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First Nations: a key issue in the 2019 Canadian federal elections

First Nations: a key issue in the 2019 Canadian federal elections

We are dealing for the first time with the issue of the role of native peoples in Canadian society, on which the debate in Canada is always very difficult, and in particular in view of the October federal elections.

Reconciliation with the native peoples does not pass only through the recognition of the abuses, the government excuses, the economic compensation. Nor can it be reduced to a summary of the complex legislative path from colonial heritage to the present. It is perhaps above all the story of a painful cultural change still in progress, but which has already led Canada to be an international model in terms of integration policies.



Nadia Deisori*


A few weeks before the elections in Canada, Conservatives and Liberals, polls say, they are competing neck and neck. The vote is so fluid that one in five Canadians is open to giving preference to three or more of the main political parties. The role of the Green Party will bring surprises, one wonders, as though it will be possible to mobilize the vote of the native peoples, traditionally inactive in federal elections. Meanwhile, any vote taken from the opponent will make a difference, especially on the hot topics of the Canadian political debate. And among these, the question of how to advance the reconciliation process with the native peoples is not lacking. Which policies to activate regarding the rights of the First Nations and their lands will be among the priorities of any future government.


A positive movement of the traditional low turnout of the First Nations could make the difference in favor of the election of a minority government led by the New Democratic Party (NDP). The vote of the Prime Nations is also invoked by the Liberals, aware of the fact that in the Western Provinces the polls give them a total disadvantage on the Conservatives. But the question is thorny for Trudeau's electoral campaign, undermined by the so-called accusations of "false promises" against the natives of the previous electoral race.


Both the Liberal Party and the NDP have promised a national survey on high rates of disappeared and killed native women and girls and have also committed to finance education reforms, to ensure that government decisions respect treaty rights and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples, a 2007 document designed to protect indigenous peoples from discrimination.


The legacy of Canadian colonialism is a topic mostly unknown in Italy, which as Centro Studi Italia Canada we are interested in deepening, certainly because of the importance it is holding in this electoral phase and which it will cover on the political agenda of the unborn government, but also for the ideas that Europe can draw from Canada on the subject of integration policies. It is therefore necessary to understand who the native Canadians are and how their rights have been recognized.


The native peoples of Canada


With "Indigenous peoples" or "aboriginal" reference is made in Canada to peoples originating in North America and their descendants. The Constitution Act, 1982, section 35 recognized three distinct groups of indigenous (aboriginal) populations: natives / Amerindians or improperly Indians (referred to as First Nations or in French Premiéres Nations), Métis, that is, descendants of unions between natives and French Canadians, English and Scottish in the early years of colonization, and the Eskimos / Inuit.


The three native bands reach about 4.9% of the Canadian population. Data from the 2016 census showed that the share of the native population in the total population of Canada is increasing. In 1996, people with native origins accounted for only 3.8% of the total population.


It must be said that, along with demographic factors such as the high fertility rate and the drop in infant mortality, already from the previous 2001 census, there was a greater tendency for people to identify themselves as belonging to native groups.


First Nations, who they are and where they live


The First Nations are the largest band among the 3 band: they represent 58% with over 970 thousand people, according to the aforementioned Census.


The population includes:


  • those who are members of one of the more than 600 First Nations, the basic unit of government of the people according to the Indian Act;

  • those who have the status of "Registred Indian", that is the people included in the register kept by the Canadian Ministry of Indian Affairs, established by the Indian Act, or of "Treaty Indians", that is people who belong to a first signatory nation of a treaty with the Crown;

  • those who do not have such codified status (non-status indians).


The number of people belonging to the First Nations with status registered or descended from a treaty has increased by 30.8% from 2006 to 2016 and constitutes 76.2% of the First Nations.

The remaining 23.8% is non-status Indian, up 75.1% since 2006, reaching 232,375 units in 2016.


44.2% of First Nations with status live within the reserves.


