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Reminding settlers about relationship

Anishinabek News by Catherine Murton Stoehr March 2013

The problem that settler Canadians face when they read the stories in the newspapers about Idle No More is that when they try to put what they read into the context of their everyday lives it doesn’t make any sense. Most of their settler friends and relatives are nice, kind, fair people – so how can it also be true that they are responsible for the terrible inequality and suffering that First Nations people are calling out? And when they try to learn more about it they get lied to.
Twenty years ago Brian Mulroney’s government established a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples that condemned the Canadian government’s policy of assimilation. The commissioners said that the relationship between First Nations people and settler Canadians began as a partnership, but after 1812 or so the Canadian government started pretending that First Nations people were inferior to settler Canadians and had fewer, not more rights than the newcomers. At this time they developed a policy of assimilation. Assimilation was and is at the heart of Canadian Aboriginal policy.
The RCAP commissioners said that if settler Canadians want to repair our relationship with First Nations we must return to dealing with them as partners rather than subordinates. I will go one farther than the commissioners – I believe that First Nations have been and continue to be our benefactors –and that the wealth and peace that we enjoy are direct gifts from their hands.
The number one priority for settler Canadians today is to learn the terms of the treaties by which we acquired the right to live on our land. I know that there are people who say that the land is ours by right of conquest – we were stronger and we took it – but that belief is what we in history refer to as “total nonsense”.
In fact, when the British settlers fi rst came to the territory that is now called Ontario they followed their own legal rules about land aquisition which they laid out under the Royal Proclamation of 1763.
They acknowledged then, as our courts still do now, that all of the territory of Canada BELONGS by right to First Nations people and must be left undisturbed unless they make a treaty to share it.
This is why we have treaties. And when we made the treaties we made promises about what we as a nation state would do in return for the land.
Sometimes people say that the treaties were made a long time ago and so the promises no longer apply. I would suggest that this is a dangerous line of argument from a settler perspective.
If our treaty promises no longer apply then neither do theirs and we lose the right to live on this land.
Catherine Murton Stoehr holds a Ph.D. in Canadian history from Queen’s University and has been teaching Canadian and First Nations history at Nipissing University for six years. This article is excerpted from her presentation at a Feb. 15 Canadore College Teachin.