American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Canada, Indian Policies of

Policy is multidimensional and multifaceted. As J. W. Cell has noted it "as being something rather less fixed, something rather more historical," saying that, at any moment in time, there is "not so much policy as policy formation, an unsettled and changing set of responses by government to the continual interaction among men [and women], forces, ideas, and institutions." As such, the Indian policies of Canada as a nation-state have their origin in the history of the treaty-making process of Canada as a place. Canadian Indian policies as they developed in the eighteenth century owe their development to a mistaken European view and representation of how Europeans came to view and represent aboriginal peoples, including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. However, First Nations have no need for such policies and do not have any regard for them, except insofar as they impinge upon First Nations' sovereignty and self-determination.

The Covenant Chain of Silver literally means "to link one's arms together" and signifies a nation-to-nation relationship. Yet the nation-state of Canada misinterpreted the First Nations and the meaning of the Covenant Chain and especially the Two Row Wampum that symbolized the Covenant. As a result it misconstrued what the relationship should have been between the Dutch, English, and the French imperial governments on the one hand and the aboriginal nations on the other: namely, peace, mutual respect, and trust.

Initially given by the English to the Haudenosaunee to cement the treaty entered into at Albany in 1664, the Covenant Chain's components were known as least by the early seventeenth century, when the very first treaties of peace and friendship were entered into between the French and the Mi'kmaq nations in Acadia (present-day Atlantic Canada). The significance of the Covenant Chain of Silver as a basis for the treaty-making process and Indian policies cannot be underestimated in terms of land and sovereignty. Sir William Johnson, the English Crown's Imperial appointee to the Indian Department in 1755, highlighted its magnitude in 1764 when he wrote that

Tis [It is] true that when a Nation find themselves pushed, their Alliances broken, and themselves tired of a War, they are verry [very] apt to say many civil things, and make any Submissions which are not agreable [agreeable] to their intentions, but are said meerly [merely] to please those with whom they transact Affairs as they know they cannot enforce the observance of them. But you may be assured that none of the Six nations, Western Nations [including the Western Confederacy] &ca. ever declared themselves to be Subjects, or will ever consider themselves in that light whilst they have any Men, or an Open Country to retire to, the very Idea of subjection would fill them with horror.
This statement by Johnson links the basis of this process with one of the early views also integral to Canada's Indian policies: the notion that aboriginal peoples were subject to the nation-state. This notion of subjects rather than First Nations was a direct result of the ideology of European empires, notably the French and the British empires, which sought to control and dominate the natural world of North America and the peoples who resided there. However, initially outnumbered and without sufficient technology to dominate aboriginal peoples (the canoe was one of the primary modes of resistance), the French and then the British empires recognized aboriginal peoples as nations and sought out and entered into treaties of peace and friendship.

One of the first statements of imperial policy toward the First Nations was the promulgation of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, partly in response to the Anishinabe and Seneca resistance movements earlier that year. Owing much to the treaty-making process, the Royal Proclamation was an English imperial document, among other things, that recognized and reaffirmed the "Indian territory" to be their "absolute property," established English imperial rules regarding the treaty-making process under the Covenant Chain, and recognized the significance of the sovereignty of aboriginal trade and trading. It would be reaffirmed one year later in a Grand Council of Nations at Niagara in 1764 and in subsequent treaties, indicated by the following First Nations' perspective:

While the treaties are like stones marking a spot in time, the relationship between the Nations is like two equals, respecting each of their differences but supporting each other for a common position on peace, order and justice for all. The brotherhood created by the Twenty Four Nations Belt represents a relationship of both sharing and respect. The sharing is reciprocal: as the First Nations shared land and the knowledge in the past, now that situation is reversed, the generosity of spirit and action is expected to continue. The respect is also reciprocal: respect for each other's rights, existence, laws and vision of the future.
By the late eighteenth century, the balance of power was beginning to shift and increasingly the treaties came to be seen as land surrenders by the aboriginal peoples as subjects of the imperial crowns. These promises were not inconsequential at a time when the English imperial foothold on the North American continent was, at best, precarious. After Sir William Johnson died in 1774, things began to fall apart. By the 1790s, the solemn promises of the crown were forgotten by the Indian Department.

