The Secret Path, Reconciliation & Not-Reconciliation

Last night I watched Gord Downie perform The Secret Path in Ottawa. I was invited by one of the executive producers, and sat near the front with other guests. A Nēhiyaw senator sat ahead of me, an Inuk political leader in the seat behind. In fact the front rows seemed to be nearly exclusively Indigenous people, including the Wenjack family front and centre. Behind us, were predominately White Canadians.

Together we witnessed an event that was utterly devastating but at times also contrived.

There were three elements to the evening. There was the concert itself, the music written and performed by Downie, Kevin Drew, Kevin Hearne, among others. This took place against the backdrop of illustrator Jeff Lemire’s animated film. Finally, there was a post-concert epilogue lead by Mike Downie and including a short video from Marten Falls.

The music was typical jangle-rock-growl Gord Downie but also melodic, and poetically crafted into the story of Charlie Wenjack’s flight from Cecelia Jeffrey residential school in 1966. Each track worked together to describe a boy alone at the end of the world, cannibals on his heels. On more than one song Downie uses the phrase “this earth-like world”, evoking Charlie’s landscape. It is a facsimile of the original. Here, settlers have arrived, consumed, and transformed/destroyed the familiar. But Downie blows on the ashes and embers that remain. Performing “Haunt Them” he stares down the crowd at The National Arts Centre and I imagined him thinking: you, yes you, deserve to be haunted.

It was pain, though, that was the predictable and over-arching theme of the show. As the music began and before Downie even opened his mouth I wanted to cry. This is a story after all of an 12-year old boy escaping his captors and attempting, failing, to walk an impossible 600 kilometers in the northern Ontario winter to be with his family again. While the pain is captured in the poetry and music, the animation drives it home, often uncomfortably. From the very first scenes, Charlie’s humanity is stripped away. It is difficult to watch and I have to wonder about the result if taken on by an Indigenous artist.

Going into the show, a concern for me was the chronic re-victimization that accompanies most discussions of residential school. I, and many of my peers, have a very difficult time talking about or teaching them in class. The trauma is not something you can slip in and out of. And the story told over and over traps us in a narrative of powerlessness and hopelessness. The concert would have replicated this trend were it not for the Wenjack family.

Before the performance started, the large group at the front were loud, joking and laughing. Meanwhile the crowd behind them was stoic and serious. When Downie sang and wailed, they did, too. They moved to the music in their seats. They cried, at times. And after the musicians left the stage and a short video began, showing the tall birch trees among boreal forest of Marten Falls, they raised their arms, whistled, and celebrated home. They did what the concert was unable to: they showed that they are not merely victims. When the end of the world came, they persevered and they endure today in the most inexplicably vivid ways.

In that video, Charlie’s sisters meet with Downie and they discuss the music, the project, and his cancer. They take him to Charlie’s grave. Towards the end, Charlie’s sister Pearl speaks to Canadians about the need for reasonable access to education for First Nation children. She wants a high school in every community to save the students from being forced to leave, like Charlie was. And unlike Charlie, perhaps saved from a lonely death, an all too-common occurrence in Canada in 2016.

After the music and the film and the short video, Gord Downie’s brother Mike came on stage to introduce all the people who made the project possible (including an advertisement for the corporate sponsors, energy and rail companies among them). Recognizing the contributions gave way to an uncomfortable editorializing of the show. It was proclaimed that we all just took our first giant step towards genuine reconciliation. For me, this reflected a sense of self-importance, which betrayed the spirit of much that came before it. The decision to determine and articulate what is and is not reconciliation belongs to survivors.

When Pearl finally got to speak, and sing a healing song – and she did so on a level equalling Downie – she finished by telling the crowd: “my father died not knowing why Charlie died. My Mother still does not know why.” After a silence someone in the middle of the theatre, perhaps inspired by the reconciliatory theme of the postscript shouted, “to bring us together!” In that moment I could not imagine a more grotesque thing to say, shocking and predictable at the same time. Because I suspect that individual would not, for one second, sacrifice their son or daughter for our unity. The capacity of some Canadians for reconciliation is often so clearly shallow.

Finally, there was time for final words from Gord Downie, who hesitated at first and then leaned into the microphone, gifts from the community in his hands, and said, “it’s time to start, folks.” Its time for change, time to do the right things. There was never a greater understatement spoken in this country. Still, I believe it was genuine. For all the airy talk of national reconciliation, the concert ultimately felt singular to me. It was one man’s public apology. Or perhaps the Downie family’s, who are coming to terms with a different kind of of grief. But for their part, the Wenjacks accepted it with dignity.

Indian Status: Why are we Still Hanging On?

After my daughter was born, her first official document, before a health card or long-form birth certificate, was an Indian status card. There were few reasons to rush, but I somehow needed her identity confirmed in lamination. This, despite the knowledge that status is an artificial designation created by a colonial government to eradicate Indians, in a legal sense at least.

So, as I think about whether status is still important in 2016, I struggle to untangle the contradictions between the assimilatory aims of status and my eagerness to sign another generation up. Settler pre-occupation with defining “the other” in the Americas reaches back to Columbus and the question of how to legally steal land and enslave New World black and brown people. Theologians decided that faith in God was the mark of the civilized, which conferred rights to land and life. Coincidentally, no faith could be found in the Americas. Indian meant heretic.

Further along in the story of status are the proto-Canadian Gradual Civilization Acts of the 1850s. They reflected similar ideas of a savage-civilized binary and encouraged First Nation people to accept citizenship by enfranchising (abandon status to become god-fearing farmers and honorary white men). To do otherwise meant a non-human designation, as the Indian Act proclaimed to decades later: “The term ‘person’ means an individual other than an Indian.”

From conception, status was meant as a temporary designation on the path to post-Indian. It sought to override authentic First Nation notions of belonging and identity and thereby erase the foundations of original governance and social structures. To a great extent, it has been successful, seen in the divisions between status and non-status Indians as well as the mass exclusion of First Nation women. The deployment and maintenance of status has been a tremendously effective tool for Canada in the efforts to unmake First Nations.

So why do many First Nation people still hold on?

