Open Letter to PM of Canada Justin Trudeau

December 25, 2015

Kwey Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Re:  Reconciling the Nation-to-Nation Relationship

Congratulations on winning the election and on becoming Canada’s 23rd Prime Minister.  I am an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe of the Ottawa River Valley.  Canada’s parliament buildings reside on my traditional homeland; as such my first responsibility is to welcome you to our territory.  Welcome.  I am sorry for the delay in offering you this welcome.  Living with and through colonial oppression is exhausting.

By now I have read several of your mandate letters sent to your newly appointed Ministers such as that of Dr. Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, and that of Ms. Jody Wilson-Raybould, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.  I noticed that you stated the following in all of these letters:

“No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples. It is time for a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, based on recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership.”

Further, I read this in your statement on the release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

“This is a time of real and positive change. We know what is needed is a total renewal of the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples.  We have a plan to move towards a nation-to-nation relationship based on recognition, rights, respect, cooperation and partnership, and we are already making it happen.”

As an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe eager to experience genuine and meaningful change in the relationship between Canada and Indigenous Nations I was particularly happy to read about your desire to renew the nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous nations.  In Minister Bennett’s letter you actually mention this intent on three occasions.

I have also listened to many of your broadcasted news interviews.  The words you offered during the commencement of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were interesting for me to listen to.  Specifically, your discussion of the poor curriculum that you were exposed to despite, as you said, your “privileged education”.  Although unlike you I did not have a privileged education, I too was exposed to the same poor curriculum.  My preference though is to call is offensive, disenfranchising, and colonial.  The difference between myself, though, and you is that while you have been able to live a good life not knowing the truth about Canada’s relationship with Indigenous nations, my life has taken several different turns.  As an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe eventually I found myself thrust into a land claims process. I use the terms “land claims process” over “contemporary treaty process” intentionally and for good reason.  While Canada’s law and policy makers, and you yourself, use these two terms interchangeably, for Indigenous people they have immensely different meanings that need to be fleshed out and valued.  This is important for you to know about. Otherwise you, and your Ministers, will continue to insult the intelligence of Indigenous people, Indigenous thinkers, as well as all Canadian people.

You claim that you intend to renew the nation-to-nation relationship as it is recognized in the Canadian Constitution.  This is an excellent goal and I commend you as do many Indigenous people.  My goal here with this letter is to offer you the Indigenous understanding of what a nation-to-nation relationship means as indeed you are correct, your education has let you down as it has all Canadian people.

What most Canadians and Canadian parliamentarians do not know is that Canada’s constitutional beginnings did not begin in 1867 with a room full of English and French patriarchs in a top down approach.  Rather, Canada’s constitutional beginnings predate this moment to a time when the 1763 Royal Proclamation was ratified during the 1764 Treaty at Niagara.  The Treaty at Niagara established a treaty federal order where Indigenous Nations retained jurisdiction of their land and resources where, as a result, they would continue their process of evolving and manifesting their governance laws and traditions in ways that suited them and their ability to live a good life within their knowledge philosophy and good governance standards.  With this retention of jurisdiction, Indigenous Nations agreed they would share the land with settler people so they too could live a good life.

Again, what most Canadians and Canadian parliamentarians do not know is that this treaty federal order is recorded in both the 1763 Royal Proclamation and the three Wampum Belts that were exchanged during the Treaty at Niagara: The British and Western Great Lakes Covenant Chain Confederacy Belt, The Twenty Four Nations Belt, and the Two Row Wampum Belt.  While most Canadians are of the thought that the Royal Proclamation is our only founding constitutional document, this is a colonial understanding and thus a narrow interpretation.  In fact, the three Wampum Belts are also founding constitutional documents.  The treaty federal order encoded in these constitutional documents remains within the oral tradition and thus hearts and minds of Indigenous people.

It is important that I take the time and point out here that contrary to what many people think Indigenous people did have a system of symbolic literacy of which Wampum Belt diplomacy was one method within a larger collection of literacy forms.  Much like the textual communication forms found in books and ledgers, Wampum Diplomacy consists of a system of icons and symbols carefully linked together to convey inherent meaning.

Treaty at Niagara Wampum Belts copyright Lynn Gehl

In moving along with the history that Canada’s colonial curriculum continues to deny, it was in 1867 when the treaty federal order was unilaterally changed and where the provincial federal order that we live with today was imposed on Indigenous Nations and also imposed on Indigenous land and waterscapes; and where the treaty federal order first agreed upon in 1764 was denied.  It was here that Canada unilaterally designated all Indigenous land provincial crown land and where the nation-to-nation relationship was unilaterally dismissed.

As Canada did this to Indigenous Nations, Canada also criminalized our culture, denied us the right to vote in their political system, and also denied us the right to hire lawyers.  While these particular oppressive measures have changed, in the area of respecting Indigenous jurisdiction and a genuine nation-to-nation relationship with us, there has not been any movement beyond political rhetoric, practices of ignoring Supreme Court of Canada decisions, and the manipulation of Canadian land claims policies.  This is not a matter of interpretation and debate.  This is truth. Indigenous people, thinkers, ceremonialists, and academics have successfully pointed this out over and over again.

It was after the 1973 Frank Calder decision when Canada manifested their comprehensive land claims policy titled the1981 In All Fairness: A Native Claims Policy which remained steeped in the colonial agenda of Indigenous denial rather than the nation-to-nation relationship established at Niagara in 1764.  In short, in this policy Indigenous Nations were forced to comply with a blanket extinguishment of all their rights.  This outraged many Indigenous people where eventually Canada tweaked their comprehensive land claims policy text and subsequent practices into a “new” policy titled the 1987 Comprehensive Land Claims in a way that Indigenous Nations were forced to relinquish only their land and land related rights versus all their rights.  It is easy to rationalize that these requirements render Indigenous nations with next to no agency and next to no ability to live a good life as it is through the gifts (resources) of the land and water that nations are able to construct meaningful governance structures and traditions.

