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Tide is turning on Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people

Matthew Coon Come is Grand Chief, Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee (James Bay, Quebec)

In 2015, Senator Murray Sinclair, then head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, accused Canada of "cultural genocide" for its creation of the Indian Residential School System and he called on Canada to take specific actions to renew the fundamental relations been Canada and Indigenous peoples. No one poisoned him or shot him for these bold actions. He was made a senator.

In 2001, when I was national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, I attended the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, and I also accused Canada of genocide. Again, no one tried to murder me for these statements (although Canada did severely slash the AFN budget at the time thus restricting my ability to act meaningfully on behalf of Canada's First Nations, but that is another story).

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The tide has begun to turn as far as Canadians' understanding of the history of Indigenous peoples in this country. It is increasingly acknowledged that Canada's historic treatment of Indigenous peoples has been, and in some respects continues to be, racist and colonialist. There is a much better understanding of the underlying purposes of the Indian Act, the Indian Residential School system, broken treaties, broken promises, paternalistic government policies; namely, to undermine Indigenous cultures and remove our connection with the land and its resources. And I sense, as never before, that the majority of Canadians wish to put their relationship with Indigenous peoples on a more honourable footing.

Good news stories rarely make the headlines. Yet there are examples in Indian country that point the way forward. I have had the privilege of serving as Grand Chief of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee in Northern Quebec for a total of 20 years. Since the signing of our Treaty, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, we have made enormous strides in improving the living conditions of our First Nations, in setting our relationship with both Canada and Quebec on a "nation-to-nation" basis; we have taken control over the delivery of health and social services, of education, of policing and justice. We have extracted ourselves from the Indian Act and developed our own robust forms of local and regional self-government. We have established the principle of "Cree consent" requiring all development projects within our traditional territory to obtain our approval and they must involve our First Nations in meaningful ways, including environmental protection measures, employment, training, preferential contracting and financial benefits.

In short, we have achieved all of the elements that have been key recommendations in a number of national and international declarations, including the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. All this has been achieved through difficult struggles, media campaigns, legal challenges and hard negotiations.

We have in our own way carried out a revolution. We have successfully conducted our own process of decolonization and we have begun to regain our original sovereignty in a contemporary context – a process that in other parts of the world has required armed struggle. We have done this in Canada yet the sky has not fallen.

We have made these achievements, also, by keeping our Cree culture and language largely intact. We have adapted and incorporated new ways of relying on the land to sustain us while doing so in the context of our traditional values, philosophies and way of life. We are no longer "victims" and we no longer play the "blame game." As it should be, we are now the authors of our own future.

In general, progress in improving the conditions of Indigenous people in Canada has moved at a snail's pace. There have also been certain moments when government initiatives over the years have shown positive signs of progress.

In 1982, the Canadian Constitution was amended to recognize modern land claim agreements as treaties; Canada apologized for the Indian residential school system; it established the Aboriginal Healing Foundation; it launched the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; it established the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women; it established a committee of cabinet ministers to review its laws for consistency with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and it has signed important agreements with Inuit, Métis and First Nations. And, of course, there have been very important and milestone rulings by the Supreme Court of Canada.

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In addition, every once in a while, specific political and economic forces have converged in such a way as to create space for Indigenous people to make very dramatic, important and lasting gains. It is in those openings that we can catch a glimpse of the Canada that can be. And we, on the Indigenous side, can rise to those occasions as well and put the historic pain we have suffered in perspective. It is in those moments that we have all learned to build the essential bridges to a place of honourable co-existence and inclusion, and a place of genuine mutual respect.

So, here is to Canada's 150th birthday. May those spaces for progress multiply and proliferate so that Indigenous people across the country can have real opportunities to create their own permanent and lasting change in a way that gives honour to us all.

Please pass the birthday cake in honour of Canada – our home and Natives' land – and I'll have a nice slice. Please make it a big one.

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