SASKATCHEWAN’S HUMAN RIGHTS HERITAGE

BY Jim Harding

This is the second part of my pre-election series “Up Against the Wall”

It is always risky to present the past as the bad times to try to garner political support for an upcoming election. But this is what Premier Wall is doing in his pre-election ads about previous NDP governments. This strategy requires that people remain largely unaware of their own history. The politics of spin can easily become the politics of disrespect.

It was encouraging in November 2012 when Premier Wall came out in opposition to Harper refusing to pay for chemotherapy for a refugee who was diagnosed with cancer after coming to Canada. Wall may have wanted to differentiate himself from Harper’s harsh policy and his attempt to use refugees as a wedge issue.

Under our Charter of Rights refugees should have a right to be treated with dignity and respect, which includes access to vital services. In this case however, Wall wasn’t so much setting a new course for Saskatchewan Premiers, leaving the dark days of the NDP behind. He was actually following in a proud tradition of some of our past premiers.

PREMIER DOUGLAS

Tommy Douglas is primarily known as a pioneer of national Medicare. Although forgotten or never known by many, the first CCF government under his premiership passed human rights legislation in 1947. This was long before any other jurisdiction in the Americas and predated the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights by over a year. (This Declaration by the way was drafted by a Canadian.)

Then in 1950 Tommy Douglas stood alone as the first premier to call for a Canadian constitutional bill of rights. Such standing alone on the national stage as an advocate of human rights was very different than premier Wall standing alone in defense of fossil fuels.

Saskatchewan went on to play an important role in achieving such rights. A Progressive Conservative government headed by Saskatchewan’s John Diefenbaker passed the first Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960. And although this was only legislative protection it forged the way. In 1982 the Trudeau Liberals finally had the Charter of Rights inserted into our repatriated constitution.

But there is more, for a past Saskatchewan NDP government played a central role in bringing about the Charter. When federal-provincial negotiations were frozen in 1982, a meeting of Roy Romanow, Jean Chretien, Roy McMurtry, the attorney generals from Saskatchewan, Ottawa, and Toronto, created the compromise that allowed repatriation and the Charter to go forward. It is no exaggeration to say that Roy Romanow, who later became premier, played a major role in Canada finally getting a Charter of Rights.

TREATY AWARENESS IN SASK

But there is more.  Aboriginal and treaty rights finally became part of the Canadian constitution in 1982. And from 1874 when Treaty Four was signed in Saskatchewan, until 1982, treaty rights here and across Canada were totally ignored. The Indian Act, Residential Schools and the unlawful Pass Laws were how the federal government ruled aboriginal Canadians. Aboriginal Canadians weren’t allowed to vote until 1960.

Meanwhile Saskatchewan played an important role in bringing forward awareness of the treaties. In 1961 Premier Douglas worked directly with John Tootoosis, the first President of the newly formed Federation of Saskatchewan Indians (FSI), to publish copies of the treaties. How many Premiers across Canada did that?

The Treaties were published by “The Provincial Committee on Minority Groups” which Tommy Douglas chaired, in cooperation with the FSI.  (The use of the term “minority” still shows the paternalism of the time.) The publication was called “The Treaties: Between Her Majesty, Queen Victoria and the Indians of British North America.  Part I contains the discussions and text of treaties 3, 4, and 5, and Part II contains this for treaties 6, 7 and 8.

PERSONAL AWARENESS

The Introduction starts with “The Proclamation of 1763” making it an excellent resource for raising awareness.   This was the only reason that I knew about and read the treaties in my twenties; there certainly was no “treaty education” in my high school curriculum. Such awareness was crucial when I was active in the 1960s in helping form the Student Neestow Partnership Project (SNPP), a desegregation project somewhat modeled on the U.S. SNCC civil rights project in which I had been a volunteer.

At that time human rights activist colleagues from other universities across the country knew almost nothing about the treaties. Because of the respectful collaboration of Douglas and Tootoosis, Saskatchewan helped spearhead this belated effort towards awareness of our overlooked history.

The struggle for human rights continues across the world. While we should never be apologetic for our country’s flagrant disregard for aboriginal and treaty rights, we should also celebrate how past actions laid the groundwork for advances today. Let us all acknowledge and celebrate our progressive past.

I’ll return in the New Year. I trust that everyone has a happy and fruitful holiday.

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