Canadians value justice. We think of our country as a place of democracy and evenhandedness. We want our children to be left better off than we ourselves have been in terms not only of financial wealth, but in terms of the wealth that rests in the health of our home lands and waters, and the freedom and security of our way of life. These shared values unite us. Let us work together to make them real.
July 1, 2013 marks Canada’s 146th birthday. Of course in 1867 the Dominion of Canada only included Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the much smaller than present day provinces of Ontario and Quebec. The word “Dominion” in “Dominion of Canada” was inspired by Psalm 72:8 from the King James Bible and intended as a tribute to the Monarchy. Sir John A. Macdonald, who became first Prime Minister of Canada, argued for the name “Kingdom of Canada”, but did not prevail.
Beginning in the 1850’s and through the 1860s there was a movement of primarily English speaking Protestants, many of them Orangemen, to annex Rupert’s Land into Canada. This movement originated in Upper Canada (later Ontario), a region so named because of its proximity to the headwaters of the Saint Lawrence River relative to Lower Canada which appears higher ‘up’ on our usual North-at-the-top oriented maps. Such was the importance of waterways to travel and commerce at the time. Promoters of Canadian expansionist ambitions saw the Red River Settlement as a potential home base from which to spread British values into the West.
After confederation, the Dominion of Canada negotiated with England for the transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada. British Parliament passed the Rupert’s Land Act in July 1868, which set terms including payment of monies and land grants to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). The transfer was to occur on December 1, 1869. Unfortunately no one discussed these dealings with the inhabitants of the land.
In the Red River Settlement, lands that had already been purchased from the HBC by residents were now sold by the HBC to Canada. Canadian surveyors working in the Red River area prior to the transfer came into conflict with the French-speaking Metis Andre Nault, who called upon Louis Riel for assistance. Riel, accompanied by a group of Metis, peaceably but firmly made the trespassing surveyors withdraw from Nault’s hay privilege.
Soon after, the Metis formed a National Committee and made it known that the Canadian government’s proposed Lieutenant Governor of the Settlement, Minister of the Interior William McDougall, a man who referred to the Metis as “semi-savages and serfs of yesterday”, would not be allowed access to the Settlement unless Canada negotiated terms with representatives of the Settlement. This refusal to allow McDougall access was enforced when on November 2, 1869 a Metis party turned back McDougall at the border with the United States.
Unbeknownst to McDougall, the transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada had been postponed following news of the unrest in the Red River Settlement. On December 1, 1869, the original date for the transfer, McDougall forged the Queen’s signature on a proclamation he drew up, crossed the border and proclaimed that the Hudson’s Bay Company was no longer in control of Rupert’s Land
This resulted a situation Prime Minister MacDonald had written to warn McDougall of (a letter McDougall did not receive in time), wherein the HBC’s authority was ended, but Canada’s authority was not established. In this absence of government the residents were in a lawful position to form a government for protection of life and property. This the Metis National Committee did on December 8, 1869.
Metis representatives travelled to Ottawa and, after being briefly jailed, negotiated an agreement that formed the basis of the Manitoba Act. Among the provisions of the Manitoba Act was 1,400,000 acres of land to be set aside for the children of the Metis, in the area where Winnipeg is today. Manitoba (a smaller Manitoba than we know today) joined confederation July 15, 1870.
A couple of months before, a Canadian military expedition had been dispatched to the Settlement. Upon learning that elements within the expedition planned to lynch him, Riel fled to exile in the United States. It is interesting to note that while in exile Riel was three times elected to Canadian Parliament. Out of fear for his life, Riel was never able to take his seat in the House of Commons (and as we know, when the government did get hold of Riel, following his leadership in standing up for Metis rights in Saskatchewan, he was soon hanged). Upon arrival in the Settlement the Canadian expedition engaged in crimes of the worst order against Metis citizens. This, coupled with on-going hostility from Ontarian settlers in following years, contributed to the dispersion of many Metis from Manitoba to point west and south.
The Metis never did receive the 1.4 million acres of land promised by the Manitoba Act, a deliberate act of the Canadian government which continues to vex the country today.
On 8 May 2013, the Manitoba Metis Federation (MMF) won a Supreme Court decision against the government of Canada. The MMF provided documentary evidence that the government of Canada under John A. MacDonald carried out a deliberate plan to deny the Metis their land and to overwhelm the province with settlers more amenable to the government. The Supreme Court agreed with the Metis claims, finding that “The federal Crown failed to implement the land grant provision set out in s. 31 of the Manitoba Act, 1870 in accordance with the honour of the Crown.” and stating that “So long as the constitutional grievance at issue here remains outstanding, the job of reconciliation and constitutional harmony remains unachieved.”
Unfortunately this court decision does not seem to signal a settlement of the issue any time soon. The Harper government responded to the decision by stating that the ruling does not spell out any specific remedy for the Metis.
This small piece of Canada’s history, too briefly told here, exemplifies the conflict, discrimination and disregard for law that lies hidden beneath the polite fabric of Canadian identity. In its dealings and treaties with First Nations and Metis, the government of Canada has failed to act “in accordance with the honour of the Crown” from the formation of the country to the present day.
Recent unilateral removal of protections of rivers and lakes by bills C-38 and C-45 helped spark the Idle No More movement across the country. These omnibus bills, a type of bill once denounced by Stephen Harper as undemocratic and counter to the “conventions and practices of the House”, made changes to the Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act such as; removing protection of fish habitat (as if the fish can just move elsewhere if their habitat is damaged, like humans moving out of a flood zone), reducing protection of fish species to include only those of commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries value, and even changing the name of the Navigable Waters Protection Act to the Protection of Navigation Act. First Nations argue that these and other changes imposed without consultation by these bills infringe on treaty rights and ignore indigenous sovereignty.
The omnibus bills were followed by (among other things) imposition of Bill S-8, the Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act, which has been characterized in an analysis commissioned by the Assembly of First Nations as “An empty and dangerous response to pressing needs”. With this Act the government of Canada overrides the authority of First Nations bands on reserves with respect to drinking water, expressly overriding constitutionally protected rights. S-8 imposes costs and responsibilities on First Nations without addressing capacity to meet them, and once again fails in the Crown’s duty to consult.
All the while, the government touts small and narrowly focused investments, such as the June 18 announcement by Chilliwack-Hope MP Mark Strahl of $10-million for recreational fish conservation measures, as progress. While in that measure we can agree with Strahl that “Local residents know best how to protect and conserve fish habitat”, there are an overabundance of disquieting actions readily found by those who care to examine this country we call Canada.
This Canada Day let us spend some time looking honestly and thoughtfully at the Canada that is, and imaging the Canada we want. Then with that in mind, let us each ask ourselves “What’s my first step?”
The author is a descendant of Red River Metis.