Glacial Progress

It’s 2014 and First Nations issues still aren’t getting the attention they need

by Gregory Beatty, Lisa Johnson, Stephen LaRose and Vanda Schmöckel

Come to think of it: thanks to climate change, even glaciers seem to be moving (which for them means shrinking) faster than the progress Canada’s making on First Nations issues.

Missing and murdered aboriginal women? A national travesty. A colonial “my way or the highway” federal government that seems to regard any meaningful consultations with First Nations people as a sign of weakness? Cultural appropriation in the name of defending racist mascots, team names and logos? The beat goes on.

But there are some bright spots. First Nations people are succeeding in business more than ever before, for example. They’re also forcing huge resource companies — and even governments, in some cases — to realize that without sincere consultation, billion-dollar developments ain’t happening.

So, there’s movement — but referring back to my glacier analogy, it’s tough to blame First Nations people if they still feel largely left out in the cold by the rest of Canada. /Chris Kirkland


Getting governments to address thetragic reality of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada has been a long-term (and so far, futile) challenge — and nowhere is it more urgent than in Saskatchewan. Here, native women make up 55 per cent of homicide victims — the highest proportion in Canada. This, according to a May RCMP report that addressed more than 1000 unsolved cases since 1980. The numbers are especially horrifying knowing that aboriginal women make up just 4.3 percent of the Canadian population.

Following the release of the RCMP report, federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay insisted that an inquiry wasn’t necessary, and that the government is taking action.

“We must continue to take concrete action now, not just continue to study the issue,” he said in a statement. “Information-gathering and discussions may help, but police investigations, new tools and techniques, as well as preventative, pre-emptive programming, are what deliver tangible results.”

But why does the government continue to sidestep continued national and international pressure to face the problem, head-on? U.N. special rapporteur James Anaya’s calls for a national inquiry, not to mention the pleas from advocacy groups across the country including Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), have all but been ignored.

“It just comes back to the same thing all the time — institutionalized racism is so intricately connected with other forms of oppression; it connects to gendered violence, class oppression, geography, to what people do for a living. This issue goes to the bottom of the priority list,” says Alex Wilson, associate professor and director of the University of Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal Education Research Centre.

“The government does have a responsibility to try to understand how and why gendered violence happens and to do something about it. It’s not about one racist cop, or one 911 worker — it’s about our institutions, including our education, justice, health care and child justice systems that are contributing to the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women. All of these can also contribute to addressing and preventing as well,” she says.

The idea of ongoing “public inquiries” is gaining ground, however. Take, for example, the internationally touring Walking With Our Sisters, a massive, crowd-sourced commemorative art installation comprised of almost 2000 pairs of moccasin vamps made by hundreds of artists. Visitors are invited to remove their shoes to walk alongside the vamps and think of every life which was cut short.

Because of Walking With Our Sisters, says Wilson, “people who may not have thought about the issue, now are becoming aware and [gaining] a more informed understanding of it. So we need to think outside of the usual inquiry process. Minister [of Status of Women] Kellie Leitch was in Saskatoon and she met with families and people who are activists in this area, and she’s been going across the country — I think that’s a good sign. Of course there is mistrust, but I always remain hopeful.” /LJ


Adding to the ever-growing list of reasons to feel embarrassed by this country is the UN’s recent report on the rights of indigenous peoples, which was released in early May. The report, put together by James Anaya, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, describes Canada’s relationship with First Nations people as “in crisis,” and outlines a variety of ways they are mistreated, isolated, disrespected or otherwise ignored. The list of grievances ranges from wide gaps in socio-economic conditions to access to health care, and unanswered questions around missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Anaya’s other recommendations include that First Nations communities should have the right to veto any plans involving the extraction of natural resources or destruction of traditional territories — such as the $8 million Northern Gateway pipeline project that’s widely expected to be approved in mid-June, despite mass protests and opposition from the communities it will most directly affect.

