COLUMN: Jessica Iron Joseph
Prince Albert Herald
Recently I got into a disagreement with a man who suggested I ought to be thankful towards the federal government (being an Indian) for its generosity and not be so judgmental and negative.
Here’s where the man and I differed in opinion: I don’t see Aboriginal people as charity cases, no matter how bad their situation is. Those who view Aboriginal people this way reveal far more about their own prejudices and lack of education than anything else.
It almost always goes back to the treaties, and in this case, it most certainly does. Two nations agreed to live side by side. First Nations people agreed to share the land and resources, and in exchange, the government promised to help them advance their societies. Considering that the way of life for First Nations people was fundamentally altered with the unnecessary slaughter of buffalo, and the government feared an uprising with First Nations joining in the Metis resistance, it was an agreement that seemingly would benefit both sides.
Unfortunately, the negotiations themselves were terribly flawed from the outset. There were many items that I’m sure were lost in translation, as many terms and concepts do not easily transfer or exist in both languages. Not to mention, the treaty documents themselves were copied in only one language, and why wouldn’t they be automatically biased in favor of the writer?
Many of the promises First Nations people were given have been documented, not necessarily in the treaties, but in other historical documents. There are also oral histories of First Nations people that have been passed down from generation to generation which contradict what was documented. If they had been written today, and I was one of the writers, there would be a lot fewer inconsistencies, and I think the resulting documents would reflect far more balance of the rights and benefits conferred to both sides. I’m only saying that to illustrate how unevenly and unfairly they were recorded.
First Nations people never agreed to being conquered, and the courts agree they have never been conquered. They did not cede, release, surrender or yield up land, as the treaties may state. They agreed to share. They also agreed to their share of the profits of those lands and resources. They did not agree to the exploitation of lands to the point of destruction. They have always been protectors of the land, and this is why you see many Aboriginal people now arguing for the health of Mother Earth. However, they are also joined by people on the other side of the treaties who are also concerned about the state of the environment, and that is a wonderful example that demonstrates how two nations can work together in a manner that benefits all.
Fair, sustainable, renewable practices are one thing, with equitable wealth disbursement among both nations. Preoccupation with greed and utter disregard for the environment and everything in it is a completely different story.
How the taxation system works and applies to Canadians was not something First Nations people had any say in. Neither did they have any say in the amount of money that gets transferred to First Nations people.
The federal government spends roughly $8 billion on First Nations people (In a budget of about $255 billion), so roughly three per cent of the total federal budget is allotted to Aboriginal people. Not all of this will actually reach Aboriginal people because a significant chunk will be tied up in administration costs. What's left of the money is not sufficient and keeps most people on reserve at or below the poverty line. Aboriginal people in urban settings have even more limited access to these funds.
Did First Nations people ask to be dependent on the federal government? No. Absolutely not. That’s why the treaties were created in the first place, because First Nations people saw their lives changing, and they embraced the change, and the new people in their territory. They wanted a good relationship with the settlers, and found a solution that would help both groups prosper, side by side in a huge country that could easily provide enough wealth for everyone to be happy and comfortable together.
Aboriginal people have not received their fair share of the agreement, and have instead suffered under genocidal policies and laws that have been forced upon them. And by fair share, I don’t just mean financially. Aboriginal communities should be thriving, healthy and prosperous, and run by Aboriginals, as the nations they were acknowledged to be at the signing of the treaties.
For a rudimentary comparison, take one look at your nearest city, and then stop for a few minutes at the nearest reserve. If you can spot all the differences between them, you’ll see how the treaty agreements have not been honored and upheld.
The treaty agreements are living, breathing agreements that never ended, and will be here for the rest of time. They were made in ceremony, with the Creator, First Nations people and the first Canadians for that initial generation and the generations to come. They were not simple contracts where land was bought and sold. They are ongoing agreements, forever contracts.
If you live and work in this country, you’re benefitting from the treaties. So long as you continue to live here, you and your family will continue to benefit. And that’s your treaty right. Aboriginal people have always wanted a peaceful relationship with Canadians. However, they have not benefited in all the ways they were promised, and therefore many changes need to be made.
I realize this column will probably annoy a lot of people, and I will probably have a full inbox following its publish date. I do not and will not apologize for words that need to be said. When people say ignorant things to me, I’m not afraid to speak up. I also don’t believe pussy-footing around topics to stroke egos helps anyone. It’s not easy to have these discussions, but that was the point of me writing for this newspaper to begin with, to have those difficult discussions. They are desperately needed.
Within healthy parameters, debates are a wonderful thing. People may not always agree, but the second you close your mind to another view or perspective you lose the opportunity for growth.
For all those who are interested, a wonderful resource on the topic of treaties is a book by Harold Johnson called “Two Families: Treaties and Government.”