Letter: A history lesson on what it means to be Indigenous in colonial Canada

The future holds promise for the return of stolen lands

To the Expositor:

All they had to do was leave me alone. But, that’s not what happened, and here’s what I have learned as a result. First, Indigenous peoples on Great Turtle Island still hold Indigenous allodial land title to traditional lands. That means that 9,985,000 square kilometres of land and waters from coast to coast to coast in Canada still belong to Indigenous peoples by virtue of Indigenous original and underlying land title.

Second, only treaties, conventions and covenants are internationally legally binding instruments. So, when treaties were made in North America between foreign governments and Indigenous peoples, these are legally binding agreements, according to international law. Indigenous peoples who made treaties with representatives of foreign governments did so as sovereign independent nations.  

The treaties still exist and need to be enforced. The Indigenous peoples who signed the treaties are still sovereign peoples. Indigenous peoples are not “wards of the state” or “domestic dependent nations” or “fourth orders of government” under Canada’s umbrella.

Indigenous peoples who signed the treaties kept in mind that we are still sovereign peoples; that is, that we hold the right to make a living from our lands, waters and resources. We hold the responsibility to care for our lands and waters. We hold the right to make homes on our own homelands.  

So, where does the idea come from that Canada was built on “terra nullius?” Where does the idea come from that Canada was “discovered?” Where does the idea come from that Canada was “settled?” Two dictionary definitions of “settle” are to “take up residence in a new country or place” and to “establish colonies or communities in.” The word “settle” does not describe accurately what actually took place. In 1493 AD, Pope Alexander VI proclaimed a Papal Bull, called “Inter Caetera,” in which he granted permission for Portugal and Spain to enslave, convert and colonize the Americas and to treat Indigenous peoples, as subjects. This meant that European Christian explorers could claim lands and waterways they supposedly “discovered” in the Americas. It meant that European explorers could promote Christian control and rule. 

The premise for this was that Indigenous peoples were regarded as non-human. Indigenous peoples lived in non-Christian city-states and nation-states at the time of “discovery.” Because Indigenous peoples were non-Christian, this gave licence to the Pope and to Europeans to believe that they could usurp and take Indigenous lands, waterways and resources. This is where the Doctrine of Discovery emerged, which has since been debunked. Nevertheless, Indigenous peoples continue to insist that Indigenous homelands were, and are, ours.

We’re not going to be shipping 36 million people back across the oceans anytime soon. But, here are some numbers to think about. The population of Canada was 38,007,134 as of April 21, 2021. The aboriginal population as of 2016, the latest date for which population statistics could be found, was 1,673,785. Indigenous peoples make up 4.4 percent of the overall population in Canada. Indigenous peoples are the fastest growing population in Canada which grew by 42.5 percent between 2006 and 2016. Indigenous peoples are the youngest population in Canada with 44 percent under age 25 in 2016. This is compared to 28 percent of the non-Indigenous population in the same period. The Indigenous population is projected to remain younger than the non-Indigenous population because of higher fertility and higher mortality rates.

To complicate matters, there were 1,008,955 registered Indians in Canada as of 2019. What’s the difference? A registered Indian is a person who is entitled to be registered according to the Indian Act, federal legislation which defines who an “Indian” is. So, there are 703,223 Indigenous peoples who are not registered Indians. In other words, 42 percent of Indigenous peoples do not identify as “registered Indians” under the Indian Act. What does that mean? It means that 42 percent of Indigenous peoples identify as Indigenous peoples without having a foreign government recognize them as “Indians.” Woo hoo! 

So, what is likely to happen? By 2036, it is projected that there will be 2.0 to 2.6 million Indigenous peoples in Canada. Between 4.6 to 6.1 percent of the people in Canada will report aboriginal identity. The median age of the aboriginal population will be 34.7 to 36.6 years old by 2036. The non-aboriginal population during the same period will be 40.5 to 44.5 years old.  

The Anishinaabe word for “reserve” is shkonganing, ‘that which is left-over.’ According to an OECD publication in 2020, Indigenous peoples hold around 626,000 square kilometres of the land mass in Canada, or 6.3 percent of the total. However, most of it is north of the 60th parallel. In southern Canada, 95 percent of Indigenous peoples hold a mere 37,000 square kilometres of land, or 0.37 percent of Canada’s land mass.

What happens when your bike is stolen? You phone the police and report it stolen. Hopefully, it turns up somewhere and is returned to you. What happens when your lands are stolen? You wait. Nothing happens. Maybe time to take them back. 

Mii sa iw. 

Marie McGregor-Pitawanakwat

Whitefish River First Nation