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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Lawrence B. A. Hatter: Canada must honor indigenous rights


Though many Spokanites have experienced the frustration of crossing the Canada-U.S. border in the post-9/11 world, they can at least take some comfort from knowing that the misery of sitting in your car at border control is an experience shared by Canadians and Americans alike.

Not so for indigenous residents of the Pacific Northwest, whose transnational communities are threatened by Canada’s mistreatment of American tribal members at the border.

The challenges facing transnational indigenous communities on the Canada-U.S. border were a topic of discussion at last month’s Arctic Encounters Symposium hosted in Seattle and sponsored by the Canadian government. Panelists, including former government officials and Native leaders, explained the difference between the relative ease with which Canadian tribal members can enter the United States and the obstacles that Canada has thrown in the way of American tribal members traveling north.

The border is no abstraction for Eastern Washington tribal members. In a case still winding its way through the Canadian courts, Rick Desautel, a member of the Colville Tribes, stalked an elk across the border into British Columbia in 2010. Officials there charged Desautel for hunting without a permit on lands that his ancestors had hunted for thousands of years.

At the heart of the dispute between Canada and the Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest is a long-forgotten treaty, agreed between the United States and the British Empire in 1794. The so-called “Jay Treaty” – named after American envoy John Jay – was highly controversial at the time because it encompassed a broad trade agreement between the fledgling republic and its former colonial overlord.

But it is the unintended consequences of that agreement that live on more than two centuries later. As part of a plan to promote frictionless trade between Britain’s Canadian colonies and the United States, John Jay and British Foreign Secretary Lord Grenville agreed that “Indians dwelling on either side of the said boundary” should be “at all times free” to cross back and forth between U.S. and British territory.

Neither Jay nor Grenville was likely thinking about the rights of indigenous people when they framed this agreement in London 225 years ago. There were no Native envoys present at the negotiations, and both parties favored free movement for indigenous people because they wanted equal access to the profitable fur trade. The Jay Treaty was an act of hubris, typical of Euro-American colonialism in the 18th century.

And this is a compelling moral reason for Canada to take the necessary steps to recognize the rights of movement that support transnational indigenous communities. After suffering at the hands of Euro-American treaties for centuries, shouldn’t indigenous peoples finally benefit from the unintended consequences of this act of colonial arrogance?

The Canadian government is on the wrong side of history. It is wrong to undermine the integrity of transnational indigenous communities, whose ancestors have traveled the Pacific Northwest to hunt and fish for thousands of years before American and British diplomats drew an arbitrary border at the 49th parallel.

Moreover, the Canadian government has tried to worm its way out of honoring the rights of indigenous peoples on the technicality that “Canada” did not exist in 1794. While it may be true that Confederation did not take place until 1867, this spurious argument ignores Canada’s gradual repatriation of powers from Great Britain in the 20th century. Surely the Canadian government would not deny that it is the sovereign successor to the British Empire in North America?

If Ottawa wants to enjoy the fruits of British colonialism, which created a transcontinental empire from Newfoundland to British Columbia to the Arctic Circle, then it must also inherit responsibilities from London.

Indigenous Washingtonians deserve to enjoy the same freedoms as their brethren in Canada.

Lawrence B. A. Hatter, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history at Washington State University and author of “Citizens of Convenience: The Imperial Origins of American Nationhood on the U.S.-Canadian Border.”