The Sunday Magazine

Why we must honour our treaties with Canada's First Peoples

Every decade or two, I come across a Canadian book that has the power to send me into a complete spitting, blue rage.Usually it's about something in our history that shakes a few of my perceptions about Canada. It doesn't occur all that often, but when it does, the aftereffects linger....
Every decade or two, I come across a Canadian book that has the power to send me into a complete spitting, blue rage.

Usually it's about something in our history that shakes a few of my perceptions about Canada. It doesn't occur all that often, but when it does, the aftereffects linger.

It happened back in the 1980s with a book called None is Too Many. Published in 1983, it describes in painful detail how Canada shut its doors to Jewish refugees prior to and during the Second World War. Written by the historians Irving Abella and Harold Troper, it pointed out that Canada had the worst record of any nation in giving a haven to Jews.

The policy was designed and carried out by an anti-Semitic bureaucrat named Frederick Blair. It was Blair who, when asked how many Jews Canada should take in, replied, "None is too many." Blair was the point person of the policy but he was supported by other prominent public figures who hated the idea of giving refuge to Jews, among them the Prime Minister Mackenzie King and the High Commissioner to London, Vincent Massey.

What was most upsetting in reading the book was the fact that after the war, it was easier for Nazi war criminals to get into Canada than it was for Jews. And it took me awhile to get over the impact of the book. The same experience happened a couple of months ago with a book called The Comeback. It is written by John Ralston Saul.

In the book, Saul expands on his thesis in previous works that Canada was built on a triumvirate foundation: the French, the English and the Aboriginals. While two-thirds of the troika grew and flourished, First Peoples were stripped of their culture, their land, their power and their human rights. Their religious ceremonies were banned. Families were torn apart.

Residential schools were established to force assimilation into a white world. Or as another early racist Ottawa bureaucrat put it "to kill the Indian in the child."

Perhaps worst of all, various Canadian governments have ignored or abrogated signed treaties between two parties, the aboriginals and the newcomers. That's us.
The book brought home to me something I had paid too little attention to: that is, the treaties signed in our name were, are, legal documents, legal commitments that bind both parties. These were not mere technicalities or political niceties; they were hard and fast legal promises made, as Saul points out, with the honour of the Crown.

And, he says, the Canadian Supreme Court, in case after case, has ruled "that the government of Canada in all its actions was bound to respect ethical principles. In other words, observing the provisions of the treaties is not just a matter of legal interpretation. It is a matter of morality, of ethics.

That being the case, why does Ottawa continue to spend less on First Nations education than the provinces do on non-native kids? Why do almost half of all Indian children live in poverty? Why does the government spend millions in court costs fighting to limit land settlements?

Saul argues that in settling differences with indigenous people by honouring our legal, binding, treaty commitments, we can assist in fostering what he sees as the great "comeback" of Aboriginals, already underway.

As I said, the book will make you angry but it will make you hopeful that things will get better between our two peoples if we keep our promises.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said in another, but similar, context: "Be true to what you said on paper."

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now