December 10, 2019

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Opinion

Indigenous voters engaged, unwavering

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the infamous White Paper.

Introduced in 1969 by Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau and minister of Indian affairs and northern development Jean Chrétien, it proposed to abolish all laws pertaining to Indigenous peoples in Canada — including the Indian Act and treaties — and assimilate them into the Canadian state.

HANDOUT PHOTO</p><p>Jean Chretien and Pierre Trudeau proposed to abolish all laws pertaining to Indigenous peoples in Canada including the Indian Act and treaties.</p>

HANDOUT PHOTO

Jean Chretien and Pierre Trudeau proposed to abolish all laws pertaining to Indigenous peoples in Canada including the Indian Act and treaties.

If successful, the White Paper would have eliminated Indian "status," turned reserves into municipalities, and eradicated all federal departments related to Native lands and peoples.

It would have literally erased Indians from the map.

Trudeau and Chrétian promised this would make Indians "equal," full participants in Canada, and landowners — unifying the country as a result.

Indigenous peoples saw things quite differently.

Protests were led by the Canadian National Indian Brotherhood (now Assembly of First Nations) and its provincial chapters. Leaders saw the White Paper as a denial of treaties, a refusal to deal fairly with land claims, and the final step in a long march towards assimilation.

These words led to marches and assemblies, which led to documents and declarations (such as Cree lawyer Harold Cardinal’s bestselling book The Unjust Society). These resistances led to everyday Indigenous peoples understanding the necessity of encouraging youth to become lawyers, teachers, nurses and (eventually) politicians.

At the same time, Indigenous peoples — many of whom were emerging from the brutal residential school system — recommitted themselves to their languages, cultures, and nations.

A reality had become evidently clear: like the treaties promised, we had to figure out a way to live with Canada.

My father entered university and, eventually, the University of Manitoba's faculty of law. He wasn’t alone. People such as Ovide Mercredi, Marion Meadmore and Phil Fontaine were there, too.

With leaders like these came court decisions like the 1973 Calder v. British Columbia decision (stating Indigenous nations had land title that pre-existed European arrival); the 1990 Sparrow decision (establishing the terms in which treaty rights could be asserted); and the 1997 Delgamuukw v. B.C. decision (pronouncing Canada has a "duty to consult" First Nations on land use).

What started as a moment of despair and conflict turned into the world we know today. We don’t live in a perfect society by any means, but one in which reconciliation is talked about, lived by some, and resisted by others.

We live in a society in which a majority of Indigenous peoples and Canadians desire reconciliation, but don’t know how we are going to get there.

This was blatantly obvious in the 2019 election cycle.

The recent Manitoba and federal elections have been stark reminders of how far this country has to go to see Indigenous peoples as partners, citizens, or anything beyond problems.

In the provincial campaign, Indigenous issues were barely mentioned.

The federal election began with Indigenous issues at the top of the agenda, debates, and reporters questions. Never before had this happened; then, history popped up and took things in a different direction.

There was one party leader apologizing for dressing in blackface/brownface, and another who lied about his credentials. One party promoted hope; another the doom of the environment; another the importance of language and culture. (I’ll let you figure out which is which.)

In the end, Indigenous peoples were left behind over squabbles over carbon taxes and Quebec and pipelines — even though, frankly, they are at the centre of all of those issues.

You’d think this would lead to Indigenous apathy and disinterest, but it didn’t.

There were more Indigenous candidates running in a federal election then any other time in history. Indigenous grassroots and political organizations held "get-out-the-vote" rallies and candidate forums on Indigenous issues. APTN and Indigenous reporters/columnists have been working around-the-clock.

By the time the ballots are counted, Indigenous voters will have significantly influenced the outcome in one in five ridings across the country. In more than a handful of ridings, there were all-Indigenous slates of candidates. Not all was progressive: no Indigenous candidates in Yukon (where one-quarter of the population is Indigenous).

But, more than ever, Indigenous peoples were engaged.

Indigenous sovereignty is also alive and well. Many individuals and nations (such as the Mohawk of Kahnawake in Quebec) don’t vote for important, historical, and legitimate reasons. When Indigenous peoples choose not to vote, they almost always are making a critical, well-considered, and valid point.

(I wish I could say the same for the guy who told me he doesn’t want to vote, so was instead going to draw a car next to Liberal candidate Jim Carr’s name.)

It’s been 50 years since Indigenous peoples were threatened with extermination from history, and they turned that moment into a revolution.

So today, with a new Canadian government — Indigenous-friendly or not — Indigenous peoples will continue to act, resist, and live in a reality we continue to make.

niigaan.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair
Columnist

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

Read full biography

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