A place at the table for Indigenous leaders
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/07/2017 (2018 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Three leading organizations of Indigenous peoples yesterday boycotted the opening of the Edmonton meeting of Canada’s provincial and territorial premiers, complaining they were being sidelined and segregated. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, chair of the Council of the Federation, had invited them to attend the opening of the meeting and then clear out as the premiers discussed Canada-U.S. trade, legalization of marijuana and other pressing issues.
The moment reflected the poor state of understanding between Canada’s provincial governments and the Indigenous peoples represented by the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Métis Nation of Canada. The Indigenous organizations wish for equal dignity with provincial governments. The provincial governments do not agree.
Things were very different 200 years ago, when the Earl of Selkirk sought to re-establish the Red River settlement, which had been abandoned after the 1816 violence at Seven Oaks. The dispersed settlers and Lord Selkirk knew how precarious their position was. The tiny settlement was outnumbered and outgunned by the Métis buffalo hunters who supplied pemmican and transport services to the Northwest Company, which was competing for furs with Lord Selkirk’s Hudson’s Bay Company. The HBC and the settlers needed the support of the Cree and Saulteaux people of the region.
In that context, Lord Selkirk visited the colony and concluded a treaty with five Indigenous chiefs — Mache Wheseab, Le Sonnant, La Robe Noire, Peguis and Ouckidoat. The chiefs granted to the British monarch a strip of land four miles wide on each side of the Red and Assiniboine rivers extending from the present site of Grand Forks, N.D., to the mouth of the Red River and from Portage la Prairie to Winnipeg. Lord Selkirk promised to deliver 100 pounds of good tobacco every Oct. 10 to the Saulteaux chiefs and warriors and another 100 pounds to the Cree chiefs and warriors.
By later treaties, the Crown presumed to give land to the Indigenous peoples to be their reserves. In 1817, however, the Indigenous chiefs were giving land to Britain and the British settlers to be a European reserve.
The anniversary today of the signing of Lord Selkirk’s Treaty is worth celebrating as Canada’s governments seek reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples and their leaders. Peguis and the other chiefs graciously made room for the European settlers and treated them as equals, though the newcomers were in practice helpless and unable to sustain themselves in their precarious and ill-defended colony. The Indigenous peoples had the power, in alliance with the Métis, to snuff out the little colony but they chose not to do that.
Governments now should be willing to make room for their Indigenous neighbours. Indigenous peoples are Canadians, like any other, but they are also heirs and victims of a long-lived and destructive system of segregation and exclusion.
The Indigenous organizations are not provincial or territorial governments and they should not try to prevent premiers from meeting and discussing matters of common interest. But now that the provincial leaders have declared themselves to be the Council of the Federation — something more than just a gathering of premiers — the governments should make room at the table for legitimate representatives of Indigenous peoples. That is what reconciliation looks like in practice. That may be one small part of the new relationship Canada needs with Indigenous Peoples.