I learned recently that a friend, after 25 years of bureaucratic wrangling, finally obtained her Indian status. She told me that she wept with joy. And even though she has close connections to her First Nation, it was status that allowed for a true sense of belonging. It meant she could live in the village, be buried there, have access to (limited) programs and services, and have benefit from aboriginal and treaty rights. (Or at least join the rest of the status Indians waiting for Canada to honour aboriginal and treaty rights).

Later, I was discussing all of the above with a small group of friends. Red and white certificates of authenticity in hand, it turned out we were all expired. One among us told a story about her recent trip to IKEA, where she tried to convince the cashier of her official Indian-ness in light of her card’s expiry date. She held the line up and argued and finally got that 8 per cent discount. The savings mattered. But I think there was something else too.

Gaining status or using status holds the federal government accountable for a history of neglect. It is a public shaming of the absurd nature of the Canada-First Nation relationship: “I survived genocide and all I got was this particleboard dresser!” It is a refusal to abdicate to the overbearing insistence among Canadians that our so-called special rights disappear. It is a small act of resistance, even if a potentially Pyrrhic one.

Of course, there are alternative forms of defining identity, membership and citizenship in communities. We have clan-based and other kinship systems, adoption processes and welcoming ceremonies – many of which are being revitalized at First Nations and in cities. When my community began thinking anew about the issue, we employed the concept edbendaagzijig. The translation is “those who belong” and comes from an old word for “the Creator.” So we belong to the creator or, in another translation, the land. We do not belong to the federal government.

Yet Indian administrators refuse to acknowledge that, deviate from the concept of status, or transfer control. First Nations likewise steadfastly refuse to disappear.

All of this means that Indian status remains important in 2016 and will endure for at least another generation yet.

Canada and UNDRIP: A Chronology Characterized by Confusion

Indigenous nations have sought to assert jurisdiction in their territories since the first settler arrived. Whether through trade, treaty, negotiations, the courts, or via blockade, that demand has been crystal clear. Canadian governments have responded with a variety of half-measures, from the land claim system to consultation guidelines, or open violence and criminalization. Almost always, conflict endures.

Last week the Government of Canada signalled an opportunity to exit this cycle with the end of its objector status, adoption, and implementation of the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). This includes the contentious principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). While the development could represent that long hoped-for opportunity to reconcile competing claims to sovereignty, the discussion to date has instead been characterized by confusion.

Consider the chronology of Canada’s official positions on UNDRIP – and specifically FPIC – since October 2015.

Fall 2015: When Prime Minister Trudeau campaigned for the Indigenous vote last fall, he seemingly endorsed FPIC, suggesting that on pipelines, mining, or industrial forestry in Indigenous territory, “no would absolutely mean no.” Complementing these commitments, Trudeau promised to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and UNDRIP, both of which emphasize FPIC. In nearly seven months since forming government, opportunities have come and gone.

January 2016: One of those opportunities arrived when the ministers of Natural Resources and Environment unveiled interim changes to the environmental assessment process (it is through this process where existing consultation requirements are triggered). The federal government made clear in the new changes, “Indigenous peoples will be meaningfully consulted, and where appropriate, impacts on their rights and interests will be accommodated.” Of course consultation and accommodation do not allow for consent (or lack thereof), meaningfully or not.

April 2016: Last month Cree NDP MP Romeo Saganash introduced a very straightforward private member’s bill that would commit the federal government to implement UNDRIP. It was received with hesitation by the aforementioned Minister of Natural Resources, Jim Carr, who suggested the government is already working on a “Canadian definition” of the Declaration. What is a Canadian definition?

2010 to present: When the previous government signalled intentions to endorse UNDRIP, Ministers of Indian Affairs Strahl, Duncan, and Valcourt, one after another, all emphasized the “aspirational” nature of the Declaration and that section 35 of the constitution already included rights captured by UNDRIP. Interestingly, the latest Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett used very similar language at the UN last week, suggesting Canada will “fully implement UNDRIP without qualification” through a “section 35 framework.”

Currently, section 35 of the constitution mandates governments to merely consult and accommodate Indigenous communities negatively affected by policy, law, or development. Indeed, over the past 30 years the courts have laid out infringement tests on Aboriginal title and treaty lands, precluding the requirement that governments obtain and respect consent. So unless the current government plans to amend the constitution and import UNDRIP into section 35 to ensure that courts, provinces/territories, and future governments are forced to honour FPIC, Minister Bennett’s promise to “fully” and “without qualification” implement UNDRIP seems untenable. A Canadian definition of UNDRIP remains elusive.

February – May 2016: Adding to this doublespeak by the federal government is shifting language by the First Nations leadership. At an Assembly of First Nations (AFN) energy forum last winter, National Chief Perry Bellegarde took the opportunity to ceremonially blanket the Minister of Natural Resources and call for “inclusion into decision-making” (a significant contrast from free, prior and informed consent). Indeed, the National Chief has oscillated from suggesting there is no veto in UNDRIP – a constant position over the past year – to insisting last week that FPIC means “respecting no” which seems like a veto in all but name. So which is it?

After months of discussion and statements from official representatives, we are somehow no closer to clarity on Canada (or even the AFN’s) position on UNDRIP and FPIC. Will Romeo Saganash’s private member’s bill become law? Will the government introduce its own legislation? Is there a consultation framework to determine the path forward (and who will be represented)? Will the new environmental assessment process include FPIC? How will the provinces and territories be included? Will a constitutional amendment be considered? How exactly does this government interpret section 35? Does the AFN support Indigenous communities’ right to a veto on federal and provincial decisions on their land? The questions go on, and on.

Unfortunately at this point, the only thing we know for sure is that Indigenous communities in the way of development will continue to assert jurisdiction and attempt to enforce their own versions of FPIC. It is a transparency that federal and First Nation politicians could learn from.


If we want to end indigenous suffering, we must end colonization (co-authored with Tanya Kappo)

Sometimes the absence of death is a month, maybe two. Lately it has been only weeks, and even days. Increasingly, our communities are declaring states of emergency as a response to suicide and suicide attempts. For many of us, the state of emergency simply doesn’t end. For communities like Neskantaga, Pimicikamak, Pangnirtung, and Attiwapiskat, this is the reality.

