Four or five times now I have written a lead sentence and deleted it as I try to say something that might encourage you to read the following speech by Chief Watson. But as I wrestle with what I want to say to you, I realize that maybe this speech isn't about you. Maybe it's about me. Maybe it's me who needs to keep reading and rereading until I can get my mind wrapped around some of his questions:
"Why are First Nations and the government locked in a seemingly unbreakable dance of failure and recrimination?
"The problem is one of accountability. The question is — whose?
"How can our Nations find a new way to co-exist, using an approach based on mutual recognition, respect and commitment to the Treaties?
Thank you Chief Watson for inviting all of us into these questions. Thank you for your vision for the next generation. "We want this generation to tell different stories than the ones we have been telling for the past seven generations. We want them to tell stories of pride and resilience, stories in our languages about our cultures and ways of life, stories of self-government and prosperity." (Interim Chief Morley Watson)
Interim Chief Morley Watson
There can be no more important issue to confront than focusing on how to repair, restructure and refocus our relations with the Crown. The mandate of the Federation is the protection, promotion and recognition of Treaty.
As First Nations we all share the common frustration of not being able to fully implement those Treaties according to their original spirit and intent. All of us share the historic humiliation of being told that policy or the Indian Act legally trumps Treaty. It is important for us to remember that our Treaty has been pushed aside for some time, while we dealt with other pressing issues. What has changed today is the widespread realization of our need to advance our Treaty Rights.
Governments and First Nations Leadership must come together and agree on immediate steps for action. Reviewing the barriers, such as the Indian Act, that get in the way of First Nations governance and unlocking the economic potential of First Nations should be on the list. Phasing out the Indian Act without First Nations involvement is not our agenda. It is up to First Nations citizens to assess this obstacle to effective, prosperous governance, to provide us with an opportunity to renew our commitment, to reaffirm our sacred vows to the generations that came before us and to bravely dare to believe that “Treaty trumps policy.”
Canadians are aware of the crushing poverty that exists in First Nations communities. The events last year that happened in Attawapiskat are a prime example, but Attawapiskat is not alone. Those conditions exist right here in Saskatchewan. Every three years or so, these problems resurface and we agonize over them. There is often a quick fix — new homes, an emergency relocation, a temporary water supply. Two or three years later, another set of headlines starts the cycle again.
Why is that? Why are First Nations and the government locked in a seemingly unbreakable dance of failure and recrimination? It is because we are reacting to crises, which themselves are symptoms of a deep-rooted, systemic problem.
Canada has attempted to seize management control of First Nations and call in third party managers, sending a message that First Nations cannot be trusted to manage their own affairs. Their quick fix solution is “accountability.”
The problem is one of accountability. The question is — whose?
Former Auditor General Sheila Fraser repeatedly pointed out the widening gap between living conditions on reserves and in the rest of Canada. Much of this is due to critical structural, legislative and funding barriers that do not provide First Nations with the legislative authority to change things. That is because federal policy rests on a foundation that is deeply flawed — the Indian Act.
Passed in 1876, nine years after Confederation, the Indian Act is a legal fossil that still defines the link between our Nations and the Crown. It has created a relationship that is punitive, restrictive and regulatory. It created a system of Band Councils that are accountable, not to their communities or the people who choose them, but to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. These Councils have neither the authority nor the resources to act as effective “governments.” And of course, it leaves no space for new ideas or innovations in governance and Treaty implementation.
We, as Leaders, frequently claim that the Indian Act is “failing.” In fact, it is a resounding success. It is doing exactly what it was designed to do. It was not introduced to promote First Nation self-determination, or support the growth of healthy, prosperous communities. It was created to take our people off the land and away from developing the economy.
The consequences of the Indian Act have been an assault on our language and culture, our children and families, our freedom and our rights. This has been recorded, and apologies have even been given to us. However, the Indian Act remains in place.
How can our Nations find a new way to co-exist, using an approach based on mutual recognition, respect and commitment to the Treaties? The first step requires recognition that First Nations are, in fact, Nations. Our many Nations are diverse in our needs and culture, each with our own history and relationship with the Crown.
Canada must affirm historic responsibilities and obligations which were first defined in our Treaties and reiterated in Supreme Court decisions such as Delgamuukw, Haida and Mikisew. These are legal landmarks that affirm our Inherent and Treaty rights and title. Simple recognition of our nationhood and of our mutual obligations will begin to transform the relationship between First Nations and Canada.
But the onus does not lie with Canada alone. The greater challenge lies with First Nations people. Our political existence has for the last century been defined for us by the Indian Act. We must now organize and develop our own vision or remain trapped in this upside-down world where we call ourselves “Nations” but depend upon and answer to the Crown. More of our people fear the consequences of abandoning this than welcome the uncertainty of a future in which we control our own destinies. We must set a new course for ourselves if we are to restore our link with the land, govern ourselves and participate in the broader national and global economy. No one else can set us free.
Once we make a decision to move towards Treaty Implementation, we can start the real work of rebuilding our Nations and establishing responsible and accountable governments. Our legislative authority must reflect our own traditions and laws, for we were self-governing peoples before the arrival of the Europeans.
I firmly believe that the Treaty promises of infrastructure, employment, housing, health and education — which are the problems that erupt into headlines — can only be met once the fundamental issues of self-governance have been addressed. Only then will our Leadership be truly accountable to our people. Our future as Nations together should not only lie in another century of litigation and confrontation, but in establishing a spirit of partnership that looks to the future.
This is what this is all about. We want this generation to tell different stories than the ones we have been telling for the past seven generations. We want them to tell stories of pride and resilience, stories in our languages about our cultures and ways of life, stories of self-government and prosperity. We will create a new memory in the minds of our children, a memory of Treaty recognition and implementation.
We have Elders from other areas. We have tremendous Treaty minds right here in this room. The answers are here to some of the health issues, post-secondary waiting lists and housing. I bid welcome to former National Chief Ovide Mercredi. I welcome Rodney Soonias, one of our own. Last year we celebrated 65 years of our Federation and I welcome some of our past Leadership such as former Chiefs Roland Crowe and Sol Sanderson who are here today, as well as former Vice Chief Dan Bellegarde. Just like the old people, we have gathered to talk and strategize. If you can give us that direction, we will go to Ottawa and do what we have to do to properly provide for the future of our families and our Nations.
page 8-9, 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 Dan.Bellegarde@fsin.com