Aboriginal Minority Rights

By: Sabrina Negeri

In collaboration with Editors

The best predictor of future behavior is often past behavior. In the past, not only has the Canadian Government idly sat by as horrendous crimes were committed against Aboriginals, many attempts of reconciliation have failed. Aboriginals had been in North America for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived and slowly started taking away their rights through oppressive methods like the Indian Act. Taking land and autonomy away, ceasing of treaties and cultural genocide are all examples of this treatment. Commissions and inquiries into Aboriginal peoples have been done throughout the past but with limited success. Therefore, the promised enforcement of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission will not succeed due to the 1996 Royal Commission, non-legal binding of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and the Federal governments inability to uphold Aboriginal minority rights.

In 1996, the federal government concluded their Royal Commission on Aboriginal peoples. The Royal Commission proposed solutions for a new and better relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian government, including recognition of the right of self-government, settlement of land claims, measures to eliminate inequities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and the creation of Aboriginal justice systems. About 20 years later, not much of that change has been seen. In 2006, a report card was given to the Ottawa government in respect to their proposed changes, which received a failing grade. The report card said despite the commission, First Nations communities continue to face ongoing poverty and an increasing gap in living conditions with other Canadians. Even though recommendations were put forth, the government failed to act upon them. When nothing was done for 20 years following the Royal Commission, it is hard to believe there will be a difference with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

As well as Canada’s failure to act on the recommendations of the Royal Commission, Truth and Reconciliation commissions have been unsuccessful in the past as well. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission admitted it failed to give a full and balanced account of abuses under apartheid. The TRC had produced “a few moving examples” of reconciliation between human rights abusers and their victims, such reconciliation had not found resonance across the country. The summary of the final report, released after years of hearings and testimony from thousands of residential school survivors and many others, made many bold and potentially costly recommendations. The fact of the matter is, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are not bound by law, the government is under no legal obligation to follow through on recommendations. Until this is changed, the government can choose to ignore or stall on recommendations.

The promise of reconciliation, which seemed so imminent back in 2008 when the Prime Minister Harper, on behalf of all Canadians, apologized to survivors of residential schools has long faded. Canada’s past has been filled with the cultural genocide of aboriginals and denial of their rights.  In the case of R v Sparrow, the “Sparrow Test” has been used by many experts as a way of measuring how much Canadian legislation can limit Aboriginal rights. Aboriginals rights to fishing and land have been greatly restricted since the BNA Act by unapologetic governments. As well, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples argued that while section 25 of the charter guarantees the existence of self-government itself, the powers of such Aboriginal governments will be limited to respect the Charter rights of individual Aboriginals. A culture in Canada has formed where Canada can win only if indigenous people lose. This mentality desperately needs to change if Canada is to change its treatment of Aboriginals.

In conclusion, Truth and Reconciliation have two key parts, and though the truth is often expressed and shared, reconciliation is harder to come by. The mere promise of the federal government to enforce the recommendation of the Canadian government means nothing unless action is taken. For Reconciliation to thrive in the coming years, Canada must move from apology to action.