SPOTLIGHT ON ABORIGINAL RIGHTS May 2000
Historic Consensus Agreement
The significance may be lost on the mainstream media and those who are not serious 'Indian Watchers'. They might have seen it as just another statement on just another piece of paper, lost in the pre-weekend world of TGIF. For me, this is a special report on what I believe to be a truly historic development --- a major political breakthrough in 'Indian country' in Canada, specifically for British Columbia and its Native leaders. It brings with it the hope of being able to create a new way of exercising aboriginal rights through unity.
Despite the years of the all too familiar political divisions, key Native leaders now have agreed to work together to pressure governments to change the way they deal with First Nations.
"If we didn't stand up together, they'd get away with it", said Chief Arthur Manuel, Chairman of the Shuswap Tribal Council. Manuel is the spokesman for the Interior Alliance and one of the driving forces that succeeded in producing an historic consensus statement. In an interview with Turtle Island Native Network, Manuel emphasized the need for a unified fight against the Government of Canada's Comprehensive Claims Policy. In light of decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada and the law of the land, the federal government's land claims policy is, "a diabolical scheme that is outdated and probably illegal", Chief Manuel told me.
From left to right---Herb George, AFN's BC Regional Vice Chief...Chief Stewart Phillip President, Union of BC Indian Chiefs...Grand Chief, Edward John First Nations Summit...Phil Fontaine National Chief, Assembly of First Nations...Chief Arthur Manuel Spokesperson, Interior Alliance
These are the key First Nations leaders responsible for taking a quantum leap forward in the name of unity, solidarity and aboriginal rights for Canadian Indians.
These leaders have agreed to a historic Statement of Consensus on Aboriginal Rights. They announced, "The Assembly of First Nations, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the Interior Alliance and the First Nations Summit, hereby join together publicly to affirm the Aboriginal title and rights of all First Nations of British Columbia and Canada. Canada's Comprehensive Claims Policy is predicated on the denial of our rights and title. We categorically reject this policy and Canada's implementation of this policy. We call upon Canada to assert the honour of the Crown and to adopt a new policy of recognition, affirmation and implementation of Aboriginal title."
This consensus statement was agreed to by the top First Nations leaders in British Columbia and received national support --- Chief Stewart Phillip President, Union of BC Indian Chiefs---Chief Arthur Manuel Spokesperson, Interior Alliance ---Grand Chief, Edward John First Nations Summit --- Herb George BC Regional Vice Chief, Assembly of First Nations --- Phil Fontaine National Chief, Assembly of First Nations.
"There has been a division for decades and the federal government has benefitted", said Chief Manuel in providing some historical perspective to these latest developments. Despite those political differences, the desire for change by First Nations has been even greater. "The incentive for change has been these insulting offers", Manuel said in reference to treaty offers by federal and provincial governments to BC First Nations.
This position is also made clear in a news release issued by the First Nations Summit in response to the latest offer to the Sliammon First Nation, ``First Nations are not prepared to accept these `low-ball' offers from governments. As well the `offers' are not in any way connected to the negotiations taking place. These public tablings of offers by both governments have become simply an exercise in public relations and containment of First Nations interests,'' said Grand Chief Edward John, a member of the Summit executive.
Arriving at this historic time of bringing the leaders together has taken years of work. Last week's meetings in Vancouver were a follow-up to the December Confederacy of Chiefs meeting in Ottawa and the commitment made to 'fight the good fight'. But long before that, the Interior Alliance and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs continually pressed the national Assembly of First Nations to put pressure on the Government of Canada to change its policy.
Chief Manuel says their 1986 Comprehensive Claims Policy is out of date and is not connected to the law of Canada. That's a specific reference to the powerful Delgamuukw decision by the Supreme Court of Canada that affirmed aboriginal rights. First Nations believe the government's policy, including how it plays out in the BC Treaty process should reflect the law.
"Nault has drawn a line in the sand by refusing to change the policy --- by refusing to recognize aboriginal title and compensation", said Manuel sending a warning to the Indian Affairs Minister in Ottawa. Nault is said to have restated Canada's position when he met recently with Native leaders in Northern Ontario.
Manuel's words carry the promise of more direct and political action, including an international campaign to educate the United Nations on Canada's failure to live by its own laws and decisions by its own high court. In a few days Chief Manuel and others with the International Indian Treaty Council will be in New York to move the fight forward.
Closer to home, the First Nations Summit's news release echoed the sentiments of all leaders who have tried on behalf of their communities to gain more than frustration from the treaty process - "First Nations have been forced to borrow more than 120 million dollars to date, only to see no tangible results. This is extremely frustrating to all First Nations in the treaty negotiation process. First Nations call upon the governments of BC and Canada to get serious at the negotiating tables before it's too late."
A footnote of perhaps some irony to these latest developments. What is the name of the Vancouver hotel where Native leaders arrived at their consensus to work together and launch a new birth for Indian politics? The Rennaisance.
Watch here for more details!
As we wish our leaders well, and support them in their true desires to work together for their people, here are some words of inspiration .... "We are individually like fragile strands of sweetgrass, but like sweetgrass that is braided together, individuals linked together in a healing circle of families lend support to solving the problems of the community"..... courtesy of the Mohawks of Kahnawake
An Israeli friend who has become a strong supporter of Aboriginal rights, writes of a story shared with her, that she now shares with you. Knowing the ability of the Jews to unite and survive, it too seems appropriate here, "My grandmother used to tell me a story about an old man who on his death bed called his five sons to him - he put his hand out to them and told them to try and bend his fingers - of course, they did it very easily. Than he closed his hand in a fist and told them to try and bend the fist - all five of them together could not do it. The lesson? When people stand together everything is possible and nothing can break them."
The Cree sum it up in the word --- ma'mowe --- meaning altogether.