The response from Canadians to these states of emergency has followed a predictable pattern: Suicides (or suicide attempts) lead to calls for help; there are news headlines; sad prime ministerial tweets; the dispatching of crisis teams; and repeat.This week, there were 11 suicide attempts in Attawapiskat. And while we may never understand individual motivations, we have evidence of the kinds of conditions that lead to that depth of despair.

Generally, suicides and suicide attempts result from factors such as mental health issues, post-traumatic stress, or substance abuse. In our communities, these factors are magnified by nearly two centuries of colonization: assimilation legislation, rapid cultural loss, dispossession of lands and economies, poor housing, and lack of access to clean water.

These conditions result in life always near death. Communities are constantly treading just above the surface of the water, and trying not to drown.

Explaining the source these crises is relatively straightforward. But communities know the solutions, too: authentic opportunities for the full reclamation of our identities – our languages, our cultures, our traditions and our relationship with the land and waters. This would require restored jurisdiction, honoured treaties, health care and education. This would bring an end to being forced to live in conditions of poverty.

We believe, and are supported by the Indigenous academic and policy research on suicide in First Nation and Inuit communities, that colonization is the problem. The obvious solution, then, is to end the colonization.

Twenty years ago, Canada published the findings of The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). It was the most comprehensive study on our collective relationship in all areas of life, and offered progressive and hopeful suggestions for improvement. Included in RCAP was a stand-alone report on suicide called “Choosing Life.” Reflecting the problems and solutions we have outlined above, it also charted an implementation plan, costs, timelines, etc. Governments with the power to heed that advice have come and gone. And conditions in our communities have worsened.

How can the inertia be explained? Why, today, with all our knowledge of the dynamics of Indigenous suicide (and especially in the supposed era of truth and reconciliation) are there no authentic efforts being undertaken to address the structural causes of suicide?

First, all those suffering communities are simply not worth helping. The undeniable fact is that to really deal with these challenges, significant resources are required. This is true for any of the inter-related issues: child welfare, food security or mouldy schools. But to date, sharing some of the land and resources that make Canada rich (and which comes from the very people attempting suicide en masse) has not been considered. Indeed this form of restitution would require sacrifice, something Canadians have been unwilling to do from the first settlers through to the latest budget.

Second, and related, the systemic changes required to raise the quality of life for communities is contrary to the preferred policy prescriptions of provincial and federal governments. Despite the so-called nation-to-nation relationship, First Nations increasingly resemble municipalities, with few discernible powers or rights. When an emergency arises, instead of acting, the federal and provincial governments debate who has “responsibility.” It seems to us that Canadians would prefer that First Nations disappear altogether.

These are not new conclusions. In his 1969 book The Unjust Society, Harold Cardinal observed that “the Native people of Canada look back on generations of accumulated frustration under conditions which can only be described as colonial, brutal and tyrannical, and look to the future with the gravest of doubts.” Nearly 50 years later, those grave doubts remain.

We are tired of this reality. Tired of Canadian politicians offering only sympathy. Tired of uninformed pundits calling for irresponsible relocation experiments. And tired of pointing to incremental progress when the state of emergency is a fact of life for many Indigenous peoples in contemporary Canada.

Our people have already started the work for our next generation. There must be hope for them, and they must be protected from the brutal and tyrannical consequences of colonization.

Listen to us, to our communities: We know the answer, we are the answer.

The truth is there. But reconciliation is deeply complicated (co-authored with Erica Violet Lee)

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was released Tuesday, weighing 25 pounds and containing more than two million words. It is the culmination of six years of painful testimony from residential school survivors, a wide-ranging public education campaign by the commissioners, and the hope for beginnings of a substantive conversation on the meaning of reconciliation among Canadians.

But before we discuss reconciling, we need truth.

While the utility of the 94 “Calls to Action” made by the TRC in July 2015 and again today are critical as we look towards the future, it is the historical record of residential schools that is required reading for Canadians to understand the contours of the grotesque campaign. That record is confirmation of colonial crimes against indigenous peoples on this land. It is recognition that 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their homes, and yes, that is genocide.

The physical and sexual abuse, the brainwashing, the experimentation, the massive scale of disease and death defies comprehension. Chairman Murray Sinclair remarked this week that the final report underestimates how many indigenous children were lost to residential schools. We may never know the number.

We would add to the apocalyptic accounting those lives lost to sexual and gender violence, homelessness, substance abuse, suicide, and poverty; all of which remain endemic after the last residential school closed, and all of them undeniable consequences of a system designed to assimilate and erase.

It is understandable, then, that the notion of reconciliation is complicated.

For some, there is a general feeling that the release of the report marks the end of this awful era, and the beginning of another, new friendships and long-awaited harmony. Perhaps even the mythical post-colonial period?

At the least, we can say there has never been a more engaged public on indigenous issues.

Indeed a new government has committed to implementing all the calls to action (presumably meaning the calls under the federal government’s jurisdiction). This was to start with the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples but has already been preceded by the establishment of an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. The haste deserves praise.

Yet we have heard such promises before and watched them break. For many, “reconciliation” is uttered skeptically and with the truth in view.

After all, so few have been brought to justice for their crimes, so little land has been returned. Countless families will never realize healing.

When considering some of the challenges that residential schools precipitated, we wonder if the future will see yet another report on another history of violence. Will it be the child welfare system that houses more kids than ever attended residential schools (also in the name of protection)? Or will it be the prison system, which incarcerates indigenous people en masse and keeps them there, often because they are indigenous?

This is the present for many. And it doesn’t feel like reconciliation.

Perhaps reconciliation is best understood then, ironically, as conflict. We will struggle through this. We will struggle to teach about residential schools, debate who teaches it, and pray that we learn. We will continue to struggle with our very identities, addressing assimilation, racism, and trauma to find our way home. We will demand the return of land and jurisdiction over it and Canada will keep refusing.

The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the inquiry for missing and murdered indigenous women, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission itself, and every victory in aboriginal rights over the past 150 years has been hard-won.

The struggle goes on. That’s the fundamental truth about reconciliation in Canada.

Can Trudeau deliver on his First Nations promises? Liberal governments have talked a good game in the past

The 42nd Canadian election campaign is finally over. It was the 18th for First Nations people in the freedom-to-vote era.

And, this time, First Nation as well as Métis and Inuit people did indeed participate.