The population is concentrated in the western provinces for more than half: in British Columbia (17.7%), Alberta (14.0%), Manitoba (13.4%) and Saskatchewan (11.7%). A quarter (24.2%) live in Ontario, 9.5% in Québec. An additional 7.5% of the First Nations reside in the Atlantic provinces, while 2.1% live in the territories.

The geographical distribution concentrated largely in the western provinces means that, while the population of the First Nations represents only 2.8% of the total population on a national scale, in Saskatchewan and in Manitoba it represents one tenth of the population, and comes to weigh for a third in the North-West Territories (32.1%).


Source: Statistics Canada, Census of Population, 2016.


Native languages are still widespread among the First Nations, although with less intensity among young people. In 2016, 35.6% of the First Nations elders spoke a native language, compared to 24.5% in the 25-64 age group, 16.5% in the 15-24 age group and 15.8% in the range from 0 to 14 years.

However, it is important to note that the First Nations population is young: children (285.825) exceed four times the number of elderly (62.070). The absolute numbers (45,135) reveal therefore that the children able to speak a native language are twice the number of the elderly (22.125).

The recognition of the rights of the First Nations today is also expressed in the name. Not calling them more "Indian" or "Indian gangs", as happened before the 1980s, they helped to form a collective self-consciousness related to the terrible repressions carried out by Canadians to expropriate Aboriginal territories and to lead these peoples to forced assimilation. Furthermore, First Nations better expresses the extended multiculturality of these peoples. When Europeans arrived in the territories of present-day Canada, among the First Nations there were in fact dozens of different languages, and even today there are over fifty, and not all bands that spoke the same language also shared other cultural elements.



Via Justin Trudeau Facebook Page



The colonial era: the origins of assimilation policies


But aside from the nomenclature, it is more important to point out that, for many and many decades, the people of the First Nations have not had full access to a real substantial and formal protection of their rights in Canada.

It is a complex legislative process, the evolution of which can only be here partial and certainly of further study for the Centro Studi Italia Canada. But it is also the long and painful history of a cultural change, once based on a strongly assimilationist and paternalist approach towards the natives, which was reflected in the common opinion on what rights and what kind of life belonged to these populations. As early as 1840, government investigations had recognized that the policies implemented against them were overly paternalistic. But this did not prevent provisions such as, for example, contained in a law of 1869, which prohibited the sale of alcohol to the aborigines for an ambition to protect the aborigines from themselves.


The "protection" of the First Nations, the improvement of life and the assimilation in European culture were the objectives of these first policies, implemented through different tools: the establishment of a system of government in "bands", a sort of tribal administrative unit, within the reserves, the Christianization of the populations and their transformation into farmers, the education of children in schools and, subsequently, in residential schools.


This process then found a settlement in the controversial Indian Act of 1876 where a whole series of previous colonial laws were collected, starting with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the first attempt to move from a logic of oppression and genocide to a proposed protection in the cohabitation, with a paternalistic role entrusted to the Crown. It was established for the first time that the Crown was the guarantor of a native property right on certain lands, the alienation of which could take place only under certain rules. Certainly it therefore gave birth to that idea of "protection" that so much space has found in the subsequent legislation.


With the transfer of responsibility for "aboriginal affairs" to the Canadian authorities in the middle of the century, the process of genesis of a real legislative protection for native properties has been accelerated, thanks to two specific Statutes with even the first attempts to define of the status of "Indian", which traced the issue to an emanation from above, without the involvement of the populations themselves subject to these definitions and rights.


Chief Turtle of Grassy Narrows First Nation, the NDP candidate for Kenora, with the NDP Leader, Jagmeet Singh.
 Via Facebook Page 
Jagmeet Singh


Mandatory "Enfranchisement"


The further step towards the forced eradication of the status of natives occurred in 1857 with "An Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of Indian Tribes in this Province, and to Amend the Laws Relating to Indians": the colonial authorities encouraged the aborigines to renounce their status to enter the wider colonial society as regular citizens through "enfranchisement", emancipation. Under the law, only the man could emancipate himself, provided he was over 21, was "able to speak, read and write the English or French language promptly and well, and is sufficiently advanced in the elementary branches of education and is of good moral character and free from debts ”.

