The Indigenous People’s Movement Bringing Long Overdue Justice to Canada

While the U.S. ponders how best to celebrate Columbus Day, its northern neighbor takes substantive steps toward truly recognizing Native Americans

Photo by Darryl Dyck / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Recently, there’s been a lot of ink spilled on the progressive decision by cities like Seattle, Minneapolis, and Berkeley, California, to replace today’s national Columbus Day celebration with an Indigenous Peoples’ Day commemoration. It’s a swap worth appreciating, not only because it corrects the historical myth of and misplaced reverence for a batshit crazy explorer (not discoverer), but also because it ends essentially the disturbing celebration of the long, grueling genocide of America’s native population. Such official disillusion with the heroic myths of European colonization is a good first step toward engaging with the country’s troubling relationship with indigenous people. But it’s just a drop in the bucket, especially when compared with the sea change in Native American affairs sweeping across our northern neighbor. Through a series of unprecedented gains in sovereignty over ancestral lands in the frozen north, indigenous activists may fundamentally reshape Canada this year.

The Great White North is home to at least 1.3 million Aboriginal or First Nations people, accounting for 3.3 percent of the national population—although some suspect this is a low figure given disputes over who gets to claim heritage as well as historical attempts to get people to opt out of the identity. Under the 1982 Constitution Act, the Canadian state breaks this native population down into Indians, Métis (people of mixed heritage), and Inuits, providing special benefits and concessions only to those who receive official “Indian Status.” But the reality of Canada’s First Nations population is even more complex with more than 630 bands—some of whom live off the land and largely off the grid—53 languages, and constant disputes about how unified these groups should be in their dealings with the Canadian government. But for all the division and distance, the First Nations often work in loose confederation to address their common history of oppression, which is slightly different from but not unrecognizable to the American native experience of land dispossession, forced assimilation, and violent marginalization.

Though Canadian law technically held that Aboriginals still had rights to traditional lands not explicitly purchased by or ceded to the Crown, these rights and borders were fuzzy and often ignored. But after a series of high-profile and successful First Nations resistances to creeping land development in the 1990s, many believed the country might finally turn a corner in its relationship with First Nations. A 1996 report by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples openly acknowledged Canada’s history of paternalistic control and set out hundreds of constructive steps the country could take to repair historical damage. In 1998, the government apologized at long last for its old system of brutal, involuntary assimilationist schools. By 2006, First Nations activists secured promises of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on these schools and support as well as funding for greater sovereignty and desperately needed social services.

But the inauguration of Prime Minister Stephen Harper seemed to turn the tides back. Harper, activists maintain, backed away from the Royal Commission’s recommendations and instead subtly advocated the cessation of lands and assimilation of First Nations people into Canadian identity. Whether sinister or unassuming, his bids at administering welfare and promoting transparency striked many as paternalistic, counterproductive, and reminiscent of pre-modern policies. Meanwhile, Harper’s stance on development both eroded environmental safeguards and encroached onto traditional First Nations lands.

But earlier this year, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a groundbreaking ruling in favor of First Nations sovereignty and land rights. The court ruled that British Columbia had improperly dealt with the Tsilhqot‘in band in disputes over the development of new mining concessions on what the group claimed to be tribal lands. For the first time, the federal government had, in this simple decision, clear standards for adjudicating and awarding traditional land claims and parameters, including the requirement that Canada consult the land’s traditional residents on issues like development.

The ruling came down during a time of heightened activism stemming from the Idle No More movement, a widespread protest on failures to move forward with First Nations relations and rights reforms. The protest movement attracted not only solidarity from rights groups worldwide but also—given its focus on development projects’ environmental degradation—press and support from environmentalists and other activists. The protests picked up some extra steam this spring, when yet another bill announced as a straightforward attempt to funnel extra funding into a more free and self-determined First Nations educational system actually promoted English and French language education, required outside oversight, and skimped on the cash—a boldfaced reversal, but also a motivating disappointment.

With the new Supreme Court ruling, an active nationwide protest movement, and a good deal of political capital and press attention behind them, many tribes have made bold and successful new bids in the latter half of 2014 for sovereignty and self-determination on their ancestral lands. After nearly four decades of flagging and difficult negotiations, the Atikamekw of Quebec claimed 30,000 square miles of land under the Tsilhqot‘in precedent, requiring developers to now consult substantively with their people before pursuing new projects. Likewise, emboldened British Columbian bands like the Gitxsan and Tahltan have physically blockaded rail trade and mining development, claiming their right to deny access to their un-ceded traditional territory until their concerns are satisfied. Similar claims have popped up as far afield as Nova Scotia and Ontario.

The mounting power of these cases appears to be changing Canada fundamentally. Although they insist that First Nations groups resolve their own overlapping land claims first, British Columbia (home to almost 200 bands, who claim most of the state’s land) seems willing to incorporate native voices into substantive decision-making processes. This year, Vancouver went so far as acknowledging that they exist on un-ceded First Nations lands and need new protocols for city business that accommodate Native rights. Not all of Canada will follow Vancouver’s example in the immediate future, but it seems like the die has been cast. Over the next few years, First Nations groups in the country will acquire a level of power—not restitution in and of itself, but a means to justice—and sovereignty unseen since the pre-colonial era. It’s not a guarantee of a better future to come, but it is a far more substantive step than America’s slow, tenuous rebranding of Columbus Day.