Monday, March 23, 2020

Betrayed Now the Renewal

During the mid- to late-1800s, Canada saw a boom in European immigration. The Dominion Lands Act of 1872 offered free and fertile homesteads for the eager, new settlers. 

Seventy treaties were signed between First Nations and the Canadian Crown between 1701 and 1923. An additional 25 'modern' treaties have been signed since 1975. Collectively, these legally binding documents define the rights of Indigenous peoples and their relationship to the Canadian government, including any land and financial agreements, and rights to self-governance.

"The treaty that we have, and all of the treaties [in Canada] have been broken promises," explains Carl Quinn, 66, of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation.

The sovereignty of the treaties has long been forgotten, and is barely taught in most schools - meaning that many Canadians are unaware of their significance and continued relevance today. But even when they were signed, they were interpreted very differently by the First Nations and the representatives of the Crown.

Many First Nation signatories were told of their contents via an interpreter because they could not read English. But some Indigenous languages and concepts were simply not translatable. There were also verbal agreements that were not included in some of the treaties, but were considered just as binding by the First Nations. 
According to the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples from 1996, European settlers brought new diseases against which First Nations had no defence: " Many Aboriginal people became ill and died from infectious diseases that were foreign to them, such as influenza, polio, measles, smallpox and diphtheria."

Bellies felt constant hunger, and disease was prevalent.

Fearing starvation as a result of the rapidly dwindling number of buffalo and in desperate need of medical help to treat smallpox, which had been introduced by the settlers and which had killed many Cree, in 1876, Saddle Lake entered into Treaty 6 with the Crown.
The signing of treaties between tribes and the Crown was meant to ensure an even split of resources, and in the case of Treaty 6, it meant the distribution of food and medicines to the almost depleted tribes - at least, that was the Cree understanding of the treaties. 

"The way that it [Treaty 6] was written was not what was agreed to," says Carl. "We agreed to the sharing of the land, yes. And we told the Europeans to only take what you need from the land."
The government began to force Indigenous people into reserves.

The eventual boundaries of Saddle Lake reserve 125 were completed in 1902 - drawn up by the federal government of Canada after three years of negotiations with the tribes - and amalgamated Saddle Lake, Whitefish Lake, Waskatenau and Blue Quill First Nations.

The First Peoples were herded onto the reserve's designated tracks of land and stripped of any rights except for those stipulated by the Indian Act of 1876 - a patriarchal policy that has dictated the social, political, economic, spiritual and physical lives of First Nations up until the present day. 

"It [the Indian Act] was designed to oppress, designed to take the rights of the people away," says Carl.
The Health Council of Canada described in its 2005 Health Status of Canada's First Nation, Metis and Inuit Peoples report the effects of a once-nomadic people being constrained within reserves: "As a result of being confined to a limited land base, resources such as food and clothing materials, normally acquired by hunting, trapping and fishing and used for trading/bartering purposes, quickly shrunk. As access to and availability of these resources declined, major lifestyle, livelihood and diet changes occurred that affected the health status and well-being of the Aboriginal people."
Within less than a decade of Treaty 6 being signed, a pass system was introduced, whereby residents of the reserves could only leave them with a permit issued by the local Indian agent responsible for imposing government policy on the reserves. This system would last for 60 years, only ending during World War II.

Friendship and the spirit and intent of the treaties was soon forgotten. It became one side against the other; with riches gained for the newcomers, while the Indigenous people were plunged into poverty and chaos. Sacred ceremonies, cultural practices and traditional teachings such as the sun dance ceremony and the sweat lodge and pipe ceremonies were banned by the federal government.
In 1862, an Indian residential school was opened in Saddle Lake. Others had been established across the country - part of an effort by the Canadian government to forcefully assimilate Indigenous children. Run by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches, among others, the schools were mandated for First Nations children by the Indian Act. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada estimates that 150,000 Inuit, First Nations and Metis children attended Indian residential schools between the 1870s and 1990s. Canada's last residential school closed in 1996. In total, 139 residential schools operated across the country, and abuse was widespread. Children between the ages of four and 16 were ripped from their family homes by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and sent to live among the priests and nuns tasked by the federal government with forcing them to assimilate to the ways of life, languages, cultural practices and religion of the settlers.
During the testimony gathering process for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, many people spoke of the abuse they had endured as children. According to its interim report: "The Commission heard of discipline crossing into abuse: of boys being beaten like men, of girls being whipped for running away. People spoke of children being forced to beat other children, sometimes their own brothers and sisters. The Commission was told of runaways being placed in solitary confinement with bread-and-water diets and shaven heads. People spoke of being sexually abused within days of arriving at residential school. In some cases, they were abused by staff; in others, by older students. Reports of abuse have come from all parts of the country and all types of schools. The students felt they had no one to turn to for help. If they did speak up, often it was impossible to find anyone who would believe them."
And the trauma did not end with the closure of the residential schools. From the 1950s to the 1980s, Indigenous children were taken from their families - in a practice known as the Sixties Scoop - and  by some estimates, more than 20,000 sent to live with non-Indigenous families, sometimes in other countries.
The Indigenous people had been betrayed.

Carl is hopeful. 

"Alberta is one of the most redneck, racist places in the country," he says. "But I have big hope, today …. Europeans are really good at divide and conquer tactics, but everyone is connected. The more we talk about these kinds of things, people will realise we have more in common than what divides us."

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