SIX NATIONS / BRITISH COLUMBIA – For those who may not know, this reporter is a non-native who has been immersed in the Six Nations community since 2002.
In that time I have taken it upon myself to study and try to understand the cultural and political clash between our two opposing worldviews and to explain it as best I can to my own people, who have never been taught the true history of Canada in school.
I am not the only one. I found a site posted by another non-native man in B.C. who has also been trying to educate fellow non-natives in that circle about what is behind the aboriginal unrest in this country.
As with most non-natives, I never gave much thought to that thing called the Indian Act, which controls every aspect of life at Six Nations, not unlike South Africa’s former apartheid system. I always thought of it as something that really doesn’t concern me. But the more I learn, the more I understand that through these treaties and agreements made in former years, we, as settles, also have responsibilities towards the original peoples of Canada. They not a series of one-way streets.
Like it or not, there are in fact two laws in this country. One for Canadians and another for those the government declared are “status” Indians.
But being a person of aboriginal heritage is not enough to qualify for legal aboriginal status either.
“If for any of several possible reasons, a person of aboriginal heritage is or has been stripped of their legal aboriginal status they are legally considered a non-aboriginal person — they have lost treaty rights allowing them certain necessary freedoms to continue their ancestor’s cultural traditions, and they have lost the ability to pass those rights down to their own children,” according to Haifishchgeweint, a settler human rights advocate and critic of Canada’s position on the Indian Act and other legislations bent on forced assimilation.
“Part of what it means to be legally non-aboriginal in this country is that there are several rights and responsibilities you don’t have and aren’t entitled to, but this also allows you certain kinds of rights and freedoms that are denied to legally aboriginal people,” he continues. “That was just part of the deal during the formation of the Crown treaties long before our time.”As a non-aboriginal person, I am written into the Indian Act, whether I have acknowledged it before or not. My right to own land rather than just live on it, is also prescribed in the Indian Act, and guess what? I don’t own my land either.
Most Canadians do not know that, according to Canadian law, no one but Queen Elizabeth can actually legally own land in Canada. We’re all just borrowing it — all of us — aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike. The home you build or buy is yours but the land you think you bought is not. That is only a general statement, but there are some exceptions.
The Indian Act dictated that interracial marriages between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, the birth of a racially blended child to an aboriginal woman, or the adoption of a non-aboriginal child by an aboriginal person, all resulted in the automatic loss of treaty rights for the aboriginal party. Treaty rights have also been historically stripped from aboriginal people for reasons relating to their degree of Western education (i.e., if they became too educated, they were no longer considered aboriginal enough).
The purpose of it was clearly stated by Prime Minister John A MacDonald in 1887. “The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.”
To this day, the Indian Act prescribes laws around marriages, the birth of children, and inheritance of property or estates for all aboriginal people in Canada, but it does so based on non-aboriginal standards (i.e., it ignores the prior existence of aboriginal law and thus undermines their right to self-governance). It also prescribes what aboriginal people can and cannot do with the land and resources on their own reserves or even with their own money, while essentially burying them in paperwork.
Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau tried to abolish the Indian Act in 1969 through “the white paper” legislation that would have made legal the forced assimilation of all aboriginal people to taxable non-aboriginal Canadian status.
For clearer understanding of what that means, consider if President Trump one day sent out a tweet declaring Canada incorporated as an American State. Most Canadians I know would take up arms to fight against such a notion. But we wonder why native people are “so discontented” and even militant at times.
Trudeau senior’s so-called “White Paper” was condemned by aboriginal people who became politically outraged and defiantly opposed this change of legislation.
In late 2012, Conservative Prime Minister Harper proposed a way to gradually abolish the Indian Act. Once again, this was not received well by aboriginal people, and for good reason. Once again they became politically outraged and clearly opposed this change of legislation, forced upon them without their input or agreement. The suggestion was removed from the table, but only after a series of nationwide native protests.
After trying all other means of finding justice, it has been left up to aboriginal nations themselves to assess the damage that has been done for several consecutive generations, and to determine the best course towards recovery of aboriginal government and reconciliation within and between nations.
Abolishing the Indian Act in a single stroke, or changing it without consulting aboriginal nations, just isn’t the answer without something better to replace it [editor’s note: like our own countries].
We, as non-native settler Canadians can’t talk ourselves out of this situation without making structural changes, and we can’t make structural changes without talking to each other, fairly and honestly, using historical treaties as protected under the Canadian Constitution Act of 1982.
A treaty is a sacred covenant made between two sovereign nations. That should make any thinking Canadian settler take a second look at Six Nations legal status as a recognized sovereign Nation.