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Wrongs to Rights: Relocating Hearts to Respect

In some ways, the Declaration is a strange document. Many of the rights it articulates are ones the vast majority of Canadians take for granted. The Declaration takes these rights that every Settler assumes and applies them directly to Indigenous peoples. Common sense and courtesy, one would hope? Consider Article 10, which speaks of the right to live on one’s lands and not be removed without consent:

No relocation shall take place without the free, prior, and informed consent of the Indigenous peoples concerned.

Sadly, frustratingly, such basic and obvious rights have not been accorded to untold numbers of Indigenous peoples. I speak as a Sayisi Dene woman, a member of a Nation that had such rights ignored.

My mother grew up in a community that was forcibly relocated two years before she was born. In 1956, the Sayisi Dene at Duck Lake (Northern Manitoba) were relocated by the Government of Canada to the barren shores of Hudson Bay near Churchill because of the government’s flawed understandings of the threats to the caribou population in relation to the Sayisi Dene’s subsistence lifestyle. Many people died and the relocation was, and still is, devastating to our identity, culture, and livelihood. My mother lives with the trauma of that forced relocation. Her family and community had to struggle to survive and to try to rebuild themselves without the benefit of other rights described in the Declaration.

Article 15:2 requires nation-states to ...combat prejudice and eliminate discrimination and to promote tolerance, understanding and good relations among indigenous peoples and all other segments of society.

I can tell you, the state did not promote tolerance or eliminate discrimination towards my family. Today, my family is very tired. We are suffering. Despair took over when our dignity and rights were ignored. We are tired of doing double the work to prove ourselves and seek justice in a society that doesn’t value our contributions. I always wonder how much more my family could have given to me and to the world if their rights were respected from the beginning, if they were valued and loved as God taught us to love.

The legacy of colonialism has touched my family and far too many other Indigenous families in this place called Canada. Our churches need to know these stories as part of the journey of reconciliation. My local church is on this journey. They are planning a Sunday service to hear my aunt talk about her experience of being relocated. This is one way of turning away from the past of paternalism and disrespect towards mutually respectful relationships with Indigenous peoples. We are getting to know each other. The old relationships of condescension and paternalism do not work. Relationships of reciprocity will. The preamble of the Declaration states that “all peoples contribute to the diversity and richness of civilizations and cultures, which constitute the common heritage of humankind.” My Christian Reformed pastor spoke recently in a sermon about the need to let go of universalizing expectations, so that we may be free to love unconditionally in our differences. This is a reflection of the basic Christian principle that all people are gifts created in God’s image. It is also a teaching that creation, in its incredible ecological diversity, impresses on us.

The Christian Reformed Church is learning the history of Indigenous people by studying the Doctrine of Discovery and its impacts on our denomination. The Church cannot be ignorant about the past and its current-day effects anymore. The Christian Reformed Church signed the ecumenical New Covenant with Aboriginal Peoples in 1987 and again in 2007 as a gesture of respect for and celebration of Indigenous rights, distinct identities, and self-determination. Honouring the Declaration and working for its implementation is a chance to live in respectful relationships that uphold the very same rights recognized in that Covenant.

The Declaration is a clear pathway to never again: we must never again allow a forced relocation, never again allow residential schools, and never again allow the patronizing postures that shaped colonial relationships and their ongoing legacy. And of course, the Declaration is also a call to stop those current colonial behaviours and practices that have persisted and show no signs of stopping. I think of the push by federal and provincial governments for various pipeline and dam projects without the grassroots consent of Indigenous nations.

Living implementation of the Declaration can become a pathway for mutual deference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. The Declaration is a gift to Canada and its churches for the journey of reconciliation. The critical thing is to push beyond good feelings to real, on-the-ground-commitment. Consider the words of the Nez Perce leader, Hinmatóowyalahtqit, popularly known as Chief Joseph, who challenged the powers of Washington:

I have heard talk and talk, but nothing is done. Good words do not last long unless they amount to something. Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country, now overrun by white men…. Good words will not give my people good health and stop them from dying. Good words will not get my people a home where they can live in peace and take care of themselves. I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all the good words and broken promises…. You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases…. I have asked some of the great white chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please. They cannot tell me. Let me be a free man – free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself.

Chief Joseph spoke those words in 1879. One hundred and forty years later, we are still asking for recognition of our rights. It is time.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in Wrongs to Rights, a special issue of Intótemak magazine. You can order copies of Wrongs to Rights on the Common Word website.

[Image: Sayisi Dene family in northern Manitoba, circa 1890s; public domain]


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