Ezra Levant is a Canadian media personality, an ultra-conservative political activist, author and lawyer who has made a brilliant career out of being half right. In a recent episode of The Source, Mr Levant outlined the flaws in Neil Young’s rationale for the Honour the Treaties Tour.
According to Mr Levant, Neil Young’s biggest mistake was assuming that the Canadian government violated Treaty 8. Mr Levant told the audience that he’d read Treaty 8 and “all you need to know” about Treaty 8 was contained in the following sentence.*
“… the said Indians DO HEREBY CEDE, RELEASE, SURRENDER AND YIELD UP to the Government of the Dominion of Canada, for Her Majesty the Queen and Her successors for ever, all their rights, titles and privileges whatsoever, to the lands…”
According to Mr Levant, this sentence renders Treaty 8 “…a treaty of total surrender.” Full stop. Stick a fork in it, it’s done.
All you need to know? Really?
I too have read Treaty 8. It’s beautifully written. It describes a need to settle aboriginal rights with “the Indians…who were inclined to be turbulent and were liable to give trouble” to gold miners and traders who they viewed as interfering with their hunting and trapping activities.
The Indian Treaty Commissioners told the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs that the major sticking point in the negotiations was the fear that making the treaty would result in a curtailment of the hunting and fishing privileges. The Commissioners “had to solemnly assure them that only such laws as to hunting and fishing as were in the interest of the Indians and were found necessary in order to protect the fish and fur-bearing animals would be made, and that they would be as free to hunt and fish after the treaty as they would be if they never entered into it”.
I’ve also read section 35 of the Constitution Act which protects existing aboriginal rights as well as present and future treaty rights, and section 25 of the Constitution Act which says that nothing in the Constitution derogates from the Royal Proclamation of Oct 7, 1763 and any rights and freedoms granted thereunder, both now and in the future.
Finally I’ve read the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Simon v The Queen (1985) where the Supreme Court said:
“treaties and statutes dealing with Indians should be given a fair, large and liberal construction and doubtful expressions resolved in favour of the Indians, in the sense in which they would be naturally understood by the Indians.”
Bottom line: a sentence fragment out of Treaty 8 is nowhere near all anyone needs to know to decide whether the Canadian government has violated the ACFN’s aboriginal and treaty rights.
A treaty of total surrender
Mr Levant and I may not see eye to eye in equating the words “cede, release, surrender and yield up” with “total surrender”, but that’s neither here nor there; everyone is entitled to his or her bonehead opinion.
However I am shocked that a journalist with legal training would proffer a sentence fragment as “all you need to know” about the aboriginal and treaty rights granted to Canada’s aboriginal population, particularly in light of the 190 wins aboriginal groups have chalked up against development projects since 1985.**
Bill Gallagher, former oilpatch lawyer and treaty negotiator, believes that Canada is about to witness ”the apex of the rise in native empowerment in the Canadian resources sector.”** He’s absolutely right.
The Pogo principle
Given the importance of protecting aboriginal rights in the face of oilsands development and the criticality of oilsands development to Canada’s economy, one would expect Canadians to be all over this issue. But they’re not. Why?
The answer lies in a 1994 interview between Sir James Goldsmith and veteran reporter Charlie Rose. They were discussing whether the US should agree to modify GATT, the multilateral international trade agreement. Goldsmith was incredulous that there had been no public debate about the issue in the US and put this down to the fact that the topic was “complicated”.
To which Rose, the savvy media man, replied “and boring”.
The protection of treaty rights, like climate change, globalization and the erosion of the democratic process, are complicated…and unfortunately our eyes glaze over when they’re mentioned. Nevertheless these issues will shape our future for generations.
Canadians run the risk that these issues will be resolved in the shadows, without their input. Canadians’ lack of participation is exacerbated when glib media personalities like Ezra Levant pronounce the issues not worthy of our attention. And we dutifully turn away, eager to catch the latest update on Justin Bieber’s DUI charge.
The trouble with Ezra Levant is that he’s very good at his job. The trouble with us is that we’ve allowed him (and people like him) to shape our opinions because we can’t be bothered to think things through for ourselves.
In the words of the great philosopher/possum Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us”.
**Calgary Herald, Jan 24, 2014, A10