This gave access to the right to "a piece of land not exceeding 50 acres on the reserved lands or set aside for the use of his tribe" and to "a sum of money equal to the capital of his share of the annuities and of the others annual receipts receivable from or for the use of such tribe ", which were accepted and no claims were definitively given on other lands or" money belonging to or reserved for the use of [their] tribe, and ceased to have a voice in the relevant legal proceedings ”.

The wife and descendants of an emancipated Indian also lost their status and were no longer considered members of the previous tribe, with no choice.


In 1867 with the birth of the Dominion of Canada, the centralization of "aboriginal affairs" became complete. Section 91 (24) of the Constitution gave the federal parliament the legislative authority over the aborigines and their lands, removing it from the provincial legislatures. The "Law on gradual emancipation" of 1869 established instead the system of election in the bands that still exists today.


The Indian Act of 1867


We come to 1876 and the controversial Indian Act. Canada is now an independent nation and needs to consolidate all previous federal Aboriginal laws into a single piece of legislation that regulates, in about a hundred sections, many aspects of the life of the reserves and establishes the governing rules. The centralized administration of Aboriginal affairs is maintained, the forms of self-government, what constitutes a band and what a reserve, the processes of elections, everything is established from above and without the involvement of the populations, as well as the right to decide who is aboriginal and who not. The philosophical framework of colonial laws is largely preserved.

The law has also maintained and expanded the mandatory "enfranchisement" system, with which Aboriginal people lost their Indian status and obtained full citizenship without any manifestation of will, for example when entering a university degree or becoming a doctor, lawyer or a priest, or for a woman, a non-Indian was married.

This law then underwent some changes over the years in an even more profoundly and violently assimilationist sense, also with the aim of expropriating the aboriginal lands more easily: for example, in 1884 traditional dances and ceremonies were forbidden; in 1894 the Ministry of Indian Affairs was given the power to direct industrial or residential schools and made their attendance compulsory, with strict penal sanctions; in 1927 the pursuit of land claims was forbidden.


Residential school group photograph, Regina, Saskatchewan, 1908


The first timid reforms


A process of reforms, albeit mitigated, began only in 1951, with the elimination of some restrictions on the manifestations and rituals proper to the Aboriginal culture and the pursuit of land claims. However, the Indian identity was again established from above, even though the criterion of "blood" disappeared in favor of the paternal line registration system, which severely discriminated against women. The practice of forced emancipation remained, aggravated by the introduction of the double-mother rule: people whose mother and grandmother had both obtained Indian status only through marriage with a man with status, obtained Canadian citizenship and lost Indian status. However, a resolution of the council of a special committee set up for this purpose was required.

One of the most important reforms concerned the application of provincial law to the natives in the absence of the provision contained in the Indian Act, opening the door to the participation of the provincial level in the native legislative process.


In the following decades, even if in small steps, the discriminatory philosophy underlying the Indian Act slowly begins to crumble, under the weight even of the self-governing claims of self-government. A series of amendments followed: the right to vote at the federal level without having to give up their Indian status in 1960; the removal of the provisions that forced the natives to renounce their Indian status in 1961.


Greater sensitivity was finally spreading towards the denied rights of the First Nations, the need to dismantle residential schools, from which emerged cases of terrible abuses, to raise the quality of life and education of the population, and reduce child mortality. In 1963, the anthropologist of the University of British Columbia, Harry B. Hawthorn conducted an investigation on behalf of the Government, which revealed that the native peoples were the most disadvantaged and marginalized population of Canada due to the policies implemented in previous centuries. Based on Hawthorn's recommendations, the federal government launched a national consultation program with First Nations communities across Canada.