None of this is likely revelatory to anyone who’s followed news reports in recent years. In 2005, the UN released a report that suggested if Canada were judged on the social and economic status of its First Nations people, it would rank 48th out of 174 countries. (Canada currently sits at seventh.) And last September, Harper’s Conservatives rejected a call by the UN to launch an investigation on missing, murdered, and abused aboriginal women, in spite of the reasons above.

So, Canada’s looking pretty awful when it comes to honouring and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples. It’ll be interesting to see if any attention is paid to the UN report; so little has been paid to First Nations people themselves. /VS


Over the next decade, Canada could see as much as $650 billion in resource projects undertaken — and many will be located on or near First Nations territory. That presents a huge economic opportunity for First Nations, but as seen recently with Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline and other projects, conflicts can arise when government and industry goals don’t mesh with those of First Nations.

“There’s work that needs to be done on both sides,” says Ken Coates, director of the University of Saskatchewan’s International Centre for Northern Governance and Development. “In places where legal and territorial issues have been resolved, everyone knows the rules of the game and can act accordingly. But you also have situations where there’s unresolved issues. Most of B.C., for instance, doesn’t have final treaties.

“There’s also sharp disagreements around the whole meaning of treaty rights. Those issues will take a lot of political and probably legal time to resolve. But there are very few companies in Canada now that don’t understand that they have to work constructively with First Nations. Yes, we still have strife. But we also have some of the best corporate/indigenous partnerships in the world.”

More and more, Coates says, First Nations are taking equity investments in the resource sector.

“That changes the dynamic. Instead of First Nations being passive observers of the resource economy, they’re able to get involved in ownership and management, and get a return on their investment. This creates a foundation that makes entrepreneurship possible and sustainable.”

That entrepreneurship extends beyond resource extraction, too. Just like non-aboriginal entrepreneurs, First Nations business interests include hotels, gas stations, golf courses, convenience stores, hunting and fishing lodges and more.

While government and industry are generally on board with these developments, some Canadians remain resistant to First Nations becoming equal partners in our economy.

“What’s interesting is there was more public support for aboriginal rights when aboriginal people didn’t have much legal recognition of those rights,” says Coates. “But Canadians are coming to terms with the fact these rights matter. Some might say ‘Gee, I wish that wasn’t happening.’ But First Nations aren’t imposing anything on us, they’re basically applying British and Canadian law. And we have no choice but to [accept] it.” /GB


Of the various issues facing Canadian aboriginal society, one might think the names of sports teams or hipsters at music festivals wearing headdresses would be way down the list. But those actions cause harm, says University of Regina professor Shauneen Pete.

“It’s more of a reflection of the ignorance in our society about aboriginal peoples and history,” she says, which probably explains how people who don’t know any better could think that reducing aboriginal peoples to a cartoon stereotype could ever be seen as an honour.

In 2012, the University of North Dakota bowed to pressure from the NCAA and decided to change the name of its sports teams, which had been known as the Fighting Sioux since 1930. Students and alumni who protested the decision said the Fighting Sioux name was chosen to honour the Sioux nation, whose people live on two reserves in the state. But those protesting the decision couldn’t name a famous Sioux leader apart from Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

How about the Washington Redskins, the debate over the name of Saskatoon’s Bedford Road Collegiate’s sports teams (thankfully resolved!), or even the most offensive sports jersey going — the Moose Jaw Warriors’ third jersey, featuring a nearly naked cartoon Indian warrior waving a tomahawk while straddling an ice skate? (They’re going to wear that this season. Seriously.)

Dr. Pete, the former president of First Nations University of Canada, says she begins her Self And Other class (a requirement in the U of R’s Bachelor of Education program) by asking her students how much they currently know about Canadian history and culture. “They’re invariably very bright, they’re mostly the product of the Saskatchewan school system, and they have very, very little knowledge of aboriginal peoples — nothing about the treaties, nothing about the residential schools, or the reserve system.”

Not surprising, since history is usually written by the victors. The end result is that the image of aboriginal peoples we get is the one provided through media and popular culture outlets: movies, TV shows, that sort of thing.

