There are a lot of well-intentioned civil servants. They respect Indigenous people and do their best, within the confines of their positions, to bend government policy to achieve just outcomes. Their work is recognized, appreciated and honoured. This article is not about them.
This is about government employees, federal and provincial, who spend their workdays undermining Indigenous Peoples.
Case in point. On a winter’s day I drove the TransCanada highway from Winnipeg to Kenora. It’s a car journey loaded with memories, contradictions and hope.
As an undergraduate I spent a summer camped on a small island in Shoal Lake while soil sampling for a junior mining company. Now I represent Shoal Lake #40 First Nation. Close to the Ontario border I pass the “Freedom Road” sign, Shoal Lake #40’s statement of defiance and optimism for the future.
Having managed to keep the car on the road for two plus hours despite not being able to get a rental with winter tires at the Winnipeg airport, I check into the Lakeside Inn close to midnight.
Dawn finds me giving thanks for the view of Lake of the Woods from the hotel’s 9th floor restaurant. Boats, cornered by the ice, sit motionless, patiently waiting for the sun to regain its strength and set them free.
While I drink coffee and prepare for a meeting with Treaty 3 clients and government officials, a group of four or five settle around the table behind me. There are few people in the restaurant and I can’t help but overhear their conversation.
I realize they work for one of those government departments which, despite regular name changes, always has an acronym that sticks in your throat. They are the government employees my clients and I will meet after breakfast.
They too are preparing for the meeting. My first thought is to turn and introduce myself. But then their words settle in my consciousness. They are rehearsing the various ways they intend to say no to my clients.
They are also laughing. Laughing at their own well worn obstructionist tactics. Laughing at my clients’ positions and expectations. Laughing at the ultimate meaninglessness of the consultation process they have invited my clients to join.
My hand drifts across the notepad and I find myself scribbling in the margin:
The beetles gathered, stuffing their ears with indifference, stabbing their eyes, filling their mouths with silence.
My experience at the Lakeside Inn was extreme but not exceptional. It wasn’t the first time I’ve overheard government employees laughing about how they plan to stonewall Indigenous people.
I also believe it is not representative of the majority of civil servants who honestly want to make a positive difference. But it is significant nonetheless, especially this week as Canada’s new Prime Minister pledged a renewed partnership with Indigenous Peoples.
The Supreme Court of Canada has penned inspiring descriptions of the purpose and importance of the Crown’s obligations under section 35 of the Constitution. With varying degrees of sincerity, governments have echoed the Court’s pronouncements.
Cynicism grinds legal principles and government mandates to dust.
However small a group they might be, government employees who walk in colonialism's shadow do a great disservice to us all.
They undermine the legal and historical relationship between Canada and Indigenous Peoples. They thwart government policy. They make a mockery of the law.
Most importantly, they crush the good faith and optimism of Indigenous people who enter into consultation processes with the hope that government is finally serious about a partnership based on respect.
Legal principles, government promises and cabinet appointments are important. But until Indigenous people are confident that the bureaucrats they meet on a daily basis sincerely believe that their responsibility is to work with, not against, Indigenous people, none of us will be free of Canada’s colonial past.
Bruce McIvor, lawyer and historian, is principal of First Peoples Law Corporation. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law where he teaches the constitutional law of Aboriginal and Treaty rights. Bruce is a proud Métis from the Red River in Manitoba. He holds a Ph.D. in Aboriginal and environmental history and is a Fulbright Scholar. A member of the bar in British Columbia and Ontario, Bruce is recognized nationally and internationally as a leading practitioner of Aboriginal law in Canada.
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