Canada's Original Think Tank

Report (interim) of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, entitled How did we get here? A concise, unvarnished account of the history of the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canada

Report (interim) of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, entitled How did we get here? A concise, unvarnished account of the history of the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canada

Report (interim) of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, entitled How did we get here? A concise, unvarnished account of the history of the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canada

Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck moved the adoption of the report.

She said: Honourable senators, before I begin, I would like to thank the clerk of the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples and the analysts who participated in the study. The clerks were Mark Palmer and, currently, Mireille Aubé. Without their assistance, we wouldn’t be in the good stance we are.

I would also like to thank the Library of Parliament analysts Sara Fryer and Brittany Collier, who are invaluable to the work of our committee.

This was tabled about a week or so ago. It’s a 50-page summary of the history in Canada between the First Nations, Inuit and Metis people within Canada. We are hoping that it will be a great resource to ordinary Canadians and maybe even, in particular, to educators.

To give you a bit of an introduction, in December 2016, the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples began a three-part study to provide recommendations and identify steps that the federal government could take to move towards a new relationship with First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples.

The first phase of the study explored the history of the relationship, which the committee felt was important to undertake in order to understand our history and avoid making the same mistakes and provide the opportunity to lay the foundation for a better future between Indigenous peoples and Canada.

On April 11, I was pleased to table the committee’s interim report entitled “How Did We Get Here? A Concise, Unvarnished Account of the History of the Relationship Between Indigenous Peoples and Canada,” which outlines what the committee heard about the history of the relationship and examines how this complex, intergenerational legacy of past policies continues to affect Indigenous peoples today.

The committee’s report is informed by testimony heard here in Ottawa and community site visits to the Prairies and the Western Arctic. The committee heard from over 50 witnesses, including Indigenous peoples, communities, elders, youth and academics. The committee wishes to sincerely thank all who contributed to this report.

I should also say that the committee thought we could accomplish this task within a relatively short period of time. We soon realized that very few Canadians really understand the history. Very few of us have actually ever been taught the history within our lifetime. We also found that witnesses were eager to share with us their view of the history, so we devoted quite a long time to it. I think that time was well spent.

With regard to the history of the relationship between First Nations, Inuit, Metis and the Crown, while Indigenous communities are diverse, we discovered that there were several common themes throughout the history of that relationship. For instance, from time immemorial, Indigenous peoples lived on the lands, water and ice of their ancestral territories. They have unique histories, laws and cultures flowing from their relationship with their traditional territories.

For over 150 years, Canadian policies and legislation dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their lands and attempted to assimilate Indigenous peoples into Canadian society. As honourable senators know, forced removal of Indigenous children from their parents and making them live away from their communities and attend Indian residential schools was a deliberate and horrendous maneuver to kill the Indian in the child.

In our report, we have a number of quotations from some of our witnesses. I will read one into the record from Elder Fred Kelly on September 27, 2017. He said:

. . . I was held a prisoner from the age of four and a half, at a residential school, incarcerated for no other reason than that I am an Anishinaabe and to kill the Indian in this child.

It:

. . . almost succeeded in taking away my language, in taking away my spirituality, in taking away my culture, in taking away my relationship to the land.

The Crown justified their actions, such as relocating communities and attempting to replace or eliminate traditional cultures, laws, languages and governments, through the myths of Terra nullius, the Doctrine of Discovery and the flawed presumptions of European superiority.

The concept of Terra nullius allowed a discoverer to overlook the presence of Indigenous peoples already living on the land, while the Doctrine of Discovery held that a nation that discovered land had immediate sovereignty and rights of title to it, despite the presence of the Indigenous people.

Of course, Indigenous peoples actively resisted the Crown’s actions by writing petitions, marching for equality, establishing advocacy organizations and battling through the courts to defend their rights. These actions put pressure on Canada to act and led to fundamental changes in federal legislation, policies and programs.

Today, Indigenous communities are countering the effects of colonization by breathing new life into Indigenous laws, finding innovative ways to govern and asserting their inherent rights in the areas of education, governance, health and law-making.

Witnesses emphasized that each Indigenous group has their own unique history and relationship with Canada. To honour these differences, the report outlines a history of three distinct sections, one each for First Nations, Inuit and Metis.

With respect to the history of the relationship between First Nations and the Crown, this history tells a story of a people who were initially independent and self-governing but who became wards of the state within a few hundred years.

While the initial relationships between First Nations and the Crown were cooperative — I think largely because the colonizers needed the help of First Nations — the relationship quickly changed as the Crown sought to obtain access to First Nations’ lands for settlement and development.

The Crown took a contradictory approach. On the one hand, it signed nation-to-nation treaties with First Nations, and on the other hand, it was implementing legislation and policies to assimilate them into Canadian society and dispossess them of their lands.

Through protests and petitions in the courts, First Nations actively fought for the recognition of their rights and protection of their homelands, contributing to changes in federal legislation, policies and programs, such as the incorporation of section 35 of the inherent and existing treaty rights into the Constitution of Canada.

With regard to the history of the relationship between the Metis and the Crown, this is characterized by conflict, dispossession, exclusion and resistance. Initially, the Crown recognized the Metis as a group with collective rights to the land. Over time, however, this approach shifted, as the Crown emphasized individual land rights in an attempt to dismiss Metis claims to their land. The execution of the Metis leader Louis Riel and the process of allocating lands to individuals contributed to the marginalization and exclusion of the Metis, along with a loss of most of their homelands.

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Although they also experienced policies of assimilation such as residential schools, Metis were consistently excluded from any redress. Metis have continued to fight for recognition of their rights through advocacy and the courts, often with considerable success.

The third section deals with the history of the relationship between the Inuit and the Crown. This is a much more recent history.

Inuit have played a pivotal role in early encounters with Europeans by trading and working as guides and interpreters. In comparison to the other Indigenous groups, the relations between the Inuit and the Crown developed more recently. The Crown’s ignorance and neglect of the Inuit shaped the relationship. The Crown applied policies devised in the South to the Inuit without consultation, explanation or even translation. These policies greatly adversely affected Inuit families, cultures, land, languages and well-being.

The Crown consistently acted in its own interests to implement policies of assimilation such as relocations and residential schools. The Inuit actively resisted the Crown’s involvement in their lives and their lands.

Now with respect to the contemporary relationship, today the policies of assimilation and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their land have contributed to a complex intergenerational legacy which continues to affect the lives of Indigenous peoples, families and communities. Today many Indigenous peoples are actively working to rebuild, revitalize and regain control over their own communities. While some have been successful, others are impeded from regaining control over their community by federal legislation and policies. But ultimately the relationship between Indigenous peoples in Canada must change to ensure that Indigenous communities can determine their own future, and I might add without interference from Canada.

To conclude, the committee acknowledges the work of Indigenous peoples in previous commissions, including the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, to make this history known. However, Indigenous elders who testified before the committee reminded us that Indigenous people’s understanding of history is not a common narrative. Most Canadians remain unfamiliar with the history of the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples.

The committee hopes that this report and the accompanying timeline of key events in the history of the relationship contribute to ongoing work to reshape the understanding of Canadian history, including providing space for Indigenous peoples to tell their own stories while offering a starting point for all Canadians to explore the Indigenous history of their communities, their provinces and Canada as a whole.

I would add that we also are in the process of completing a video of some of the key testimony and some of the highlights while we were out in visiting communities. Hopefully that will be out soon.

Thank you very much.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!