Keeping our word

Neil Young sheds light on the importance of treaties, and we should all listen

In recent weeks, Neil Young’s Honour the Treaties tour has brought much attention to the important issue of treaties and First Nations land rights in Canada. Unfortunately, a lack of early education on the history of the conception of the Canadian state, coupled with widespread misinformation on the role of indigenous peoples in Canada’s history, still results in knee-jerk reactions and prejudices from Canadians who find their dominant worldview challenged by any mention of the treaties.

Young, whose short Canadian tour raised money and awareness for Alberta’s Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in support of their ongoing legal battle against oil sands development in their traditional territory, has been met with vociferous criticism from politicians and oil executives alike. He’s been accused of misunderstanding the economic benefits of oil sands development and exaggerating the severity of the resulting environmental degradation.

The vital importance of environmental protection aside, these critics are all missing the crucial point of Young’s message: the federal government has a duty to consult First Nations in any matters that have an impact on their traditional lands and livelihoods, and to act honourably toward them, which stems not just from the treaties but from the constitution. It’s not just about legality; it’s about mutual respect and co-operation. It’s about placing more value on those principles than on any amount of money.

Young’s critics accuse him of ignorance, but Young understands the importance of the treaties better than most Canadians. He hit the nail on the head when, in a recent press conference, he told reporters that, as a child, he was taught to clean up his mess and keep his word, and that those values have not been upheld in regard to the oil sands and First Nations peoples.

It doesn’t take a sophisticated knowledge of the treaties to understand that, in a nutshell, their essence in the present day is about keeping our word to the original inhabitants of this land, and honouring the agreements they made with the British crown to share the land forever, in peace.

It seems like a straightforward idea, but Canadians remain remarkably resistant to it, as exemplified by two recent instances involving a seemingly tongue-in-cheek fashion choice. In late 2013, an Aboriginal high school student was kicked off a city bus in Winnipeg’s North End for wearing a hoodie emblazoned with the slogan, “Got land? Thank an Indian.” In early January, an Aboriginal Grade 8 student in Saskatchewan was told by her school administration to stop wearing a similar hoodie because some of her fellow students found it offensive and “racist,” although the school later recanted.

Never mind the gross misunderstanding of the term “racist” in this context; the deeper issue here is that acknowledging the treaties and the important roles of indigenous peoples in the formation of Canada makes Canadians so uncomfortable that many would rather deny them until they’re blue in the face, or react with extreme defensiveness – but it doesn’t have to be this hard.

Canada’s history of genocide of indigenous peoples, and of not honouring our treaties, is indeed a shameful one, but whenever anyone mentions it, many Canadians react as though they are being singled out for sole responsibility for these injustices, which is simply not the case. But just because we as individual settlers and descendants of settlers haven’t personally massacred anyone or forced anyone off their land doesn’t mean we can shirk responsibility for upholding the treaties and ensuring that First Nations are treated with the respect they are owed.

The treaties apply to all Canadians forever. We all, as inhabitants of this land, benefit from them every day. Without them, this country might look very different. Without them, we might not have our First Nations peoples to fight for our environment.

Simple ignorance and misinformation are other contributing factors in these negative attitudes; the colonialist narrative of the English and French nations coming together to form Canada that has been institutionalized in our educational system is harmful and inaccurate, as it erases the crucial third party in this story – the First Nations peoples, whose importance in Canada’s history cannot be overstated.

With a little humility, a willingness to listen, and a commitment to open-mindedness and respect, we as Canadians can still learn the importance of keeping our word and cleaning up our messes.