There were also more First Nation, Métis and Inuit candidates running for office than ever before and the greatest number — 10 — ever elected. Perhaps we will even see more than one cabinet minister.

By many accounts this election also saw the largest turnout of First Nation, Métis and Inuit voters, so high that some communities ran out of ballots.

Something clearly resonated. That something was, at least in part, Justin Trudeau.

While First Nation, Métis and Inuit issues were peripheral to the 12-week campaign, and nearly non-existent in the national conversation, party leaders and candidates did work to address the issues at the more local level.

Trudeau spoke to the Assembly of First Nations, as well as participated in APTN’s “Virtual Town Hall” broadcast; he even responded in writing to questions from the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres.

We have some idea of Trudeau’s vision. It is ambitious. If considered seriously, what are the implications of the Liberal Party’s commitments to Indigenous Peoples?

Nation to nation

First, or at least within the first 100 days, Trudeau has committed to an inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.

He has also promised to consult in the three months leading up to the inquiry, and to focus on justice, healing and ending violence.

In this, and seemingly everything else related to First Nation, Métis and Inuit issues, Trudeau has routinely stressed a return to nation-to-nation relationships.

While it is not entirely clear what that entails, Trudeau did, in a speech to chiefs on the eve of the campaign in July, open by recognizing the importance of the Two Row Wampum.

This cardinal treaty in the canon of Haudenosaunee (Iroquoian) post-contact diplomacy demands mutual autonomy. As the common reading goes, First Nation signatories paddle their canoe, and settlers paddle theirs. Neither shall steer the other’s vessel.

In practical terms, nation-to-nation should mean the closure of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and an end to interventionist policies and attitudes.

But Trudeau went further during the campaign when he promised to review all Harper-era legislation on First Nations and repeal those that contravened Section 35 of the Constitution respecting aboriginal and treaty rights.

In his discussion with APTN, Trudeau actually proposed a “complete review” of all laws passed without consultation.

At the least, we should see the end to the previous government’s Indian Act amendments, Transparency Act, Bill C-51 and so on. A review ought to include the Indian Act itself and the unilateral 1867 British North America Act.

Trudeau has also committed to implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In at least one speech, he mentioned that implementation would start with the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

At the heart of the declaration is land restitution, Article 26, which stipulates that “Indigenous Peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.”

Accepting the TRC recommendations while adopting UN declaration would be a package deal sure to improve the relationship.

Informed consent

In a related matter, the issue of veto power over resource development affecting indigenous lands also came up during the campaign.

Trudeau accepted the principle of free, prior and informed consent, stating “governments grant permits, communities grant permission.”

Though consent will require federal legislation to bypass regulating agencies and coerce the provinces, which currently have jurisdiction over natural resources, it seems possible that First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples might finally have this power restored.

In addition to all of the above, Trudeau has also committed to closing the gap in education, and advancing housing, health, policing, and child welfare issues collaboratively through a renewed Kelowna Accord effort.

He’ll clean up dirty water, fix food security issues in the north, address the root causes of urban homelessness, restore a rigorous environmental assessment process, tackle Métis economic and legal concerns, and keep land conflicts out of the courts. And build the Freedom Road to Shoal Lake #40.

Note of caution

A brief note of caution is probably appropriate here.

Federal Liberal governments do have a record of breaking promises when it comes to Indigenous Peoples.

After the 1967 pro-rights Hawthorne report, Pierre Trudeau committed to a “just” new direction on Indian policy.

But what he delivered was a 1969 white paper aimed at assimilation.

In 1993, the Jean Chretien Liberals drafted a progressive Aboriginal platform for their first election, but once elected completely ignored it and any semblance of Aboriginal rights.

In fact, soon after they implemented a strict funding cap that has resulted in a de facto decrease in resources for communities every year for the past 24.

Despite this history, the First Nation, Métis and Inuit vote this time was hearty. We are told it mattered, and so why not expect the dramatic transformation explicit in Liberal Party commitments?

After all Justin Trudeau has promised real change.

Lines on the Shore: Stories from the Border of an Island Indian Reserve

On the north shore of Gchi Nme Mnissing, “The Great Sturgeon Island” (and otherwise known as Beausoleil First Nation or Christian Island), is the Big Sand Bay. It’s an arcing black and tan beach flanked by cedar trees and Muskoka chairs. From below the sand is consumed by the clear and bright breaking waves of Georgian Bay. It’s a feast overseen by cottagers, visitors, who through a legal and economic deal with the First Nation and federal government occupy this and many of the Island’s sand beaches during the summer months.

Before the ancestors arrived on the coast another people called it home. To the Huron it was Gahoendoe. They spent their brief time on the shore trying to trade with the Anishinaabeg in the north and building St. Marie II, a Jesuit mission promising shelter from the Nahdoway at the end of the seventeenth-century war. Across the bay to the east those Nahdoway camped on the limestone shelf known as Cedar Ridge, presiding over Huron gloom. Today you can see St. Marie II when arriving at the Island by boat. It’s that pile of rocks beside the school.

The ice comes and goes. For a few years there will be none and then a period of low and cold water that freezes thick enough to walk, snowmobile and eventually drive across. It is a freedom rarely taken for granted. In the old days of the early spring, people used to hop from iceberg to iceberg to work or school. Last winter there were two roads. The first cracked and flooded, the second lasted the duration. Over the years men have set out from one shore but fell short of the other, down through the ice in their Chevy or Ford.

The white stone can be blinding on sunny days. A beacon on the southern peninsula of the Island, the lighthouse stands nearly six stories tall. It is one of the six so-called Imperial Lighthouses built throughout Lake Huron. It was the first constructed, completed in 1857 (the same year the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes of Canada Act was passed). This imperial light guided mid-to-late nineteenth century imperial traders and fisherman up and down the coast, past the Island to somewhere else. Do not crash on these dark shores. During the Great War the army came and stripped the lighthouse of its steel.

On the trip west from Coldwater-Narrows, that first failure of a reserve experiment in Canada, the Catholics and Anglicans who joined the Ojibwe (many of them Catholics and Anglicans as well) granted themselves the privilege of naming. They called the three Islands, which now comprise the reserve, Charity, Faith and Hope. My father’s ashes mingle with the dunes of Faith. On Charity, bodies from elsewhere sometimes wash ashore. There were two corpses last spring. The couple that discovered the second thought it was an odd shaped white boulder until they didn’t.