After the American Revolution, the new colony of Upper Canada became important to the English imperial government for a strategic reason: to protect the English colony from the United States as an aboriginal buffer state. The land was also seen to be, in the long term, of great value as a place for the second British empire to promote commercial agricultural settlement and colonization. Lieutenant John Graves Simcoe's plan for Upper Canada (1791) outlined this plan:

There are but a very few Indians who inhabit within it, the greater part of the soil has been purchased & the whole ought to be before it will become of value, as the Indians will not want for suggestions to inhance [enhance] its price. I consider the Country to be of immense value, whether it be regarded to its immediate advantages, the future prospect of Advantage, or the probable grounds for supposing it will remain the most important foreign possession of Great Britain.
Based on the Royal Proclamation of 1763, a mis-construction of the treaty-making process, and Simcoe's land policy, a number of land surrenders in Upper Canada occurred from the 1790s to the Confederation of Canada (1867) and in the west and north by means of the numbered treaties.

These treaties were not entered into without resistance by First Nations' citizens. Despite the spirit of the Two Row Wampum and, later, the ostensible promise of protection of subject peoples, the treaty-making process became a landgrab filled with corruption and land speculation, as was the case in the United States. Conflict, rooted in imperial and colonial aspirations as well as in cultural disparateness of the First Nations and the White Settlers, grew apace as a part of Canadian aboriginal policies within regional frameworks. There were treaties of peace and friendship in Atlantic Canada, no treaties in Quebec, and land loss treaties in Upper Canada that became a model of the subsequent numbered treaties (1871–1930) in the west and north. The principle of protection gave way to assimilation, and with it came European scientific racism as part and parcel of Canada's Indian policies.

The War of 1812–1814 fought in the British North American colonies and in the United States was a "turntable" for Canadian Indian policies. Although they fought for the British in that war, the First Nations were no longer needed militarily when it was over. The result was that the United States and Britain agreed on a boundary that split the First Nations' territories, literally carving it up along the survey of the international boundary and, more seriously, effectively taking away jurisdiction and governance (but not sovereignty) from the First Nations.

Relocation and attempted extinguishment of aboriginal title and reserve lands in Upper Canada occurred after the War of 1812–1814. Gradually, a full-blown British imperial policy of civilization was established and in effect by the 1820s. Many more requests came for land surrenders from the English crown, but the land surrenders were not followed. Most of the monies were not deposited to trust fund accounts, and more lands were taken than outlined in the written treaty documents. Even without the overt use of force, the British government sometimes used another process—one based on nonconsultation with aboriginal peoples and lacking their consent, all in violation of the spirit and intent of the Royal Proclamation and the treaties—to achieve the end of extinguishment.

Beginning in the 1820s, with increasing British immigration to Upper Canada, agricultural settlement by white settlers on a large scale began. Requests came for more land surrenders. In the 1820s under Lieutenant Governors Sir Charles Henry Darling, John Colborne (Baron Seaton), and then Sir Francis Bond Head, the British imperial government embarked on its policy of "civilization" in Upper Canada since it had already been deemed a success by English imperial officials in Lower Canada. While this policy was primarily designed with a hard edge to purposefully assimilate aboriginal people, it also promised monies for education and training and economic opportunities, for example, commercial agricultural opportunities, for the citizens of the First Nations. Another less desirable approach of the policy was a conscious plan of removal, developed by Head in the mid-1830s. The idea was to remove and to centralize aboriginal people into two geographical areas: primarily Manitoulin Island and Walpole Island. Once centralized, they could better be, according to the government view, "civilized" and then assimilated. This was strenuously resisted by the First Nations. The only group that became enfranchised as "white people" by the 1880s under this policy were the Wyandots of Anderdon.

