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A number of court cases have provided landmark decisions in cases involving Aboriginal Rights and Title.

“The vote…has paved the way for new rights and new responsibilities. Indians now have a legal voice in the affairs of the province and a right to ask for equality of citizenship. Today the Indian stands as a second-class citizen, robbed even of his native rights… my picture of a full Magna Carta for natives is equality of opportunity in education, in health, in employment and in citizenship.”

-Frank Calder

Resolving the Nisga’a Land Question was a task taken to heart by our Nisga’a men and women. ​
L-R: Dr. Frank Calder, Hubert Doolan, Senator Guy Williams, Eli Gosnell, unknown, William McKay, and James Gosnell.
Resolving the Nisga’a Land Question was a task taken to heart by our Nisga’a men and women. ​
L-R: Dr. Frank Calder, Hubert Doolan, Senator Guy Williams, Eli Gosnell, unknown, William McKay, and James Gosnell.

The 1967 Calder case involved Frank Calder and several Nisga’a elders who brought a lawsuit against British Columbia, claiming their land title had been illegally abrogated. Although the judgment wasn’t in the Nisga’a favour, it’s considered a landmark moment for Indigenous land rights because the Supreme Court of Canada cited the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Issued by King George III of England, it decreed that Aboriginal land title in North America existed and would continue until treaty extinguished it, and forbade settlers from acquiring land from Aboriginals, either by purchase or by force.

On June 26, 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Tsilquot’in First Nation, residing in central British Columbia, did possess clear Aboriginal title to around 1800 square kilometres of ancestral land—and that the forestry licences issued to logging companies in the early 1980s had violated the Tsilquot’in right to determine how their lands are used. The case was a triumph for Indigenous rights.

There are five types of challenges with understanding what treaties really mean, largely because of differences in worldviews held by the Europeans and First Nations.

After the creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, treaties continued to be signed with First Nations, with the role of the European nations assumed by the Government of Canada. By necessity, this Plain Talk can provide only a brief overview of the topic of treaties by focusing on the nature, history and problems encountered. A huge volume of material is available in hard copy in various archives and on the Internet for people who wish to learn more.

Both Manitoba and Saskatchewan have produced excellent resources devoted entirely to the critical topic of treaties:

The Manitoba Treaty Education Initiative Tool Kit, developed by the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba (TRCM); and the Saskatchewan Treaty Kit K-12, developed by the Office of the Treaty Commissioner. Both resources should be consulted for definitive and extensive coverage of treaties and treaty relationships.

The theatre offers an excellent arena for exploring delicate and controversial issues. Governor General Award-winning playwright Ian Ross has written a wonderful, funny, and insightful play about treaties. Titled Kinikinik, the play explores the issues concerning treaties. The playwright uses a willow branch as a symbol for land. Two characters, a Wolf and a Beaver, compete for possession or ownership of the willow.

A third character, a Turtle, leads the Wolf and Beaver through the discovery that it’s not easy to resolve possession of the willow. The characters discover that a verbal agreement might not be sufficient. They also discover that a written agreement like a treaty could be unfair if the agreement is created by only one side and in language that might not be completely understood by the other party. Whether read out loud by a group, or performed by an amateur or professional theatre group, Kinikinik is a powerful exploration of the intricacies of the creation, implementation, and interpretation of treaties.

Read Kinikinik, A Treaty Play by Ian Ross.

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Treaties, as agreements between sovereign entities like nations, invariably establish a relationship between the nations. The phrase “we are all treaty people” springs from the work of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba. We are all treaty people is a concise statement that both First Nations and Canadians are integral partners in every treaty, and that we all have the responsibility to ensure that treaties be honoured and respected. It is unfortunate that Canadian governments have consistently failed First Nations by ignoring or not fulfilling their treaty commitments. By acknowledging and implementing its treaty obligations, Canadian governments could make significant steps in reversing and resolving a range of inequities endured by First Nations. This is especially deplorable given Canada’s endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN Declaration) in 2010 and 2016.

Read the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN Declaration).

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Grand Council Chief Madahbee of the Anishinabek Nation, in a letter to the Prime Minister of Canada, has expressed his dismay at the federal government’s continuing efforts to erode First Nations treaty and inherent rights.

November 21, 2012

Dear Prime Minister Harper:

Over the past couple of years it has become increasingly apparent to the Anishinabek First Nations that the federal government is on a path to dissolving First Nation treaty and inherent rights through infringing legislation. We have received copies of several letters from First Nation organizations like the Assembly of First Nations, the Chiefs of Ontario and other political organizations across the country, opposing federal legislation that impacts First Nations. At the Anishinabek Nation we have sent numerous letters and presented our reasons for objection to the various federal standing committees on legislation that the Government of Canada seems determined to ram through parliament.

During the Harmonized Sales Tax legislation process, First Nations in Ontario unified to oppose the federal and provincial objective to combine taxation policies and eliminate the provincial retail sales tax exemptions for First Nation citizens. The very next year the federal Ministry of Revenue began taking First Nation working-class citizens to court on income tax policies, despite their treaty right not to be taxed within their own territories. Nearly every legislation or policy impacting First Nations which the federal government has introduced over the past couple of years will either eliminate First Nation treaty rights or minimize the Crown’s treaty and fiduciary responsibilities to First Nations in Canada. I cannot make myself any more clear: all lands and resources in Canada belong to First Nations’ people and no amount of legislation will take that fact away.

Some of the Bills we oppose include: Bill S-2 (Matrimonial Real Property), Bill S-6 (First Nations Election Act), Bill C-10 (Crimes Bill), Bill S-8 (Safe Drinking Water), Bill C-27 (Financial Transparency Act), Bill C-45 (Jobs and Growth Act, specifically sections amending the Indian Act and Fisheries), and Bill C-428 (Private Member’s Bill, specifically to amend the Indian Act). I wish to put it on record again that the Anishinabek First Nations oppose, reject and dismiss each and every bill that encroaches on First Nations’ treaty and inherent rights. Making sweeping changes that will impact First Nations (through legislation) without inclusion of First Nations in the development of these bills is contrary to a Nation-to-Nation relationship. The resolve of our citizens will be known across the country and we will bring national attention to the colonial approach Canada continues to push for in relation to First Nation territories and First Nation citizens’ rights.

First Nations have a unique legal and historical relationship with Canada as established through treaties and alliances during times of war and peace. We have remained a loyal ally over many decades, only to watch our children get siphoned into residential schools and our land exploited for the betterment of Canada and to the detriment of First Nations. As the Grand Council Chief of the Anishinabek Nation I have limited authority as mandated by our leadership. However I am in a position to remind Canada that First Nations will not sit quietly while funding to education is frozen, funding to health is cut, and land claims are held hostage to surrender clauses while mining companies are fast- tracked to exploit our lands in order to keep Canada listed as one of the wealthiest countries in the world. First Nations socio-economic indicators continue to represent human rights issues comparable to those of many oppressed populations throughout the world. I cannot, nor would I ever attempt to, control or stop First Nation citizens if they ever decide to have their voices heard in a free and democratic society. The reputation of Canada is darkened by First Nation realities in Canada. Let us work together to make Canada a better country by engaging in meaningful dialogue that does not include a hidden agenda to assimilate and municipalize First Nations through oppressive legislation and policies.

—Grand Council Chief Madahbee of the Anishinabek Nation

Listen to a reading of the letter

Grand Council Chief Madahbee.
Grand Council Chief Madahbee.
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