Five years ago I wrote about a speech from former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson who pointed out that all Canadians are treaty people.
Now more than ever I want to underscore that fact. Idle No More is drawing attention to the fact that Canada has been founded on a relationship, a relationship that has been set out many times in treaties. Treaty rights are so foundational to the existence of this country that they are enshrined and protected in the Constitution of Canada.
A lot of recent rhetoric from settler Canadians in the last few months has focused on the benefits that flow to First Nations as a result of treaties. But we haven’t had the conversation about the benefits that flow the other way.
Under Canadian law, Aboriginal title exists in places where there are no treaties. This is the case for most of British Columbia, although no First Nation has yet made the case under Canadian Law that they hold title. But the concept is simple and it is clear. Without the consent to enter into a different kind of relationship between First Nations and Canada, Aboriginal title exists. Where Aboriginal title is proven to exist, it has massive implications for Crown land ownership.
Over the past few hundred years, the Crown and later the Crown in right of Canada acted upon the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and pushed its claims further westward making treaties as it went to cement and clarify the relationship with First Nations. This process continues today in BC. In effect this meant that, in exchange for a few benefits flowing to First Nations, the Crown gained control of lands and resources such that it was able to issue title, permits and licenses for use of land. If you own land privately or you lease it or you have a permit to operate on Crown land or you extract resources from the land, you are a treaty beneficiary. You are a treaty person.
Some of the most ridculous opposition to treaty rights comes from people who believe that First Nations should not receive special benefits or have their treaty rights enshrined in the Constitution. This is the same Constitution, by the way, that guarantees the freedom for people to make ridiculous speeches about First Nations. Most who opposed to treaty rights would have a fit if their free speech rights were taken away, but the rights have exactly the same weight in Canadian law: the are protected in the Constitution.
Opposition that is littering comments sections around the web essentially comes down to this: we should tear up the treaties and just have indigenous people assimilate into Canadian society. But this is a ridiculous position. If we tear up treaties, then the contracts are broken and the ownership of the land reverts to First Nations.
If people want to restart the relationship, fine. I’m sure that First Nations will be more than happy to return the billions of dollars of benefits for the trillions of dollars of land value. Then we can start negotiations again. What would you pay now for the right to own private land, or the right to earn a living extracting resources? Trust me, setller governments got the bargain of the millenium. Never has so much been given away for so little, the billions that flow to First Nations every year are a small portion of the trillions that are earned off of formerly Aboriginal-owned lands..
Every Canadian is a treaty person. Every Canadian benefits from treaties made with First Nations, and every Canadian has responsibilities under those treaties as well. First Nations have rights and under treaty have responsibilities too. Idle No More is simply about respecting that we have a relationship and that we all have to live up to it. It is very difficult to do so when huge numbers of your “partners” don’t even acknowledge that they have made a bargain that benefits them.
So allies, make this point to your friends and those who don’t understand the relationship. Ask them where they think the right to own land comes from? It comes from treaties. If they don’t believe you, point them to the Delgamuukw court ruling which says that Aboriginal title cannot be single handedly extinguished by the Crown. It’s simple. When you realize how much you have gained through the power of a longstanding and honourable relationship, you should be thankful. If you still resent the benefits and rights that First Nations enjoy under this relationship, then offer back your land and your ability to make a living and feed yourself and keep your hard earned tax dollars. You cannot be a Canadian without inheriting the legacy of treaty makers. You cannot have the benefits without the responsibilities. This country would never have existed without these agreements and that is why they are protected.
Such a small price to pay for such a huge benefit. Why not celebrate and honour the agreements that make Canada possible?