The roadblock to reconciliation: Canada's origin story is false by Kathleen Mahoney


Kathleen Mahoney is a professor of law at the University of Calgary, fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and fellow of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.


In 2017 Canada will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Canada’s origin story will be celebrated – the story of the British North America (BNA) Act, the Fathers of Confederation, and the British/French duality that together formed the bedrock of the free, equal, diverse democracy we believe ourselves to be.

But here’s the problem: our origin story is false. In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples observed, “A country cannot be built on a living lie.” After 150 years in denial, coming to terms with our true origin story is long overdue.

Recognition that indigenous peoples were founders of the nation must be acknowledged in a formal, legal way. Only then will there be a solid foundation for Canada to reconcile its past and lay the foundation for a new relationship with its first peoples.

Origin stories are important. Every country, every community, every family, has an origin story to express who they are and where they have come from. A nation’s origin story serves as a script for citizenship; it helps citizens navigate their world, form relationships, and solidify their identities. But when a nation’s origin story ignores the existence and contributions of those integral to its founding, it can create a deep sense of alienation, isolation and hostility.

The accepted story of Canada’s origin tells us the nation came into being on July 1, 1867. Thirty-six “Fathers of Confederation,” representing the British and the French colonial powers, signed the British North America Act, setting out the governance structure for the new country. Significantly, it expressly protected the English and French languages, cultures and civil rights.

Indigenous Canadians are invisible in this origin story even though they were present on the land for thousands of years prior to Confederation and without their contributions Canada would not be the country it is today.

For example, the fur trade – the backbone of the economy for more than 250 years – depended upon indigenous hunters, oarsmen, guides, and traders for its viability. Without the fur trade, the colonial ambitions of exploration, settlement, and economic and social development would have failed miserably.

But by far the most significant aspect was the vast tracts of land acquired through treaty negotiations with the indigenous peoples – lands that have produced immense riches, making Canada one of the wealthiest nations in the world.

But indigenous people did not receive recognition for their contributions to building Canada, nor a fair share of the ensuing wealth. Instead, they were classified as non-citizens and subjected to unequal treatment based on racist philosophical and legal justifications – namely, the discovery doctrine and the formal equality principle.

The discovery doctrine was the self-serving legal principle whereby Europeans claimed rights of sovereignty and ownership of regions they claimed to “discover.” Under this doctrine, indigenous peoples could not claim ownership of their lands, but only the right to occupy and use the land.

The formal equality principle dates back to the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, whose definition of equality was that likes were to be treated alike. As such, discrimination against slaves, women and indigenous peoples was not considered unequal treatment.

Together, the two principles assured the perpetual dominance of the British and the French founders over the land and the permanent subordination of the indigenous peoples who occupied it.

The Supreme Court of Canada finally rejected the formal equality doctrine in 1989. The discovery doctrine too, has been widely discredited as racist and in violation of fundamental human rights.

The impact of the misguided, racist doctrines is an origin story that has left indigenous Canadians marginalized, dispossessed and unrecognized, and the rest of us wondering who we really are.

The opportunity to set the record straight is upon us. To this end I propose a consultation with parliamentarians, indigenous leaders, provincial governments and Canadians more broadly to discuss how a parliamentary motion, statute, bill or proclamation might be approved to formally recognize Canada’s true origins in advance of the 150th anniversary of Confederation. This will allow us to celebrate the possibilities for lasting reconciliation and set the stage for a genuine nation to nation relationship.

Kathleen Mahoney will propose the resetting of Canada’s origins to parliamentarians on May 10, 2016, at a Big Thinking lecture organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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