[Saskatchewan’s Premier] Wall can use history lesson – Saskatoon StarPhoenix (October 7, 2013)


Today marks the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation.

Except for a symposium taking place at the soon-to-berenamed Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, this landmark anniversary has received very little attention from a federal government that spent millions celebrating the War of 1812.

While that war provided Canada with a sense of identity, no other single event did more for the creation of both Canada and the United States and delineated their respective histories than did King George III’s proclamation on how Britain would deal with the indigenous people of its new empire.

As former Supreme Court justice Emmett Hall observed in a ruling, the proclamation’s force as a statute stands with that of the Magna Carta as being foundational to British law throughout the empire.

To be sure, as Ken Coates of the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan wrote recently, Canada’s commitment to the treaties it signed has often faltered in implementation, but governments and courts lately have moved grudgingly toward ensuring the nation’s formal obligations are met.

As was the case in the 19th century, the treaty recognition is being driven more by economic necessity than a sense of obligation. First Nations people had to resort to the courts to have their rights recognized in the Constitution, and to secure everything from treaty entitlements to compensation for broken promises to acknowledgment of the harm caused by such policies as residential schools.

While the courts accept the legality of the Royal Proclamation, Canada’s dominant society has difficulty accepting the cultural, social and economic imperatives that come with acceptance and co-operation. Where this has happened, however, both sides benefit enormously.

One need only compare the lives of the James Bay Cree on the Ontario and Quebec sides of the bay. Quebec began negotiating self-governance and revenue sharing in the 1970s and last year signed the Eeyou Istchee James Bay regional government deal that opened its vast northern territory for development.

The self-governing Quebec Cree included in the agreement live relatively middle-class lives. Across the water, the communities of Attawapiskat and Kashechewan are in constant crisis and have become an international black mark on Canada. Achieving what Quebec did on its side of the bay requires not just strong leadership from aboriginal and provincial governments, but a broad-based understanding of the importance to all concerned of sharing revenues, honouring traditions, respecting the spirit of treaties and recognizing rights.

That can’t be achieved when the governing party is running cynical political ads that warn of its political opponents wanting to share resource revenues with First Nations, as is the case in Saskatchewan.

Premier Brad Wall has much to be proud of when it comes to First Nation relations, not the least of which was accepting the treaty commissioner’s recommendations to teach the treaties in Saskatchewan schools.

Perhaps he should sit in on a class. And then he should speak up to distance his government from this hateful ad campaign. Today would be a good day to do it, in honour of Canada’s history.

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