John Ralston Saul thinks First Nations people have become an unstoppable force in Canada.
He watched the Idle no More movement last winter and concluded that aboriginal people in Canada are making a comeback, and that Canada’s relationship with its First Nations peoples is the most pressing issue of our time.
Many of Saul’s conclusions and observations are similar to mine. We have to look at the long view of history and social movements to see where aboriginal people are headed.
At first our people welcomed the European settlers and participated in the economy. Our people were the trappers who provided fur companies, including the Hudson Bay Company and the North West Company, the raw material that fed their mercantile empires.
Further south, our people sold horses to the settlers and began to farm their reserve land. They sold their produce to people in the local towns, resulting in white farmers complaining to their local members of Parliament that they were being out-competed.
This is where things went sideways, and it was an example for First Nations’ economic growth for the next century. Since we had no vote, the legislators clamped down on our farmers.
To sell his produce an aboriginal farmer was required to get a permit from the Indian agent. In this manner the First Nations farmers could be controlled. In addition, for an Indian to leave the reserve he or she had to have a pass from the agent.
Government officials were allowed a large degree of latitude in their approach to First Nations people. In the Battleford agency, local Indian agent Hayter Reid believed that Indian people must evolve farming techniques and not be allowed to use modern equipment.
First Nations farmers were restricted to hand tools such as sickles, scythes, hoes and shovels, while more labour saving horse drawn equipment was available for other farmers. As a result, the agriculture economy that was the promise of reserve land was destroyed.
In the 1800s our people suffered from plagues and famines, and our population was reduced to the point that the survival of our race was in doubt.
At the turn of the century there were about 10,000 Indian people in Saskatchewan, and around 100,000 in the whole country. Today there are more than 200,000 First Nations and Métis people in Saskatchewan. Nationally our population is approaching two million.
There has been a steady arc of progress during the past 40 years, where we increased our population, and went from just a few university students to more than 30,000 nationally today.
During this period our leaders negotiated Section 35 of the Constitution, which recognizes and affirms treaty and aboriginal rights.
There has been a winning streak for First Nations and aboriginal cases before the Supreme Court. This streak is the longest in the court’s history and shows no sign of let up.
For the past century we had to survive and rebuild our communities. Now we are about to thrive.
The Idle No More movement was a sign that we are entering a new phase. Politicians and the media looked at Idle No More as a single event that is now done.
But according to Saul, it is merely one more step in the growth of First Nations awareness and political action.
He does, however, feel that things have reached a tipping point. The two provinces taking the leadership are British Columbia and Saskatchewan: B.C. because of its outstanding land claims that must be dealt with before resource development and pipelines can go ahead, and Saskatchewan because of our strong institutional base and political activism.
Idle No More was born here, led by four Saskatchewan women.
The government’s First Nations policies have failed to develop because the Department of Aboriginal affairs is stuck in the past. The Victorian poorhouse model, as Saul likes to call it.
The department should be taken apart and a new relationship created with First Nations people. This new relationship should recognize the treaties and work to implement them.
Along with Aboriginal Affairs, which has a centurylong culture of colonialism, the federal Department of Justice with its attack dog mentality must also be replaced.
The Harper government has a spotty record on aboriginal affairs. It began its term in office by axing Kelowna Accord, which would have created equitable funding for First Nations and provided much needed infrastructure dollars.
On the positive side, the government apologized to the victims of residential schools. However, there have not been many positive initiatives since then.
Ottawa’s Education Act a failure because of its top-down colonial methods, which were rejected by the chiefs.
The Transparency Act revealed chiefs’ salaries, but the salaries of senior people at the colonial office remain a secret.
Saul sees the next five to 10 years as crucial to our relationship with the rest of the country.
Canada’s relationship with First Nations is the missing building block of Confederation, and as long as the treaties are not honoured and First Nations title is not recognized, Canada remains an incomplete country.