Assimilation and Termination Policy Rears Its Ugly Head
Recent events surrounding the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) Marshall decision illustrate how the federal government's Aboriginal policy is harmful both to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.
On September 17, 1999, the SCC ruled in the Marshall case that the 1760 treaty between the Mi'kmaq and the Crown is still valid and that the Mi'kmaq have a treaty right to fish out of season and without a license in order to earn a moderate living. This decision brought hope, pride and confidence to Mi'kmaq communities suffering from high unemployment and in the process of learning about their history and culture.
Tragically, the federal government's irresponsible response to the SCC decision created a climate of uncertainty and fear which led to an ugly backlash against Aboriginal people. The area around the Mi'kmaq community of Burnt Church, NB, for instance, was the scene of unprecedented vandalism and violence.
The federal government said it was unprepared for the decision. This position is surprising and unbelievable in light of previous SCC rulings on Aboriginal rights.
The 1990 Sparrow decision acknowledged Aboriginals peoples' right to fish for food, social, and ceremonial purposes. The 1997 Delgamuukw decision found that Aboriginal peoples' rights are protected in full under section 35(1) of the 1982 Constitution Act, which states "[t]he existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed." The Marshall case itself was initiated in 1993, giving the federal government six years to examine and prepare for the acknowledgement of Mi'kmaq rights to resources in their traditional territory,
It is also inconceivable that the federal government could be unprepared for the Marshall decision so soon after recent court decisions in the Maritimes that addressed Aboriginal rights to forestry. After those decisions, the federal government responded quickly and decisively. Could the fact that huge, influential forestry companies are directly involved as opposed to individual fishers have anything to do with how the government responded?
To understand the government's confusing, contradictory, and harmful statements and actions in the wake the Marshall decision, it is necessary to examine the current federal Aboriginal policy of assimilation and termination. The Chretien government, despite repeated public commitments to create a new relationship with Aboriginal peoples, continues to unilaterally impose rules on Aboriginal peoples as part of this policy which involves trying to eliminate, severely restrict, or alter Aboriginal rights.
The federal government's extinguishment policy makes it almost impossible for Aboriginal people to create and maintain self-sustaining economies and is not conducive to building partnerships with Aboriginal peoples. The policy has been criticized by numerous bodies, including the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and has been condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Committee as a violation of internationally recognized human rights.