Indigenous Poverty: The True Story!
“The Ultimate Hypocrisy”
Indigenous Poverty: The True Story!.
In 2003, the NB Court of Appeal ruled that Joshua Bernard, a Mi’kmaq logger, had been wrongfully convicted in April 2000 of illegally harvesting spruce logs on Crown land. It also ruled that Mr. Bernard was the beneficiary of a treaty right, and could earn a “moderate livelihood”. The government went to the Supreme Court of Canada which promptly overturned the lower court. Following the Appeal Court ’s decision, Andrea Bear Nicholas relates to the facts of the matter in this prophetic 2003 article.
Prof. Andrea Bear Nicholas From the Wolastoqiyik @ ne-ku-wu't'-kok
Chair in Native Studies, St. Thomas University , Fredericton , New Brunswick .
This article was written on 3 September 2003 and was printed in “Shunpiking” in the fall of 2005.
In all of the hand wringing about the effects of the Bernard Decision on non Aboriginal people there has been practically no one unconnected to Aboriginal People who applauds the decision. This worries me, and it tells me a lot. Clearly either no one knows, or no one is speaking about, the most important element of this story. – the generations and centuries of suffering and desperation experienced by Indigenous People, as a result of the thefts of their lands, resources,, and way of life., a theft that explains the conditions of that Aboriginal People still suffer today.
How do we know about the suffering? A most revealing source is to be found in the abundant government records that show a dramatic increase in appeals for assistance from and on behalf of “starving, sick, and infirm Indians” beginning in the 1820’s. It can be found in the death records of Aboriginal families who commonly suffered multiple deaths in short periods from the combined effects of recurrent disease and starvation. Another rich source lies in 19th century descriptions of Aboriginal People, usually written by visitors with no stake in hiding the poverty. In contrast to government reports we have such descriptions as the following written in 1873: “Thus shod in her native moccasins, with her battered features and stealthy gait. She may be seen prowling about the streets in broad daylight, at once a conspicuous and sad picture of utter wretchedness and poverty.”
While such writings are starkly revealing of the wretched condition in which Aboriginals were living, they tend to blame Aboriginal people themselves for their poverty, and suffering, a tendency that only serves one purpose extremely well – that of concealing the true reasons for the poverty. For a deeper understanding of the connection between Aboriginal poverty and the theft of their lands one needs to read only a few books, such as Gustaavus Myers’ History of Canadian Wealth (1987), or Neu and Therrien’s Accounting for Genocide (2003).
Beginning in the days of the pre Loyalists, when New Brunswick was still part of Nova Scotia , it became a standard practice of government officials to help themselves, and their cronies, to the best lands in the province. As Brebner (1969) has put it: “Naturally the Halifax officials had their fingers in the pie from the beginning ”In ten short years more than three and a half million acres of Mi’kmaq, (Wolastoqiyik) Maliseet, and (Peskotomuhkati) Passamaquoddy lands had been granted away for a song; and a pattern of patronage and personal corruption had become entrenched. These grants also represented an enormous violation of imperial law, particularly the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which declared that no one could take possession of Indian Lands unless they had first been ceded or sold by Indian nations to the crown. Within a few years after the American Revolution, however, every inch of Maliseet land on the (Wolastoq) St. John River up to and beyond Woodstock had been granted and settled by upwards of 10,000 Loyalists, in complete violation of the Royal Proclamation.
For (Wolastoqiyik) Maliseets it was the beginning of yet another Diaspora, for the land and the river had been their sole source of life for millennia. Even small patches of land that had been previously reserved for Maliseets were now granted away. Of course the wealthiest and most powerful Loyalists got the largest grants, some consisting of thousands of acres of prime land. And it was from those lands, the lands of the Aboriginal People, that the descendants of the Loyalists became wealthy, simply from the “increment of the lands granted to them”. (Myers p.81)
With huge demands for timber in Great Britain, and rich forest resources on both private and public lands (the so called Crown Lands), enterprising farmers and wealthy landowners alike turned early in the 1800s to full-time lumbering. First there was the masting trade, then the square timber trade, and by 1825, “ New Brunswick was supplying nearly twice as much timber as the rest of British North America ”.
