2013)
Background: The Indian Act (CBC, May 30, 2011)
VIDEO: Chief Derek Nepinak throws out the Indian Act Status Card assigned to him
Chiefs mull issuing demand Harper scrap omnibus bills, Indian Act during planned Friday meeting (APTN National News, January 10, 2013)
Canada, first nations have a road map. It was the Kelowna Accord.
Sustaining Momentum: The Government of Canada’s Fourth and Final Report in Response to the Kelowna Accord Implementation Act 2011-12
Kelowna Accord holds key to native renewal
The Kelowna Accord, Wikipedia
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