June 21, 2014, indigenous peoples day, also known as Aboriginal day. This is a day to celebrate the indigenous peoples of Canada, who we are, our culture, our language, our rights and our contributions to what is now called Canada. Culture is not just about singing and dancing, it is about a way of life.
Indigenous peoples day/Aboriginal Day was set on the day that marks the summer solstice, a powerful day with the turning of the seasons.
On this day, I can’t help but think of the many battles indigenous peoples across this land are fighting. And why are we fighting? We are fighting to preserve what makes us indigenous-our connection to the land and water, our ability to exercise our rights. It is from our lands and resources that we have our culture, our songs, our protocols, our rituals and practices that makes us who we are. It is our responsibility to ensure that we can continue as a peoples within our territories and exercise our rights.
The forests are our cathedrals, our mountains our power places, our waters our purifying and sacred places. It was on the land that our people prepared for whaling and hunting. It is a place where our people fast and take on responsibilities for life. Our lands, waters and other resources are intrinsically connected to our culture, to who we are and to where we gain our strength.
Our regalia comes from the bark and wood of the cedar, our feathers and down are gathered from the mighty eagles, our buttons made from beautiful abalone, our moccasins from the hide of the deer. Our faces painted from red ochre or charcoal gathered from our territories.
We are blessed as various nations and peoples to lands that are rich with fish, game, medicinal plants, foodstuffs, pristine forests and waters. Throughout the years since the non-indigenous peoples arrived on our shores, our lands and resources have been taken from us and stripped bare for the sake of development and so called progress. This cannot continue to happen or all that we have and are will change immensely.
I think of the main threats that are happening here within British Columbia. The biggest threat right now is the pipeline Enbridge just got approved to build that goes through many First Nations territories. The elders have warned that the “black snake” cannot continue across the territories in BC. They know that these pipelines present a threat of oil spills to all areas they go through. Enbridge’s track record has not been a good one for oil spills either in immediate response to a leak and in the clean up. These oils spills will abrogate aboriginal rights and will negatively impact the land, the ecosystems on the land that support medicinal plants and foodstuffs, the habitat of game, and the water that all living things rely. When the pipelines reach the west coast, the bitumen is put on ships that cross the oceans. Again, oil spills in the ocean have the potential to kill the fish and sea resources that are already fragile due to global warming and pollution. The fish and resources are the main diet and livelihoods of the majority of the First Nations in BC. The same types of issues hold true of Kinder Morgan that is just going through the regulatory processes.
On Thursday, June 26th, at 6:45 a.m. PST, the Supreme Court of Canada judgment in the Ts’ilquotin case will be handed down and the court will be deciding on aboriginal title. Earlier cases on aboriginal title such as Calder and Delgamuukw have not ruled definitely on aboriginal title. What is at stake is the territories of First Nations. First Nations have always claimed title to territories. Treaty negotiations are based on territories. Land Use plans are based on territories. Consultation and accommodation with the federal and provincial governments have always been based on the territories of the First Nations. But the BC Court of Appeal said that aboriginal title can only be found in small spots, where a First Nation can prove they had a fishing area, hunting area, gathering area, or trapping area. Like a checkerboard, the indigenous peoples only have title on the red squares and not the black. How ridiculous is that? How could that even been managed? Every treaty negotiated has been based on territories. Every shared decision making model, every joint land use plan, every Strategic Engagement agreements has been based on territories.
Can the Supreme Court of Canada now change the rules against First Nations laws? This would mean that First Nations who have not yet settled treaties would be given a new set of ground rules if treaty negotiations even continued. If the Supreme Court of Canada rules that aboriginal title is only small spots, I believe there would be a huge backlash in BC as there is no other court to go to and the choice then is defending the land. One never knows what the Supreme Court of Canada will rule but Thursday will be a day that rocks this country one way or the other. This is a significant day and a ruling that will affect everyone in British Columbia and Canada.
The culmination of the Enbridge and the Ts’ilquotin within weeks of each is an extremely interesting phenomenum. Will this be a total blow against First Nations or will the decision counter each other? In a few days we will know.
There are so many pieces of legislation that both the federal and provincial governments are passing without doing proper consultation and each piece of legislation chips away at the constitutionally protected rights of indigenous peoples within Canada.
The biggest controversy in the past few months has been the First Nations Control over First Nations Education Act. At the core of this issue is the right to self-government, the right to pass laws and recognize the jurisdiction of First Nations over education. Bill C-33 did not do any of that, only increased the power of the Minister over schools on reserve.
In BC, the Water Sustainability Act was passed with insufficient consultation with First Nations. The aboriginal right to water and the governance related to water management is affected by this act and BC did not do full scale consultation. The government is also working to change the Forestry Act to almost all forest in BC into tree farm licenses. This has a significant effect on First Nations rights and title before settling treaties. It also increases the rate of harvest on the lands and in come cases, a harvest that only exists on paper and not in the forests.
First Nations are constantly battling the federal and provincial governments in courts to protect their rights. The Canada-China FIPPA is being challenged by the Hupacasath First Nation as the increased development of resources that will inevitably happen because of the FIPPA will abrogate and derogate from our rights.
First Nations are fighting governments in the courts, in tribunals, on the streets and on the water to retain what is important to us. We are using social media, blogs, and all forms of communication to get our message out. More and more people are relying on First Nations to stop the big projects that will affect their quality of life and impact the environment they live in. More and more people are contributing to legal challenges of First Nations for court cases that delay and in some cases stop a project from going ahead.
As we stop to celebrate Aboriginal Day 2014, we all need to think seriously about how the actions of the federal and provincial governments and corporations/developers are impacting on our ability to be indigenous. Will there be anything to celebrate in the next ten years, twenty years if our forests, waters, lands, sacred sites have been so debilitated that we can no longer do our preparations for our culture and way of life?
As laws, policies and development erode our rights and the lands and waters upon which they depend, we are losing a large part of ourselves with the loss of the land. I don’t believe that we will ever forget our culture but the foundation of our culture is our relationship to the land and without it our culture will never be the same.
On this day that Aboriginal day, I hope every person in Canada will think seriously about the plight of indigenous peoples struggles to maintain our territorial lands in a way that enables us to always connect to Mother Earth and have many generations to come exercise their rights without having to fight every minute of every day. Not just think but act! Speak out, write letters, support First Nations court cases, join their protests, educate others and much more!
How I wish First Nations energies can be directed at positive actions, strengthening our governments, building our capacities based on our own knowledge and laws, and to truly celebrate our culture as it has been exercised by our ancestors before us. To operate in the positive, not the negative. This is my wish for Aboriginal Day or more aptly Indigenous People Days.