Pierre Trudeau's 1969 White Paper


In response to this investigation, the Government of Pierre Trudeau published a White Book, which stated how to deal with the backwardness of the aboriginal peoples. The government's intention was to:


  • abolish the Indian Act entirely;

  • eliminate Indian status;

  • dissolve the Department of Indian Affairs within 5 years;

  • converting the lands into reserves into private property that could be sold to bands or its members;

  • transfer responsibility for Indian affairs from the federal government to the province and integrate the services provided to those provided to all other Canadian citizens;

  • Provide funding for economic development

  • Appoint a commissioner to address outstanding land claims and gradually terminate existing treaties


Relations between Canada and the natives stiffened again in a way that probably has consequences to date. The reaction to this new assimilationist project was a shock among the First Nations communities that organized to reject the White Book with a common goal: "There is nothing more important than our treaties, our lands and the well-being of our future generations".


The conquest of constitutional rights


After all, the history of the current Prime Nations conditions in Canadian society, therefore, begins only with section 35 of the Consitution Act of 1982 which recognized the "existing" rights of the indigenous peoples of Canada, later defined by the Supreme Court.

The recognition of native rights is also based on the existence of ancient normative systems, of the customary type, which have always founded community and institutional life within the communities, first of all the right to ancestral lands and its natural resources .


Furthermore, in 1995, the Government of Canada recognized the inherent right of self-government of indigenous peoples as an existing right within section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.


In response to the changes in Canada's constitutional framework, the Indian Act was amended in 1985 and then again in the following years, and continues to be subject to a progressive disruption of the system considered obsolete.


Among the most famous achievements: the elimination of the mandatory emancipation of women and its consequences on the status of descendants; granting First Nations the right to determine their membership, administering and updating their lists, ie establishing their own rules of membership in the administration of their registration lists.

As a result of this change, today it is possible that there are registered / enrolled Indians (status-Indian). without belonging to a first nation, as well as members of a first nation with status not legally recognized.


A series of agreements, such as the First Nations Land Management Act of 1999, have also allowed First Nations governments to move towards a certain level of self-government without abolishing the Indian Act.


Reconciliation efforts by Justin Trudeau


The reconciliation with the First Nations must necessarily pass through recognition, rights, respect, cooperation and partnership, as stated on the website of the Liberals. The Government of Justin Trudeau has in fact immediately distinguished itself by a push to strengthen relations on these pillars. Public statements and demonstrations in this regard were not lacking. However, the impediments were not lacking either. First of all, the contrasts with the native communities whose territories are involved in the realization of pipeline projects must be reported. The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project was derailed in 2016. The Coastal GasLink corridor is facing grievances about the impact it could have on native communities.

Trudeau is accused of preaching too well, but of staying out of the thorniest issues. And this would not benefit the opinion of Canadian society on the native question.


The real country: an open wound on native issues?


A survey conducted by the Angus Reid Institute for Maclean's highlighted a gap between Trudeau's positions and promises of reconciliation by the Government, which have had much more space on the public agenda since 2015, and some divergent attitudes in civil society on issues concerning native populations.


The 53 percent interviewed said that Canada spends too much time apologizing for residential schools and it is time to move on (compared to 47 percent who believe that the damage done by schools continues and cannot be ignored); more than half of respondents said that indigenous people should not have a special status and that indigenous peoples would be better off integrating more into Canadian society, even if the cost was to lose much of their traditions and culture.


The polarization of opinions in civil society would be the consequence of a debate ignored at a political level for decades and which now finds itself overexposed, also for media reasons, and which will probably find more and more space in the pre-election phase. The Canadian federal government plans to spend 4.5 billion dollars over five years to improve the living conditions of indigenous communities and promote self-determination and self-government. Two out of three respondents say, however, that government funds for native issues are generally ineffective.


The institute found that Canadians are divided into four groups: those who support self-determination of the First Nations; those who feel close to the issue; those who distrust the natives who claim their claims; and the hard line, composed of those who oppose status and special housing.

"Hardline supporters are not racist, but they don't really believe in a separate status," says pollster Reid. "I believe that hardliners believe that the response to the problems of indigenous communities does not come from greater spending, but through better leadership within indigenous communities and greater emphasis on integration".


Certainly the wound in the relationship between natives and Canadians risks reopening if public opinion does not recompose quickly.


*Digital Consultant & Journalist,