March 30, 2020

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Out with the old

Author argues true reconciliation requires drastic changes to Indigenous agencies

In this 2008 photo, Saskatoon RCMP officer David Kisters hands out the annual five dollar annuity still given to treaty members. Some consider the practice a slap in the face, while others see it as a symbolic gesture. (Gord Waldner / The Canadian Press files)

In this 2008 photo, Saskatoon RCMP officer David Kisters hands out the annual five dollar annuity still given to treaty members. Some consider the practice a slap in the face, while others see it as a symbolic gesture. (Gord Waldner / The Canadian Press files)

Most non-indigenous Canadians are unaware of the history of treaties, the annuities promised in these treaties and how the evolution of the Indian Act and the Department of Indigenous Affairs (in all its forms) have fundamentally created flawed relationships between Indigenous peoples and Canada — rendering "ordinary Indigenous people" voiceless.

Such is the claim of Sheilla Jones, Winnipeg journalist, author, and senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. In Let the People Speak: Oppression in a Time of Reconciliation, Jones argues that we will not truly seek out a path towards reconciliation until we come to the truth about how First Nations are funded and governed, and how the emergence of the monolithic Department of Indigenous Affairs has created a system "that has been unable to solve the issues of Indigenous poverty and suffering, no matter how much money was spent over the past fifty years."

Supported by former MKO Chief and fellow journalist Sheila North, who wrote the book’s foreword, Jones chronicles the land grab that first witnessed the signing of the numbered treaties in the West, followed by the consolidation of these treaties in the Indian Act, and then the mad attempt of the federal government to wash its hands of its responsibilities — all of which has been a strategic ploy on the part of Canada to assume control of resources.

As Jones argues, even in 2019 "It is the land, again, that is at the nexus of the conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, just as it has been from the start."

The conflict that Jones surfaces is highly complex and multifaceted; however, she manages to succinctly boil down an essential theory as to the massive gaps in social, political and economic inequity which persists in our prosperous country. According to Jones, as treaties were being signed, annuities, or yearly payments, were negotiated in order to avoid massive lump-sum payments, and also to provide a basis for a livelihood for people living on reserve. As treaties such as Treaty 1 (1871) were being signed, Indigenous leaders new full well that their lives were going to radically change.

Treaties 1 and 2 both originally had annuities of three dollars, later negotiated to five dollars following the signing of future treaties. In 2019, the annuity remains at five dollars. That’s right — for those who are party to treaties in Winnipeg and the surrounding areas, which includes some of the most fertile and resource-rich land in the world, the annuity or annual payment is five dollars. Treaty Days, or the day when Indigenous Affairs bureaucrats come to pay out the annuity, occur each year, considered a slap in the face by some and a symbolic gesture by others.

Jones asks a salient question that perhaps should re-enter the national conversation around reconciliation: "If annuities were intended as a form of family support, along with the freedom to pursue traditional vocations, why did the value of the annuity never increase again after Parliament voted its approval in 1878? "

For Jones, the annuity and the lack of an "escalator clause" is the fundamental cause of inequity. She argues that if annuities were modernized and given directly to First Nations peoples (and not band councils), that the standard of life for ordinary Indigenous people would, coupled with the advent of more democratic and accountable models of self-governance, substantially improve. A fair and equitable annuity would not only see funds go directly to ordinary people, but would reinforce the notion of "the annuity being linked directly to the land through the treaties" — a critical first step towards reconciliation.

Jones asserts that through the Indian Act, the very piece of legislation that has gobbled up the treaties, Canada has created a system in which band councils and representative organizations have become so dependent on the Department of Indigenous Affairs funding that it is impossible for them to properly represent their constituents on and off reserve. Calling into question the legitimacy of the Assembly of First Nations in particular, Jones posits firmly that power and voice can only be placed in the hands of the people once the top-down colonial and patriarchal constructs of the Indian Act are supplanted by the original intent of the treaties and the negotiated annuities.

Reconciliation still requires substantial part on settlers to accept the truth and then take meaningful action to affect positive change. Sheilla Jones offers a provocative possibility towards a future where we all of the means for a decent life.

Matt Henderson is assistant superintendent of Seven Oaks School Division.

Author Sheilla Jones (left), with Sheila North, who wrote the introduction to Let the People Speak. (Supplied)

Author Sheilla Jones (left), with Sheila North, who wrote the introduction to Let the People Speak. (Supplied)

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