Thursday, October 25, 2012

Bill McKnight Commissioner OTC

I first remember hearing about the OTC (Office of the Treaty Commissioner) when I lived up North in Black Lake. I remember a white haired, fair skinned man and his entourage setting up microphones in the gymnasium and elders were coming into the school. I heard that they were telling stories and that everything was being translated into English. We were invited to listen in on headphones provided. Why didn't I go listen? Was I teaching? Was I decorating my classroom?

I also remember hearing that the elders were using a poetic phrase, "as long as the grass grows, the sun shines, the river flows."

I later learned that the white haired man was Judge David Arnot who had been appointed Treaty Commissioner by the Governor General of Canada, as of January 1st, 1997, for a ten-year period.

Today, Bill McKnight is the Commissioner at the OTC. His presentation at the Chiefs' Forum on Treaty Implementation (copied with permission below) is helpful, hopeful, and challenging.

-- Sheena

Office of the Treaty Commissioner

Bill McKnight:  Commissioner

I come to you today with a good heart and I hope that my comments will challenge us. I also hope that they will provide hope for the future and that they will lead us closer to prosperity for all -- as was the vision held by our forefathers.

What I hope to do in the next few minutes is to share with you some of my observations about what I think will lead us closer to Treaty implementation in Canada. I hope to address two questions:  What lessons have we learned from Treaty implementation strategies of the past that I believe might contribute to your discussions about Aboriginal Policy and Research?  Based on these lessons, where might we go from here?

Background and the role of the OTC

The Office of the Treaty Commissioner was established in 1987.  The first Commissioner was the former mayor of Saskatoon, Mr. Cliff Wright.

The OTC is an independent body created by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (the FSIN) and the Government of Canada (the Crown) with the Government of Saskatchewan as an observer.  Therefore, please note, the scope of the Office is limited to the Province of Saskatchewan.  The Office of the Treaty Commissioner is about fostering dialogue, and promoting change and prosperity for First Nations people and all Canadians through Treaty implementation.  Its mandate is to be an advocate of the Treaties.

Some very significant outcomes have been achieved by my predecessors, Commissioner Wright and Commissioner Arnot; or more correctly, by the parties, Canada and the FSIN, through the facilitation of the Commissioners.  Let me take a moment to mention two of the many accomplishments by the previous Commissioners.  Cliff Wright, the First Nations Leaders and those from Canada and Saskatchewan, made a great contribution to Treaty implementation in 1992 by reaching the Treaty Land Entitlement Framework Agreement.  The TLE Framework Agreement recognized that over 30 First Nations in Saskatchewan did not receive the amount of land they were promised under Treaty.  It set up a process where the federal and provincial governments are fulfilling the Treaty commitments of land to First Nations.  Four similar but separate agreements with individual First Nations provided over $500 million dollars to buy up nearly 2 million acres of land to add to reserves.

This accomplishment has made a significant difference in the lives of First Nations people across the province.  It made amends for past wrongs and provided economic opportunities for the future.  The Treaty Land Entitlement Framework Agreement is recognized by First Nations, the Governments of Canada and Saskatchewan, municipal governments in Saskatchewan, and land owners in Saskatchewan as a significant success.  Therefore, I will discuss some of the factors for its success in a moment.

Another accomplishment of the OTC is its Treaty Education program.  Judge David Arnot, the Treaty Commissioner until 2007, is known for his great educational leadership.  Through the Treaty Education Program, we can celebrate that there is Kindergarten to Grade 12 Treaty teaching resource material in every school in Saskatchewan.  As a result of these efforts, many more people in Saskatchewan are now aware that “We are All Treaty People.”  Through this program, all people should know more about Treaties and the Treaty relationship and more importantly the leaders of the future, our children, will know more about the Treaties.

I believe that if we reflect on these accomplishments we will find some unique ways of addressing Treaty implementation … and tell us what we must continue to do:

  • First, we must fulfill the promises made in the Treaties, including support to First Nations communities as they endeavour to become self-sufficient economic engines.  Through economic activity, First Nations people from all walks of life can participate in the prosperity of the province.  This was one of the original intents of the Treaties – sharing the land, mutual benefit, and enabling First Nations people to share in the new economic reality that First Nations Leaders saw coming.

  • Secondly, we must continue to build greater social harmony in this province through education. Education about the Treaties, about the importance of Treaties, about the fact that Treaties are part of the legal framework of our society, about First Nations people, about First Nations customs, spirituality, language and culture. Through better education comes increased pride among First Nations people.  Through better education will come better understanding, through understanding will come greater respect, and through respect will come greater harmony in our province.

