On the Tyranny and Tragedy of Government Ownership in Canada

A guest post by Josef Kuhn, Naturalist-Ecologist-Elder

(Thanks to Josef for submitting this blog, in the context of the current federal environmental review panel hearings into the fate of Teztan Biny/Fish Lake and the New Prosperity gold-copper mine proposal.)

One of the principle areas of disrespect, distortion and dishonesty that I encountered when working as a Treaty Policy Analyst in the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in Ottawa two decades ago was the concept of government ownership. INAC, backed up by the Department of Justice, took the position in its dealings with First Nations that when treaties were made between the Crown and First Nations the latter surrendered their ownership of the lands and waters of the treaty area, their traditional territories, to the Crown. Provincial governments evolved following the treaties as the level of Crown governance that would hold the land ownership ‘title’ on behalf of the Crown and the ‘public’ this British-Canadian institution purports to serve.

The First Nations’ signers of the treaties had no concept of land ‘ownership’ in their respective cultures and therefore were unaware that this issue was being negotiated in what they thought was a ‘peace and friendship’ treaty between two peoples. Recognizing that land and natural resource use was at issue, the First Nations’ representatives were led to believe that they were agreeing to share these gifts from the Creator that were very precious to them. The concept of surrendering ownership to a ‘higher’ level of government was not something they were aware of.

‘The Land’ was, and still is, sacred to the First Nations people of Canada and indigenous tribal peoples around the world. Family and community possession of small areas for dwelling and related needs were recognized in tribal cultures. Priority hunting, fishing and gathering rights at family, clan and community levels were also recognized and defended, but they were not something to be bought and sold. Treaties and other instruments of tyranny exercised by big governments over local communities are reprehensible and their negative impacts on our first peoples have gone on far too long.

That the indigenous peoples, which we have recognized in Canada as First Nations, have lost many human rights, and power struggles with newer, larger national governments and their provincial and municipal subdivisions is a fact of history. However, might does not make right and colonial ‘Crown’ governments taking away the rights of indigenous peoples because they are more powerful violates long held principles of human rights and justice.

Beyond the issues of ownership and justice is the issue of what works in wise decision making in land and natural resource stewardship and governance. There is strong evidence that indigenous peoples, and other local ‘natives’ in regional or sub-regional eco-systems, have traditionally carried out a sustainable, stewardship relationship with their lands and waters that resulted in a respectful, healthy co-existence between the people, Nature and the Creator. Much of the most valuable information required for good stewardship is held by these peoples as TEK, traditional ecological knowledge, which has been passed down through countless generations.

Jane Goodall has been teaching people around the world that if we are to achieve conservation biology for threatened species anywhere, there must be involvement and benefit for people at the local level. In Africa and many places around the world, very poor people live in areas with natural resources that are very highly valued. It is essential, Dr. Goodall argues from experience, that economic benefits accrue to these people as part of both conservation and development initiatives.

If local people can play a significant role in co-management of the lands and resources where they live, there is strong evidence that there will be less damage to our life support systems at all scales. It is exploitive outside interests, supported by big governments, together in many instances with local poaching, pollution and other adverse impacts resulting from poverty, that are doing tremendous damage to local eco-systems, with cumulative effects at regional, continental and global scales.

It is critical to the well-being of our children and grandchildren that long term eco-system health, ecological and economic, be in place at the local level if it is to be achieved for all people. This is ecosystem stewardship, a step up from the well intentioned natural resource conservation ideas of the twentieth century.

As an elder who worked at all levels of government, I am very aware, and greatly concerned, that a steadily increasing proportion of our human populations are living in urban areas. Their awareness and interest in eco-systems, at any scale, has in recent decades moved away from Nature and ecological health. There is a growing disconnect between people and the land and natural resources they depend on for their well-being.

Short term economic growth and financial well-being increasingly dominates the thinking of urban people, and politicians encourage and utilize this in their ongoing political competitions. Competition is a basic fact of ecological and economic life and we can all live with that. However, if it leads to decision making that is not healthy, at any scale, it must be controlled. Cooperation, compassion, ethics and other aspects of human nature must play a role if we are to achieve true well-being.

The growing awareness of climate change, local and large scale pollution and unsustainable population growth will hopefully wake up apathetic people to the need for re-ordering and revitalizing our planning and decision-making processes. More emphasis on local participation in impact assessment is essential if this is to be achieved. We must demand that big governments respect the needs of indigenous and other local people, especially their need for well-being.

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