The so-called civilization policy was not predicated on the surrender of Indian lands, at least initially, to pay for the policy. Rather, the monies for it would come from a general parliamentary grant from the crown. Subsequently, the policy became one of assimilation, which was financed crudely by selling Indian lands and using the funds raised to pay for their own assimilation. This policy was anathema to the First Nations. By 1840, the policy had already failed at Coldwater and other places. Yet the Indian Department, confronted by wholesale squatting and trespassing on First Nation lands, continued to implement it by taking land surrenders. This policy was codified in the late 1850s in the first Indian Act of 1857. The import of this new approach to civilization was not lost on the First Nations' leadership, who rejected it and bluntly stated that it was an attempt "to break them to pieces."

Partially responding to the attempted encroachments and the alienation of the Indian Territory, the English imperial government took action, flowing from the Royal Proclamation, to protect parts of it. In 1839 it passed legislation to protect crown lands, especially the Indian Territory, which had been the subject of considerable concern because of trespassing, squatting by nonaboriginal people, illegal land use (such as the taking of timber from Indian lands), and outright fraud. However, this legislation proved not to be strong enough in the decade following its passage, and the thefts or other depredations on aboriginal lands continued. On August 10, 1850, the government of the Province of Canada passed further legislation, an act for the "protection" of the "property occupied or enjoyed" by aboriginal people in Upper Canada "from Trespass and Injury." This legislation strengthened the provisions of the 1839 Act but the legislation still appears not to have been effective since the squatting and the process of dispossession continued unabated.

In 1861 Herman Merivale (1806–1874), an astute British imperial commentator and a consummate bureaucrat, observed that British imperial aboriginal policy had been a failure. His commentary could well be a description of Canada's aboriginal policy more than 144 years later:

The subject, in short, is one which has been dealt with by perpetual compromises between principle and immediate exigency. Such compromises are incidental to constitutional government. We are accustomed to them: there is something in them congenial to our national character, as well as accommodated to our institutions; and on the whole, we may reasonably doubt whether the world is not better managed by means of them than through the severe application of principles. But, unfortunately, in the special subject before us, the uncertainty created by such compromises is a greater evil than errors of principle.
Merivale's description of the vacillating nature of Canada's perpetual compromises between principle and immediate exigency is a significant observation about the failure of Canada's aboriginal policies. The policies only created great uncertainty and extreme frustration with the failure of the crown to uphold the Covenant Chain of Silver and the concomitant solemn treaty promises. This situation goes far to explain its failure of Canada's Indian policies.

One of the primary events of Canada's racist and colonial Indian policies was the Confederation of Canada. In 1867 the British North America Act was passed by the British imperial government, thereby establishing the Dominion of Canada. The First Nations effectively lost recognition and respect for their rights of aboriginal governance over their lands and waters. The new federal government assumed responsibility for "Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians" by Section 91 (24), subject to any liabilities, which the government of the Province of Canada had, to the First Nations. This legislation allowed the federal government to pass the first consolidated Indian Act, thereby establishing a colonial relationship of the federal government to the First Nations. It also stated that the provinces had control over all other lands within the boundaries of each province (Section 109). Although this imperial statute was subject to any outstanding interests, including reserve lands as well as the aboriginal territory, much of which was still unceded, neither the interests nor the lands were specified. If the lands were not referred to, then the assumption was that the First Nations' land rights did not exist.

Originally, the Confederation of Canada was conceived of and was supposed to have been a treaty among the founding nations of Canada, including all of the First Nations based on the Two Row Wampum. But it soon became a means of carrying forward the policy of extinguishment, including the surrender or relinquishment of the Indian Territory as well as the implementation in the late nineteenth century of the residential school system with its horrific cultural and sexual abuses, which lasted well into the 1980s.

