1.4 Session on “Aboriginal Rights in Canada: A Case Study of Group and Individual Rights”

Dean Jacobs, John Olthuis

This session will explore the tensions between group rights and individual rights in relation to the history of aboriginal rights in Canada.  John Olthuis, recognized by the Canadian Bar Association as a leading aboriginal rights lawyer in Canada, will reflect on years of experience in dialogue between aboriginal bands and federal and provincial governments in Canada.   Dean Jacobs, from the Walpole Island First Nation, will speak from his experience and hopes for the future of aboriginal communities in Canada.

The panel explored the issues around aboriginal rights in Canada by focusing more or less specifically on the experiences of the First Nations at Walpole Island, an unceded territory in Ontario, where they have lived continuously for over 6,000 years. Dean Jacobs, Consultation Manager at the Walpole Island External Projects Program at Walpole Island opened the panel and situated the current discussions over aboriginal rights by giving participants a historical survey of official policy towards the First Nations, which he categorized under three broad strategies - extermination, civilization, and assimilation. He showed how each of these movements sought to undermine the First Nations’ rights to self-determination. The last strategy was explicitly tabled in a 1969 White Paper and suggested the systematic erasure of Indian identity by doing away with the Indian Act and aboriginal land claims. The policy was successfully opposed by an unprecedented coming together of the First Nations peoples, and eventually resulted in Indian rights being enshrined in the Constitution. Jacob’s message to the conference was that, while this has been a significant victory for the First Nations in principle, it remains in many instances only a paper promise. He pressed home the fact that the First Nations’ fight for self-determination and recognition could not and cannot be done alone – it will need the support of other justice-minded people outside. 

John Olthuis, speaking from his experience as a lawyer fighting for aboriginal rights, emphasized a point that Jacobs had also made, namely, that the struggle for self-determination and aboriginal rights cannot be meaningfully achieved until there is genuine recognition, respect, and protection of First Nations traditions of knowledge, oral history, and their distinctive relationship to their land. The panel particularly focused on how the First Nations have come under great pressure by government policy and the current legal framework to individualize land holdings that were collectively owned and cared for, as the condition for economic growth and prosperity. Responding to questions, both Jacobs and Olthuis highlighted some of the many difficulties and threats to aboriginal rights that have arisen from this pressure, both from government and market forces that want to harvest the potential of Indian land and from others who oppose these development projects on the grounds of their potential impacts on the ecology and environment. It was agreed that while the map cannot be returned to what it was 500 years ago, it is imperative to create a new social space where the First Nations would be able to return to a self-determining existence with regard to their own lands, economies, and governance. Olthuis told the group that honoring this right, irrespective of the potential impacts of developmental decisions the First Nations’ make for themselves, presents the only real way to avoid the paternalism and oppression that has been shown them in the last few hundred years.

Lamenting the fact that churches and religious groups have had a diminished voice in the discourse around aboriginal rights in Canada because of their compromised interests, he told participants that the legal indeterminacy of many treaties and agreements mean that the courts alone will not likely stop harmful government policies unless citizens themselves, through a combination of civil disobedience, court action, and political action, make a strong stand for the true enfranchisement of the First Nations. Perhaps the big idea of the panel was to reinforce the notion that no satisfactory progress in the matter of aboriginal rights can be made without recognizing and respecting the First Nations’ distinctive ways of connecting its people with their lands. As Jacobs summed it up – those first nations who have given up their land have completely lost their identity.

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