The following post was written by Sierra Wylie, one of our new UNAC-Vancouver website writers.
Despite what the rest of the world may think, Canada has not been an egalitarian utopia where everyone is treated fairly and without prejudice. The story of the systemic mistreatment of aboriginal populations (particularly in the Americas) is not new, but what many do not realize is that the tides are beginning to change. As the Canadian government is forced to revisit the wrongs committed towards the First Nations peoples, there is a certain degree of devolution and return of power into the hands of those to whom it belongs. Admittedly, it is impossible to erase the mistakes and transgressions of the past, and there will forever be the stain of colonialism in the socio-economic fabric of Canadian society. But it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the brilliant potential for change in the continued perseverance of indigenous peoples today.
Popular media figures such as Ashley Callingbull-Burnham (the newly crowned Mrs. Universe from Canada), and Buffy Sainte-Marie (a popular Canadian singer-songwriter), are using their fame to draw attention to the mistreatment and disregard for indigenous peoples in Canada. Mrs. Burnham was the first aboriginal woman to win a pageant of this nature, and while in the spotlight has become increasingly politically engaged, bringing to awareness to the plight of aboriginal women in Canada. As the concerns of First Nations have too often been ignored, Mrs. Universe’s popular platform may come as a welcome relief to the marginalized, across the country. With this growing awareness, Prime Minister candidates Justin Trudeau, Thomas Mulcair, and Elizabeth May have promised (if elected) to pursue justice for the thousands of missing aboriginal women. While this is a small “Band-Aid” to the grander issue of institutionalized inequality, it marks an important step towards a potentially more understanding and accepting Canada that is willing to recognize the transgressions of the past.
Another important moment in First Nations’ history occurred at the inception of the Canadian territory Nunavut, established in 1999, as an agreement between the Government of Canada and the Inuit. 85% of the population of Nunavut is composed of indigenous peoples, and thus the legislative assembly and all governing parties are formed predominantly of Inuit. After years of self-mobilization, and legal battle by the Inuit, a formal plebiscite was called to determine the creation of Nunavut (meaning “our land”) as a territory.
The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement allowed the Inuit a degree of self-governance in a monumental gesture that assented to the indigenous peoples of the Arctic’s legal entitlement to the land, making the group the world’s largest private land owners. Since the agreement 16 years ago, the Inuit have had an increasingly influential role in determining Arctic sovereignty, which sets an international precedence for the recognition of indigenous rights.
A similar instance of sovereign transition occurred last year in British Columbia. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in June 2014 that “semi-nomadic peoples” have a right to determine what happens on their land. Thus, the Tsilhqot’in Nation in interior BC was granted aboriginal title to more than 1,700 square kilometres of land, which means that any economic development on this land must legally be approved by them. One can only hope that decisions like these set a positive wave in motion, and as First Nations have more of a say in the governments that directly influence their way of life, they are able to proactively shape Canadian policy. In this revolution of indigenous rights, the First Nations of Canada may be able to inspire aboriginal peoples throughout the world to pursue self-governance.