[Witness speaks in his native language]
Good afternoon, committee members.
Thank you for inviting me to provide you with evidence again on this important topic of study.
As was indicated, my name is Angus Toulouse, and I'm the regional chief for the Chiefs of Ontario. As you may know, our organization, the Chiefs of Ontario, is a political forum and a secretariat for collective decision-making, action, and advocacy for 133 first nation communities located within the boundaries of the province of Ontario.
We're guided by our chiefs in assembly, who represent the Anishinabek, the Mushkegowuk, the Ogemawahj, and the Lenape peoples in protecting and exercising their inherent and treaty rights.
I'll begin by speaking about indigenous land use and sustainable economic development issues for first nations generally, but I also want to focus on addressing the recommendation delivered by the House of Commons finance committee in December to privatize reserve lands as a way to reduce poverty amongst first nations.
What first nations have said all along is that we need to see the fulfillment of all of the treaty obligations first. Treaties are more than just historical documents or agreements. They were made to establish the relationship by which first nations would coexist and to grant rights and permissions to the settlers.
Both the written and oral aspects of treaties determined how the lands and resources were to be shared. From treaties and the Constitution, the crown owes first nations the protection of our rights and lands, including rights to cultural protection, education, health care, natural resources, and self-government.
The crown has made practically no progress in fulfilling these obligations. In addition, first nations are currently owed a huge debt from the Canadian successor state because of these unfulfilled treaties and in compensation for the exploitation of our traditional lands. Without first addressing this situation—these unfulfilled obligations and debts—and committing the necessary resources to achieve resolution, the current situation of dependency and poverty will remain, no matter which common law property regime is in place.
Any developments contemplated on our lands require our free, prior, and informed consent. Treaty violations concerning resources often occur with the full knowledge and approval of the Canadian and provincial governments through legislation and regulatory regimes.
First nations most often experience unwillingness on the part of government and industry to engage in true resource-sharing, which leads to conflict situations--as an example, Wahgoshig First Nation just this past month. And Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug—we know what they've gone through, and what the Matawa first nations in the Ring of Fire are going through now—and Iskatewizaagegan First Nation on the western boundaries of Ontario near Manitoba have witnessed this first hand.
First nations are generally concerned about federal plans to privatize our lands. As I'm sure you're aware, we wonder why the federal government is expending all of this effort on the issue instead of focusing on the fulfilment of obligations long overdue and ensuring that basic human rights are met. These human rights include potable water, housing, health, education, control of resources, as well as cultural and other collectively held human rights.
We've had and we continue to have our historic relationship with the lands and waters, but before continuing further on the topic of imposed notions of land ownership, I think it necessary to explain briefly where we're coming from as the original peoples of this land, how our relationship with this earth managed to thrive for centuries.
The land is the source of our identity as individuals and as peoples. Two years ago our chiefs in assembly adopted the “We Are The Land” declaration and the water declaration to articulate our relationship to the land and waters. The “We Are the Land” declaration states that we have heard the voices of our youth, our women and men, of our spiritual advisors, and of our elders, and they have told us we are the land. What we do to the land we do to ourselves and to our future generations. We were placed here on Turtle Island to be a part of creation. We were given our instructions, our jurisdiction, our laws by the Creator. We draw from the sacred law, traditional law, customary laws. We need to protect the lands, the waters, and all living things for future generations.
The treaties were made to share with the newcomers and are not giving up anything. Surrender was not included in the treaties. We have a responsibility to respect and actively protect the lands and waters for our present well-being and for our future generations. Without our lands, our very existence as indigenous peoples is not possible. This relationship with the lands and waters is what underlies the sustainable approach to economic development.
And what does sustainability mean to us? Sustainability to us must take into account our unique situation and our special and historical connection to the land, in addition to our collectively held human rights connected to the said land. The consequences of failing to consistently safeguard our environment to the highest degree are dire and immediate. Indigenous people are often the first to experience the severe impacts of climate change and environmental racism. First nations will not cast aside opportunities to grow our economies. However, these opportunities must stem from an approach that enshrines respect for Mother Earth and the well-being of current and future generations.
