By Doug Cuthand, The Starphoenix
This could be a watershed year for First Nations, for either good or bad. Several federal initiatives and events will create a backlash that could create a dramatic upsurge in political activism.
We saw the birth last year of the Idle No More movement which, contrary to political pundits, has not died out but is still very much a factor in Indian country. The issues that face aboriginal people fall into two areas - legislation and cutbacks imposed by the federal government, and development of resources on First Nations' land.
The government has steadfastly refused to increase funding for education and social programs in spite of pressure from the provinces, First Nations and the opposition parties. Ottawa also has refused to call a public inquiry into the 600 missing and murdered aboriginal women despite similar pressure.
Standing up to the First Nations might well to the Conservatives' redneck base, but it's creating a pressure cooker of frustration in Indian country. If the government continues down this path, we will see the emergence of a more militant form of First Nations and Métis politics. The federal government is de-funding aboriginal political organizations, so a vacuum will be created as the voice of the elected leaders is muffled and the political climate in Indian country is polarized. The chiefs are a much more conservative voice than groups such as Idle No More. The result will be a ramping up of the dialogue, with the government dealing with a more militant and strident group of leaders.
The government has also created a number of issues that will cause First Nations and Métis people clash with it over the coming year.
The First Nations education act has been tabled and was condemned by aboriginal groups across the country. This retrogressive legislation takes First Nations education back to the 1960s, putting the colonial office firmly in charge and making a shambles of the 50-year-old policy of Indian control of Indian education.
Ottawa has used coercion and extortion to advance its education legislation. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt has said that he will only discuss funding after the act becomes law. First Nations leaders are not prepared to accept this backward legislation,
since it's the promise of a pig in a poke.
Lately Valcourt has stated that he is willing to negotiate some of the more contentious clauses, but the fact remains that he and his government are ignoring history and the level of frustration in Indian country. Meanwhile, the Gateway pipeline has been given conditional approval, with a cabinet decision expected within six months. If cabinet approves the pipeline, we can expect demonstrations and court challenges to hold it up for years.
Gateway is opposed by First Nations, environmental groups and various political parties. The broad alliance currently is based on environmental concerns, but underneath lies the thorny issue of aboriginal rights to the land and resources.
Most of British Columbia has not been transferred to the Crown under treaty, with title to the land still held by the First Nations.
As the Supreme Court confirmed in the Delgamuukw case, "Aboriginal title does exist in British Columbia, that it's a right to the land itself - not just the right to hunt, fish, or gather - and that when dealing with Crown land, the government must consult with and may have to compensate First Nations whose rights are affected."
It's frustrating to watch Premiers Alison Redford of Alberta and Christy Clark of B.C. agree to co-operate and draw lines across land that isn't theirs. It's like watching someone digging up your front lawn to plant their garden.
The Gateway pipeline cannot proceed unless the First Nations and the Crown agree to the terms of a treaty. The existing treaty-making process has been an exercise in frustration.
On the prairies historically the John A. Macdonald government concluded a series of numbered treaties that spelled out the relationship between the First Nations and the Crown. The objective was to prepare the land for settlement. In the case of B.C., the treaty-making process has become an allinclusive comprehensive claim. On the prairies they wanted our land; in British Columbia they want our soul.
In addition to Gateway, we have the utter devastation in Northern Alberta as the result of the tarsands, and the questionable success of the Ring of Fire in Northern Ontario.
We are at a strange dichotomy in history. On one side the government is imposing regressive legislation and cutting funding to our institutions, while on the other side we stand on the threshold of major resource projects that could devastate our traditional territories or be an economic game changer.