  • Thirdly, we must step out of our comfort zones.  We must set aside our stereotypes, our excuses, our bitterness and our envy, and engage in meaningful dialogue to resolve our issues based on sharing and mutual benefit. I am not speaking to just non-First Nations – I am speaking to both First Nations and non-First Nations groups and individuals. Until we engage in meaningful dialogue aimed at finding prosperity for all, we will not find unique ways to address Treaty issues.
Successes and Challenges of the Past:  Lessons from the Past

I will now turn to the first substantial question I propose to address today – what lessons have we learned from Treaty implementation strategies of the past?

Over the last 130 years, Treaties and Treaty implementation in Canada has had a history about which we have little to be proud.  However, I believe that over the last 30 years things have begun to change and improve.  But I do not wish to dwell upon the problems of the past, other than to find lessons for the future.  In fact, recently in Canada we have had some evidence of a new era.  Treaty rights were entrenched in the Constitution in 1982 and, more recently, Prime Minster Harper apologized for the treatment of First Nations in residential schools.  These I take as signs of change and as signs of hope.

So, what lessons can we take from the past?  What has been common among the successful programs such as the Treaty Land Entitlement Agreement in Saskatchewan, the Sechelt agreement in BC, the establishment of Nunavut, the modern Treaties in British Columbia, and the First Nations Taxation Commission introduced 20 years ago?  What has been common among what I consider to be the less successful endeavours such as the attempts to revise the Indian Act, the problems of Bill C-31, the problems with education?  In most cases these were well meaning attempts to improve the lives of First Nation people, but they have encountered a common set of problems.  In my opinion the strengths of one are the also the causes of the limited success in the others.

I submit to you that successful Treaty implementation strategies included the following characteristics.  Let me borrow from the popular management literature, for I will call these my Seven Strategies for Successful Treaty Implementation.

  1. The first strategy is that Treaty implementation must be Treaty based.  It should not be based on policy or legislative authority.  It is my view that the Indian Act is a fundamental impediment to Treaty implementation. Until the Indian Act with its paternalistic foundation is replaced, true Treaty implementation will not occur. The implication of being Treaty based is that we acknowledge the legitimate role of both parties in the Treaty implementation process.  If this does not occur in a culturally sensitive and meaningful way, it violates the Treaty relationship.

  1. The second strategy is that Treaty implementation must be Elders based.  It should not be just politically based. Based on our experience in Saskatchewan, building innovations and problem solving with Elders leads to culturally based solutions which are politically acceptable.  The implication of Elders based Treaty implementation is that differences are resolved over time based on mutual benefit.

  1. The third of the Seven Strategies for Successful Treaty Implementation is that Treaty implementation must be community based.  It must be built from the bottom up, not the top down.  Nor should Treaty implementation strategies be based on a template from Ottawa that treats all First Nations and provinces the same.  For too long we have relied on the Parliament of Canada to affirm the legitimacy of Treaty implementation policies, programs and legislation.  Although this is appropriate and necessary, it is insufficient.  Successful implementation strategies depended on another affirmation process, one based on community engagement and community affirmation.  For First Nations people, the Parliament of Canada is just one method of affirming the appropriateness of Treaty implementation strategies.  An implication of the community based process is that differences are resolved in a manner that is fundamental, culturally appropriate and respects the Treaty relationship entered into over 100 years ago.  This process recognizes that two people came together to make Treaty and both cultures must affirm that relationship as it evolves over time.  That is a respectful relationship, based on mutual benefit.  This values the important Treaty principle of shared responsibility for resolving differences in a modern context.  To be successful both parties must change behaviour.

  1. The fourth strategy is – Treaty Implementation must be inclusive of provincial and municipal authorities.  It should not be based on the same approach in Saskatchewan as in British Columbia, or Nova Scotia.  Just as we must build Treaty implementation strategies based on First Nations communities affirmation we must recognize the modern context of Canada.  First Nations people across Canada are very different and the provincial and Treaty areas are very different.  Successful strategies have recognized this reality and involved provincial and municipal authorities in building a solution.

  1. The fifth strategy is that Treaty implementation must be funded according to the realities of the current context.  It should not be funded according to a formula that may be capped.  As we know, the First Nations populations in Canada are growing faster than the rest of the population and their participation in the economic success of our society is far below the rest of Canada.  Therefore, funding must be provided that is proportionate to the need.  An implication is that funding strategies are not uniform, but match the need and are appropriate to the need.

