Landmark summit a chance for change

Harper must embrace opportunity to set a roadmap for economic success within many Aboriginal communities

Housing conditions in Attawapiskat, like those pictured above, led Chief Theresa Spence to declare a state of emergency in October.
Housing conditions in Attawapiskat, like those pictured above, led Chief Theresa Spence to declare a state of emergency in October.
Photo: 

When Stephen Harper meets with Aboriginal leaders at today’s First Nations summit in Ottawa, he’ll have a lot of ground to cover.

After all, the summit will mark the Prime Minister’s first official meeting with First Nations chiefs since taking office in 2006 — and it’s about time.

The reality is that Aboriginal Peoples have long been left out of discussions regarding Canada’s role in Aboriginal governance.

Unfortunately, there are parallels between the way our legal system accommodates the needs of Aboriginal Peoples today and the treatment of other groups, like women, in the past.

Until the 1960s, the Criminal Code contained provisions that were broadly interpreted to make misogynistic value judgements on women. Provisions dealing with rape — now termed sexual assault — were interpreted to degrade women’s credibility and, all too often, helped lawyers make criminals out of sexual assault victims on the stand.

So, what’s changed regarding the treatment of women in Canada? For one thing, we’ve seen an influx of female litigators and lawmakers. With time, the law and its officers changed to adapt and become more progressive.

Female presence in courtrooms and at the table of legal debates has helped ensure this societal group is represented when laws are enacted and interpreted.

But while Canada has certainly come a long way in its treatment of women, Aboriginal Peoples haven’t received the same benefit. In fact, these Peoples currently face almost identical issues that women faced in the legal system and in broader society.

The comparison I’m making was illustrated recently during a panel discussion by Queen’s professor and former Chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, Robert Lovelace.

He remarked on the similarity between certain provisions of the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the old provisions regarding women and sexual assault in the Criminal Code.

While I don’t believe it was intentional, the use of the term “prior consent” with respect to Aboriginal lands in the 2007 UN Declaration almost mirrors the sexual assault provisions in our Criminal Code.

The resemblance brings to mind sexual encounters and male sexual conquest when the term is in fact used to refer to consent over the development and use of Aboriginal lands.

It’s a subtle but important reflection of the mentality many Canadians have towards Aboriginal Peoples.

Recently, much discussion regarding First Nations has centred around the housing and infrastructure crisis at the Attawapiskat First Nations settlement. In October 2011, regional leaders officially declared a state of emergency.

I recently observed a debate over the issue at a dinner table of graduate and undergraduate students. They discussed who could be blamed for this crisis. I was startled by the opinion of one individual: she demanded to know the accounts of the reserve’s spending — suggesting that any money given to the reserve and its expenditures should be thoroughly accounted for and checked by the government.

I thought I had fallen into a 1950s debate amongst men — men who were mocking the frivolous expenditures of each other’s wives. Never have I heard anyone ask, for example, to see the expense records of Newfoundland or any other province which sustains itself on equalization payments.

That dinner discussion presented even more examples of how many Canadians degrade the problems and struggles faced by Aboriginal Peoples.

Moreover, every participant of the debate appeared to have the so-called “solution” for the current problems at Attawapiskat — and yet, at a table of several people, only one of us had ever set foot on Aboriginal land.

The reason why older laws discriminated against women in Canada, and why they still do in other countries today, is because women weren’t at the table when they were debated and interpreted.

Today, Aboriginal Peoples face the same exclusion. They are treated as other disenfranchised groups have been in the past: they’re presented with solutions by others who claim to know their problems, then granted money, only to have its use criticised.

If the government wants to build a positive relationship with First Nations peoples, the time is now. Today’s First Nations summit is a step in the right direction — but it shouldn’t end there.

As a student in Queen’s law and having recently met students from almost all major law schools in Canada, I find it disconcerting that I haven’t met a single aboriginal law student. The difficulties stacked up against Aboriginal Peoples, especially those living in rural reserves, makes things such as getting into law school extraordinarily difficult.

Yes, many law schools include access categories for Aboriginal applicants. But with ever-increasing competition, it’s becoming harder and harder for disadvantaged applicants to get fair consideration for entry into law school.

Being excluded from the law-making table, it’s not hard to see why First Nations rights are so poorly addressed. Aboriginal issues are mismanaged and wrongly presented and, frankly, Aboriginal customs and practices are treated as second rate.

One must be able to be present at the table in order to have laws that reflect one’s needs and practices and protect one’s integrity.

As environmentalist Andy Hoffman put it: “If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu.”

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.