On July 26, 1989, then Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic unilaterally dissolved the assembly of the self-governing republic of Kosovo, which was an ethnic Albanian majority jurisdiction in Serbia.

This was followed by a referendum in July 1990, in which the majority Serbian population voted in favour of constitutional amendments that abolished “special status” and self-government for the minority Albanians. Over the next five years the situation disintegrated, with demonstrations, riots, rogue assemblies, and declarations, and eventually civil war and NATO intervention.

Taking away the protective rights and autonomy of national minorities is a dangerous thing. Because of this, actions such as the removal of “special status” without the consent of the affected minority is rare in modern times, seen only in countries like Milosevic’s Serbia or Francisco Franco’s Spain. Such moves are antithetical to what pluralistic democracies stand for, where the idea of “majority rule” is almost always accompanied by “minority rights.”

This week, it was revealed that Kellie Leitch appears to support the unilateral elimination of First Nations autonomy in Canada. The Prince Arthur Herald obtained audio from a conversation Leitch had with students from Concordia and McGill universities. One questioner asked about First Nations policy. Leitch said: “I would abolish the Indian Act…the people of Canada, and the Parliament of Canada, is supreme. And when people decide, that’s what we should do. And every Canadian should be equal. And if you think I need to go out and speak to Aboriginal Canadians across the country to ask them for their consent to change the law, it won’t happen and you know that.”

The Herald also reported that Leitch said that the “majority of Aboriginal Canadians” agreed with her position. “If you want to listen to the chiefs, you go ahead buddy; if you want to listen to those 600 elites, you go for it guy,” she said.

In other words, Kellie Leitch promises to eliminate the Indian Act and thus “Indian” reserves, and in doing so, to take away First Nations political autonomy without the consent of First Nations people. What makes this comment even more disturbing is she distinguished between “the people of Canada” and “Aboriginal Canadians,” who presumably are not part of the people of Canada.

It’s important to note that getting rid of the 140-year-old Indian Act is not in itself controversial – everyone wants to get rid of it. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has said it is time to move beyond the “shackles” of the Indian Act. The Assembly of First Nations position is that the Indian Act should be scrapped, “but any efforts must be led by First Nations and done with First Nations, not for First Nations.”

Consent is key to First Nations thinking on our affairs, and is part of every promise made to us on the Indian Act and on our reserves. It’s expected that politicians will at least pay lip service to the idea of consent. Leitch stands out by not even bothering to pay lip service to it, and saying she wouldn’t hear First Nations people out specifically, because we won’t consent. This is a foundational breach of the compact between First Nations and Canada, and if it was carried out, the reaction against it cannot be overestimated.

The Indian Act cannot be repealed without a replacement that serves the needs of First Nations communities and ensures their continued autonomous existence. Without governments of our own we lose the few democratic rights we have. It is questionable if any federal government in Canadian history has held office with the support of the majority of First Nations people; we control few, if any, ridings, so vote-trading or other tools for accommodating minorities aren’t open to us. The only tools we have to protect our rights as peoples in this country are our own governments, democratically controlled by us.

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Leitch’s policy towards First Nations people is increasingly looking like an all-out attack on any expression of Indigenous national identity. She refuses to consider us a people worthy of consent, she dismisses our democratically elected leaders, and she has proposed criminalizing all but the most anodyne forms of protest in the name of economic development.

When in 1969 then Indian affairs minister Jean Chrétien proposed the Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy, the White Paper, he crumbled as a result of the backlash from the shattered Indigenous community, which was just emerging from the darkest days of oppression, or the “long assault,” as Trent University’s David Newhouse has called it. When the White Paper was released, First Nations people did not yet have the vote in every province. Kellie Leitch, should she win the leadership of the Conservative party, would face a more prosperous, educated, and politically active Indigenous population.

Canada has been down this road before. In 1840, the British rulers of Canada forced the union of English and French Canada without the people’s consent. The goal as laid out in the Durham Report, which brought forth this change, was to assimilate French Canada and prevent any future uprisings like those seen in the 1830s.

In his first speech to the new parliament of the Union, francophone leader Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine said: The purpose of the Union, in the mind of its author, was to crush the French population: but a mistake has been made, for the means employed will not achieve this result…should we succumb, we shall at least succumb by commanding respect.”

The mistake of 1840 is that it created an assertive politics of national survival in French Canada that demanded respect for its autonomy, a type of politics that splintered into separatism and the even terrorism in the 1960s. It led directly to two referendums and continues to put Canada’s existence at risk. Attempting to make changes for an autonomous people without their consent is a mistake that Leitch appears prepared to make again, this time with First Nations.

As was the case in Kosovo and Quebec, this drive towards assimilation and persecution of a minority can only lead to conflict. Far from ending the “Indian problem” once and for all, Leitch’s approach would ensure that civil strife consumes Canada for decades to come.

Photo: Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch speaks with supporters in Montreal, Wednesday, January 4, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Graham Hughes

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Robert Jago
Robert Jago is a Montreal-based businessperson and First Nations activist. He is a member of the Nooksack Indian Tribe.

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