Aside from occasional ice, there are no roads to and from Gchi Nme Mnissing, just The Boat. There have been many boats over the years: The Quinte, The Upper Canada and The R.A. Hoey. Hoey was an Indian Affairs bureaucrat, an enforcer of the residential in residential schools and champion of selective human breeding. Today it’s the MV Sandy Graham trekking across a dozen times a day. Alexander (Sandy) Graham was a North Carolina democrat and public servant. His namesake is 60 years old now and spends at least a few weeks a year getting patched up in one shipyard or another. But it is the lifeline for women who haul food and children between shores.

After being pushed out of their territory in what is now Wisconsin, a group of Bodawatomi came north. They helped defend what was becoming Canada in the War of 1812 and then searched for a new home. They reached the shores of the Island just before the Ojibwe who travelled from Coldwater. But the pious did not like these ones; too heathen, obstinate, and refusing to convert. And so they were banished to the eastern coast, eating raccoons and seagull eggs when they weren’t starving. Their descendants are keepers of ceremony still.

Just south of the dock, on the mainland side, there used to be a clearing in the bush close to the water. It was known as Toby’s Tavern. My grandfather would occasionally be there with friends, off the reserve and away from the restrictions of the Indian Act. Today it’s surrounded by million-dollar vacation homes that face the bay. Cottagers glimpsing the Island, holidays occasionally interrupted when the long dead pass freely through their concrete and siding. Here, lingering ghosts are as dependable as crashing waves and crumbling beach.

This article draws on stories from the Late Leon King, Gloria and Roseanne King, Larry Copegog, Valerie Monague, Roly Monague, Shelby King-Shawongonabe, Marla Monague and the Scott Family.


Three reasons why First Nations voters are suddenly more engaged: New pro-vote push for federal election could represent major shift in First Nations political values

Just a few weeks into the federal election, it’s fair to say this campaign will see a dramatic rise in participation by indigenous voters.

Already there are more than 40 First Nation, Métis or Inuit candidates seeking mainstream party nominations and a handful of ridings where all of the candidates are indigenous.

As well, the main parties are making prominent political promises to First Nations, and there is much loud encouragement by the Assembly of First Nations, the Native Women’s Association, and the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, among others, to get out the vote.

This represents a paradigm shift.

From the earliest days surrounding the introduction of voting, First Nation reaction has generally oscillated between apathy and outright hostility.

The first real attempt to convince First Nations peoples to vote was led by prime minister John A. Macdonald in 1885 when he spearheaded the Electoral Franchise Act, which applied to Indians in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. (Those in the North and West were excluded as unfit.)

At the time, “civilization” was actually a requirement to vote: First Nations people were not forced to renounce status or treaty rights in the 1885 legislation, but they were obligated to hold property in fee simple and demonstrate that they had “improved” that property.

The legislation was repealed in 1898, as was the Indian vote.

First Nation sovereignty

It took another sixty years before the second attempt at the federal level. In 1960 John Diefenbaker extended the franchise to status Indians, an accompaniment to his Bill of Rights.

And like Macdonald, Diefenbaker had an underlying civilizing impulse, in his case, hoping First Nations peoples would consider themselves individuals within Canada.

For the Conservative leader, the franchise was about equality as much as it was an inducement to eschew the collective rights, land claims and self-government that many were vocally pursuing at the time.

Both of these not-so-subtle efforts at integration were apparent to First Nations and they reacted in kind.

The 1885 legislation was met with fears of imposed Canadian citizenship and the 1960 law sparked protests across the country to protect First Nation sovereignty.

Later, even national chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations, like Georges Erasmus and Ovide Mercredi, questioned the utility of voting.

By 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples bluntly noted that First Nations people view Canada’s electoral system as “inherently ineffective” and that First Nations are instead “seeking nation-to-nation political relations which can’t be achieved by representation in Canadian political institutions.”

So what changed?

Anyone but Conservative

Throughout Canada’s modern history there have been few government’s more hostile to indigneous concerns than the three led by Stephen Harper.

Nearly every piece of legislation affecting First Nations, from the Financial Transparency Act to matrimonial real property legislation and even the Safe Water Act has been passed unilaterally, without serious consultation.

As well, criminal justice laws have led to rising incarceration rates, environmental policy has eroded treaty rights, funding for everything from political advocacy to healing foundations and homeless shelters has been dramatically cut, the Idle No More movement was ignored, and the response to missing and murdered indigenous women and girls has been essentially to blame indigenous men.

There is a widely held sentiment that First Nations must do what they can to oust Harper.

As the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Derek Nepinak, recently said: “We can mitigate the damages by voting for a different government.”

So far in this campaign, First Nations seem ready to join a chorus of previously non-partisan interest groups – veterans, school teachers, postal workers, scientists — lobbying for change.

For the first time in the country’s history, it appears (some) interests may be aligned.

Searching for leadership

There is probably no group in Canada more political than First Nations.

Direct action, legal battles, media activism are all common features of the average First Nation life. And while there are thousands of “unofficial” leaders in communities, a perpetual challenge is advocacy at the federal level.

The Indian Act has constricted band council governments to local affairs. Meanwhile the AFN has been struggling with an ongoing renewal campaign to make the organization representative of grassroots people.

This relative incapacitation, paired with significant outreach by the Liberal, Green and New Democratic parties, makes Canadian politics now seem viable, whether people are seeking alternatives to current political leadership or just a compliment.

Changing political values

Historically, there have been two broad First Nation views on the relationship with Canada.

First, there is the nationalist perspective, which considers First Nations sovereign, with self-determination pre-dating Canada, and rejecting Canadian legal and economic orders as fundamentally violent for truncating the practices of nationhood.

The second, more liberal approach considers a place for First Nations peoples within Canada, a place that would allow them to relate to governments as nations but largely as individuals, with parliamentary and judicial institutions considered appropriate sites of change.

While the nationalist approach has generally dominated First Nations history, and reflects the no-vote sentiment of yore, the new pro-vote push may be indicative of changing political values.

For example, the majority of First Nations people now live in cities and have many reasons to vote that are unrelated to rights and title.

