To: Party leaders and Members of Parliament

"Permanent austerity" prevents Indigenous communities from caring for their lands

In 2014, the government tried to trade an existing child welfare program for a pipeline. The Moricetown First Nation was offered $250,000 and "continued support" for child welfare programs by British Columbia's provincial government in exchange for consent for a pipeline to cross their lands. A pipeline "is not the springboard to opening discussions around child welfare," a representative of the First Nation retorted.1

A woman stuggles against a police officer's grip as tear gas flies during a demonstration in the community of Barriere Lake in 2008.

They're not always so honest about it, but it's an open secret that governments wield desperation as a weapon in negotiations with First Nations.

The situation of Indigenous communities in Canada has been called "permanent austerity." The desperation of poverty is used again and again to coerce Indigenous people to accept mines, oil exploration, and hydroelectric projects that they would likely reject or put strict conditions on under more balanced circumstances.2

Permanent austerity for Indigenous communities has generated profound poverty, shorter lives3 and environmental devastation for Indigenous communities... and huge profits for corporations.

The Harper government has deepened the legacy of permanent austerity and heightened the attack on Indigenous sovereignty. It has continued efforts to terminate constitutionally-protected rights of First Nations.4 It has attempted to force First Nations to disclose the contents of private business dealings.5 Conservatives introduced a series of bills that erode the collective rights of First Nations with regard to housing, drinking water and elections.6 The Omnibus Bill 45 helped spark an Idle No More uprising by changing the protection of thousands of bodies of water without constitutionally-required consultations. Added up, these amount to an escalation of a decades-long attack on the pre-existing sovereignty, nationhood and self-determination of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

Indigenous territories within Canada's borders are home to the country's worst poverty and some of its highest corporate profits. A UN special rapporteur said that "there is a crisis among aboriginal communities in terms of their basic necessities." The poverty rate for Indigenous children is 50%.7 Drinkable water is rare on reserves, and running water is not a given; in 2014, 91 First Nations had boil water advisories.8

At the same time, mining in Canada, most of it on Indigenous lands,9 is worth $43 billion.10 Logging companies, which also operate mainly on Indigenous territories, contributed $4.1 billion to Canada's GDP.11 Canada's oil and gas industry sold $128 billion in exports in 2013.12 Hydroelectricity exports from Manitoba alone totalled $439 million.13

Why this matters:

All Canadians are treaty people.14 That means our life on these territories is governed by ongoing agreements that carry some basic obligations. This country's constitution, the treaties and international law all hold that Indigenous people have rights on their traditional lands.15

There are many different treaties, and in some cases no treaty has been signed. However, the following observation applies in all cases: Canada's governments have stubbornly ignored the rights and sovereignty of – and their obligations to – Indigenous peoples since the country's founding.

Canada's first Prime Minister boasted to colleagues that Indigenous people were kept on the "verge of actual starvation" by the government.16 Confederation granted the natural resources of Indigenous lands to the Provinces, and the power to legislate "Indian lands" to the federal government. The "Indians" themselves were left without access to their lands and dependent on the Feds.

For a century and arguably more, the official policy of the government was to eliminate the existence of Indigenous peoples as distinct nations. Permanent austerity, combined with residential schools and violent repression, were the tools with which they hoped to achieve this aim. Many still advocate for forced assimilation – through only slightly curtailed means.16

In the interim, Indigenous people have put forward many innovative plans for the development of their economies in ways that care for the land, maintain their sovereignty and allow respectful non-Indigenous Canadians to access the land.17 Canada's governments have typically met these initiatives with repressive measures in lieu of enthusiasm.

Stonewalling, riot police, tear gas and military deployments have appeared where the only necessary response was encouragement and support. The message is clear: Indigenous people will not be allowed to question extraction industries' access to their land.18

We all lose. Lands are despoiled for generations to come, Indigenous people continue to suffer, and Canadians do nothing to address what one author, writing in the Globe and Mail, called the "uncomfortable truths that modern Canada is founded upon – ethnic cleansing and genocide."19

In some sense, the first step toward a more respectful arrangement should be easy for Canada. All Canada has to do is stop reacting with violence when Indigenous peoples assert rights that have been recognized by the UN, the Supreme Court, and the Canadian constitution and enforce their sovereignty.