That picture isn’t an accurate one, but it’s the one people carry in their minds, says Pete.

“When I ask my students initially how they picture an aboriginal leader, they say, inevitably, they think of a man wearing something like a war bonnet and carrying a weapon,” she says. (Think of the Chicago Blackhawks’ logo come to life.)

So, when aboriginal people have the opportunity to name their own teams, what do they call them? “That’s a good question,” says Dr. Pete. “I hope that they create those names with more care and respect for their cultures.” /SL


Aboriginal youth are the fastest-growing segment of Canadian society, the economy literally depends on their education and success, and yet their high-school graduation rate on reserve in 2011 was an alarming 36 per cent, compared to the Canadian rate of 78 per cent.

Enter Bill C-33, the First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act — a bill at the centre of a stalemate between Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). The bill promises “adequate, stable, predictable and sustainable” funding, but no new funding will be given to on-reserve education authorities until aboriginal leaders agree to structural changes — changes that critics say put too much administrative authority in the hands of the Minister, the federal government and the provinces.

“It’s a question of jurisdiction and inherent rights,” says Sheelah MacLean, a teacher and organizer of Idle No More who’s currently researching anti-racist and anti-colonial education at the University of Saskatchewan. “There’s this underlying pretext that indigenous peoples can’t create their own education systems.

“This piece of legislation shirks the federal government’s responsibilities for funding, but puts in a framework that gives the provincial government, the federal government and the Minister of Indian Affairs jurisdiction over Indian education. That’s my understanding. This is happening over and over again with Harper — he continues to create legislation that challenges indigenous jurisdiction and inherent rights over their land.”

The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) has insisted on each First Nations’ right to exercise jurisdiction over education, said Vice Chief Bobby Cameron in a news release. “The government needs to work with First Nations to develop the standards and move for the funding to begin immediately. It is essential that we maintain our effort to the Inherent and Treaty Right to Education.”

Adamant opposition to the bill led to the resignation of Shawn Atleo as AFN’s national chief, but there is support for a revised version of Bill C-33 from some Saskatchewan First Nations leaders.

“It’s time that we get Bill C-33 back on track and roll up our sleeves and get to work on developing a regulatory framework together, a framework that Minister Valcourt committed to develop collaboratively,” said Chief Lori Whitecalf of the Sweetgrass First Nation in a press release.

“It’s time to address the chronic underfunding of education on-reserve, and that funding for our education programs should be supported by a statutory authority. Our communities cannot continue with project-based funding and annual increases for education that are substantively less than annual provincial funding to school divisions,” said Meadow Lake Tribal Council Chief Eric Sylvestre.

It’s a massive dilemma and it couldn’t be more urgent, which is why you might see plenty of indignation on social media, some collected under the hashtag #holdtherations — a reference to the historical, colonial strategy of forcing the hand of indigenous nations by withholding vital food rations. MacLean believes the comparison is apt, and points to James Daschuk’s recently published Clearing the Plains, a detailed account of how agents of the colonial government literally starved people to death in order to wrest jurisdiction over land and resources.

“It’s an ongoing policy — using education for particular political means. Their treaty rights to education have always been ignored — this is a way to legitimate that. Some people think this government is really radical, but it’s a logical culmination of what we’ve always had here,” she says. /LJ


Effective July 1, Dr. Mark Dockstator becomes the new president of First Nations University of Canada. Before the appointment, he was a professor of indigenous studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., and chaired the First Nations Statistical Institute at that university.

In addition to a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Waterloo, Dockstator holds a bachelor’s degree in law from York University in Toronto, a master’s in law from the University of Saskatchewan, and a doctorate in law from Osgoode Hall. (He’s the first Canadian aboriginal person to receive a doctorate in law.)

Dockstator takes over from Doyle Anderson, who resigned in April 2013 due to family health issues. Juliano Tupone served as interim president.

