The Sliammon First Nation is just northwest of Powell River, British Columbia, Canada. (Flickr Creative Commons/David Stanley)

First Nation Christian on Politicizing White Guilt, Breaking Treaties

In Canada there are few issues that are more uncomfortable to talk about and are regularly oversimplified than First Nations’ rights.  Common solutions shared by authors like Mel Smith and Tom Flanagan propose, what would seem to be, straight forward schemes to resolving our differences on the matter.  Gerry Bowler in his article; “What Do These Mean to Christians: First Nations’ Rights, White Guilt”, attempts to wrestle with the complexity that is Aboriginal rights in Canada from a Christian perspective.  On the surface all these responses attempt to validate a common-sense approach to First Nations’ issues with a clear way to resolving it all, “treating each other as equals.”

Looking beneath the surface, First Nations’ rights are too complex and cannot be treated in the same way one would deal with the current scrum of identity politics.  Why?  The alliance between Canada and First Nations’ is founded on legally binding treaties and affirmed in section 35 of the constitution.  This legitimately sets this legal relationship apart from the current political blame games being advanced by special activist groups.

That is not to say that there is no “leveraging of white guilt,” on the part of First Nations’ to advance their agenda (as Bowler points out).   As a First Nation Christian, I readily admit that we must stop politicizing the relationship, forgive, and act justly towards one another.  What bothers me about this characterisation though is that it provokes a certain level of outrage and neglects the responsibility of the Church to be redemptive.  Proverbs 12:16 talks about how believers are to shoulder the hurt of others, even when that hurt is directed toward the Church.  John Gill points out in this verse that believers should “put up with the contempt cast upon them . . . bear it patiently . . . for by doing so they gain more credit and reputation from others”.

Unwillingness to, bear patiently, with issues such as disputed lands doesn’t help the situation.  This is evident in the recent aversion to acknowledging traditional First Nations’ territory at various gatherings.  Some state that these acknowledgements are nonsense and suggest that First Nations’ should also be bound to apologize to the tribal groups that they displaced.  Others argue that First Nations’ surrendered the land by signing treaties and no longer have a legitimate basis for their disgruntlement.

Yet looking under the surface we discover that most treaty discussions outline larger areas of land that were to be set aside for First Nations’ than what currently exists.  Much of these lands were wrongly appropriated by the Canadian government, which in large part is now the basis for dispute.  To suggest that the acknowledgement of Aboriginal title over these lands makes as little sense as First Nations’ having to recognize previous tribes that were displaced is inappropriate.

Biblically, there is a clear distinction to be made between forcing out a people group and breaking a treaty with one.  God himself holds treaties binding.  Joshua’s treaty with the Gibeonites was not directed by God but God punished Israel 13 generations later for Saul’s attempt to destroy them.  This shows that the Church (and Canada), even today, is accountable before God for the oaths of past generations.

In short, First Nations’ have a legitimate ethical and legal basis for their grievance.  Just compensation for un-surrendered land needs to be dealt with.  Any attempt to dismiss broken treaties and treatment of Aboriginal people so that “civilization and order” could be established doesn’t cut it given the biblical reality that attempting to erase the claim of a treaty partner is corrupt and unjust.

So, what does all this mean?  For First Nations’, we must surrender to Christ, cease being the victim and come from under the dependency that has afflicted far too many generations.  What should it mean to a Christian?  Jesus in Matthew 23:23 echoes Micah 6:8 making it clear that true faith is “to act justly, love mercy” and be faithful.  We cannot oversimplify the matter.  The Church must help to establish justice for indigenous groups in Canada and show mercy rather than contempt if we are to set right the reputation of God and His people in the eyes of First Nations’.


Donovan Jacobs is a Pentecostal aboriginal.  He is Ojibway by birth, Pentecostal by faith, a peace and justice advocate by conviction.

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