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Discussion of Treaties provided the central theme for a spiritual and political gathering on Pasqua Reserve in late June.
Highlighting the two concurrent events was unanimous agreement that the existence of Treaty is what makes Canada's Indian people unique. Two days of intensive discussion and debate featured comments from a panel of four distinguished Indian people, with questions fielded from the floor.
Panel members Leroy Littlebear, a professor at the University of Lethbridge, Delia Opekokew, formerly from Saskatchewan and now a practicing lawyer in Toronto, and former leaders Solomon Sanderson and David Ahenakew all agreed the enforcement of Treaty will have to be one of the major goals of Indian people in the days and years to come.
Former FSI Chief Sol Sanderson told those gathered that while Indians have inherited rights and call them Indian rights, those Indians rights are being defined by the white man. Sanderson said Indian people are now being categorized as 'minorities' by some, and as 'ethnic' by others. But he pointed out that minorities cannot have their own government, don't have a culture,and don't have a language. He predicted that within 25 or 30 years all Indian people will be just "Canadians", ethnics in their own country.
Sanderson also said the "Indian Studies" program at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College in Regina is mix-named. He told the gathering that the program actually teaches the Indian Act, calling Canada's Indian policies "Indian Law", when it is really Canada's policies and laws for Indians.
Professor Littlebear defined Indian rights as being the same as those for members of any other state or nation. He said the Indian nations in Canada fulfil all the requirements for constituting such an entity. There are three conditions which must be met. First is permanent population - and Indian Nations have permanent populations. Second is defined territory - and what could be more defined than reserves? The third is the capacity to enter into relations with other states, and the Treaties are proof of that. So, under the Montivideo Convention Indian Nations are exactly that.
Another contentious issue brought forward during the gathering was the Minister of Indian Affairs statement that post-secondary education is not a treaty right. Numerous people disputed that allegation, including an elder lady from Peepeokesis, Dorothy Stonechild. Mrs Stonechild said the cunning of the white man which is often an educational setting beyond grade 12. She maintained this is where you must look for your career, in order to reach any goals you may have set for yourself.
Professor Littlebear argued the Treaty right to education from a different perspective, citing a 1978 case dealing with an Indian student who was being sued by Revenue Canada to pay income tax on her allowance. Littlebear said Deanna Greyeyes argued successfully that under Section 90 of the Indian Act, monies paid to Indians under a Treaty are considered the same as monies earned on an Indian reserve, and not subject to income tax.
So, since 1978, post-secondary education has been recognized as a Treaty right, and the Greyeyes case has never been appealed to a higher court ... and in fact the period for allowing an appeal has long since passed.
All the panel members expressed optimism on the bilateral process which was put into place during the Minister's visit to Beardy's earlier this year. Sol Sanderson says the mechanism is something the Indian people have always believed in, and it can work ... but everyone has to work together. The former Chief said ensuring the agreement is legal and binding is one area Chief Crowe and his executive know has to be addressed.
Dave Ahenakew said the Bilateral Agreement will accomplish two things in short order: it will determine the level of faith of the Department of Indian Affairs; and it will let Indian leadership know early on whether to remain a party to it.
Treaties were referred to by everyone as sacred agreements and as international agreements. That has been successfully argued in courts since 1897. Professor Littlebear said if the Indian people are ever going to resolve the problem with Treaties, and the interpretation of Treaties, then a much more sovereign approach needs to be taken.
Delia Opekokew said Treaties have been interpreted in such a manner that in order for them to have force of law in Canada, they need to be protected by the Constitution, or by stature. Ms.Opekokew also noted Treaty rights have been coloured to some extent - particularly in the areas of hunting and trapping - by court interpretations which take concerns or rights or non-Indians into consideration when dealing with Treaty rights.
Leroy Littlebear summed up the current situation this way:
"For the longest time, we've been kind of lulled to sleep because we were told our treaties were sacred, and for the longest time we thought the government wouldn't violate those treaties. And it's almost like we're waking up too late and that, to a very large extent, our treaties have been chipped away until there's not much left of them.
"The policy of the government has never been to protect Indians. And If I can paraphrase a superintendent of Indian Affairs from the 1920's~ [they were working on amending the Indian Act at one time back In the 1920's]~ and the very words of this superintendent general of Indian Affairs were that these revisions to the Indian Act were meant to assimilate the Indian Into the larger society, and he said:'We will not stop until not one Indian is left.'
And that policy has never changed.
The Elders' spiritual conference on Treaty agreed an education process is essential. All agree the Treaty is sacred, and must be treated as such. One of the elders involved, Senator Bill Standingready, says Treaty should be discussed at least once a year in a formal gathering. And, he says education of both the Indian and non-Indian is essential.
Leaders termed the conference a success, even though attendance was disappointing. Treaty, they say has to become a vital part of everyone's day-to-day life in order for the current processes to be successful.