I'll be honest. After speaking to more than 100 groups this past year, I got a question that not only dumbfounded me but has haunted me ever since. And it came from the most surprising place.

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This article was published 31/10/2015 (2272 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

I'll be honest. After speaking to more than 100 groups this past year, I got a question that not only dumbfounded me but has haunted me ever since. And it came from the most surprising place.

I was visiting a school on a Hutterite colony a few months ago to talk to students about treaties, our shared histories, and contemporary issues such as Kapyong Barracks.

The bolt out of the blue came from a suspender-clad teenager. "Are Hutterite colonies what reserves could have looked like without the Indian Act?" he asked.

There was a long pause and silence in the room as the students watched me clearly pondering the question, never before asked of me.

Thankfully, the student filled the awkward silence and went on. "As Hutterites, we have our own constitution, schools, language, tax system and a strong culture. Not much different than the state of First Nations when the treaties were signed, correct? It was the Indian Act that took these things away from First Nations, wasn't it?"

Not only did this young man show a level of comprehension that was truly inspiring, his understanding went way beyond what most Canadians know about First Nations. Was I surprised by this student's in-depth and comparative analysis? Without question.

By way of background, there are 118 Hutterite colonies in Manitoba that are home to a dozen or so families each. In living communal lives, everything is owned by the colony, and all work done and income earned is for the common good. As a result, there is very little personal property and no personal bank accounts etc., as all basic necessities are provided by the colony, including food, clothing and shelter.

More and more, colonies are diversifying beyond just agriculture with most now embracing entrepreneurial activities that supply goods and products to the free marketplace outside their communities. Without question, this makes them extremely competitive, as they are able to take advantage of lower overhead costs. As a result, many colonies are thriving economically while maintaining their religion, culture and self-governing entities.

Contrast this with the history of reserves in Canada. After the treaties, there were a number of First Nations that adopted the same practices -- embracing farming, carpentry and beginning the first stages toward economic self-reliance. Without a doubt, this is what the treaties envisioned.

And so, in the early stages after a treaty was made, First Nations elders negotiated for schools, agricultural implements, carpentry tools and training as well as for hunting and harvesting rights, so they could become and remain sustainably self-reliant, self-governing communities in a rapidly changing country and economy around them.

Then came the enforced Indian Act of 1876 when everything for First Nations communities changed dramatically. Indian agents stripped away responsibility for everything that happened on a reserve, going so far as to implement a pass system designed to force community members to become submissive to government. To leave the reserve for even an hour, members had to find the agent, get a pass approved and then carry it on their person the entire time they were away.

To make matters worse, government outlawed spiritual and cultural ceremonies, removed the right to vote, contracted out schooling to churches (and we all know how the residential school era turned out), made it illegal for a lawyer in Canada to represent a First Nations client against the government (without the government's consent) and introduced the peasant farmer policy, which outlawed the use of "labour-saving farming machinery" on reserves.

Unlike Hutterite colonies that were left to their own devices to flourish and grow, the Indian Act forced First Nations to become completely dependent on government through the creation of systematic government policy. In fact, if Canada had to try to do business under the restrictions of the Indian Act, we'd be a Third World country.

Looking past the head coverings, suspenders and multimillion-dollar operation, I learned a life-changing lesson from my visit to this Hutterite colony. That lesson is to never be surprised at what a teacher can learn from a student. Because, even though I went to teach these students something about our history as First Nations peoples, they ended up teaching me that, if we truly want to return to our roots of independence, economic sustainability and a deep and abiding commitment to our spiritual and cultural roots, all we need to do is take a page from the insight offered by one Hutterite teenager.

 

James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.

Twitter: @JamesBWilson_