Four Directions: Exploring the history of Aboriginal law
Last Monday, Queen’s Law heard from Dr. Mark Dockstator, the President of the First Nations University of Canada, on the current state of Aboriginal law, how far it has come, and how it is going to become more relevant for all of us within the legal community. The event was co-hosted by the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre.
Dr. Dockstator explored the history of Aboriginal law and its growing development leading up to the current state of affairs. Using a helpful chart, he examined this development from a stage when indigenous peoples were considered “citizens minus” to a stage where they became constitutionally protected, leading up to the current focus on economic development. He placed these developments in the context of a pattern of crisis and victory, where following every seeming crisis in the development of Aboriginal law, there would come a 10-year crusade of advancement.
The current victory for the First Nations peoples of Canada is partially a result of them becoming greater players in the national economic arena. This growing power can be attributed to the increasing recognition of Aboriginal rights that are granting indigenous peoples more control over resources that the greater Canadian society needs to access.
The expression of sovereignty that First Nations peoples have developed, he explained, comes through the economic muscle that they now possess.
There is much to celebrate about the shift in power as First Nations communities gain a greater role in decision-making with regard to economic development.
It makes me wonder, though, how much this new stage of development and recognition is really contributing to the process of reconciliation that we claim to value so dearly.
With the focus on consultation as the current guiding ethos of the Aboriginal legal movement there seems to be a gap in the discourse about what meaningful consultation is—and how it contributes to reconciliation.
Even still, the meaning of “reconciliation” is unclear. In one respect, it is about justifying the past wrongs committed against the indigenous peoples. In another, it is about bringing them into the economic playing field (often through force) because they have control over the resources needed to appease our over-consumptive lifestyles.
It is arguable that forcing corporations to increasingly consult and accommodate Aboriginal interests suggests we now value the First Nations peoples and what their traditions can bring to the table in dealing with Canada’s future.
However, it is also possible to say that we are forcing ourselves to learn the bare minimum necessary to appease their interests in the decision-making process.
It would be naïve to think that the current position of First Nations peoples in Canada is historic. Everything needs to be viewed as a stage in a process of advancement. Although we may have come a long way, we have a lot further to go.
So perhaps this stage of recognizing indigenous people as economic players is a necessary step in the direction of one day recognizing the values that they bring to the advancement of Canada and Canadian values. Perhaps we need to begin recognizing the lands we are residing on when we hold meetings, even if we are merely paying lip service to its significance.
Indeed, as the Chief of Webeque First Nation, Cornelius Wabasse, recently said about development within the Ring of Fire: “The question should not be whether the development is happening fast enough. It should be whether the process is taking place based on a foundation of recognition and respect for Webequie First Nation and the other Indigenous nations who call this land home.”
There is no definite solution or answer to the question of where we stand in the development of First Nations people in Canadian History. However it is clear we have a long way to go. This can be seen through our current understanding of the duty to consult: simply ensuring successful business dealings in order to guarantee that the exploitation of the environment is done in a timely fashion to continue feeding our insatiable gluttonous habits.
As Dr. Dockstator said, Aboriginal law is becoming increasingly relevant in all areas of legal practice and Aboriginal rights are increasingly infused with meaning as jurisprudence develops. Perhaps it is timely to consider the kind of meaning with which we want to infuse these rights. Do we want to stay true to reconciling the historical wrongs that took place in creating this country, or do we want to neatly fit these rights in a place that will not interfere with our secular deity of economic growth?
Sheida Rezapour (2L) is an Opinion Editor for Juris Diction.
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