Andy Crosby

As business resumed in the Canadian House of Commons on Sept. 17, grassroots Indigenous movements began mobilizing in preparation for the roll-out of a legislative overhaul of federal Indian policy this fall.

On Sept. 14, the grassroots Indigenous groups Defenders of the Land, Idle No More and Truth Campaign, who together comprise the Indigenous Activists Networks, issued a press release calling for direct action to “stop the Trudeau government’s Indigenous rights termination plan.” They say that “the existing path the government is taking [is] a direct threat to our sovereignty, our international right of self-determination, our Treaties and our Aboriginal Title and Rights.”

The Trudeau Liberals’ legislative framework on the “Federal Recognition and Implementation of the Inherent and Treaty Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada” aims to replace the Comprehensive Land Claims and Inherent Right Policies, which have defined the modern treaty framework between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian government since the 1970s.

The latter policies have been oft-criticized for extinguishing Indigenous rights in exchange for municipal-type powers, negotiated at what Mohawk Policy Analyst Russell Diabo refers to as “termination tables.”

The Indigenous Activists Networks argue that the new framework will actually accelerate the termination of Indigenous rights process.

“Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has launched the largest assault on First Nations collective rights in the 151-year history of Canada… consistent with the intent of Pierre Trudeau’s 1969 White Paper on Indian Policy,” according to their statement, released on Sept. 7 in response to the Canadian government’s Indigenous rights framework engagement document. “What we are seeing now is the implementation of the White Paper through federal law, policy and their proposed Recognition Framework.”

Diabo sees a long continuation of federal policy efforts to subvert Indigenous sovereignty and treaty rights culminating in the expected legislation.

“The core objective remains changing the legal and political status of First Nations to a ‘fourth level’ local ethnic government,” said Diabo in the Sept. 14 press release. “This will have negative, long-term generational impacts for our First Nation Peoples and sever our original relationship with our lands and the Treaties our sovereign Nations made with European Nations long before Canada patriated its constitution from England in 1982.”

The “fourth level of government” Diabo refers to would subvert Indigenous sovereign authority under federal, provincial, and municipal powers.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the Indigenous Rights framework on Feb. 14, following a meeting with members of Colten Boushie’s family in Ottawa. The Canadian government has since undertaken an “engagement process” with Indigenous communities, a process that has been heavily criticized by Indigenous groups as “top-down” and “federally-controlled.”

Rachel Snow, spokesperson with the Indigenous Activists Networks, told The Leveller that, “The problem with [the legislation] was that it was introduced unilaterally by Prime Minister Trudeau without consultation and without any input from the Indigenous people themselves.”

According to a framework overview document, the Canadian government claims that, “The Framework will ensure that the Government of Canada recognizes, respects, and implements Indigenous rights, including inherent and treaty rights, and provides mechanisms to support self-determination.”

A primary concern repeated by opponents of the government’s framework has been the use and misuse of language and terms such as “nation-to-nation” and “self-determination.”

“When Canada uses the phrase self-determination, and in the context of this legislation, it’s self-determination within the parameters of Canadian law,” said Snow. “How can we be self-determining and practice our way of life when industry can trump our areas we use to hunt, fish, gather, and harvest?”

“For Canada, self-determination is within a box,” Snow continued. “After [federal, provincial, and municipal] laws, and after every other stakeholder has had their say, that is where our self-determination is.”

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) held a national policy forum on “Affirming First Nations Rights, Title and Jurisdiction” in Gatineau on Sept. 11-12. Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett addressed the convention hall on Sept. 11, speaking of peaceful co-existence, sharing land and the treaty relationship.

“If we can recapture that spirit and intent of all of the treaties, that peace and friendship treaties, the modern treaties, the number treaties, the pre-Confederation treaties… even for those territories that don’t have treaty, that the spirit and intent of what that was supposed to mean, living in peaceful co-existence, sharing a land fairly, that’s what we’re trying to achieve.”

Diabo, concerned with Bennett’s rhetoric, noted in the press release that, “We have to look beyond the nice sounding public relations speeches being given by the Prime Minister and his Ministers and critically examine whether what is being said politically matches what is in federal ‘Engagement Documents’ being drafted by federal officials to outline what is likely going to be contained in the federal Indigenous ‘Rights Recognition’ Framework legislation. So far, what the politicians are saying and what the bureaucrats are writing on paper are completely opposite messages.”

Following Bennett’s speech, and throughout the two days of the AFN Forum, dozens of people lined up at microphones to express both caution and criticism of the Canadian government’s approach.

The groundswell of oppo­sition, expressed by many of the chiefs as well as grassroots activists, begs pondering the possibility of a renewal of nationwide mobilizations reminiscent of Idle No More, if the federal government continues to ignore Indigenous concerns. The Idle No More uprising in 2012-2013 was so powerful because the massive mobilizations at the grassroots level were support­ed by many chiefs, including the Chiefs of Ontario who are opposed to the current legis­lative framework.

Colonial legislative measures that dramatically impact the lives of Indigenous peoples, such as the White Paper, the patriation of the Constitution, and Bill C-45 sparking Idle No More, tend to galvanize nationwide mobilizations. The former two were initiatives of Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s government. Now Justin seems to be following in his father’s footsteps.

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