Often we see that economic capitalist systems conflict with our indigenous values. As previously mentioned, our cultures are based on a spiritual connection to the land. The commodification of land was at one time foreign to our way of thinking and certainly goes against our traditional way of thinking.
This brings me to the key point that needs to be understood in any discussion of indigenous lands. The beliefs and value system underpinning the current Canadian economic model are not necessarily shared by the indigenous peoples in this country. The system is based on private property ownership, the buying and selling of lands among individuals and corporations. Lands being held collectively for the benefit of a collective is an alien idea in this world view. This detachment from the land is an alien idea to the indigenous world view. Essentially, this is the core of the first nations' land ownership and designation conflict: the privatization of reserve lands with regard to a fee simple regime on reserve lands would increase investor confidence, making the value of the property comparable to similar developments off reserve, and ultimately enhance economic growth in first nation communities. We believe that sustainable economic development can occur without succumbing to the damaging and unnecessary western concept of a fee simple approach to the land.
First nations economic development appears to have two options at this point in time. One option is to continue to develop the land base as a collective. The other option risks losing use of the land by adopting a fee simple approach. The Assembly of First Nations chiefs in assembly passed Resolution number 44/2010 - “First Nations’ Rejection of a 'Property Ownership Act'”. Concerns identified included enabling the potential transfer of first nation lands to those who are not first nations, the erosion of collective rights, the imposition of a foreign conception of land value, and the negation of the constitutionally protected land rights and those that form through treaty.
Further, a first nations property ownership act would create yet another level of jurisdiction over our lands. Reserve populations are comprised of families sharing a common heritage and together suffering the effects of forced assimilation and colonization. Without a land base in common, the process of rebuilding our nations and decolonizing will not be possible. There are numerous legal questions that arise with respect to the privatization of reserve lands. Since these lands are protected mostly by treaty, with associated rights attached to the land, if the land is sold off or mortgaged to an outside party, will those rights continue to apply, and what would the tax implications be?
The federal government has constitutional responsibility under section 91.24 of the British North America Act, which protects the collective titles to the land held by first nations. Therefore the privatization of reserve land would require constitutional amendment. It is also unclear how section 35 rights would be protected under a proposal to privatize our lands. Has an analysis on these potential impacts been completed?
Still more concerning is envisioning how privatization would assist remote communities. Since those lands in the far north tend to lack significant market value and are only of interest to resource extraction companies, how would their problems of poverty and other attendant social ills be helped?
We're concerned that the push to privatize what little land we hold in common is a veiled attempt to continue with the colonizing goal of assimilation under the guise of economic opportunity. Concerns have also been raised that this endeavour is really a way for the government to avoid its obligation to compensate first nations. Instead first nations would be granted the privilege of borrowing against the little bit of land yet to be stolen. This would lead to first nations not only being poverty-stricken but also debt-ridden. Self-sufficiency and other issues need to first be addressed; otherwise indigenous peoples will face assimilation into dominant society.
By way of conclusion, our land is not a commodity. It is sacred. It is something we received from our ancestors and it will go to our future generations. First nations in Ontario believe that reaffirming the treaty relationship should be the foundation from which to address the issue of land use and sustainable economic development. First nations in Ontario have already made clear their priorities and recommendations to Canada in their statement read to Prime Minister Harper during the first nations and crown gathering.
I will reiterate here some of what our nations told the Prime Minister. We have inherent rights and responsibilities that exist in the spirit and intent of the treaties, and these provide for the sustained existence of our nations. When the spirit and intent of the treaties are fully implemented, indigenous peoples will not be faced with the social and economic challenges we see today.
Prior to contact, sovereign indigenous nations—