The negotiation of the so-called numbered treaties was a clear example not only of the divergence in thinking of the treaty makers in the 1870s but also of the weaknesses of Canada's regional Indian policies at that time and thereafter. Mawedopenais, a Mide chief of the Ojibwa, spoke to the crown's commissioner and chief negotiator, Alexander Morris (1826–1889), at the third treaty negotiations in October of 1873. As a spokesperson for the Rainy Lake and Rainy River people in this treaty-making process, he was clear on the position of aboriginal nations and the title to their lands: "I lay before you our opinions. Our hands are poor but our heads are rich, and it is riches that we ask so that we may be able to support our families as long as the sun rises and the water runs." Morris replied, disingenuously, indicating that he did not understand what aboriginal title and the treaty-making process meant for the aboriginal nations: "I am very sorry; you know it takes two to make a bargain; you are agreed on the one side, and I for the Queen's Government on the other. I have to go away and report that I have to go without making terms with you. I doubt if the Commissioners will be sent again to assemble this nation." This threat, implying the government approach of divide and conquer was not, as may be expected, well received by the Ojibwa nation. Treaty 3 was eventually negotiated and signed, but not on the basis of the spirit and the terms of the treaty as understood by the Ojibwa Nation. He did not believe, as many people do to this day, that the aboriginal nations were ready to share in the treaty-making process with the riches in their heads. There was no balance in the "bargain" before or after the treaty was signed. Morris and the federal government took too much away from the life of the Ojibwa. It has continued to do so here and elsewhere in Canada.

This nonconsultative treaty-making approach became central and pivotal to the development of the top-down policy approach of the federal government inherent in the Indian Act of 1876 and its successors, making the government both colonial and racist. Under this Act, the federal government alone, in a process that is neither consultative nor community-based, decides who is an aboriginal person and who is not under the registration process. Nonstatus and Métis persons are not recognized as aboriginal, and they cannot be registered under the Act, notwithstanding that they are recognized in Canada's Constitution as aboriginal peoples. In fact, it was not until the 1930s that the Inuit of Canada's north were recognized through a court ruling as having equal status as "Indians." Yet there is no Inuit Act today. Moreover, except for one substantial revision to that legislation in 1951, essentially the Indian Act remains a cornerstone of Canada's aboriginal policies. Canadian Indian policies have been and still are in complete disarray.

There remains a wide cultural gulf in the treaty-making process that has become intensified and that has led to the abrogation of aboriginal title and treaty rights and to the events of the summer of 1990 at the Oka and nearby Mohawk reserves. But the events at Oka were broader than those at Kahnesa-take and Kahnawake. Similar situations also occurred in Ontario and in British Columbia, all involving unresolved land claims, a problem across Canada and one that resurfaced in 2006 with the conflict at Caledonia, Ontario.

What accounts for these Canadian Indian policies and the reality of Indian existence in Canada? The answer lies in the disparate histories of aboriginal and nonaboriginal people in Canada. The European, so-called scientific Western tradition of history has seen, sometimes in its crudest forms, the relationship between people and the land and its uses as a separate category and process. From the viewpoint of aboriginal traditions, these categories are wholly artificial and do not really exist. The aborigine has a holistic view, seeing land and man and nature and the uses that one makes of the lands and waters as one within a circle of time. They come from a single source—from a Creator who made all living things and nature. It is not enough to analyze each separately. The sum of the parts does not, in this instance, comprise the whole. The aboriginal way of seeing the world is simple, yet profound. Aboriginal people have protected and conserved their homelands—their territories—since time immemorial. This is understood and told by their elders, from the perspective of the First Nations. They tell who they are and, in spiritual terms, what their lands and waters mean to them. They have used the land and have shared in the harvesting of the fruits of the land for thousands of years.

The primary objective of aboriginal people is spiritual: to protect the land—Mother Earth—and the waters of Turtle Island. This is a sacred trust, a trust to protect the land. The continuity and integrity of the lands are important to the survival of indigenous people. Generations of First Nations members have used the land and have shared in its bounty and its uses. Moreover, they will continue to use this land and teach their children about the Creator and the land. So this relationship is all-important. They owe their very survival to it. It is both simple and profound. The events of the summer of 1990 at Oka and elsewhere across Canada occurred in our time at the initiative of aboriginal people to protect their lands and waters. To do this, they had no choice but to resist those who wished to destroy the land and themselves. Not to do this meant their destruction as well as the destruction of their children and grandchildren. It would have meant the end of their cultures and of their survival as aboriginal people. They will continue to protect their lands and waters.

