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Catherine Murton Stoehr is an instructor in the department of history at Nipissing University.
On Tuesday, Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo presented Governor General David Johnston a silver wampum belt symbolizing the relationship between the British people and the First Nations. He stopped short of saying what we all know to be true, that the chain is almost rusted out.
One of the central reasons for this breakdown is that non-aboriginal Canadians see all money and resources given to First Nations people as charity, while people in Atleo’s world see it as rent. If you’re handing out charity, you get to set conditions like submission to unelected managers. But people paying rent don’t get to interfere in their landlords’ business.
When British officials took over the land and destroyed the hunt in northern Ontario, they promised to immediately rebuild aboriginal communities’ infrastructure and then to support that infrastructure forever. In the same way that a lease remains in effect as long as a person rents a house, the treaties remain in effect as long as non-First Nations people live in Canada. Consistently fulfilling the terms of the treaties is the minimum ethical requirement of living on the land of Canada.
Attawapiskat is covered by Treaty 9. Like all the treaties, the written promises that colonial officials made in exchange for the land were very small. Historians correctly point out that the real treaties were the agreements that colonial representatives and First Nations leaders made orally. Indeed, the written documents cut out many of the oral promises and all of the shared “spirit and intent” of the oral agreements. So when we in 2012 talk about fulfilling the written treaty documents, we are talking about a limited, achievable goal. The more difficult part will be recovering and living up to the spirit and intent of the treaties.
So what did Canadians offer in return for the right to live on First Nations land and to sell the trees, minerals, fish and furs they found there? In Treaty 9, we promised to provide teacher salaries, school buildings and educational equipment. The children of Attawapiskat have been without a safe school building since 1979 when their school was contaminated by a diesel spill that made them ill. In 2000 the community moved the children into temporary buildings. In 2008 the Canadian government refused the request of a delegation of children from Attawapiskat asking for a new school.
For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star: http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/1121480–strengthening-the-chain-between-first-nations-and-non-aboriginal-canadians