The Guardian • Issue #2073

Australia-Canada – 30 years behind?

A Canadian women in traditional wear.

Photo: Dennis Jarvis – flickr.com (CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed).

At a time when Australia is intensely debating constitutional recognition of Indigenous people, it is interesting to look at Canada. They wrote recognition of Aboriginal people into their Federal Constitution in 1982. This recognition is in Section 35 of the Constitution Act and explicitly recognises and affirms the existing Aboriginal and Treaty Rights of the Aboriginal People of Canada. Further Section 25 protects these rights and ensures no other provision or Charter can take away or supersede these rights.

Some background: In 1867 the Federal government of Canada controlled the treaty-making process. Canadian government wanted to control the Treaty process to open up large amounts of land particularly in Western and Northern Canada, for settlers. In return the Canadian government promised to provide education and money for materials. Instead Indigenous people were rounded up onto reserves. They didn’t have freedom of movement.

In the Northwest Territories in 1921 a number of Indigenous communities didn’t sign any agreement but were included in agreements with signatures falsely given by priests. Government practice was to deal with one representative in communities who worked and governed collectively. Language and consultation processes were ignored.

There are 11 recognised treaties in Western Canada alone, made between 1871 and 1921 with 25 more since. There are many more in Eastern Canada originally drawn up between 1725 and 1752 Initially on October 7, 1763 the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada were laid down in a Royal Proclamation. This Proclamation created the treaty system, stipulating that only the Crown could negotiate treaties. Further Canada’s Oath of Citizenship must include a solemn promise to respect Aboriginal and Treaty Rights. In 1985 Treaties were further affirmed through the Canadian Supreme Court. Treaties were understood by Indigenous peoples as sacred covenants between nations to establish a relationship with their ancient homeland and others from different countries. In 2021 the first indigenous Governor General of Canada was appointed.

Canadians have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to take action. Since 30th September 2021 the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation was established to coincide with Orange Shirt Day. This day recognises the tragic legacy of residential schools, missing children and families left behind and the survivors of these institutions.

The imagery created for the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation is made up of an Eagle representing First Nations, a Narwhal to represent the Inuit and a beaded flower representing Metis peoples. This is all incorporated around a circle at the centre which demonstrates bringing together in spirit reconciliation. The circle is significant in ceremonies with Canada’s Aboriginal people as it is seen as having no beginning and no end but in bringing everyone together in Friendship and understanding and can’t be broken.

Reconciliation works toward renewing the relationship with Indigenous people based on recognition of rights, respect, cooperation and partnership. This involves the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapirit Kanatami, Metis National Council, Orange Shirt Day and National Centre for Truth and Recognition (Every Child Matters). There is also the National Association of Friendship Centres which has centres across Canada bringing Indigenous and non-Indigenous together. The Crown, Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs in Canada continue to renew relationships between First Nations, Inuit and Metis and have brought about structures to enable Indigenous people to have a VOICE and take action against racism, discrimination and violence against women and girls as well as climate change adaption programmes.

Some of the so called ‘progressive’ no groups in Australia should look at Canada instead of Aotearoa (NZ). Like Australia, Canada has many nations with which a treaty could be developed. The diversity of Aboriginal Nations needs across Canada is similar to the diversity of Aboriginal Nations in Australia. All require specific treaties to meet their various needs and conditions. ‘Treaty’ makes a convenient catch cry, but can be used without thought of the diversity a worthwhile treaty or treaties would have to encompass.

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