An indigenous perspective on the history of indigenous-Canadian relations

“Much was done in our history to assimilate the Indigenous people and eradicate our cultures and identities”

February 13, 2017

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This is the second installment of a two-part series that looks at
how energy companies can engage with Indigenous communities


Cheryl Cardinal, President/CEO, Indigenous Center of Energy
Photo: Illusionist Productions

Read part I here

In Canada, there have been many terms that have been used to describe Indigenous peoples. Terms such as First Nations, Metis, Inuit, Aboriginal and Indian are used depending on the era, and legislation from the Canadian government. There are 633 First Nations communities, not including the Metis and Inuit. When looking at Indigenous issues, you have to realize that everyone wants to put each community in the same box thinking they will all have the same concerns. But each community will have their own position in regards to resource development. I always encourage energy companies to have meaningful relationships and have open dialogue with our leaders to ensure that they have an understanding of the expectations of the community.

There will be areas that we will not develop or do not want companies to develop. These areas are used for cultural purposes in some cases. These activities are part of who we are as people. From 1880 until 1951, we were banned from practising the Sundance and the Potlatch. It became a criminal offence during this period to participate in these ceremonies.

This was done in our history to assimilate the Indigenous people and eradicate our cultures and identities. You have to look at the policies of the Canadian government and its impacts on Indigenous peoples. We are resilient people who have survived the banning of our ceremonies, residential schools and the impacts on our people who have had to endure physical, sexual and emotional abuse. The last residential school closed in 1996 so it was not that long ago. The residential school policy was created to eliminate the ‘Indian in the child.’ So, who we are as people, our communities and areas of cultural significance have become that much more important. Even with the attempts to erase who we are as people, we have survived. This is why the significance of our land and our ties to our culture are very important.

Historically the Indigenous people created peace and friendship treaties with the Crown. We have the numbered treaties (Treaty 1-11) in parts of what is now British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, parts of Ontario and parts of the Northwest Territories. There are other areas in this country that signed peace and friendship treaties while other areas of the country that did not. We agreed to share the land. Under section 91(24) of the British North American Act, “Indians and lands reserved for Indians” are under the jurisdiction of the federal government. The Indian Act in 1876 legislated how the federal government governs Indians (or First Nations) in this country. This authorizes the Canadian government to regulate and administer the affairs and day-to-day lives of registered Indians and reserve communities.

This authority ranged from imposition of governance structures, determining land base of the reserve communities and even who qualifies as an Indian. This is administered through Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development Canada (which has had its name changed numerous times throughout Canadian history). My grandfather had to get permission from the Indian agent to leave the reserve and we had governance systems imposed on our communities. There have been amendments to the Indian Act throughout the years, but the federal government ultimately has control within our communities.

Section 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 states “the existing aboriginal and treaty rights of Aboriginal people in Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed”. How do Aboriginal and Treaty rights typically get defined in this country? We have to challenge infringements on our rights through the Canadian court systems. We have won some major cases in the definition of Aboriginal and Treaty rights, but we have also lost many cases as well.

We now have a Liberal government that has removed their objector status to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and is talking about implementing the UNDRIP. What does entail? How will that look? This is an interesting time since the Harper government told Indigenous peoples that UNDRIP was an aspirational document with no legal implementation in Canada. The Trudeau and Notley governments, however, have both made election promises to implement, but neither government has implemented UNDRIP at this point. Each government continually talks about UNDRIP’s implementation, but so far neither government has shown that this is any more than empty promises. There is hesitation surrounding the implementation of UNDRIP, you also have to talk about Free, Prior and Informed Consent. If the Trudeau government fulfils its promise concerning the implementation of UNDRIP, does consent include a veto on resource development? It is an interesting discussion as you also have a variety of views on whether consent means veto; some Indigenous nations say yes that it does include a veto while others recognize that it does not.

Indigenous issues are complex. Our voice is important at the beginning of a project. I advocate for the involvement of Indigenous communities at the start of a project. Companies must plan to include Indigenous communities and meaningful relationships with Indigenous communities need to be created and managed. What is the vision for energy moving forward in Canada? I can tell you that the future of development in Canada will only move forward if Indigenous people are at the table in these discussions.

Cheryl Cardinal has spent close to 20 years working with various Indigenous communities nationally in the area of mining, energy and resources development, education, research as well as program and economic development. Her work has been focused on addressing many barriers Indigenous peoples face in mining, energy and resource development today. Cheryl is currently the President/CEO of the Indigenous Center of Energy (ICE) and is a member of the Sucker Creek Cree Nation in Alberta.

More posts by Cheryl Cardinal

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