Treaties promote inequality

By Brian Low

Do natives deserve special rights?

That question was highlighted by the recent Supreme Court decision upholding a 1760 Mi’kmaq treaty with the British Crown. Actually the conflict and chaos that ensued highlighted it more than anything the Supreme Court could ever do. So who’s right? Who has the better case? The aboriginals exercising long-denied treaty rights or non-natives that turn into second-class fishermen thereby? It may be impossible to ignore the treaties, but such treaties are an injustice that not even natives should deign to sanction by taking advantage of them.

Aboriginal treaties bring about different laws for different races. Why is it that one fisherman can catch lobster out of season and another can’t? Because his skin color heritage. No matter what the treaties’ intent, the effect has set up a distinction between people on the basis of race. And that has never been right.

Racial distinctions are what the 19th century abolitionists fought against. They are what Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters protested. Racial distinctions are what anathematized South Africa. They are unjust. They are wrong.

There are surely those who will point out that the racial distinctions just referred to resulted in the privileged party retaining an unjust position of privilege. For natives, this is clearly not the case. So much the worse! In addition to perpetrating a racial injustice, treaties have resulted in many of the problems seen within contemporary native society. Far from empowering and ennobling natives, treaty rights have resulted in a disproportionately frequent incidence of poverty, alcoholism and familial dislocation. So in addition to perpetrating an injustice, the relations set up by treaties have hurt the very party they intended to help. Great. Where do I sign up?

Perhaps it could be said that we owe natives. After all, they really did get the short end of the historical stick. This is definitely true, but join the club. Ask the Chinese coolies about a rough history in Canada or the Japanese that were interred during the Second World War. Injustices like these are crimes against both reason and humanity every time they happen. They do not, however, impose any special obligation upon the children of oppressors toward the children of the oppressed. If they did, life would be little more than a never-ending cycle of atonement for the past misdeeds of others. It makes sense to compensate those who have suffered injustice. It makes very little sense to compensate their descendants 300 years later. At some point we need to leave the past behind us, and concentrate on how to make the future a better place for all.

It is clear that native treaties have not achieved the desired result. But although their result has been both unjust and injurious toward Canadian aboriginals, it is almost impossible for anyone to change them.

All that can be done is to show them for what they are, and call upon natives across Canada not to stoop to honor them. At the same time, non-natives must do better to extend the warm hand of confraternity. Anything else would be beneath us all.

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