I seldom agree with Conrad Black, but he is a keen student and writer of history and his March 16, 2019 article in the National Post, SNC-Lavalin is a sideshow to the real Wilson-Raybould issue, made some sense. As he states, the idea that perhaps 200,000 native peoples who travelled nomadically through a largely vacant land actually owned that land is ludicrous.
The best guess of anthropologists is that perhaps a million homo-sapiens survived the last ice age in central Africa and all modern societies gradually migrated from there around the world. They believe that about 14,000 years ago, the earliest North Americans migrated from Asia during a lowering of the level of the Bering Sea. They now think of themselves as the indigenous peoples of North America.
Land ownership is based on laws that define how to claim and prove one owns the land and the ability to enforce the ownership through courts, and if necessary, police and military action. None of that existed when the Europeans came here. Saying that the descendants of those 200,000 nomadic people own Canada today is like saying each of them is entitled to 12,330 acres of land and all the natural resources within them, and that all settlers that migrated later from around the world, and built Canada into one of the best countries in the world, are entitled to nothing.
Since there were no laws or records of title, the early Europeans used the established laws of France and England. The land was designated as crown land or public land and was parceled out to natives and settlers according to an organized system. Even today 89 per cent of Canada remains as crown land or public land (41 per cent federal and 48 per cent provincial) which includes all the resources existing thereon. Anyone wishing to access those resources must buy the land from the crown or pay a royalty to the government (us).
Certainly, the first peoples and their descendants had and still have many legitimate grievances which must be addressed. To appreciate their feelings, how would Canadians feel if the USA depletes their oil reserves in about 20 years and then decides to annex Alberta instead of just paying a fair price for Alberta oil? Like the first peoples, we would be very upset but unable to stop them militarily.
The question is how best to resolve the grievances of our indigenous people. What are the alternatives?
- Continue the low-grade civil war that has been going for 400 years to the detriment of both sides and the country.
- Have a hot war to sort it out once and for all. The indigenous 5 per cent would surly lose and any survivors would be more distressed than ever.
- Address the grievances where possible, replace the Indian Act of 1876, and bring our 5 per cent indigenous population into full and equal citizenship. Surely that is affordable. It is the right thing to do as well as a good investment. But as many governments have discovered, it is easier said than done.
Many past governments have tried and made some progress. Many First Nations people are now having the same success as the general population, but social problems among First Nations remain much higher than the national average. Having 634 chiefs who consider themselves legally equal to the Prime Minster but presiding over an average of 1,800 people each, makes the First Nations as a group ungovernable and prevents their full participation in Canada. First Nations like to blame the 1876 Indian Act for the problems, but the 634 chiefs rely on the Act to hold onto their jobs.
Perhaps naively, but with the best of intensions, the Trudeau government made Indigenous Reconciliation one of its top priorities. Trudeau made Jody Wilson-Raybould (JWR) the first indigenous Minister of Justice. He later appointed Minister Jane Philpott to manage the daily affairs of the Department of Indigenous Affairs, and the experienced former Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennet to propose legislation to replace the 1876 Indian Act. As always, agreement on the details of the legislation eludes the 634 First Nations leaders themselves. Black’s article outlines in detail how the SNC-Lavalin case became a sideshow to the real Wilson-Raybould issue. He outlines how JWR’s views of the law would give the 634 chiefs control over anything to do with natural resource development anywhere in Canada.
That left Trudeau with the very delicate job of arbitrating between warring ministers and getting JWR reassigned to a file where her extreme views on indigenous rights would be less damaging. And of course, in an election year, the whole thing became embroiled in partisan politics.
Hugh Holland is a retired engineering and manufacturing executive now living in Huntsville, Ontario.
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