Sunday, June 20, 2010

Canada Has Yet to Atone for It's Immoral Treatment of the First Nations

As you are probably aware, this week marked a time of reconciliation between Canada and it's First Nations Peoples. At issue was the systemic government-sponsored abuse that was perpetrated against indigenous children by taking them away from their families, placing them in a residential school setting, where they were often subject to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.

The federal government has apologized for the role that it played (for the record, the articles of the Indian Act that empower the government to behave so cruelly are still on the books), but in my opinion saying you are sorry doesn't go far enough in order to make things right.

What is required is that as a nation, we come clean with the magnitude of the abuse we have inflicted upon the First Nations and the precious little we have done to fix the problem.

No, we can't turn back the clock and erase the sins committed by this nation's forefathers, but we can own up to the fact that we as a people radically disposed the indigenous peoples of their land, ignoring for the most part the treaties that were signed and even the principles of our common law which holds that aboriginal title was never extinguished since it requires an act of Parliament with an explicit intention to do so.

Essentially, we pushed them off their land, forced them to live on reserves and administered a legal framework that treats aboriginal peoples as if they were subhuman. Case in point, the residential school system. Imagine, if you will, the international out cry if similar methods were imposed upon a white European ethnic minority. Without question, there would be mention of crimes against humanity, but in the context of the English settler states, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the US, the ill treatment of the indigenous peoples is thought of as the unfortunate outcomes of colonial expansion into virgin territory.

As could be expected, the four above-mentioned settler states rejected the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples although Australia subsequently endorsed the declaration and New Zealand recently announced its intention to do so as well. That leaves the US and Canada as the only hold outs, much to the chagrin of the international community.

Canada's official position is to assert that we cannot sign the declaration because of our constitutional framework. How convenient. If we were serious about facing the unpleasant facts entrenched in our collective past, we would move beyond this institutional inertia and do what it takes to bring about a substantive and equitable reconciliation with the peoples we have oppressed for four hundred years.

For that to happen, we need to bury the two founding peoples myth and face up to the fact that we are a people comprised of successive waves of immigrants that have settled and occupied other peoples' lands.

In my mind, if Canada is ever going to evolve into a modern state of the 21st century, we will need to be honest with regard to how we got here and put aside the collective amnesia that we have found to be far too comfortable.

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