Moreover, the demands of previous nationalist generations: jurisdictional concerns, land restitution, treaty federalism, etc., seem to be absent from the current voting discourse.

Finally, the partisan diversity of those First Nations’ champions-of-the-vote suggests a trending individualistic (as opposed to collective) political outlook.

An odd future?

These three broad explanations are not meant to be exclusive. It may be that shades of each blend into the new pro-vote paradigm. Or, that First Nations are simply, finally, becoming familiar with the idea of voting (it’s only been a few decades, after all).

But until now, First Nations have never neatly fit into the Canadian political spectrum.

If either the Liberals and/or New Democrats do indeed form the next government and honour their campaign promises, there may be all the more incentive to participate in Canadian electoral and party politics.

It could represent, at least in part, the previously unimaginable and odd future that Macdonald and Diefenbaker originally envisioned.

TRC report a good start, but now it’s time for action (co-authored with Vanessa Watts-Powless)

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 382-page summary of its final report includes 94 compelling recommendations. The task now is their acceptance and implementation, and the reorientation of Canadians’ strained attitude toward reconciliation.

We have been here before. As far back as 1907, the Bryce Report chronicled the atrocious conditions at residential schools, and Saturday Night magazine, in turn, reported that “even war seldom shows as large a percentage of fatalities as does the education system we have imposed upon our Indian wards.” Almost a century later, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples prescribed 440 ways to improve the relationship between indigenous peoples and the rest of Canada, laying out a 20-year plan whose implementation would cost tens of billions of dollars, and resistance to which has likely squandered even more than that sum in court battles alone. To say nothing of the Hawthorn Report (1967), the Penner Report (1983), provincial justice inquiries in Manitoba (2001) and Ontario (2007), and even the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples (2007).

The formulaic response to these moments of clarity and accompanying opportunity has been tacit acceptance, followed closely by delay and obfuscation, then apathy, and finally the status quo. It is a tradition in this country to ignore progressive solutions to the Canadian problem. This aversion is rooted in a resistance to sacrificing privilege and sharing power.

It is important to preface the argument we are making here with a note about healing – the face of reconciliation that dominates the current conversation. With all our hearts, we, too, know that healing is required. Every day, we see the need for healing in our communities and in our lives. The pain of generations of men and women has been on display for Canadians to see, as well. For the past seven years, indigenous peoples have spoken with clarity, honesty and courage. And in writing this, we do not intend to distract from the affection and support for those survivors and their families that indigenous peoples feel at this moment.

Yet, we must also talk about restitution. Reconciliation requires restoring what is owed to indigenous peoples: the return of land; the re-emergence of our legal and educational systems; the rebuilding of structures that will allow families to reconnect and thrive; answers and action on missing and murdered women and girls; a return to language fluency and vibrant spiritual practices; and the return of children still being taken away from their communities. Some of these are included in the TRC’s report, some are not. All are just, by any measure.

That does not mean Canadians will oblige. Land, for instance, has been among the clearest sources of conflict. Residential schools were one strategy among many to force indigenous peoples from the land. The dispossession continues, as provincial and territorial governments greedily protect their unfounded title. Correspondingly, restoring indigenous title to that land is among the loudest demands by indigenous peoples. Occupying contested land has, historically, been met with force. There seems little room in Canada’s constitutional framework for a division of federal, provincial and indigenous powers. Jurisdictions must be renegotiated.

Current education policy is also an unrestrained disaster. Schools in First Nations communities are shockingly under-resourced, as residential schools were. And in provincial curricula, indigenous peoples are lucky to appear at Thanksgiving, if at all. Changing these conditions requires significant funds to build schools, repair them, and pay teachers fair salaries. More, changing the curriculum in each jurisdiction, effectively rewriting history, is a process that will challenge the very identity of Canada. Stories that need to be told include those of forced removals through policies of aggressive assimilation, and the disenfranchisement of indigenous war veterans.

The list goes on. As the TRC recommends, there are many areas that need to be addressed. Among them is the overhaul of a justice system that sends indigenous men and women to prison en masse. Increased and fair indigenous representation in terms of juries, lawyers, judges and policing can mitigate this. Restorative-justice practices have been implemented in some communities, but these are few and far between.

The child-welfare system, which houses more children today than at the height of the residential school era, is another obvious priority. The transfer of authority to indigenous governments, so that they can develop their own agencies to protect indigenous children, is essential. This should coincide with educational programming, for existing provincial child-welfare agencies, about the ongoing impact that residential schools have on families.

The TRC also highlights the need to revitalize our nearly extinguished languages. Funding for language immersion and retention programs will help to restore what was once forbidden in residential schools.

Each of these disturbing abuses is a direct consequence of the residential school system. And change for each requires significant institutional transformation, financial resources and will.

The sheer scope of the challenge may contribute to paralysis; ongoing racism certainly does. But above all, there will be a resistance to bona fide change because interests will clash. Reconciliation requires the transformation of entrenched power relations, the release of illegally acquired territory, and the acceptance that the long hoped-for assimilation of indigenous people has and will continue to fail.

Reconciliation will not be easy, because the reality that indigenous peoples face is born of violence: the violence of residential schools, the violence of broken treaty promises, the violence that labels them terrorists when they defend their land, the violence that sees indigenous women and girls vanish when walking down the street.

This leads naturally to a deep skepticism of the concept of reconciliation itself. We do not mean to discount a common future. Rather, we want to say that reconciliation is about restitution. Without it, meaningful reconciliation will be incomplete.

Who belongs on a reserve? First Nations will decide (Co-authored with Jessica Deer)

n recent months, the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community of Kahnawake has re-opened discussion on its controversial 1984 membership law. The renewed debate has been accompanied by provocative developments: Protests outside homes, eviction notices sent to “foreign” residents, accusations of racism from the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, and a lawsuit challenging the membership law in court.

This fraught terrain has confused and outraged Canadians, partly because the story has lacked context and nuance in the media.

While unique in many ways, Kahnawake is one First Nation among many grappling with these issues. After the failure of the 1969 White Paper on Indian Policy and its assimilative prescription to eliminate Indian status and bands, the federal government has been pursuing a slightly amended policy of devolution: First Nations are asked to assume more administrative control of programs and services, from education and health care to housing and infrastructure, but with inadequate resources.

