Home Page Election 2019 News Opinion Foreign Policy Politics Policy Legislation Lobbying Hill Life & People Hill Climbers Heard On The Hill Calendar Archives Classifieds
Hill Times Events Inside Ottawa Directory Hill Times Store Hill Times Careers The Wire Report The Lobby Monitor Parliament Now
Subscribe Free Trial Reuse & Permissions Advertising
Log In

Let’s talk sovereignty: how Canada can help stop lingering colonial attitudes towards Indigenous peoples

By Gar Pardy      

The historical racially based piecemeal approach to change in the relationship with Indigenous peoples needs a big rethink.

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett announces Dec. 14 that Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, right, will be chair of the interim board of directors working to establish a National Council for Reconciliation. Words like reconciliation are being used a lot in national discussions involving Indigenous peoples, writes Gar Pardy, while thornier terms like sovereignty lurk in the background. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
Share a story
The story link will be added automatically.

OTTAWA—The value-laden words of truth, apology, reconciliation, compensation, and nation are all being used repeatedly in the national exchanges involving Indigenous peoples.

Lurking in the background are the larger words of sovereignty, self-determination, self-government, and possibly, independence—words that must be acknowledged if we are to emerge from this period of introspection and fragmentary answers.

In recent years, the courts, more than governments, have led the way in correcting the egregious racial-based errors of Canadian colonialism in the treatment of the Indigenous peoples. As the former Supreme Court chief justice, Beverley McLachlin, modestly stated during her farewell press conference, she was proud to have played a role in the “development of a legal structure into which Indigenous rights can function.”

Unfortunately, as with all court cases, such decisions only faintly illuminate the road ahead. The decisions are piecemeal and only slightly incremental; they do not provide Canadians with a coherent, achievable idea of the future relationship between those who arrived first and those who came much later. This is not a criticism of the courts but rather a reflection of the inadequacy of our political system in dealing with large moral issues.

The 1982 Constitution Act in Section 35 “recognize[s] and affirm[s]” the “existing” Aboriginal and treaty rights in Canada. Apart from the possibility of changes to those rights, the Constitution offers very little to direct how those rights are administered. It does provide that in future discussions on this section, the prime minister will invite representatives of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples to participate.

Inherent in constitutional documents is the continuation and perpetuation of the historical colonial relationship imposed by the most recent arrivals.

Worldwide, the post-war period saw the elimination of colonial relationships. This decolonization—or, more accurately, independence for dominated peoples—is now largely seen in our rear-view mirrors. Diverse peoples of the world, not exclusively in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, eliminated political, economic, and social domination by almost exclusively Western countries.

It’s long forgotten, but this age of independence followed the elimination of slavery as an acceptable moral and economic policy. More than 100 years of concerted effort as well as many wars were needed before the concept of slavery was discarded on the dust pile of history.

However, decolonization for Indigenous peoples, called by some “the Fourth World,” is still ongoing, so their political, cultural, and economic slavery continues.

On Sept. 13, 2007, the countries of the world collectively sought to deal with this continuing colonialism.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was agreed to by 144 countries. Not surprisingly, four countries that were themselves the products of the British colonial system, objected. Canada, along with the United States, Australia, and New Zealand voted against the declaration. At the time, two Canadian cabinet ministers erroneously stated the declaration was “fundamentally incompatible with Canada’s constitutional framework.”

Wisely, a decade later all four countries, with some reluctance, moderated their objections, and haltingly signed on.

Their objections centred on the key issues of self-determination and, possibly, independence that were not voiced in the declaration but were silent witnesses. Of concern as well were principles associated with control of traditional lands and economic decision-making.

Future Canadian actions must be made within the context of this worldwide set of principles for Indigenous peoples. The difficulty or perhaps reluctance in meeting the declaration’s objectives was illustrated in recent weeks when the government sought to dilute, through legislation, the effect of a decision by a Quebec court to remove discrimination against Indigenous women who married a non-Indigenous partner. The Commons voted with the government and it was only through Senate action that a path to equality was included in the final law.