As the richest group of their landowners, many of the old loyalist families became the fabulously wealthy “timber barons who controlled provincial affairs and forest resources simultaneously”. (Naylor, pp. 177-185) In effect, these few families were the main beneficiaries of the enormous revenues from a resource stolen directly from Aboriginal People.
To compound the tragedy, the massive lumbering almost completely denuded large areas of woodlands, which practically eliminated hunting as a major source of sustenance for First Nations. And if the forests were not denuded by the lumberman, they were soon denuded by the great Miramichi fire of 1825, which fed on piles of dry scrap wood left everywhere by careless lumberman. Meanwhile the rise of the deals industry (sawn logs) meant that not only would the rivers be regularly choked with logs, but also with sawmills and sawdust, which quickly took their tool on fish, another important source of sustenance for First Nations.
Beginning in the 1830’s the provincial legislature began promoting the sale of huge chunks of un-granted lands (really Aboriginal lands) to foreign interests in order to boost provincial coffers and stimulate immigration. And in 1837 the legislature finally wrested full control of the remaining 11 million acres of so called “crown” lands from the Loyalist – dominated executive branch in New Brunswick only to turn them over to capitalists and railway promoters who were poised to “plunder” both public monies and the “crown” lands.
Within a few decades over a million and a half more acres soon passed into the hands of the wealthy railroad promoters, who, for the most part, were the legislature themselves!
In Myers words “almost the whole personnel of the government of the Province of New Brunswick were among the incorporators” of one railroad in 1851. In addition to voting huge government subsidies for the project, they also voted themselves a huge land grant five miles wide on each side of the railroad for its entire length." (Myers, pp. 163-164)
Now suddenly the abject poverty of Aboriginal People in the Maritimes becomes perfectly comprehendable, for it appeared only after the timber barons began raping the forests, and it worsened as railroad promoters/legislators began grabbing and developing prime lands for personal benefit. With hunting and fishing territories being lumbered or settled so rapidly nearly every Aboriginal person in the province becomes desperately dependant on assistance from the very people who were robbing them blind.
As if to pretend it had nothing to do with the rape and plunder, the New Brunswick government began very early showering Aboriginal people with regular displays of attention and false generosity in what proved to be the ultimate hypocrisy. That Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Mi’kmaq people were now reduced to starvation and begging in their own lands is a huge blot on New Brunswick history. It is also a story that has remained virtually unchanged, and unknown, into the present, and for very good reason.
In fact, the patronage and conflict of interest on the part of railway promoters who were also government legislators soon escalated into widespread price fixing, bribery, blackmail, and fraud. Only now it was most federal parliamentarians who also engaged in these practices. (Myers 289-90) Meanwhile, their patronage appointees in the Department of Indian Affairs exercised increasingly coercive control over First Nations, and willingly engineered many questionable deals for lands on reserve on behalf of their railway bosses in Parliament. Uncovering and detailing the improprieties of these deals will be the subject of investigations for years to come.
At the provincial level Native hunting and fishing territories on so-called “crown” lands continued to be sold or leased for a pittance to huge lumbering interests closely connected with government. With the advent of the Multi-national corporations in the 20th century this story continued to repeat itself. Wealthy and powerful government officials and their friends continued to gain huge profits from the resources of the land, while Maliseets, Mi’kmaqs and Passamaquoddies became increasingly shut out of any benefit, other than as lumber-men and guides, from their ancient hunting and fishing territories. And they continued to be the poorest of the poor. From time to time governments would shower Aboriginal People with attention, and sometimes money, to feign friendship and compassion while arresting and criminalizing Aboriginals for accessing resources, on both reserve and “crown” lands.
Through it all one would never have known that Aboriginal access to the resources of their lands had been solemnly promised in an important pre confederation treaty, the treaty of 1725/26. But since the Aboriginal People no longer had an actual copy of that treaty they were usually arrested, charged, stripped of their gear, and thrown into jail, even though several copies of the treaty existed in government archives in Halifax and Ottawa . And for a while Aboriginals were even forbidden by the Indian Act to hire services to defend themselves. It was only by our own efforts that a copy of this treaty was finally located in 1983, and for the first time ever, two Maliseet hunters won recognition in court to access game resources unmolested.
