October 24, 1999 Not published
First Nations Peoples Canadian Citizenship: second class at best!
First Nations Peoples Canadian Citizenship: second class at best!
Resulting from a request received from a Halifax non-Native Education group, I agreed to be a member of a panel of experts at a forum held at Nova Scotia's Government House on October 20, 1999. My responsibility was to specify the benefits that First Nations Peoples have derived from Canadian citizenship. The following is an excerpt from my presentation:
I was born, the twelfth child of a family of fourteen, to William and Sarah Paul in December 1938. My birthplace, which was preordained three years prior by a blatant act of racism committed against my family by white society, was a tiny log cabin, located on Nova Scotia's Indian Brook Reserve.
This is the gist of the racism incident: Up until the fall of 1935, my father had worked as a stevedore on the Saint John, New Brunswick, waterfront - thus a taxpayer. That year, because of depression related work shortages, he and many others were laid off. Consequently, for the family's survival, he applied for city welfare, which was granted. A white resident took this as a waste of taxpayer's money and went posthaste to the city's fathers and complained bitterly that they were feeding a bunch of Indians.
The fathers agreed that it was wrong and reacted with the proper indignation of bigots. In late November of 1935, my parents and their surviving five small children, were rounded up and deported by the city council from Saint John to Indian Brook, a place they had never seen before. Upon their arrival at Indian Brook, with little assets other than the clothes on their backs, and cold weather setting in, the Indian Agent gave them a roll of tarpaper and told them to build a tarpaper shack. Which they did - spending over two years living in it before moving to the log cabin where I was born.
I mention the circumstance of how I came to be born on Indian Brook Reserve as an example of the degrading blatant racism that First Nations peoples had to contend with at that time. In the absence of human and civil rights laws to protect us, we were at the mercy of a largely biased white society. Therefore, legal redress to resolve our complaints wasn't available. Factually, the justice system was used more by society to persecute us than to provide justice. We were classified as "Wards of the Crown" - at best treated as third class citizens.
Because of this, Canadian society, although it appeared to be available on paper, denied us education, work, etc. Exclusion was, and still is today, almost complete and hypocritical. The hypocrisy is that society is still excluding, while claiming that it is doing everything possible to assist First Nations Peoples to escape from poverty. The most galling aspect about this is that many of the same whites whose bigotry prevents inclusion, and thus prevents Native People from achieving a standard of living equal to theirs, are the first to complain bitterly about the cost of Indian welfare, and to state that "Indians" are too lazy to work.
This brings to mind a poem that I love by Leo Tolstoy - it fittingly describes the crushing demeaning paternalism that Canada has victimized First Nations Peoples with.
What Then Must We Do? I sit on a man's back choking him and making him carry me and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all possible means-except by getting off his back. (Leo Tolstoy, 1886)
When speaking of exclusion, it must be mentioned that some provinces exclude more than others. Nova Scotia, for instance, has never elected a Mi'kmaq to any legislature, nor appointed one to a judgeship, to a senior civil servant position, or recommended one to be appointed a senator, or for that matter much else.
In spite of exclusion, but caused primarily by the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, the quality of life for First Nations Peoples in Canada has improved measurably in the past 50 years. The Declaration forced the country to begin the process of cleaning up its act and stop discriminating openly against Natives - the World was watching! This did not, however, mean that legislation was immediately introduced to repeal well entrenched apartheid laws that were enacted to oppress "Indians."
When trying to pinpoint a date when the easing of apartheid laws allowed First Nations Peoples to escape from "Wards of the Crown status," to third class Canadian Citizenship status, the water is very muddied. The repeal of some apartheid laws in 1951 wasn't the watershed. The fact that it took governments fourteen years after the Canada Citizenship Act was proclaimed on January 1, 1947, to extend to us, August 10, 1960, the right to vote in federal elections clouds the matter further. Other apartheid laws were so well entrenched that it took another 25 years, after the government had graciously given us the right to vote in 1960, for it to repeal the majority of the worst ones.
In this regard, when Bill C-31 was proclaimed on July 17, 1985, it repealed two particularly obnoxious Indian Act Sections: the one that forbade us from being in possession of alcohol, externally or internally, even beer, and the even meaner one that provided for the loss of Indian status because of marriages, etc. Citizens of a country are not treated this way.
To add insult to injury a racist statement was included as part of the enfranchisement applications devised by government: Up until 1985, if a Registered Indian wanted to be enfranchised, he/she had to sign a declaration containing this paragraph: "...and certify that I am capable of assuming the responsibilities of citizenship." From this we can conclude that if, in fact, First Nations Peoples held Canadian citizenship, it was badly tainted. However, the language seems to indicate that we were still viewed as "Wards of the Crown in 1985."
The enactment of human and civil rights laws have not aided us very much in our efforts to force society to treat us as peers and intellectual equals. Human rights commissions, and acts, by any stretch, haven't measured up to the need - in some instances we were even excluded. For instance, it wasn't until 1991 that Nova Scotia amended its human rights legislation to cover the Mi'kmaq. And the affirmative action plans that stem from these acts are rarely used by Canadian society to help us. In fact, they are used almost exclusively to provide economic opportunities for white women, with some opportunities for disadvantaged groups.
Just how ineffective human rights laws have been as tools for Natives to find justice is no better illustrated than by this statement included in the March 1996 annual report by the Canadian Human Rights Commission to Parliament: Max Yalden, former Chief Commissioner, in presenting the report described the position of Canada's Natives: "our most serious human rights problem...they continue to be treated with paternalism, denial and delay." This message is sent to Parliament, with some variation, every year by the Commission.
Because of the systemic and overt racist attitudes that still governs the mentality of a large portion of white Canadian citizens, the only justice Native people receive in this country comes from the Supreme Court of Canada. The lower courts almost always tend to adhere to the status quo, and politicians tend to circle the wagons. The following high profile court decisions have affirmed our aboriginal and treaty rights, providing some measure of justice (no rights have ever been voluntarily affirmed by the government of this country):
1888 - St. Catherine's Milling and Lumber Co. v. the Queen: recognized that First Nations Peoples held aboriginal title to the land
1984 - Guerin Decision: stated that the federal government had a fiduciary responsibility to Registered Indians
1985 - Simon Decision: recognized our treaty right to hunt and gather.
1990 - Sparrow decision: recognized an aboriginal right to fish
1999 - Marshall decision: Mi'kmaq treaty right to fish commercially upheld
These are but a few of the hard fought court battles for justice that our people have won. However, even in the face of such decisions, governments have done everything possible to circumvent the intent of them. But, it now appears that they have been backed into a corner by the "Marshall Decision," and at last will be forced to come to the table to negotiate in good faith.
Caused by the before-mentioned, my answer to the citizenship question is: what benefits? Until this country takes the steps needed to end the economic and political exclusion of First Nation Peoples, no one can say that we enjoy the benefits that whites derive from Canadian Citizenship.
The degradation and oppression of First Nations cultures by white society, which is now of 500 years duration, shows no sign of easing. This tells me that First Nations Peoples will only know equality, justice, peace and prosperity when self-reliance and self-esteem are restored in our souls by ourselves, to pre-Columbian levels. There is an urgent need to do this forthwith, because if it is not done forthwith we will continue to drift towards, and eventually achieve, what for centuries we have fought so hard to prevent, extinction by assimilation!
Daniel N. Paul