On the weekend of January 31, McGill University held the first conference to discuss the recent Report of the Royal Commission
of Aboriginal Peoples, when i first heard about this conference I was excited at the prospect of hearing the opinions of speakers who were chosen from across Canada. What I expected was that there would be an underlying tone of racism in some of the non-aboriginal speakers, there would be a good representation of aboriginal speakers from the many aboriginal groups across this land, and given the composition of the assembly, that Quebec’s possible succession would be a hot topic of discussion. I was not disappointed.
Ernie Benedict, an Elder from Akwesasne, “spoke all the words that should be spoken” to signify that the council fire had been lit and the meeting of the peoples could now commence. The Co-Chairmen of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples began the conference by speaking of their hopes and ambitions with respect to the implementation of the Report. A hope that the people of Canada would not see it as a large expenditure but rather as an investment in the future that would save the public millions of dollars for years to come. A hope that the recommendations will be embraced by the aboriginal peoples and that we will close ranks to push for its implementation on many fronts.
The first commentator on the Report was none other than our own Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come. Matthew spoke of the Royal Commission Report as a “bold blueprint” for changes that are “imperative to diffuse a social time bomb.” The other members of the opening panel also spoke highly of the content and quality of the Commission’s Report.
Michele Rouleau spoke of the courage that was needed by both the aboriginal and non-aboriginal people to follow through with the recommendations of the Report. She also stated that non-aboriginal society must make a change in its attitude and treatment of aboriginal society, and aboriginal society must halt the growing trend of reverse racism towards non-aboriginals that is growing in communities. Tony Penikett, a representative from the government of Saskatchewan, spoke of the purity of an early aboriginal society and how it lacked the “necessary selfishness for civilization.” He was alluded to a well-reported encounter by a Massachusetts judge and a Cherokee village. Daniel Turp, a professor from the Université de Montreal, who is making a bid for the leadership of the Bloc Quebecois, spoke of the need for a change in leadership in the country as a whole and on how education could only help with issues such as racism. He ended his 15 minutes with a hearty Meegwitch.
The only commentator in the opening ceremonies to strongly oppose the Royal Commission’s Report was Thomas Flannigan, a professor from the University of Calgary. He denounced the possibility of self-government as envisioned by the Commission as being unattainable. First, that the nations would be no larger than townships and would be controlling large amounts of money. The situation would lead to corruption and the loss of individual rights to a ruling majority. It would then result in the bank-ruptcy of the majority of these new aboriginal states and the living standards would go even lower than they are now. Professor Flannigan said that aboriginals are protected by the fact that they are part of a large society. To create smaller government structures would make them vulnerable to violations of their individual rights, he said.
At the end of the speeches and commentaries, the assembled masses were allowed to approach microphones placed throughout the auditorium and ask the panel questions. Or so we thought. A “grandmother of the Earth” from the Prairies told the assembly that Quebec did not have her permission to separate. Other people came to the microphones to ask the panel, and in particular the political participants, what gave them the right to claim sovereignty and yet deny it to the aboriginal peoples. The chair of the opening ceremonies quickly intervened and said that the panel would not accept questions not dealing with the Report. Quebec’s possible secession again would be silenced as though it were not an important issue for the aboriginal peoples. The opening ceremonies started on the highest of notes with interesting and controversial insights from a diverse panel, but the night ended with a non-discussion session.
I attended a panel discussion on Justice Reform, Separate Systems and the Charter of Rights. I was particularly interested in this topic because we had our own Cree commission on justice concerning this topic just last year.
The first speaker was Justice Jean-Charles Coutu, a judge from the Quebec Court system. He talked of how an aboriginal justice system is possible, but that many meetings would have to take place to discuss how the two systems would be integrated. In the discussion period that followed the speeches, Zebedee Nungak of the Makivik Corporation spoke of the problems of allowing the government to design the aboriginal justice systems. He illustrated his point with the example of the ill-fated Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The expedition chose to use English clothing, foods and methods and this resulted in failure.
Zebedee then contrasted it to Perry who adopted Inuit clothing, food and transportation for his race to the Pole and was successful. The two stories served to tell how you cannot import a foreign justice system into aboriginal culture and expect it to work. Zebedee ended by saying that no matter how you dress up the justice system that is recommended, at the end of the day we will still be eating with “Victorian cutlery.”
Daniel Russel, an aboriginal lawyer from Toronto, criticized one of the recommendations made by the Royal Commission concerning the Canadian Constitution.
At issue is the provision that gives the federal government its powers to represent the interests of aboriginal people.
The Commission said aboriginal people should take control of this power themselves. But Russel argued that this will result in us having less power than we already have. The problem is that this power is susceptible to interpretation by the courts that could greatly limit aboriginal powers.
The session was both educational and enlightening as to the shortcomings of the Royal Commission’s recommendations in the areas of constitutional powers and aboriginal justice systems. It made me appreciate the nature of these smaller discussion sessions as they allowed people with common interests the opportunities to openly discuss and contribute ideas.
MATTHEW COON COME
Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come was a guest speaker at the opening ceremonies of the conference. Matthew started off eloquently with the observation that the report deals with the problems that have grown over the 500 years since European contact with aboriginal peoples. It took the Commission five years to complete its examination of the problems, and now he had been given only 15 minutes to comment on all of this. Matthew then launched into a forthright statement, saying it is “unacceptable to continue with the present situation and handling of the aboriginal people.”
Matthew drew the conference’s attention to recent comments of Quebec’s Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Jacques Brassard that Quebec has a fundamental right to separation, but that right does not extend to any village, region or county. Matthew’s response was that it is a double-standard to apply such an argument to Quebec’s secession yet in the same breath withhold it from another distinct society such as the aboriginal people. “Words cannot be claimed by one people and denied for others,” he said.
While on the topic of secession, Matthew wanted to know why the Commission had chosen to ignore this issue in the publication of its final Report to Parliament. The Chiefs of Quebec had met with the Commission to discuss this issue specifically, and yet the Commission ignored the issue of Quebec secession in its final draft. Who was responsible for the suppression of such a vital issue to the aboriginal peoples of Quebec? No answer came at the time of the question or during the discussion period that followed the speeches.
Matthew admonished the Commission for inappropriate comments they had made regarding the James Bay Crees. He told the Commission that the Crees on the west side of James Bay are our brothers, sisters, friends and family. Matthew indicated that a portion of the Report, more specifically a highlighted box on page 42, was made with “mal-intention” and could only serve to cause bad feelings between the two sides of the James Bay.
(The box said, and I quote: “Although the eastern Cree have disputes with Quebec about the full extent of their rights, the western Cree would love to have their problems. The western Cree have only limited access to land and resources and no money for such creative initiatives as the eastern Cree’s Income Security Program for traditional harvesters.”)
Notably, during his 15 minutes (well, it took a bit longer to say what was needed to be said), Matthew drew from the comments of former Chief Justice Dickson of the Supreme Court of Canada that both the federal and provincial governments were guilty of blatant violations of domestic and international human rights obligations.
Matthew Coon Come concluded his speech by saying that he was tired of hearing that aboriginal peoples are a drain on public resources. Matthew told the assembled peoples that we are ready to take on the challenge of self-government as recommended in the Royal Commission’s Report. We are ready to stand on a nation-to-nation basis. The thrust of his speech was clear: aboriginal peoples are ready to reclaim their right to determine their own destiny. It is only right and fitting.