Canadians are watching protests on American streets that stem in part from their history of slavery. That original sin dogs America and tears at its soul.
But Canada, too, has an original sin. And that’s our history with Indigenous people. It’s not that Canada treated Indigenous people poorly. (It did treat them poorly but that’s not the crux of the matter.) Canada’s sin was treating Indigenous people differently than every other citizen.
When Canada came into being, the Indigenous were generally poor, scattered and disorganized. On the plains, in particular, they were in a terrible state. The bison that had nourished them for thousands of years were disappearing, diseases such as tuberculosis were taking a frightful toll and many tribes were on the verge of extinction.
At the same time, the new country had to be bound together and peopled. A railway was built, settlers imported and the Indigenous confined to reserves, with meagre food. The dependent reserve became a fact of life, and legislation henceforth treated the Indigenous like children and as a special class in law.
That was Canada’s original sin. It has led to the lobster wars playing out on the East Coast, the ongoing Mohawk Caledonia land dispute, the Wet’suwet’en blockades last winter, and every other fraught controversy that pits Indigenous people against everyone else.
There’s no end in sight to any of these battles. All indications are that things will only get worse.
The concept of the “Indian Reserve” was wrong from the start. No amount of money has changed the fact that separating one racial group of people from the rest of the nation and expecting a good result was madness then and is madness now.
To date, all solutions proposed to remedy this untenable situation have involved legislating and paying for even more separateness. To date, all these attempts have failed.
The time has come to consider the other option: ending the separateness once and for all. Indigenous people should never have been placed on reserves and singled out for special treatment in law. From the beginning, all Canadians should have been treated equally. The Indigenous should have been granted land as individuals.
To scrap the Indian Act, buy out all existing treaty rights and settle all outstanding land claims is a monumental task.
But not doing so will be the undoing of this country.
We get a glimpse of that with the lobster wars now playing out in the Maritimes. Who is right, the Indigenous or the white fishers?
Under our present system, the answer is that both groups are right. This can’t hold. A temporary patch job will only provide a short truce. Meanwhile, other Indigenous battles will flare up in other parts of the country.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried and failed to find a solution that would keep the Indigenous separate. Fifty years earlier, his father Pierre Elliott Trudeau tried and failed to find a solution that would end separateness.
Although he failed, the father was right. We should find a fair solution that finally abolishes the Indian Act, the reserve system, and all legal differences between Indigenous and other Canadians.
Yes, constitutional discussions involving all Canadians – and a lot of money – will be required.
It’s time to comes to terms with Canada’s original sin.
Brian Giesbrecht, retired judge, is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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