In the twenty-first century we are witnessing profound structural changes in the history of the world. The world of nineteenth-century European imperialism is over. Decolonization is continuing apace. This process has been characterized by the forces of both construction and destruction. In Canada, as one example, aboriginal peoples are reaffirming their inherent right to governance through diverse approaches and a variety of means. Their lands are ever so slowly being recovered, if not always respected. Aboriginal title is beginning to be understood and recognized. One watershed in the twentieth century was the Calder v. Attorney General of British Columbia case of 1973. This decision of the Supreme Court of Canada found that aboriginal title and rights did exist in the white justice system of Canada. It opened the legal doors for the prosecution of aboriginal title and rights cases in Canada. Calder was followed by many constructive Supreme Court decisions that affirmed aboriginal title and land rights and treaties, including Guerin, Simon, Sioui, and Sparrow in the late 1980s and 1990s, and most recently, Delgamuukw (1997), to name but a few.

Calder opened the door to new land claims policies of the federal government in 1974, only one year after the case was decided by Canada's Supreme Court. It has brought about an undermining of Canada's historic Indian policies and their replacement with various forms of aboriginal governance that has led to the creation of the territory of Nunavut in 1999 and then the first modern treaty: the Nishga Treaty in British Columbia in 2003. This new Indian policy is not based on land claims processes, because there are no aboriginal land claims, only land rights. There are only aboriginal title and treaty rights to the land, and these must be protected. Among the land grievances flowing from the treaty-making process is that—unrecognized by the Euro-Canadian land tenure system or by government legislation, such as the Indian Act—the spiritual foundation is lost. And it is lost not only in the reserves, places of special and specific protection, but also in any of the strategic areas of land that aborigines used. Such lands were a major consideration for both the crown and the aboriginal people, but the antithetical concepts regarding land ownership and use still intensify conflicts over treaty areas and reserves.

For example, the people of the Bkejwanong First Nation submitted a small land claim regarding three hundred acres to the Specific Claims Branch of Indian Affairs in 1977, thirty years ago. After years of review and analysis, it was rejected in 1986, and now its rejection is being reviewed by the Indian Specific Claims Commission, which was established by the Mulroney Tories as a partial response to Oka in 1991. The hearings on the rejection of this claim were scheduled to take place in April of 1994, seventeen years after the claim was submitted. To date, federal officials are still reviewing the claim. Land claims exhibit too much process, very little substance, and too few settlements. This example is not at all unusual, because the Indian Specific Claims Commission, established after the events of the summer of 1990 at Oka and elsewhere, can only publish its findings and recommendations to the federal cabinet, but the government does not have to implement its recommendations.

Likely due to differing views between the government and aboriginal nations over land rights, the government's procedure for handling what it regards as land claims seems to be aimed at delaying resolution for as long as possible. From the aboriginal nation's point of view, a land claim is a statement of the land rights in reference to a specific geographical area. It is a claim based on whether the aboriginal users of the land and its resources ever entered into a treaty for it under the rules set out in the Royal Proclamation of 1763. A claim is not a court action; it is not litigation. It is a policy (actually two—one for comprehensive claims and the other for specific ones) and a program of the federal government administered by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. The federal government, in other words, forces First Nations into a policy that does not reflect the nation-to-nation treaty-making process. If a First Nation disagrees with this policy, its only recourse is to begin an expensive, decades-long litigation process on each of its claims.

From the government's policy and program point of view, the purpose is to extinguish "claims." When a claimant decides on litigation, the file wends its way slowly through the federal bureaucracy to the Department of Justice, where, in time, the claimant is seen to have withdrawn the claim. First, an application for a claim must be accompanied by a statement of facts that includes a summary statement of the historical research findings on the aboriginal people and their lands. It includes events that have been recorded either by oral traditions or by the written record since time immemorial. Legal argument and conclusions are often present as well. Lastly, copies of the historical documents are included. The government, or more correctly governments, since in Canada provincial governments have constitutional jurisdiction over lands and natural resources, while the federal government has responsibility for Indian land and people, begins to assess the claim based on its perception of its validity, its (often limited) understanding of the interpretation of the history of the aboriginal people, and pure political considerations.