This historical racially based piecemeal approach to change in the relationship with Indigenous peoples needs fundamental reconsideration and reordering. Large national decisions are effectively delayed and deterred because there are no comprehensive mechanisms in which Indigenous peoples are represented and involved in national political and economic debates. Changes to the National Energy Board, or environmental studies, or indeterminate consultations or tweaks to various laws have demonstrated their inability to cope with the continuing legacy of colonialism.

A more dramatic and comprehensive approach is needed, and the genius of our federation provides an answer. The federation was created on the basis of a bilateral political agreement that divided sovereignty in order to moderate and bridge cultural, linguistic, racial, and religious differences.

One hundred fifty years later, we experience the success of that agreement. That historical success provides the confidence to overcome the continuing colonial governance of Indigenous peoples and provides for their effective inclusion within the national life of the country.

There are no large barriers against transforming the current bilateral federalism into a formal trilateral one, with the inclusion of the Indigenous peoples of Canada as a fully sovereign party. Canadian history has already demonstrated the flexibility of our mechanisms of government when large moral and political issues need accommodation. What is missing is the political will to effectively end the lingering colonial attitudes towards Indigenous peoples who are already a sovereign part of the federation.

Gar Pardy is retired from the Canadian foreign service and comments on issues of public policy from Ottawa. In a companion piece tomorrow he’ll discuss more about the Indigenous-federal relationship.

The Hill Times

Explore, analyze, understand
The Federal Response to the Opioid Crisis
This e-book summarizes the work on the opioid crisis that is going on at the federal level: what the House of Commons and the Senate have been listening to and acting on to help stop and mitigate this tragedy.

Get the book
2018 Guide to Lobbyist Gifting Rules
The 2018 Guide to Lobbyist Gifting Rules is the essential resource for your work on federal issues.

Get the book
Rural Broadband: The challenges and potential solutions
A guide to the problems, work done so far, the key players, and what needs to be done to get all Canadians access to broadband.

Get the book

Politics This Morning

Get the latest news from The Hill Times

Politics This Morning

Your email has been added. An email has been sent to your address, please click the link inside of it to confirm your subscription.

Nearly 100 new MPs offer new face of Parliament, including 60 in flipped seats

In many ways the incoming Parliament looks quite similar to its predecessor, with 240 returning MPs, the same number of MPs who are Indigenous or a visible minority, and 10 more women.

Rise of advance voting raising questions about impact on, and of, campaigns: experts

Almost 4.8-million Canadians voted at advance polls this year, according to Elections Canada estimates, a roughly 30.6 per cent increase over 2015, accounting for roughly one-quarter of all ballots cast this election.

Watchdog’s proposed minority Parliament rules an affront to confidence convention, says legal expert

News|By Mike Lapointe
Democracy Watch says Governor General should speak with all party leaders before deciding who can try forming government, but Emmett Macfarlane says the confidence convention is the linchpin of the parliamentary system.

McKenna may be moved to new cabinet role after four years implementing Grits’ climate policies, say politicos

News|By Neil Moss
Catherine McKenna's 'tenure in environment would have prepared her well for any other kind of responsibility the prime minister may assign,' says former environment minister Jean Charest.

‘They went with what they knew’: Politicos react to Election 43

'If anybody should've won a majority, it should've been Trudeau. He didn't, and it's his to wear,' says CBC columnist Neil Macdonald of the Oct. 21 election results.

‘A clear mandate’: Trudeau wins second term, with voters handing Liberals a minority

News|By Beatrice Paez
Though not improbable, his victory was not inevitable. It brings an end to a nail-biting, gruelling 40-day slog that has exposed deepening rifts across the country.

McKenna wins re-election in Ottawa Centre, trumpets voters’ support for climate fight

News|By Neil Moss
'I’m so relieved,' Catherine McKenna said, about continuing with the Liberal climate change plan.

Election 2019 was a ‘campaign of fear,’ say pollsters

'There may well be a message to this to the main parties, that slagging each other will only take you so far,' says Greg Lyle.

Election 2019 campaign one of the most ‘uninspiring, disheartening, and dirtiest’ in 40 years, says Savoie

News|By Abbas Rana
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May says she has never seen an election where mudslinging overwhelmingly dominated the campaign, leaving little or no time for policy discussion.
Your group subscription includes premium access to Politics This Morning briefing.