Magazine article Insight on the News

'First Nations' Seeks Secure Role

Magazine article Insight on the News

'First Nations' Seeks Secure Role

Article excerpt

The lack of self-determination inherent in a century-old system of governance has resulted in a culture of marginalization, poverty and poor health for Canada's First Nations people.

Names rich in American Indian heritage dot the map of Canada, drawing vivid historical comparisons with the English and French towns that fall between them. The name Canada is said to come from the Huron-Iroquois word kanata, for "village," referring to the land around Quebec City.

Although the cultural influence in Canada of the First Nations people, the designation preferred by the native community there, has been significant, Chief Phil Fontaine tells Insight that prior to the European arrival they were self-governing and sovereign, occupying the entire breadth of the land. "We should not be swayed by the romantic view that is expressed through these symbols [geographical names]. The fact is, much of our land has been alienated from us and the resources that represent the wealth of this country are not controlled by First Nations people. So the spirit of the treaties does not prevail," says Fontaine, who heads the Assembly of First Nations, a 30-year-old national organization of 633 tribes and chiefs.

The Canadian Indians were present when the European traders and Catholic missionaries showed up roughly 500 years ago. The fur trade between the Indians and the Europeans created a certain dependency which encouraged balanced relations between the two groups. But the trade eventually led to violent disputes between tribes, especially as resources became scarce.

In 1763, formal political relations were established when the British Crown recognized the land rights of the Indians by instigating a formal treaty process for land exchange, according to Fontaine. "Settlers needed land, and land had to be secured from our people. So there was a formal process of negotiation -- not a real-estate transaction, as many people think -- but a way of ensuring peaceful coexistence and sharing," he says. And although the right to self-government was not part of the negotiations, "we always retained that right for ourselves."

The Canadian government spent about $5.6 billion on programs in 1995-96 for aboriginals. The native population of about 1 million, some of whom live on one of 2,370 reservations, constitutes 3.6 percent of the total population.

Canadian Indian reservations are owned by the natives and run by elected councils which control local matters pertaining to funds and property. …

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