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The Constitution And First Nations

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      FEBRUARY/MARCH 1992      v21 n01 p01  
1763, 1867, 1869, 1876, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1990, and 1992. Not just dates pulled out of a hat, but dates in the history of this country where First Nations and the federal government have gone head to head regarding relations, albeit often one-sided, between the two nations.

In the past two decades, historical relations between the two nations have fast-forwarded and escalated to such heights that expectations have been dashed in the face of often failed discussions at negotiating tables and consultative processes.

A stockpiling of these broken spirits has had a regenerative effect that has been exemplified in the renewed determination that First Nations have brought forward at the recent constitutional tables.

Constitutional reform has become a part of our daily lives. Articles on the Constitution appear in mainstream newspapers daily, and it invades our televisions nightly.

Why is the Constitution so important, and in particular, why is it so important to Indian people?

AFN Chief Ovide Mercredi
AFN Chief Ovide Mercredi
FSIN Chief Roland Crowe
FSIN Chief Roland Crowe

The federal Special Joint Committee on a Renewed Canada, or the Unity Committee, held meetings across the country throughout the month of February to discuss the federal governments constitutional proposals and to address the needs of this country's citizens. The Beaudoin-Dobbie team met with 'special interest' groups, and saw the participation of thousands of concerned citizens.

While these consultations were being held across Canada, First Nations citizens were holding similar hearings as part of a parallel process to the federal constitutional hearings. Created by the Assembly of First Nations, at an annual assembly of Chiefs, the purpose of these meetings was to hear from Chiefs, off-reserve Indians, women, elders, and youth about their concerns for the future and what they believed was the relationship between the Constitution, treaties and self-government.

The constitutional report of the Dobbie-Beaudoin commission was released March 1, and it was recognized that First Nations have an inherent right to self-government. Although, according to Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Chief Ovide Mercredi, "First Nations do have several problems with the report. The full application of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms may preclude the full exercise of our return to self-government." Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) Chief Roland Crowe believes "the Charter of Rights overrides what we consider to be our jurisdiction."

Problems were also indicated with the transfer of powers from the federal government to the provinces. It was felt that such devolution of powers will change the direction of negotiations from bilateral to tripartite, and interests such as forestry or mining could become jurisdictional nightmares.

First Nations will once again have the opportunity to address their constitutional concerns at a weekend conference (March 14 and 15) where they will be presenting their responses to the Dobbie-Beaudoin recommendations.

At no time in history have the issues of First Nations been more on the minds of this country's citizens. An Angus-Reid (Southam News) survey recently indicated that there has been an increased understanding and sympathetic support of self-government, but understanding hasn't translated into acceptance. The poll showed that support is weakest in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. What does this tell you? Are opinions based on racism, lack of information or uneducated views? According to Chief Crowe, "the decision makers are making informed decisions, though, we need to continue to accurately inform people and then the trend will move from an inaccurate, uninformed point of view to an informed one.