Beyond Publicity: A Brief on Native Rights in Quebec and Canada

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Of all the groups in the Canadian Mosaic, none has been more cheated and worse treated than our First Nations. First Peoples is the generic term applied to all indigenous communities in Canadian Territory and First Nations encompasses all except the Inuit and Metis.

They make constant headlines due to their mistreatment by police, activism, and health crises. Their most recent headline, however, was about the Trudeau government’s budget for 2016.

In the proposed federal budget the government promised eight point four billion dollars over five years to help Native communities. The budget also included an additional two billion for First Nations’ water and wastewater systems and two point six billion for primary and secondary schools on reserves.

National sentiment about First Nations people varies. In primary and secondary school students are taught the myth of the “noble savage” and the magnitude of what governments did to the First Nations – what we now know as “Cultural Genocide”- is glossed over.

But this article isn’t about how abominably Canadian and provincial governments have treated First Nations. It’s not about how residential schools run by religious institutions systematically ripped Native children from their families and attempted to wipe out their language and religion through abuse.

This is about Native Rights.

Territory covered by the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975
Territory covered by the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975

The rights of Quebec’s First Nations stem primarily from The Royal Proclamation of 1763, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975, the Constitution Act of 1982, the federal Indian Act of 1985, and a few Supreme Court cases.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 ended a war between Britain and France. As part of the ensuing treaty, France ceded all of its Canadian colonies to Great Britain. The Proclamation put Canada’s First Nations under protection of the Crown and reserved any land not included within the newly acquired colonies or Hudson’s Bay Trading Company’s territory for their use.

Anyone who settled on this land had to move and no one could purchase land from the Natives except the British government. If the Natives agreed to a land sale, the sale had to be finalized in a public assembly, the purpose of which was to ensure the legitimacy and prevent “dissatisfaction” and “reasonable cause of discontent” among indigenous people.

The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975 was an Aboriginal land claim settlement. It was negotiated in 1975 by the Quebec government between itself, the federal government, the Quebec Hydro Electric Commission, the James Bay Energy Corporation, the James Bay Development Corporation, and the Cree and Inuit. Another agreement in 1978 included Quebec’s Naskapi Indians in a similar treaty.

The purpose of these was to ensure Quebec’s dominion over lands in the north. It created three classes of land: Category I – consisting of lands reserved exclusively for the use of Quebec’s Native Groups, Category II – lands in which Natives have exclusive hunting, fishing, and trapping rights but “no special right of occupancy” and Category III – which made up the bulk of the territory in the agreement and did not grant Natives any exclusive rights except sole rights to harvest and trap certain species.

Though one of the alleged goals of these agreements was to clarify the position of Native groups in the north of Quebec and ensure their survival, the language used suggests that it was more about asserting Quebec’s dominance over the land, people, and natural resources. The principal provisions of the 1975 Agreement frequently use the word “surrender,” a word that conveys a message of conquest not of union and mutual accord. The subtext is that Quebec’s Native communities are ceding all their rights to a larger, more powerful entity that wants the land and natural resources, and in exchange they get two hundred and twenty five million dollars to be paid over twenty years, as well as roads, social and medical services, and police forces.

The Indian Act of 1985 was an amended version of a discriminatory Federal law. The new law removed the discriminatory provisions and defines who is considered Native. Only those registered as Indian in the federal Indian registry are considered as such.

Eligibility is determined by parentage and membership in a recognized Band; for example, if you are a member of a federally recognized Native Band and/or have a parent who was eligible for registration, you can be registered. The law also defined the Reserves which are legally held by the federal government for the use and benefit of Native Bands.

The Constitution Act of 1982 guaranteed existing Aboriginal and treaty rights. Though Canadian law has made a lot of promises to Natives, authorities and individuals have made numerous attempts to usurp Aboriginal land. It took legal challenges for the authorities to officially recognize and acknowledge their rights.

In 1984 the Supreme Court of Canada in Guerin v. The Queen recognized that Aboriginal rights existed prior to the Royal Proclamation and Indian Act. The majority judges declared that Indian land was inalienable and the Crown is legally obligated to deal with the land in a way that is fair to the Indians. In 1990 the Supreme Court in R v. Sparrow said the Crown has to act in Natives’ best interests and must justify any legislation that infringes on or denies their rights.

Canada’s First Nations are still recovering from the institutionalized oppression they were and are still subjected to. Though Native women are disappearing left and right, the largely white police and RCMP are dismissive. It’s only thanks to public reports and ensuing outrage that the people sworn to protect us are finally taking the problem seriously.

A scandal involving police harassing and raping Native women finally forced the Quebec government to pay attention. It took reports on suicide epidemics and photos of grisly rashes on children in Native communities for the federal government to act. Though the laws are there to protect our First Nations, sometimes those sworn to enforce it need a kick in the ass.

And sometimes the threat of bad publicity is all the kick you need.

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