The actions of previous governments are also taken into account from the time of the British empire in the eighteenth century through to the successive colonial governments, the provinces, and Ottawa. Also significant in any bureaucratic and political judgment is the role of legal and legislative precedents with similar claims. For example, a previous Supreme Court of Canada decision in a claimant's favor has an enormous impact on a claim with a similar fact situation because it likely has the same legal issues at stake. The difficulty is that there are still relatively few legal precedents. Thus, decisions on validity are often determined by the Department of Justice's lawyers whose job entails a conflict of interest. This system of deciding the claims by having a federal lawyer be the judge, jury, and executioner is not at all fair, and, moreover, it has failed. Only a truly independent claims commission, such as an independent tribunal, can protect the claims process and the federal government from disrepute.

Land claims are significant only if they can add to the land and the economic base of First Nation communities. Indian reserves were initially strategic economic areas that were excepted from the treaty-making process. Later they were transformed and designed by British imperial policy makers as special areas of "civilization" with the specific objective of assimilating the First Nations. Soon they became mere "half-way houses" that were to be appropriated whenever they were needed for the purposes of the crown or for nonab-original uses. Thus, the federal government held the First Nations' land in a kind of British imperial trusteeship, which gave way on a path leading to gradual and then, it was hoped, complete assimilation. This is a vestige of a pure colonial relationship. Even this misguided basis for aboriginal "claims," distorted as it is by twentieth-century lenses, has been rendered illegitimate through time by the alienation of the land and labor of aboriginal people. First Nations' land and labor were effectively or formally expropriated by the federal or provincial governments. Land surrenders, as well as the loss of the commons (their non-Reserve areas) for natural resource usage by governments and by private interests, assisted the process. What was seen to be legitimate was rendered both unlawful and unfair from an aboriginal perspective. The Temagami case, in particular the building of the Red Squirrel Road extension in 1988–1989, is a prime, but not a solitary, illustration. Only on October 2, 1990, at a conference on aboriginal sovereignty and self-determination in Toronto, as a result of many years of aboriginal resistance movements, has there been a recognition in Canada of the inherent right of aboriginal self-governance.

Fifteen years of constitution making since 1982 have collapsed into disunity, separatism, and regional antagonisms among the white visitors to Canada. The former Meech Lake Accord, the epitome of the old British imperial centralist model of confederation, stylishly referred to as "executive federalism," was defeated in 1990 and never ratified as part of Canada's constitution. The same was true for the second attempt with the Charlottetown Accord of 1992. This was a clear constitutional victory for aboriginal people: They are in the Canadian Constitution. Although the Charlottetown Accord of 1992 was also a failure, the inherent right of aboriginal people to self-governance, as well as their title and land rights, has since been reaffirmed. Gradually, Canada is becoming similar in structure to what it was in preconfederation days. At that time, British North America was a series of communities located along the Great Lakes and adjacent waterway systems. It comprised Euro-American and aboriginal communities in an alliance of nations within both aboriginal and British imperial confederacies. It was a true meeting ground of diverse languages, cultures, and communities. This is an illustration of how the past is an integral part of the present. Aboriginal title, time, and resistance movements may well be common themes in Canada's disparate histories of its founding nations.

The foundation exists now for a constructive approach to the making of Canada by means of treaty making. The Constitution of Canada recognizes aboriginal people as "Indian, Inuit and Métis." It also shows grudging respect for "existing Aboriginal and treaty rights." Why, then, did aboriginal people oppose the Meech Lake Accord, contributing dramatically to its failure in June 1990? Why did we have, some few weeks later, the violence and the blockades at Kahnesatake, Oka, and Kahnawake in Quebec, or the blockades of roads and railway lines in Ontario and British Columbia?

The answer lies in the First Nations' disparate histories and cultures. To put it simply, aboriginal people and the rest of Canada speak to one another from differing historical and cultural assumptions and experiences, including those regarding languages, customs, governance, lands, and waters, as well as time and progress. This also helps to explain the repeated failures of Canada's aboriginal policy or policies.

