Our home on native land

Why BC’s First Peoples should have the right to directly elect their own MLAs

by Paul H. LeMay

Image: William Shatner Sings O Canada directed by Jacob Medjuck, produced by Paul McNeill. Photo credit: Jordan Ancel 2011, all rights reserved. Link to NFB video.

Remember when William Shatner narrated his own playful version of O Canada, suggesting “Our home and native land” be converted to “Our home on native land”? At the time, he got more than a laugh. He reminded us that Canada was largely built on stolen land.

Despite treaties feebly asserting narratives to the contrary, backed by courts representing the conquering side, as Leonard Cohen might have sung, everybody knows the deals were rotten. They were perpetrated under the guise of a nobly-intentioned British Empire “burdened” by a moral obligation to civilize a largely uncivilized world populated by “primitive peoples.”

Today of course, we know better. We can readily see through the myth-making political spin of yesteryear, and in doing so, we take moral comfort in our more sophisticated political knowledge and think ourselves superior to our forebears. But are we really?

Sure, the Government of Canada sponsored its own version of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but it came nearly 20 years after South Africa’s own commission on apartheid. And yes, Canada signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2016, but it came nine years after it was originally endorsed by the majority of the world’s nations. And yes, Canada commissioned a national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, but only after years of protests and stalling.

So our track record is pretty clear; when it comes to indigenous peoples’ issues, we are still slow to act, especially when it comes to settling land title claims. Though many assembling at large social gatherings in Vancouver will utter phrases such as, “We would like to begin by acknowledging we are gathered on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish Peoples,” such phrases are little more than symbolic acknowledgments of the de facto state of affairs. While the sentiments expressed may be sincere, what has actually changed?

To date, of British Columbia’s 198 or so First Nations, only 16 or 17 treaties have involved the ceding of any land rights. These deal with territories in BC’s northeast, northwest and small portions in the southwest. Vancouver Island alone boasts its own dubious collection of 14 treaties “negotiated” in the 1850s. As for the rest of British Columbia, most of us really do live on native land.

If we are truly sincere in our intent to heal our relationship with this land’s First Peoples, our generation needs to demonstrate greater effort at tangible redress than what has transpired so far. One place where this can occur is within our still representatively-impaired body-politic. When the incoming NDP government enunciates its Speech from the Throne this month, which is widely expected to contain a promise to move swiftly on the topic of electoral reform, it should enfold within it some effort to mend our society’s still damaged relationship with First Nations peoples. Here’s one place they could start.

Owing to the new government’s intent to incorporate some measure of proportional representation by the next election, the BC Legislative Assembly could reserve a number of legislative assembly seats exclusively for Indigenous representatives. Since BC’s Indigenous people comprise 5.4% of BC’s overall population, according to 2011 Stats Canada figures, given the 87 seats in the current legislature, the most reasonable number of seats would be four. Among other things, granting BC’s indigenous peoples such a guaranteed seat allocation would give something they’ve never had: actual voices in the province’s legislature.

But for such a proposal to work, the four aforementioned MLAs would need to be directly elected by BC’s indigenous people in a manner they deemed fit. For example, they could opt to vote using a preferential ballot from a province-wide list of indigenous candidates, and/or the province could be divided into four electoral districts representing four distinct geographical regions, such that each indigenous MLA would represent a single region.

Either way, provincial legislators need to be open to what First Nations themselves prefer, as might be expressed during anticipated electoral reform committee hearings. As such, and as a gesture of good faith, the next legislature should only consider drafting enabling legislation that would give indigenous peoples the latitude to tweak their own representational approach as they deemed fit over time.

Moreover, by giving indigenous peoples some say in the formulation of our laws, we in the non-indigenous majority would be doing something more: We’d tangibly demonstrate a sincere effort to reconcile with First Nations people in a fair and transparent way, an effort that could well serve as a model of what might later follow in the rest of Canada. After experiencing more than a century and half of social injustice, our indigenous brothers and sisters deserve no less.

Paul H. LeMay is a Vancouver-based independent writer specializing in psychology and politics. He once worked as the special assistant to Senator Sheila Finestone and since 2006 has written commentaries for The Hill Times in Ottawa. He also co-authored two books, with a psychiatrist, on the victimization process and the evolution of the human mind-brain system entitled Primal Mind, Primal Games.

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