You can’t ignore the past

WILLIAM JOHNSON
The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, February 28, 2001 

Jean Chrétien has it wrong. Egregiously, outrageously wrong. He, a former minister of Indian affairs, said in the Commons: “I am concerned that, in the case of aboriginal peoples, we may be spending too much time, too much energy and too much money on the past.”

Easily said. Most Canadians spend little time on their past, personal or ancestral. They believe in progress. They don’t carry much baggage, they look to the future.

But aboriginals? The past is seared into their memories, their sensibility, their self-image, their identity. Their past is their present fate. They cannot escape unless they choose to erase the past by assimilation. Their past is what makes them aboriginals. Their past haunts them, it is their curse and their promise.

One part of their past, the brainwashing in residential schools, has entered general awareness and shocked Canadians. It’s part of what has left most aboriginals poor, troubled and alienated.

And yet, they also know that the past is their only hope of redemption. And that’s why it’s shocking for the Prime Minister to deprecate their past and speak as though the great aboriginal problems will be resolved by treating them as the problems of some welfare subculture, to be addressed by “head start” and “opportunity” programs, by initiatives to deal with alcoholism, disease and chronic incarceration.

That approach deals with symptoms, avoids the cause and misses the main point. The Ontario Court of Appeal knew better in its decision Friday when it dismissed charges against Métis Steve Powley for hunting moose without a licence. Aboriginals have property and treaty rights based in history that are ignored by federal and provincial governments.

The three judges, Robert Sharpe, Roy McMurtry and Rosalie Abella, ruled unanimously that the Ontario Government was wrong to pass hunting regulations without taking into account the special historic hunting rights of the Métis of Sault Ste. Marie. They quoted the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1990 Sparrow decision: “For many years, the rights of the Indians to their aboriginal lands — certainly as legal rights — were virtually ignored.”

The Charter gave the highest form of protection — constitutional entrenchment — to “the existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada.” The courts are now spelling out what those rights are. The landmark 1997 Supreme Court Delgamuukw decision affirmed that aboriginal title to ancestral land is a real ownership right and includes the right to subsurface minerals. The Court’s 1999 Marshall decision recognized a treaty right to fish still held by Mi’kmaq communities of Nova Scotia.

And still, federal and provincial governments — and the Canadian public — have yet to come to terms with the legacy of the past. It has left us all with a sizable debt to aboriginal peoples, and we prefer to pocket the legacy, but forget the obligations. Better to think of the future.

The Indian Claims Commission was set up in 1991 to investigate and recommend action on “specific claims” — the many instances of aboriginal peoples being deprived of land or rights through fraud, theft, breaches of trust and violations of the fiduciary responsibility of the federal government over aboriginal lands.

A Commission spokesman told me: “We have reviewed 51 claims since 1991 and only six have been settled. Twenty-four are under negotiation. There are currently 452 claims in the system, and an additional 60 are added every year.”

At that rate, it will take centuries before Indians are compensated for losses inflicted in the last century and before. No wonder the government prefers not to dwell on the past.