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2a) I've heard that Native people received a raw deal. But why can't they accept the present situation and start building a new life?

The short answer to why native people can't "get on with life now" is that the present reality of native people in Canada is chained to the past. Indians are bound by the policies and procedures of the last 100 years.

Because the British Royal Proclamation of 1763 confirmed in principle recognition of Indian land rights, governments made treaties with Indians in many parts of Canada, but very few were made in B.C.

Many conditions of those treaties - ironically interpreted as special privileges by many Canadians - constrain native people and prevent them from building a better life.

The Premier's Council on Native Affairs reports in its Progress Interim Recommendations (July 1990) that the current regulatory environment in which aboriginal people find themselves has not allowed full participation in the economy. . . .This is not because of lack of will.

The Council named two significant structural barriers: availability of investment and operating capital and leadership and training.

Gerald Amos, Chief Councillor for Kitamaat Village Council on B.C.'s northern coast, provides a specific example:

Imposition of special status distorted Haisla ability to be self-sufficient. . . .[Non-native] people were permitted to come to our territory and to be granted 160 acres free with an option for 480 more acres at a nominal cost. Haisla Reserves occupied only 1,600 acres, this for a thousand people, much of this being small parcels involving graveyards or seasonal fishing stations. Given the opportunity to be recognized for title to tracts of land outside of Reserve, several Haisla made applications to be granted settlement parcels of land. Haisla were denied this land because the government of the Province petitioned non-Indian settlers and learned that they did not want Indians to compete for land. Therefore, due to our "special status" we were denied the chance to be equal. Settlers could use their land titles as collateral to secure loans to purchase livestock, equipment, boats, or other assets while we are still unable to leverage capital using land or property on Reserve because the Reserves do not belong to us. They are in fact the property of the Queen and we are tenants. . . .

It is special treatment like this that haunts us continuously. Indians were not allowed to vote until the 1950's (editor's note: 1960's federally). We had to be given a pass if we wanted to leave reserves in many parts of the country.

From the point of view of many natives, the choice was either to leave traditional lands, become "white" in custom and lifestyle and so abandon their own culture and identity, or to remain, as wards of the Department of Indians Affairs, on reserves, feeling frustrated, angry, and powerless to effect major changes in their lives. As is seen in many such situations worldwide, such anger and frustration often gets turned inward, with resulting social problems of alcoholism, suicide, drug, and other forms of abuse.

2b) But many other ethnic groups have come to Canada and retained a sense of cultural identity. Why couldn't native people, even if they had to leave the reserves, do the same?

Firstly, Native peoples' relationship to the land is far more profound and essential to their personal and community identity than is the case for most non-natives. Natives' relationship to their homeland has spiritual, psychological, and emotional dimensions, as well as economic implications. For traditional native people the land was not only homeland but also holy land.

The second point - and it is of critical importance - is that native nations are unlike other immigrant groups in some significant ways. The most obvious is that they were here first. All others are immigrants. For native people this is their homeland, they have no other place to go,

Native nations still regard themselves as distinct nations not racial minorities.

The difference is subtle but profound, and has far-reaching implications.

Racial minorities seek guarantees of freedom to pursue opportunities open to other members of the larger society.

Nations seek recognition and the right to continue as societies with their political and economic institutions. Negotiations must be between nations, e.g. Canada and the Nisga'a nations; Canada and the Mohawk Nation, etc.

West of the Rocky Mountains, there are many First Nations, many of them small in population but rich in heritage.

The understanding of native peoples as distinct nations means that, as well as being the original inhabitants of the land with a distinct history, they have different expectations and a different relation to the Confederation of Canada.

As Professor Terry Anderson observes,

ethnic immigrant groups came freely to Canada with at least an implicit understanding that while they might continue some of the ways of their culture, they were entering not as political entities with ancestral lands (nations), but joining with others to form a new people or nations, however heterogeneous it might turn outto be. Native nations, in contrast, were not given a choice regarding confederation.