Corresponding to the devolution process have been revisions to the Indian Act as it relates to Indian status. From the “honorary white man” policy of the 1850s, Canadian legislation has intended to unmake Indians in the legal sense. Much of this strategy has focused on attacking women, removing their status if they marry a non-status Indian, which resulted in the disenrollment of tens of thousands of individuals who rightfully belonged within their nations. In post-Charter Canada, the Indian Act was successfully challenged and amendments in 1985 and 2011 partly ended the discrimination, precipitating a surge in the “official” First Nation population.

While much has been made of the “marry out, get out” provision at Kahnawake, the membership law, as well as many other First Nation membership laws, is more complex. The objective is to separate Indian status from band membership and take control of the latter from the federal government. “Membership” in this sense includes residency qualifications, electoral rules and treaty rights, eligibility guidelines on business operations, and even burial plot designation. In reserve politics, or “reserve nationalism” as Audra Simpson calls it, this might be described as citizenship and even immigration policy. In a general sense, it is about who belongs.

There are two extremes in this conversation. The “exclusive” membership perspective views lineage as the crucial qualification to belonging. Citizens must be descended from indigenous peoples, inculcated in indigenous culture. They exclude those with weak lineage or none at all, especially if taking up land or resources. Of course, communities today have increasing numbers of both groups. About three-dozen of those who share this conservative approach to membership at Kahnawake are responsible for taking the initiative to evict non-indigenous people from the community.

The “inclusive” perspective advocates for a more open community not necessarily delimited by strict ancestral connection but inter-community relationships. It is the far more common practice among indigenous peoples (extending the rafters of the longhouse, the ever-expanding circle, etc.). Non-indigenous people who can make a contribution to the community while reflecting indigenous values should be welcome. In the case of Kahnawake, a handful of these inclusive proponents are appealing to the Quebec Superior Court to protect this view.

In many ways, the debate revolves around claims of authenticity: A contentious notion after 150 years of Indian policies that have cultivated artificial governments and islands of reserved lands, imposed patriarchy and domesticated sovereignty. Indeed, indigenous peoples would be justified in evicting white people from the little land we have left if that were the case. But this is a crude simplification. Despite the opinions of pundits or politicians on the allegedly racist law at Kahnawake (or elsewhere), this is fundamentally about people passionately and earnestly working towards visions of community well-being amid very real, long-standing and external constraints. This is about striving to be Kanien’kehá:ka or Anishinaabe in a place traditionally hostile to that very proposition.

First Nations crisis is about land. We need a new settlement

The Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee haven’t always been the best of friends. Still, in hundreds of years of conflict, peace and diplomacy, we figured out how to live and work together on the land. One of the most potent symbols of that relationship is the agreement known as the Dish with One Spoon. This pragmatic arrangement recognized that even as distinct nations, we can share the same territory. But we need to acknowledge our mutual obligations to ensure the dish is always full, “as long as the world stands,” as my relative Misko Ki (Red Earth) once said. Importantly, there are no forks or knives at the table with which we can stab each other, just a spoon that we share.

As settlers began to proliferate in what would become the Great Lakes area, they too were invited to eat from the dish. But over time their collective appetite eroded the principles of mutual autonomy, humility and sustainability. The features of that original relationship were replaced with notions of “surrender” and “extinguishment” – sharp objects that cleaved indigenous peoples away from their territories. Today, these newer concepts are still fundamental components of the treaty architecture in Canada. If there is “one issue” running through this “Rich Country, Poor Nations series that requires resolution, it is the ongoing alienation of indigenous peoples from the land.

At the heart of this story is a continuing clash of perspectives. When the formal confederation-era treaties were created, indigenous nations understood the agreements as providing settlers with some land for farming, grass for animals to graze, timber to build homes, and peace and friendship. Those Dakota and Saulteaux people, among others, would continue on as they had with some help in times of need. But for Canadians these treaties were transactional and extremely profitable: a few dollars per year, some tools, and setting aside tiny plots of reserve land secured the surrender of a country. The enforcement of this latter interpretation has meant widespread impoverishment, breakdown of authentic gender roles, and general social suffering for indigenous peoples.

Despite one hundred and fifty years of protest, this interpretation stubbornly remains the dominant treaty paradigm. While it is often assumed that the courts treat indigenous claimants generously via legal principals such as the duty to consult, that initial presumption of surrender has never been questioned and provincial and federal governments continue to assume exclusive jurisdiction. The recent modern land claim agreements are celebrated for offering restitution yet insist on the extinguishment of title to nine out of ten rivers and forests. More often than not, these new treaties – negotiated by indigenous peoples because there are few other options – end up back in court because of a lack of implementation or the familiar misinterpretation.

There are alternatives. We can imagine an escape from the current treaty approach with a renewed embrace of indigenous political economies. What would the Dish with One Spoon look like today?

Regarding the case of the confederation-era treaties, reserve borders could be blended with provincial or federal Crown lands. In these enlarged areas of indigenous jurisdiction the appropriate Blackfoot, Mushkego (or whichever) nations would “manage” these lands. Where there is overlap in traditional territories, principles of indigenous diplomacy would be invoked to share responsibility. Provincial, territorial and federal authority would not disappear; these governments would contribute to management plans and administration. Though mining, forestry and hunting might take place, land use generally would conform to principles that respect indigenous community desires and the rights of the land, as was originally intended.

In areas where there are no treaties, Haisla or Dene title to land would be recognized outright and jurisdiction honoured. All provincial and territorial plans on lands where title exists would seek approval and be harmonized with pre-established indigenous land and resource priorities. And on all lands already illegally settled – where Canadians live and work today – significant tax revenue would be directed to the appropriate indigenous nation. This proposal would also have implications for provincial and territorial authority generally. In these zones of shared sovereignty all law and policy would require collaboration and hopefully consensus.

There will be resistance to these suggestions. After all, this is a fundamental challenge to accepted notions of the Crown, as well as a provocation to the constitutional division of powers. Industry will abhor the perceived uncertainty and governments would be loath to forfeit any power and revenue. But in this supposed era of reconciliation, surely Canadians can make the necessary institutional and legal changes to accommodate multiple sovereignties, diverse legal orders, and long-delayed justice on the land. The struggles that indigenous peoples face in nearly all areas of life today are rooted in this “legal” theft. Canadians should be critically reflecting how they came to eat from the dish in the first place, and perhaps considering a diet.


