Friday, May 06, 2016

Honour treaties: the key to Reconciliation

Fort Carlton - site of Treaty 6 signing.
I just watched a Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s short video summary of the TRC process. It ends with Shawn Atleo’s tearful assessment of what needs to happen: 1) indigenous families and communities must forgive themselves and each other for past failures and 2) they must determine not to let the pain continue.

The second item may be the toughest for—in my case—all of us who live under the Canada/First Nations accord that we call Treaty 6. It requires change. Not just superficial, surface change but a fundamentally-new way of doing politics that allows and/or forces change to happen. Figuring out how to do that is the challenge.

I live in a settler’s community—Rosthern, Saskatchewan—very near two reserves: Beardy’s Okemasis and One Arrow. There is regular, if distant, interaction between the settler folk and their indigenous neighbours, but it’s primarily commercial: some residents of the reserves shop in Rosthern. On the cultural, social level, there’s not a lot going on. The question is, should there be, and if so, would it even the playing field for indigenous families, or just put it on a friendlier basis?

To some people I meet, this is key. I’ve come to disagree. It’s essential that our day to day commerce be fair, friendly and that it respect the dignity and autonomy of everyone, but that isn’t key; it’s only essential. More an outcome of equality than a prerequisite for it.

The key lies in the guarantees for everyone that we “settler folk” have long taken for granted: decent housing, water, education, health care, etc., and access to a fair share of the resources that are required for quality life circumstances. Turns out that the treaties signed by the crown and the First Nations although well intended, were short-sighted. They should have ended with a rider that would say that adjustment of the provisions of the treaty would be commensurate with changes in population and needs from time to time.

Let me explain.

The treaty specifies “reserve land in the amount of one square mile per family of five,” and I doubt that the size of reserves has been seriously adjusted with population increases, or whether the “family of five” stipulation has ever been revisited in any meaningful way. In other words, the provisions of the treaty were colonial in nature; they made it too easy to say “a medicine chest” means what it says, rather than accept the implicit understanding that it means health care commensurate with the times . . . ongoing.

Furthermore, the $5 “gift” every treaty day, although a month’s wage at the time. now buys a pop and a chocolate bar . . . barely.

The last item in the treaty should have said “The Crown and the First Nations of Canada will each elect/appoint an equal number of representatives every five years to meet as needed to determine current implications of the treaties, and with power to enact legislation binding upon municipal, provincial and federal governments.”

The debacle of the residential school system was made real through the TRC for anyone who was listening and I won’t go into that. Except that I have this nagging question: why did first nations parents, councils and leadership not tell the Canadian government to GO TO HELL when it’s petty officials came to collect their kids? Perhaps this is what happens when starvation, abject poverty and subjugation has so cowed populations that they assume a posture and expectation of helplessness.

I can’t believe they didn’t care about their kids.

Of course, let’s all cultivate friendlier relations with indigenous neighbours, but let’s not assume that change will happen without insisting that it do so . . . to the halls of power.

Write your MP and your MLA today.

Now that would be a hopeful act of reconciliation!