  1. The sixth strategy is that Treaty implementation must be innovative, creative and built on new legislative frameworks.  It is not based on the legislation or policies in existence today.  As I have said, it is my opinion that the Indian Act is an impediment to Treaty implementation.  It is also my opinion that a policy and program approach to Treaty implementation strategies is also an impediment.  An implication is that success is found where people have pushed the envelope and agreements are developed.

  1. The Seventh Strategy for Successful Treaty Implementation is that Treaty implementation is hopeful and strength based.  It is not based on a deficit model.  The legislation, policies, and strategies of the past have been built on a paternalistic approach.  There is much evidence to support this assertion.  Successful strategies of the future will be based on positive assumptions of First Nations people and their culture.  This will have significant implications for both parties.  Both parties have a responsibility to act and both parties must develop a deep seated trust and respect for each other, based on the strengths of each other.

I could discuss each of these seven strategies or characteristics at some length, but time does not permit me to do that today.  However, I would like to address a couple of the obvious challenges or questions which might arise in your mind with respect to only two of these characteristics of success.

Elders based – In the year 2000, the Office of the Treaty Commissioner in conjunction with the FSIN and Canada published a document called Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan.  This document has become a foundation for much of the Treaty implementation work in Saskatchewan.  It outlines the Treaty Elders’ understandings of Treaty.  Although their understanding is complex and sophisticated, it is also simple and easy to understand.

Through this research we now understand that Treaties are fundamentally about three things, as told by the Elders:  getting along with others, living together on the land, and making a living.

Three pretty basic and reasonable objectives.  I believe we must return to these simple but profound statements and set them as our objectives.  With these as our objectives and holding mutual benefit and respect as first principles, we can focus on building a better Treaty relationship, a better dialogue to resolve our differences.  This will lead to Treaty implementation.

I will also expand a bit on the challenge of provincial involvement – for example, in the Treaty Land Entitlement Agreement, the province and the municipalities were a fundamental part of the solution.  In fact, provincial legislation was required to enact the agreement.  Some might worry that this is a barrier to the First Nations call to deal with the Crown only.  I do not believe that to be true.  I believe it is possible for First Nations to negotiate with the Crown, while at the same time addressing the realities of the modern context.  When this is done, new opportunities arise.

Where do we go from here?

My objective today was to challenge you with some thoughts based on the successes and failures of Treaty implementation strategies from the past.  I hope my thoughts have provided for you some food for thought.  If I might, I would like to close with three comments or assertions about where we might go from here.

First, I am very hopeful of positive change for the future.  First Nations Leaders and the Government of Canada have set a very important precedent by coming together with the Prime Minister’s apology, on behalf of all Canadians.  The apology appeared sincere and was supported by both sides of the House.  First Nations Leadership accepted that apology graciously and with a spirit of a better future together.  This is an example of a Treaty approach to working together.  Now the challenge is to seize the moment and follow-up in a new spirit and a new direction.

Secondly, in order to seize the moment we must build a future which is aimed at changing the fundamental ingredients of Canada’s approach to working with First Nations.  First Nations and the Government of Canada must turn their attention to building a new relationship, a Treaty relationship.  Together they must build a plan with the goal of replacing the Indian Act, and building a new Treaty basis.  This will not happen overnight, but we must begin now.

Finally, that effort to build a new Treaty relationship will come about through a new process of affirmation, a community based and a geographically unique approach which recognizes the unique needs of the different Treaties in Canada and of the different regions in Canada.  It will recognize that not all first Nations are the same, not all Treaties are the same, and that a successful strategy for one is not necessarily appropriate for other situations.  This is a lesson we learned about in most other endeavours years ago.  The sooner we apply unique strategies to unique situations the sooner we will achieve Treaty implementation – Treaty implementation characterized by getting along with others, making a living, and living together on the land.

I wish you well in your discussions and I thank you for providing me with the opportunity to share my views with you.

page 10-13, excerpt from
Chiefs' Forum on Treaty Implementation

Dakota Dunes Casino and Conference Center
March 29 & 30, 2012

shared as public document with permission from
Dan Bellegarde, Executive Director, Treaty Governance Office

CD of Chiefs' Forum on treaty Implementation available for $5.00
or free transcript is available
by contacting Dan Bellegarde at

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