A member of the Oneida First Nation of the Thames in southwestern Ontario, Dockstator becomes the 10th president of the educational institution, and its fifth in the last five years.

At the time of Dockstator’s hiring in May, FNUniv board chair David Sharpe said he was by far the most qualified person for the position. /SL


Plenty of challenges remain in improving living conditions for First Nations people. But on the business front, at least, there’s reason for optimism. Recent stats show there are 40,000 First Nations-owned businesses in Canada. And with 30,000 aboriginal students enrolled in university, college or trade school, that number will continue to grow.

Several factors can impact on First Nations business success, says Ken Coates.

“Some communities were much more damaged by historical experiences than others. If you have a community where all the kids went to residential school, and another where none did, they’re starting from very different bases.

“There’s also the question of economic opportunity. Probably 20 per cent of communities are located close to non-aboriginal centres. Squamish First Nation, for instance, has reserves near West and North Vancouver — two of the wealthiest centres in North America. So their opportunities are very different than a community in northern Saskatchewan.”

Leadership is a third piece of the puzzle, Coates says. “If you look at places that are successful — Whitecap near Saskatoon is a good example, Osoyoos in the Okanagan Valley is another — you have leaders with a strong entrepreneurial bent and enormous commitment to their community. Communities that are struggling have often, at this point, not identified that leader.”

“Big L” leadership, whether from a chief or economic development officer, sets the tone. But other community members also need to step forward, and education is key in that regard. In March, for example, the U of S’s Edwards School of Business signed an agreement with Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies to address the historic under-representation of First Nations students at the school. Credits earned at SIIT can now be used to complete an undergraduate degree at ESB.

Government agencies, such as Saskatchewan First Nations Development Network, also exist to promote entrepreneurship, skills development, and partnerships with the public and private sector. Finally, organizations such as Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority have long served as valuable training grounds for employees who go on to pursue career options elsewhere.

A fourth prerequisite for success, says Coates, is access to investment capital. “For a long time, partly because of the Indian Act and an inability to capitalize on the land value of reserves, First Nations simply didn’t have the resources to [start businesses].”

Through Treaty Land Entitlements, land claim settlements and collaboration agreements with industry and government that’s changing. Kawacatoose First Nation near Raymore, for instance, recently became the first band to take control of natural resource royalties under the federal government’s First Nations Oil and Gas and Moneys Management Act.

“You’re seeing an explosion in investment capital directly under the control of First Nations, and that provides a huge benefit, as they can use the capital to invest in their own communities or outside their community,” says Coates.

“Certainly, we don’t want to diminish the challenges of communities that don’t have economic opportunities close to home, or who are suffering from historical and cultural dislocations of the past 150 years. But more and more First Nations have turned the corner.” /GB


Regina hosts one of Canada’s largest sporting events from July 20 to 27, with the seventh edition of the North American Indigenous Games. More than 10,000 aboriginal athletes from across Canada and the U.S. will take part in 15 sports (archery, track and field, baseball, badminton, basketball, canoeing, kayaking, lacrosse, golf, rifle shooting, soccer, softball, swimming, volleyball and wrestling) in facilities throughout the city. Almost all the events are directed at aboriginal youth under the age of 20, as a springboard for future athletic endeavours.

Saskatchewan will be represented by two groups at the games: the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and the Metis Nation of Saskatchewan. The event also boasts two mascots, who will roam the streets of the Queen City and surrounding areas as goodwill ambassadors before and during the event. They are Tatonka Ci’Stina (Dakota for “little buffalo”) and Paskwa-Moostoos (Cree for “buffalo”). Plans for cultural events to coincide with the games had yet to be finalized as of press time, but an opening ceremony will be held at Mosaic Stadium on July 20.

The NAIG has been held every three years since the first one in Edmonton in 1990. Other Canadian cities that have hosted the games include Prince Albert, Victoria, Winnipeg, and Duncan, B.C. The last NAIG, a scaled-down version due to funding constraints, was held in Milwaukee in 2011. /SL