Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Rezori: Canada's aboriginal record and a Davis Inlet legacy

A UN report on Canada's less-than-stellar performance on aboriginal issues prompts Azzo Rezori to recall some harrowing memories from Davis Inlet.
James Anaya, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, recently filed his report on Canada. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

It’s two weeks since James Anaya, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, released his report on how Canada has been doing these last 10 years living up to the needs and aspirations of its first peoples.

Not that well, according to Anaya, a professor of human rights laws and policies at the University of Arizona. Words like “insufficient” and “crisis” popped up all over the news following his report.

The Canadian government’s official response consisted of eight paragraphs issued by the office of Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.

The first paragraph acknowledges that many challenges remain, though it makes no mention of what any of those challenges might be.

The next six paragraphs list all the "positive steps" the government says it’s taken over the years.

The last paragraph assures everyone that the government will review the report carefully to see what can be done to address Anaya’s recommendations.

Judging by overall reaction to the statement, few people are holding their breath.

Anaya’s main conclusion was that, after some improvements in the past, communications between the two sides are breaking down again, and, as a result, many aboriginal communities are left in crisis. He finds that baffling, considering Canada’s otherwise stellar track record as a world leader in promoting and protecting human rights.

A memory from Davis Inlet

Something came back to haunt me after all that reading — an image I returned with many years ago from an assignment that took me to Davis Inlet.

Images of gas-sniffing children in the former Innu community of Davis Inlet sparked an international outcry in 1993. (CBC)
I guess the girl was to have been around five years old. She sat on the upturned end of a log, crying deeply and without sound, while a group of other children was flicking pebbles into small, wrist-deep holes dug into the dusty ground. Her face was streaked with tears and some white stuff oozing from her nose.

The vastness of her misery was matched only by the indifference of the pale-blue and flawlessly clear northern sky.

She’s remained with me as the ultimate image of what’s gone wrong.

According to western psychology, you get over trauma and pain in stages. I saw no promise of healing stages in that young face, just the workings of a wheel grinding everything, especially hope, into failure, over and over, again and again.

Native leaders insist they’re sick and tired of being seen, and of seeing themselves, as victims. They would rather call themselves and their people survivors. I can see danger in that. It just might provoke the snide come-back that if they’ve survived so far, a bit more of the same treatment they’ve been given since their lands and their culture were taken from them isn’t going to destroy them either.

Their proper place

After all, the Canadian government’s been very clear on one thing. We, the people who came later, don’t want to destroy the first peoples of this great land of which we’re all so proud. Oh no! We just want them in their proper place.

According to western psychology, you get over trauma and pain in stages. I saw no promise of healing stages in that young face, just the workings of a wheel grinding everything, especially hope, into failure, over and over, again and again.

There remain very conflicting thoughts and ideas, though, on what that place might be.

Granted, the days of Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs in the 1920s, are over. Statements such as, “Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question and no Indian Department” simply won’t do anymore.

Even Anaya acknowledges in his report that Canada has made "notable efforts" to address treaty and aboriginal claims. Praise, for sure, but the question that still has to be asked is, what’s been motivating those recent notable efforts in the first place.

The residents of Davis Inlet resettled to the the new community of Natuashish in 2002. (CBC)
One possible answer, even if hard to reconcile with the institutionalized racism some see in the government’s approach to aboriginal affairs over the years, is a genuine wish to put an old wrong right. The other possible answer is, if the wrong can’t be put right because it’s much too late for that, it must still be put it to rest because it stands in the way of northern development.

Is it possible that the Indian Wars are far from over? That they’ve shifted north. That the next great battle will be over Canadian treaty rights pitting the united forces of the federal government against the motley forces of the first nations with their shifting interests and alliances?

Andrea Richer, a spokeswoman for Valcourt’s office, has already stated in an e-mail to the Globe and Mail that “aboriginal peoples do not have the right to veto government decisions made in the public interest.”

She also averred that “responsible development of natural resources is good for all Canadians, including First Nations.”

Which chapter, whose agenda

The latter depends entirely on who is reading which chapter and verse from whose agenda. The clear implication, though, is that first nations that would stand in the way of northern development are being un-Canadian and must be dealt with accordingly.

There was a time not so long ago when the two sides signed all kinds of new treaties with assurances that from then on everything would be different. Well, it is and it isn’t. Canadian natives have a modern set of rights with which they can now take a stronger stand. But they’re still struggling to regain, even to define, a proper place in their own land.

I see the girl in Davis Inlet, her face so racked with timeless suffering and pain, more and more it strikes me as a mask.

My heart will always go out to her.

But the mask makes me think, and thinking makes me wonder if this is just another beginning of the same old, and the heart falters.


Azzo Rezori


Azzo Rezori is a retired journalist who worked with CBC News in St. John's.