For a more just and equitable future all First Nation people must refuse modern treaties that affirm Canadian rights above our own
Treaties often dictate relationships between indigenous peoples of North America and the governments that control their ancestral lands. In the US, Congress maintained an official policy of negotiating treaties with Indian nations until 1871, and kept up a not-so-official policy of breaking them long after. In Canada, treaty-making continued into the 20th century. In the province of British Columbia (BC), however, there are almost no treaties between First Nations and Canada, because the provincial government believed primitive natives could not have any claim to the land. Today, this means that First Nations hold unextinguished legal claims to a landmass larger than Texas.
But the Canadian government wants that to change. There are 64 First Nations in the midst of a treaty process aimed at extinguishing all present and future Native claims to land. I’m a member of the Tsq’escenemc, or People of Broken Rock, one of 17 bands of the 10,000-strong Secwepemc Nation, and one of four Northern Secwepemc bands currently negotiating our own treaty with the federal government.
The “deal” currently on the table for the Northern Secwepemc pays $37.5m (in US dollars) and returns roughly 174,000 acres of crown land in exchange for an end to all claims to almost 14m acres of traditional territories. To put this into perspective, the treaty returns just a hair over 1% of our land and pays $2.74 per acre for the rest. This is a deal sadly reminiscent of the 47 cents an acre offered to California Indians in 1963. According to a major realty company, price per acreranges in British Columbia from $48,510 for farmland to about $777 for bare land in the North. There is no corner of British Columbia where land sells for $2.74 an acre.
Needless to say, the four Secwepemc bands must cast their ballots against this treaty at the planned October vote so that they and their descendants will survive as sovereign and self-determining nations.
The agreement, which is very similar to others offered to British Columbia’s First Nations, would also restructure the four Northern Secwepemc bands as municipalities, stripping them of all rights and services provided under the Indian Act, including reserve lands, healthcare and housing. In effect, the treaty would relieve the federal government of its legal responsibility to people still suffering from generations of colonization, violence and poverty. Perhaps most troubling of all, the deal would eliminate our last vestiges of sovereignty by converting all Northern Secwepemc territory into private property.
Since BC was first settled in the 1800s, First Nations have fought to reclaim stolen lands. In this history, the Secwepemc – who threatened war in 1874 and 1879,confronted Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier in 1910, helped found the National Indian Brotherhood in 1970 and participated in the Gustafsen Lake Standoff in 1995 – occupy center stage.
On the other side, the province and natural resource corporations have long desired “certainty” on the Indian land question – by which they mean the extinguishment of any indigenous claims to lands, rights and sovereignty, present and future. From an economic or corporate perspective, unextinguished aboriginal land claims are an investment risk, because they allow First Nations to block developments that exploit their land or people through lawsuits and direct action. And so one can easily imagine that they have run statistical models to calculate the value of paying us off.
But here’s the kicker: First Nations, including my own, have accrued hundreds of millions of dollars in debt in the effort to work towards an agreement in principle. The Northern Secwepemc bands’ debt, estimated at $16.9m back in 2011, will come out of our final settlement. It also functions as all unpaid debts do, coercing impoverished people to choose between fast cash for their rights, or a mountain of debt and the continued struggle.
Although the struggle for land, rights and equality has been and continues to be a long and weary road, it has turned up notable small victories in Canada of late. The Tsilqhot’in – western neighbors and ancient enemies of the Secwepemc –won a landmark supreme court decision last year affirming aboriginal title to over 430,000 acres. June’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission report shined a light on the dark history of residential school abuses and opened up the conversation about moral responsibility for colonization. In notoriously conservative Alberta, where First Nations have stood on the front lines of growing opposition to the tar sands, the recent election of the left-wing New Democratic Party signals a seismic shift in the political landscape. And in the national elections in October, it is possible that indigenous Canadians could play a key role in removing the conservative government from power.
To realize the promise of a more just and equitable future, my people, and all First Nations, must refuse modern treaties that affirm Canadian rights and sovereignty above our own. We must fight for what is rightfully ours in the courts and in our territories. We have the wind at our backs. Maybe it is not a gale force, but the gusts are noticeable.