Many Canadians know about the Tsilhoqot’in Supreme Court of Canada decision rendered June 2014.  Subsequently, in an effort to reconcile law with policy, Canada put forward their “new” interim comprehensive land claims policy. Shortly after, Bruce McIvor offered his legal analysis presenting four main issues that remain colonial and thus problematic: First, it “disregards the need for high-level discussions between Canada and First Nations leadership to reframe the approach to achieving reconciliation on Aboriginal title and rights claims”; Second, it “fails to acknowledge that recognition of Aboriginal title must be the starting point for all negotiations and agreements between Indigenous peoples and the Crown”; Third, it “fails to address the need for the Crown to seek and obtain the consent of Indigenous peoples before making decisions that will affect Aboriginal title lands”; And fourth, it “fails to consider and adhere to the underlying principles of Aboriginal title”; and it “imposes a unilateral approach which is inconsistent with Canada’s fiduciary relationship to Indigenous peoples and its obligations to act in good faith in negotiations concerning Aboriginal title and rights”.

The important story here is that despite several favourable SCC decisions and several policy revisions Canada continually refuses to meet new law.  It is in this way that Canada remains rooted in its colonial history and agenda that has denied, and continues to deny, Indigenous Nations the jurisdiction of their lands and resources.  And it is in this way that Canada continues to deny and obfuscate the nation-to-nation relationship established at the 1764 Treaty at Niagara.  In taking this approach Canada has in fact insulted the intelligence of all Canadians as well as undermined the relationship between Canadians and Indigenous people.

What does this mean in practical terms for Indigenous Nations?  This means Indigenous Nations, such as the Algonquin Anishinaabeg, are forced into a land claims process where the only right they have is to terminate, extinguish, relinquish, or define in very narrow terms access to their land and land related rights; the very land and land related rights from which we need to construct meaningful institutions rather than experiencing more of the same inadequate colonial structures.  Offering a concrete example, through its unilaterally constructed land claims policy, Canada is offering the Algonquin Anishinaabeg in Ontario only 1.3% of their land and a one-time buy out of $300 million.  Being forced to define our needs in these narrow terms is not a nation-to-nation relationship, nor is it reconciliation.

This is the reality imposed on Indigenous Nations despite our long time efforts taking the matter all the way to the SCC, on several occasions no less.  This is wrong in so many ways.  First, it ignores SCC decisions, second, it denies the nation-to-nation relationship, third, it denies Indigenous Nations the right to maintain our own jurisdiction of our land and resources in a manner that provides us with the resources needed to then construct meaningful governance bodies, institutions, and mechanisms needed such as laws, policies, court houses, education, health care, and housing and shelters.  There is no need for Indigenous nations to be dependent on the colonial purse strings of oppression.  We are capable Nations, with capable members, capable of making our own decisions.

This last statement is not to deny the need for some assistance in addressing the worst that colonial oppression has resulted in: Internalized sexism and patriarchy.

There are immediate additional issues related to Canada’s colonial land claims process.  These land claims processes take 25 to 30 years to complete where there is little inherent that serves the most vulnerable such as women and children.  In short, the process is not rooted in gender parity or equity where qualified women are given the much needed opportunities.

What is more, while in the Algonquin land claims process in Ontario there is a hunting interim agreement, there are no interim policies or practices directly for women and children such as food banks, head start programs, or shelters.  In offering just one example that could make a huge difference, although there are 17 provincial parks in Algonquin traditional territory, no employment opportunities are designated solely for Indigenous women and students.

As I discuss the Algonquin land claims process I need to stress here that its limitations do not only reside with Canada’s policy and process.  Of course the issues of sexism and patriarchy are manifesting in real and harmful ways at the level of practice in our communities.  Realities such as internalized oppression, lateral violence, the use of confounding rhetoric much the same way Canada does with its Indian policies and laws such as the use of such discourse as nation-to-nation and/or government-to-government, and token appointments are rampant in these land claims processes where as a result women’s and children’s needs continue to be denied and they are harmed further.  This is the nature of oppression; the most vulnerable suffer the most.

Research has shown that improving the lives of women and children in concrete and practical ways is the best way to prevent poverty, violence, health issues such as disabilities, and sexual oppression such as incest, rape, prostitution, and missing and murdered Indigenous women.  As I write this I do wonder what your life partner Sophie thinks about these issues that Indigenous women and their children are contending with.  I wonder this because it is my understanding that Sophie has participated in social justice work for women and children.

In bringing this letter to a close, over the months preceding, and after the election, you have stated that you will implement all 94 recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.  Once again I commend you on your commitment to honour the nation-to-nation relationship as per these two guidelines, in particular the TRC recommendation 45 and Article 26 of UNDRIP:

“45. We call upon the Government of Canada, on behalf of all Canadians, to jointly develop with Aboriginal peoples a Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation to be issued by the Crown. The proclamation would build on the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Treaty of Niagara of 1764, and reaffirm the nation-to-nation relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Crown.”

“Article 26 1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired. 2. Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired. 3. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.”

Prime Minister Trudeau, the TRC and UNDRIP offers that a nation-to-nation relationship and  genuine reconciliation must be rooted within the terms established during the 1764 Treaty at Niagara where Canada’s constitutional documents were ratified, where Indigenous Nations retained jurisdiction of their land and waterscapes, and where we agreed to share it with settler people so we both could live meaningful and good lives.  Anything less will remain colonial.

Lynn Gehl, Ph.D
Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe

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