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Land Claims and Treaties and Bands, Oh My!

Issue: 32 Section: Media Analysis Geography: Canada Topics: media, Indigenous

December 9, 2005

Land Claims and Treaties and Bands, Oh My!

First Ministers' Meeting coverage begins and ends with official story

by Dru Oja Jay

When those with decision making power and access to the media come to a consensus, it is often easy to conclude that their account reflects reality--that, to the extent that one understands the official story, one understands the situation itself. While the usual suspects may not dispute such an account, dissent can usually be found by those willing to look.

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Grassroots Peoples' Coalition protest outside the first ministers meeting. Signs read: "Stop subsidizing corporations with our Indigenous rights"; "Keep your programs, we want our LAND"; and "Cold Lake Alberta: Oil-gas self government, no deals!" photo: GPC

The First Minister's Meeting in November was, according to media coverage, an "historic summit" held in Kelowna, British Columbia where $5 billion in spending was announced to "alleviate poverty" and "improve the quality of life" of Indigenous people in Canada. The plan, it was noted, focuses on housing, health care, education, economic development, and relations between natives and provincial and federal governments.

Reporting typically presented a positive outcome, despite difficulties in reaching agreement. A Globe and Mail report, for example, referred to a "feud" between the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) over whether wording would include natives without government-recognized status.

Criticism of the process was tempered by an overall impression that progress was being made. "The government is doing the honourable thing, but it does have the stink of desperation to it," NDP native affairs critic Pat Martin told the CBC, referring to the imminent fall of Paul Martin's Liberal government.

In a brief foray outside of this narrow range of views offered by the political establishment, the Globe and Mail made mention of some deeper criticisms of the process. The Globe's Bill Curry quoted Arthur Manuel of the Grassroots Peoples Coalition (GPC) as saying that "The minute you recognize our economic and treaty rights, our poverty would disappear immediately." The Globe report also noted that the deal signed in Kelowna made no mention of treaty rights.

While the media failed to provide the minimal context for Manuel's remarks--indeed, the CBC, the National Post, the Canadian Press and others ignored the grassroots perspective completely--the information is readily available for those who look.

"The federal government has co-opted the Assembly of First Nations... as Aboriginal and Treaty rights are traded off for the modern day equivalent of 'trinkets and beads'," Manuel wrote in a GPC communiqué.

In the analysis of Manuel and many others, the federal government and Canadian corporations have made hundreds of billions of dollars on resources and land that, by law, belongs to Indigenous peoples. By one estimate, the value of oil revenues from unceded land in Alberta totals over $70 billion for the last 12 years.

There was, in fact, considerable dissent about the meeting.

One has to search the website of CBC North, however, to learn that "about 200 bands from across Canada" boycotted the meeting. "It's as if the agreements were already prewritten with the AFN in Ottawa," Bill Namagoose of the Cree Grand Council was quoted as saying.

Another layer still obscures understanding of the situation: the band system itself. The band council system was imposed in 1884, with the Indian Advancement Act. Traditional systems of government were outlawed. Typically, traditional government held chiefs as spokespeople rather than decisionmakers, and decisionmaking power rested with the people of the nation. By imposing a system against the will of the affected communities, the federal government transfered control to the Ministry of Indian Affairs.

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photo: GPC

To this day, the Federal government controls band funding, and can withdraw it as it sees fit. A resident of Grassy Narrows, a community in western Ontario, told independent journalist Macdonald Stainsby that "The council and the chief make a good living, and get a very good income. In this very poor community, that's why people join the council. They have no real power, but they are scared to risk their funding."

In a communiqué sent after the meeting, Manuel raises yet another major issue not mentioned in media reports. Since Lester Pearson, the federal government has insisted on calling its funding to band councils "humanitarian assistance", instead of its legal obligation under Canadian law. Manuel writes:

We view programs and services as part payment from the Canadian and provincial governments using and benefiting from our lands. The AFN and [others] have let the Canadian and BC government off-the-hook by unlinking programs and services from Aboriginal and Treaty Rights.

Why aren't these challenges to the most basic assumptions upon which the plan to "lift natives out of poverty" is based reported in the media?

Is it because the claims are outlandish? Probably not. The 1996 Royal Commission report came to essentially the same conclusions outlined above.

According to the Commission,

Aboriginal peoples' right of self-government within Canada is acknowledged and protected by the constitution. It recognizes that Aboriginal rights are older than Canada itself and that their continuity was part of the bargain between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people that made Canada possible.

The remaining explanation is that instead of understanding things as they are, journalists chose the shortcut of understanding things the way the political establishment presents them. Whether journalists were unable to look beyond the official line, were not allowed to, or didn't want to, is a analysis for another day--analysis that requires insider access. That Canada's journalists told a woefully incomplete story, however, is a matter of the public record.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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