Nations within Nations within Nations…
When Canada’s Constitution was repatriated back in 1982, Aboriginal leaders worked hard to ensure that the protection of Aboriginal rights became part and parcel of the new rules for Canadian society. Their efforts bore the fruit of the small but powerful sentence of Section 35.1:
“The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.”
It is only now – 26 years later – that we are slowly coming to terms with the true meaning of this simple declaration. Supreme Court decisions are setting precedents, major industry players are negotiating partnerships, and governments are building new relationships out of respect and understanding of these Constitutionally protected rights. But what exactly is it that is being protected?
What do you think of when you hear the term “Aboriginal rights”?
Unfortunately, most Canadians probably haven’t been able to keep up with the changing vocabulary – Indian, Native, First Nations, Aboriginal, Indigenous – to truly understand the first word, much less the second. The Constitution at least provides a definition for Aboriginal peoples in section 35.2: “In this Act, ‘aboriginal peoples of Canada’ includes the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.” But when it comes to defining rights, the Constitution is deafeningly silent.
You can spend a lifetime delving into the complex legal decisions to try to grapple with this question if you wish, but I think the heart of the issue can (and must) be discussed in much simpler terms. What is the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the rest of Canadian society? Do Aboriginal peoples have a right to simply practice their particular customs uninhibited, or do they have a right to survive as a culture living and evolving both within and beside modern Canadian society? Is this purely a conflict over land rights, or is this about reinventing the concepts of sovereignty and governance in a multi-cultural settler society?
The lawyers will continue to make their fortunes quibbling over the minutia of these questions, but the answers will only be found when the average Canadian is equipped to begin a dialogue at a higher level. Now that we all seem to agree that Quebec is a nation within a nation, perhaps the time is ripe to recognize the other nations that are living among us.