We Are All Treaty People

January 8, 2012
By David Coon

We are treaty people, whether aboriginal or not. Those of us who are not members of First Nations don't usually think of ourselves as treaty people, but it is the case. The courage of Chief Theresa Spence and the Idle No More movement have opened a door for us to stand beside our aboriginal neighbours to say our treaties must be honoured by Ottawa and Fredericton.

 In the Maritimes, treaties were signed between First Nations and representatives of the Crown following protracted and unwinnable warfare. No side was conquered. No territory was ceded. Instead, Treaties of Peace and Friendship, as they were called, established the terms of peaceful co-existence recognizing First Nations as sovereign peoples with the right to earn a living from the resources provided by the land and water, enshrined in Canada's constitution today.

The Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Mi'kmaq people, known collectively as the Wabanaki people, have a unique legal status as the original peoples of our region. Whether we realize it or not, we are in part defined by these treaties. They affirm rights and responsibilities on the part of all signatories. The problem is that ever since, both federal and provincial governments have failed to respect the treaties or recognize the sovereignty of First Nations.

In response, First Nations have gone to court time and time again, and to have the rights which flow from the treaties upheld in Canadian law. Yet these court decisions continues to be lost on our leaders. In fact, governments, including our own, have repeatedly appealed court rulings that found in favour of aboriginal people exercising their rights, forcing the proceedings all the way to the Supreme Court. Still, our governments continue to operate as if the treaties don't exist, and not surprisingly, have never made an effort to educate us about them.

For most of us, the personal relationships with aboriginal people that developed with so many of our ancestors when they first settled in this land, haven't existed for a long time. This bred racism, cultivating fertile ground for our governments to simply ignore the treaties while pursuing horrific policies of assimilation such as those played out with the residential schools. Meanwhile, the natural resources referenced by the treaties continued to be plundered and polluted.

Along came Harper's second omnibus budget bill, Bill C-45, another bill about everything he doesn't want Parliament to debate. Only this time, his ongoing efforts to dismantle environmental protection laws, along with gutting the law governing the right to travel our rivers and lakes, combined with unilateral changes to laws governing aboriginal affairs, pushed past the tipping point.

Chief Theresa Spence launched her hunger strike on a small island in the Ottawa River within sight of Parliament Hill, and Idle No More was born. Aboriginal women are leading this movement and invite us to be allies. And grassroots Canadians are saying yes. Enough is enough and we will be idle no more.

It is plain to see for most people of good will, that we need a new relationship with First Nations if we are ever to achieve true peace and friendship, and that we must stop destroying the very Earth that sustains us all.   

Stephen Harper lit the fuse with Bill C-45. First Nations have responded with peaceful actions, galvanized by Chief Theresa Spence's selfless act. And we are being asked to stand up and be counted.

As Green Party leader, I support the Idle No More movement. I want to see a forum in which aboriginal and non-aboriginal people of New Brunswick can come together to explore how the Peace and Friendship Treaties can be respected in our province.

We must help secure aboriginal culture by funding language immersion education for First Nations children, and support immersion teacher training to deliver the programs. We need meaningful consultation on the management and use of natural resources, and on the sharing of the resulting revenues.

We need all these things, but to begin with there needs to be respect, respect for First Nations and self-respect to act on our word as political leaders.

As the Primate of the Anglican Church wrote in a letter to the Prime Minister, urging him to meet with Chief Spence, "If we do not walk through the door that this crisis has opened, there is certainly no viable or moral way forward for Canada. We will all be diminished."  

David Coon is the Leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick