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‘This is the greatest challenge we face’: Bob Rae on treaty rights in Canada

Bob Rae, the former NDP premier of Ontario and former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, spoke in Regina on Thursday, Oct. 30 about what it means to honour the treaties.

He said that relationships between the Crown and First Nations people must be based on the reciprocation of power and authority as well as wealth and opportunity.

Our greatest challenge

“It cannot be based on handouts,” said Rae during his presentation, which received a standing ovation from the large crowd at the University of Regina.

“This is, I think, the greatest challenge we face as a country.”

But Rae told Metro that this is not how most politicians in Canada are treating the matter.

“The NDP government in Manitoba could be doing more, the Liberal government in Ontario could be doing more,” he said.

“Governments in this area have done as little as they felt they needed to and I think we’re paying the price now.”

Rae explained that there are fundamental problems with how these historic agreements came about and are implemented today.

“What we have to do is renew the treaties,” he said. “There has to be a recognition that people have been talking past each other and acting past each other for a long time.”

Meeting of minds

One example of this Rae brought up in his talk is how the Ontario and federal administrations enacted Treaty 9 at the outset of the 20th century.

Bureaucrats drew up a contract and appointed three commissioners – including the notorious symbol of assimilation Duncan Campbell Scott – to bring the message to the northern part of the province.

“They said, ‘We’re here to negotiate and sign a treaty… Great Mother in England will take care of you for all time and everything will be well,'” said Rae.

“And a couple of the chiefs would say, ‘What’s the catch?’”

A map of Canada's historic numbered treaties. (Wikimedia Commons)

A map of Canada's historic numbered treaties. (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the fact that the chiefs didn’t speak English and couldn’t write a signature, they ended up putting their hands on the pen and drawing ‘X’ next to their names after a day of insufficient consultation.

“You couldn’t sell a vacuum cleaner that way,” said Rae.

“Courts always say they have to assume there was a meeting of minds when two people come together and sign something.”

While oral tradition dictates that First Nations intended to share rather than give up the land, said Rae, the Crown doesn’t usually take this into account when asserting jurisdictional control.

Indeed, Rae noted, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is positioned against revenue sharing with any stakeholder groups.

“I find his position on revenue sharing to be shortsighted,” said Rae. “Because really the long-term benefits of revenue sharing are clear, they will give a much greater capacity for self-government.”

Beyond the numbered treaties

Although these inherent difficulties persist in the way treaty rights are executed, Rae said that honouring the treaties remains an important part of any conversation about First Nations issues.

Certain communities in the territories and outside the numbered treaty areas, he said, have more empowering agreements.

“There are the benefits that come from self-determination, which I think is something that we underestimate at our peril,” he said.

For instance, said Rae, the James Bay Cree Nation has responsibility for its own education, healthcare and infrastructure.

“Compare the situation to northern Ontario, northern Manitoba, northern Saskatchewan,” said Rae, who has worked as a negotiator with James Bay. “In those places people are living in a state of total dependence.”

In order to unlock the country’s potential, said Rae, there has to be a shift to this kind of interpretation of the treaties. And nowhere will that be more critical than in the growing region of Western Canada.

“We’ve tried dependency, we’ve tried assimilation, we’ve tried marginalization,” said Rae. “None of these have worked. We have to try a different path.”

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