With so many powerful interests at stake, however, the New Brunswick government refused to respect this newly discovered treaty, though bound to do so under the 1982 Constitution Act and the 1985 Supreme Court decision in the case of Simon. Instead, it chose to appeal the case of the two Maliseet hunters, not once but twice. And when it lost the last time it chose instead to offer huge bribes to First Nation communities to give up accessing resources in return for money and jobs. Had the province respected the treaty it would have moved to bring its own laws into line with it, in the same way that Aboriginal nations have been required to keep their laws consistent with federal and provincial laws. The province could also have taken the opportunity to re-educate the public on the matter of the newly found treaty. Instead, not a word was spoken, either in newspapers or in any school textbooks published after 1983.
It is difficult not to see this quashing of information as yet another attempt to hide the truth, in the interest of maintaining the wealth and power of the few who benefit most from “crown” lands. The strategy certainly worked when court decisions recognizing Aboriginal rights were handed down in 1997 and 2000. Instead of directing their anger at A government that had historically enriched its own members and friends, and hidden the truth of the treaties and the original theft, the people of New Brunswick openly directed their anger and frustration at Aboriginal People.
While the Bernard decision speaks only of Miramichi Mi’kmaqs, the implication is that Mi’kmaqs, Maliseet and Passamaquoddies, alike, can no longer be shut out of access either to the (Crown) lands or to the natural resources they never surrendered. That no one outside of the Aboriginal community is applauding the decision suggests that the stage is being set for yet another confrontation in which ordinary people will get used (once again) as tools to protect the wealthy and powerful interests now benefiting from “crown” lands. Many of these ordinary New Brunswickers have built their livelihoods around the extraction of natural resources that were stolen from Aboriginal people, but they were never told the truth. It is time now that the truth, as enunciated by former justice Daigle in Bernard, be given due attention. Aboriginal people in this province never surrendered either their lands or accesses to the resources. If the province does not show some leadership in public education on these matters, then there is little question that Aboriginals will be forced once again to defend themselves from the misdirected anger of non- Aboriginals.
Negotiation now appears to be the only way through this situation. Unfortunately, the Provincial government has done nothing to demonstrate leadership in this area either. At a meeting with chiefs held this week to “discuss” the moose hunt, the position of the provincial government was predetermined, and the meeting was only a pretext to announce that position as a unilateral ultimatum. If this was negotiation then Aboriginal people are headed for a rough ride.
Considering that the Bernard decision has implications for all resources, including moose-hunting, the ultimatum seems to indicate the province’s stubborn determination to continue taking the hard line of arresting Aboriginals and litigating each resource separately. What the province seems to be gambling on is hope that Aboriginals and litigating each resource separately. What the province seems to be gambling on is the hope that Aboriginal leaders might be desperate enough to trade off access to yet another resource for the crumbs of money and jobs, as in the fishery agreements. Though the Bernard decision is a strong and promising chip for Aboriginal leaders. It is obviously not strong enough to force the province to the negotiating table as partners just yet.
Granted, the province clearly intends to appeal the Bernard decision, but with a year to negotiate before implementation, it seems to be studiously avoiding the inevitable, and still treating Aboriginal people as beggars and underlings to be controlled by mandate, muscle, and money. And it is beginning to look ridiculously like the tail wagging the dog.
As for the strategy of throwing money at Aboriginal People, the lie now needs to be exposed in the recent initiatives of so-called cooperation and sharing in such areas as archaeology, economic development, and highway building. Such wining and dining has always been intended to buy our good will in the hope that we will go away and never ask the big questions, like how much money the province and its wealthy friends have been earning from lands and resources stolen from us. As long as the theft has gone un-recognized and un-addressed by the courts the province got away with playing the game.
Now the tide has turned. With the Bernard decision, it is hoped that Aboriginal communities will be able to stand firm and not be pressured into bargaining away our access to any more resources at the very moment that the courts have begun to recognize our claims to Aboriginal title. If not, we will have lost for winning.
Year of Production: 2007
Region: Eastern North America