It's easier said than done. The influence of extraction industries has never been greater than it is with the Harper government. Even a first step will require Canadians to take action to reverse their government's enforcement of poverty and theft, and give Indigenous people a fighting chance to defend their lands – for everyone.

(For more about what is needed, take a look at Idle No More's six demands.)

  1. The Wet'suwet'en chiefs returned a 25,000$ cheque to the B.C. provincial government in 2014 which was given to them as a down payment for building the province's Pacific Trail pipeline initiative. The move was called "akin to blackmail" by the NDP MLA for Stikine. Globe and Mail, 2014
  2. In 2013-2014, federal funding was tied to pre-approval of pending federal legislation that was at the time being opposed by several Indigenous communities. Third Party Management, land claims loan bribery, and budget cuts to control political dissent are other tactics that have been used against Indigenous communities. Shiri Pasternak, First Nations Strategic Bulletin, 2014
  3. Life expectancy is nine years less than the Canadian average for Indigenous males, and five years less for females –University of Ottawa, 2009 The "well-being index" for Indigenous communities is 20 points lower than for other Canadians. –Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada
  4. "Termination in this context means the ending of First Nations pre-existing sovereign status through federal coercion of First Nations into Land Claims and Self-Government Final Agreements that convert First Nations into municipalities, their reserves into fee simple lands and extinguishment of their Inherent, Aboriginal and Treaty Rights." –Idle No More, 2013
  5. Under the First Nations Transparency Act, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) demanded financial transparency from Indigenous communities relating to all funds. This included forcing First Nations to disclose information about private business ventures to the public. Rabble, 2014
  6. "Termination… means the ending of First Nations pre-existing sovereign status through federal coercion of First Nations into Land Claims and Self-Government Final Agreements that convert First Nations into municipalities, their reserves into fee simple lands and extinguishment of their Inherent, Aboriginal and Treaty Rights." –Russ Diabo, 2012
  7. CBC, 2013
  8. "The DWAs are a black eye for the Canadian government, pointing to the long standing and systemic failure to provide clean, safe drinking water to indigenous communities. … half of the communities have been under a water advisory for at least over five years." –Council of Canadians, 2014
    "Nearly half of the 133 First Nations in Ontario currently have boil water advisories, and it has been more than ten years since ten First Nations in northwestern Ontario had clean drinking water." –CBC, 2014
  9. The AFN says 36% of First Nations communities are within 50 km of "the primary mines developed in Canada. Natural Resources Canada has estimated that 1200 aboriginal communities are within 200km of a mining project. –Hipwell, W., Mamen, K., Weitzner, V., Whiteman, G. The North-South Institute, 2002
  10. Mining Association of Canada, 2014
  11. In 2013. –Natural Resources Canada, 2014
  12. Natural Resources Canada, 2014-2015
  13. Manitoba Hydro, 2013-2014
  14. "Thanks to treaties, Canadians have the ability to share the land, move freely about, conduct economic activity, govern themselves in the manner they choose, and maintain their cultural and spiritual beliefs without fear of persecution." –Media Co-op, 2013
  15. "Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 provides constitutional protection to the aboriginal and treaty rights of Aboriginal peoples in Canada." –Wikipedia, 2015
  16. "[P]erhaps we will come to understand the uncomfortable truths that modern Canada is founded upon – ethnic cleansing and genocide – and push our leaders and ourselves to make a nation we can be proud to call home." The Globe and Mail, 2013
  17. Dene "Agreement in Principle" (Media Co-op, 2015) and Trilateral Agreement (Barriere Lake Solidarity, 2008)
  18. "Indigenous Relations as Pain Compliance," The Dominion, 2008
  19. The Globe and Mail, 2013

Send a message:

They have lived on and cared for these lands for thousands of years. For most of Canada's vast land mass, they are the only ones offering to form multigenerational institutions to ensure the long-term health of ecosystems that sustain us all.

Indigenous Peoples maintain their pre-existing sovereignty, nationhood and self-determination. Canada must respect and uphold these rights, and allow them to develop economies and relationships to the land without interference.