This reversal of English imperial policy was only altered in 1982 when Canada's Constitution was brought home from England in written form. Hitherto, it had been an unwritten document, essentially an embodiment of British imperialist legislation in 1867. With this act, "existing Aboriginal and treaty rights" (but not self-governance or sovereignty) were admitted as part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms under that Constitution. Today the larger business of the treaty-making process and various land claims policies remains incomplete and unfulfilled. The land claims issues are currently being defined by Canada's Constitution on an issue-by-issue basis by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The validity of aboriginal oral history and traditions was reaffirmed in 1996 by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and again in 1997 by the Supreme Court of Canada in its ruling in the case of Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, also known as the Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en comprehensive claim. That legal ruling stated that oral traditions are "not simply a detached recounting of factual events but, rather, are 'facts enmeshed in the stories of a lifetime.' " Moreover, they are "rooted in particular locations, making reference to particular families and communities." As a result, aboriginal oral history is in fact "many histories, each characterized in part by how a people see themselves, how they define their identity in relation to their environment, and how they express their uniqueness as a people." The Supreme Court stated that the laws of evidence in the Canadian justice system must accommodate aboriginal oral history and tradition such that it "be placed on an equal footing with the types of historical evidence that courts are familiar with, which largely consists of historical documents. This is a long-standing practice in the interpretation of treaties between the Crown and aboriginal peoples." Not to recognize and accept this history as an equally valid way of viewing the past is to invalidate aboriginal people and their land rights.

Without pen or ink, the First Nations remember and understand, through their stories, their internal and external landscapes of being and becoming. There are no boundaries and no beginning or end points. In short, there is no periodization of history. Their history is both separate and parallel to the history of Canada, as understood by nonaboriginal people—the history of the newcomers. In this way, aboriginal oral traditions also evoke and speak to the European past and have much to teach us about ourselves. They provide a necessary corrective, a balance as well as a deeper understanding of what we know today as Canada. For aboriginal people, circles of time are part of the natural world and nature, of life and living. Every living thing has a relationship to every other, and the events that occur in one's lifetime have an immediate impact on one's children and grandchildren. The seventh generation is immediate and close. We are, then, within circles of time.

Yet much of Canada's modern aboriginal land policy is still viewed one-dimensionally as primarily assimilative, as a form of directed cultural change. This has been seen as originating in the nineteenth century and culminating in the federal government's White Paper of 1969. Canadian historians have concentrated more on the origins and development of that policy and less on the resistance to it by the First Nations, especially on aspects of it in the twentieth century. Aboriginal policies must also be viewed from the perspective of the First Nations' citizens and their governments. It must not be forgotten that nonaboriginal people and their governmental institutions have been visitors to aboriginal homelands.

Canada's aboriginal policies have developed gradually and consist of two primary components that are diametrically opposed to each other. Thus they become built-in obstacles. The first is that the federal government has been largely indifferent to aboriginal title and land rights, taking a legalistic approach overall, acting only when it is forced to do so by Canada's courts. The second component is that the provinces continue to use their hegemony, through legislation and regulations, over lands and natural resources in self-serving ways. Canada's aboriginal policies since 1867 have been an artificial creation, both negative and destructive, for aboriginal people and their relationship to the rest of the country. Federal policies have always been driven by other more prominent national agenda items—western settlement, protective tariffs, free trade, and the Constitution. Witness, for example, the failure of the Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accords in the early 1990s. Canada's aboriginal policy, through a long process of denial, has created institutional racism and corresponding resistance movements that culminated in violence and death. The events of the summer of 1990 at Oka have not been erased. The initiative for change in aboriginal history has always come from the First Nations. Government policy has always been characterized by reaction, crisis management, and denial. Encountering policy words with no substance and a benign, passive policy, the First Nations have always chosen to act; they had no choice but to resist these polices if they wished to survive.

David T. McNab and Ute Lischke


Further Reading
Lischke, Ute, and David T. McNab, eds. 2005. Walking a Tightrope: Aboriginal People and Their Representations. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.; McNab, David T. 1999. Circles of Time: Aboriginal Land Rights and Resistance in Ontario. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.; McNab, David T., Bruce W. Hodgins, and Ute Lischke, eds. 2003. Blockades and Resistance: Studies in Actions of Peace and the Temagami Blockades of 1988–89. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
 

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