Supreme Court denies Indigenous peoples treaty rights

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The Supreme Court of Canada’s sustained denial of Indigenous treaty rights is regressive and harmful—but it’s not surprising.  

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 against an Albertan First Nation’s claim that the federal government must consult Indigenous communities on omnibus bills affecting their territory.

Beyond invalidating Indigenous communities across Canada, the Court’s decision stymies federal reconciliation efforts.

The case stemmed from the Mikisew Cree First Nation, after the former Conservative federal government amended regulatory protections for waterways and the environment in 2012. The revisions threatened the community’s constitutionally protected treaty rights to hunt, trap, and fish on their traditional territory.

A ruling that treats Indigenous peoples unjustly is a disappointing but expected continuation of Canadian history. Our country operates to formally recognize treaty rights—so long as it doesn’t infringe on governmental priorities.

The Supreme Court’s ruling deems ethical Indigenous treatment too onerous to merit changes in parliamentary procedure. It demonstrates Canada’s governmental rigidity in the face of responsibility to minority groups.

If the ruling went the other way, it would’ve had dramatic consequences, slowing a bill’s general ability to be passed. However, a democratic system bears responsibility to those it impacts, particularly after decades of systemic discrimination—and Indigenous recognition is worth the added time.

Reconciliation shouldn’t be a buzzword. It requires procedural changes that overwhelmingly acknowledge treaty rights on the basis of historical inequality perpetuated to deny Indigenous people agency.

This recent Court ruling effectively treats Indigenous peoples like everyone else. But Canada’s fundamental mishandling of previous treaties signals to Indigenous peoples our government doesn’t care how its decisions affect them.

Though the Supreme Court stated Indigenous peoples could challenge future issues by pursuing court action, this is no solution. It’s not only timely and costly, but counter-productive to pursue action through a system that denied protection in the first place.

The Court’s decision wasn’t merely symbolic—it was political and validates the government’s ability in the future to ignore concrete reconciliation efforts. Its end result produces unjust conditions that benefit Canadian governmental priorities.

It divides Indigenous peoples and the rest of the population, as the latter’s values are repeatedly favoured.

If we can’t acknowledge that, nothing will change.

Reconciliation efforts today aren’t enough. Future governments must look critically at the way Parliament operates in relation to Indigenous peoples to leave the mire of false honour while striking down consultation efforts. Otherwise, the government will continue to fail to support and recognize Indigenous values.

If our elected representatives don’t consider substantial reform, they reiterate suppression rather than promote reconciliation.

—Journal Editorial Board

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