Manitoba's aboriginal leaders announced last week they're involved in discussions with China and OPEC members about aboriginal land and resource rights in Canada. Collateral to that announcement, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak made press-conference comments about aboriginal rights to Canada's resources that managed to be both inflammatorily wrong and historically correct.
"What we're hoping to get across is... that we did not cede, release or surrender our natural resources to a colonial government... we are waking up from a 100-year slumber and we are going to impose our own laws," Nepinak said.
The wrong part was his threat "to impose our own laws in" Canada.
First Nations leaders are angry with the federal Conservative government for pending legislation that both alters treaty rights and streamlines oil and mining projects at the expense of environment and fisheries protection. But First Nations have no unilateral right to presume to enact or enforce laws that infringe on the rights of other Canadians. And making idle threats to do so won't win them allies of any political stripe.
The correct part was Chief Nepinak's and other activists' attempts to set the historical record straight. First Nations social activist Leo Baskatawang was right when he said: "Treaties are nation-to-nation agreements, and I think that's not understood in Canada and it's something that needs to be recognized."
Historically, the British Crown and later the Canadian government, dealt with aboriginal tribes not as wards, but as equals. Tribes and governments maintained diplomatic relations and their dealings were governed by treaty agreements. Sometimes treaties were reduced to writing, sometimes not. But in either case, binding legal promises were exchanged.
And because treaties are contracts between nations, modern tribes retain the right to insist governments perform their defaulted-upon obligations, or pay monetary damages if they don't, or can't.
Governments' records of abiding by treaties started off well, but became increasingly tarnished as decades went by.
The British Crown and later the Canadian government desperately wanted and urgently needed treaties with sundry tribes to permit peaceful settlement of parts of Ontario and Western Canada. Initially, there was little hesitation to acknowledge the sovereignty of native peoples. Governments dealt with them as they would any foreign power.
But, over time, willingness to deal with tribes as equals waned, and then vanished. Treaties began being ignored or overruled in the late 19th century. Politicians came to believe treaties were absurd concessions to a silly fiction of Indian sovereignty, with no place in modern society.
Mr. Baskatawang's point is well made.
Treaties entered into 100 or 200 years ago remain legal obligations today. And that's why, where supported by persuasive evidence, Canadian courts give them full weight and accord.
First Nations leaders should abandon strategy that puts them outside the law. Better they attain their objectives by invoking the historical rule of law -- which is patently on their side.