Don’t Call It a Comeback: While indigenous people keep resisting assimiliation, it’s Canada that needs to catch up (Co-authored with Shiri Pasternak)

The response to the Idle No More Movement has generally wavered between the dismissive and the laudatory. In the latter group, thinkers and writers have emerged to say that things are different now, potentially better. We are changing. Among these forecasters are Bob Rae, Bill Gallagher, Ken Coates, Douglas Bland, Lloyd Axworthy and now John Ralston Saul. They are here to warn you/us that there will be no stopping the phoenix-like re-emergence of Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee and, yes, Métis peoples (as well as many others).

Saul is among the most progressive of these non-Native (white) men. He is a political philosopher who is deeply convinced, as he has previously argued, that Canada’s founding myth is indigenous, rooted in the Métis civilization—our collective political culture born of anglophone, francophone and indigenous heritage. He has consistently submitted that the denial of this shared indigenous heritage is at the heart of our national ambiguity, discontent and even dysfunction.

His new book, The Comeback, distances Saul even further from this cohort, primarily because of his exclusive focus on Canadian culpability. He demands that Canadians look in the mirror and take responsibility for colonial history and for continuing to elect and fund colonial politicians and bureaucrats, and, finally, he urges Canadians to accept that restitution will be required. Restitution, a new concept for Saul and one he attributes to Mohawk intellectual Taiaiake Alfred, involves for him a general “shift in power and in economic wealth.”

In addition to holding Canadians accountable, Saul does an admirable job of dissecting the “termination” legislation that galvanized the Idle No More movement. For example, on the weakening of rules regarding leasing reserve land contained in omnibus bill C-45, he rightly notes that, “there is always the desire of Canadian authorities to reduce the amount of land held by indigenous people and, failing that, to weaken their authority over their land … This has not changed.” Scorn is then heaped generously on these “authorities”—the Department of Aboriginal Affairs with the help of lawyers in the Department of Justice.

To a very significant degree, Saul gets it. There is much in The Comeback that resonates. But there are shortcomings, too, that emanate from the natural though unstated continuity between Saul’s previous work A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada and this new book. The former describes an enlightened birth of Canada while the latter laments the nation’s fall. The obvious prescriptive features of The Comeback—directed at Canadians—is to reverse course and get back to a sort of innate Canadian exceptionalism. Ultimately, this means any transformation in the relationship will be relatively superficial because nothing fundamental about the country’s institutions really needs to change. The implication for indigenous peoples then might simply be a future under a kinder, gentler settler colonialism.

We see this not in Saul’s assessment of the comeback, which we agree is very much a material and ideational reality spanning many generations, but in the shape of the future. Specifically, we see his emphasis on voting in or out unsupportive and delinquent governments, and using the courts to achieve justice as all reinforcing an unthreatening politics of charity: sophisticated and pragmatic, but also relatively benign. We contrast this approach with the work of indigenous intellectuals who have emerged to describe the comeback in more provocative terms—what is increasingly called indigenous resurgence—that call for disengagement from and alternatives to state forms of recognition and reconciliation. These thinkers emphasize Canada as home to multiple sovereignties and jurisdictions of indigenous nations and legal orders, rather than collapsing them into an idyllically common, mythological national identity.

The Limits of Civic Solidarity

One of the surprising elements of The Comeback is the emphasis on Canadian politics. That is, Saul spends many pages chronicling the democratic deficit of recent years: the erosion of “responsible government,” the power held in the executive, the lack of civic action, the increasingly puppet-like governor general and a perceived decline in authentic Canadian political culture. This emphasis seems to point to the underlying goal of the book: building solidarity between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. Saul believes the former can provide the power and instinct for Canadians to help retrieve legitimate governance and democracy in Canada. Together we can then begin to prioritize indigenous issues at the ballot box.

For example, Saul ponders with great attention the significance of indigenous peoples leading the protests against the omnibus legislation in 2013 introduced by the Conservative government. He asserts that the Idle No More movement showed how indigenous leadership “is demonstrating a clear understanding of parliamentary democracy … Aboriginal leaders understand that you must be willing to go into the streets and stay there if your cause is great.” Never mind that the protests failed and the bill became law; there is inspiration to be taken here. Indigenous peoples put their bodies on the line to challenge the current political status quo and Saul is willing and ready to do his part by pushing Canadians to act on indigenous issues. He pleads sincerely in his final chapter:

What stops us—what stops you—from voting people out of Parliament, out of office, because of their refusal to act on indigenous matters? What stops us—you—from voting people into Parliament, into office, because they have a fair and urgent commitment on indigenous questions at the top of their action plan?

This is a dubious strategy and one that has not fared well in the history of Canadian politics. Significant numbers of Canadians, we believe, are willing to speak up for a serious improvement in the relationship with indigenous peoples in this country. But who will they support: the masked land defenders of Elsipogtog? Or will they choose those groups that fit the all-too-Canadian paradigm of “civil” behaviour and the current, unthreatening economic and social status quo?

What happens, in other words, when the idea of being in solidarity (being “good treaty partners” in Saul’s words) contradicts being “good citizens” of the state? Or, when supporting indigenous struggles pits Canadians against jobs in hard-struck resource towns, against the flow of supply chains that Canada’s national economy depends upon? No, the reality is that indigenous interests are too diverse and, let’s face it, irreconcilable with Canadian interests, for voting solidarity to produce tangible results outside what the majority of non-Native peoples (and governments they elect) are willing to permit.

Perhaps a historical precedent can act as an antidote to this kind of thinking. In 1993, Jean Chrétien, then leader of the federal Liberals, announced the party’s Aboriginal Election Platform as part of the Liberal Red Book of policy. Key indigenous strategists and thinkers were hired to form the team that developed the platform. As a result, it included important commitments, which Chrétien supported. By 1996, Ovide Mercredi was burning the Red Book. Not a single campaign promise had been fulfilled. A lesson had been learned.

Reconsidering the “Legal Winning Streak”

A much more common-sense solution to the problems in the general indigenous-Canada relationship revolves around the courts. Much has been made of what members of the consultancy industry have dubbed the aboriginal “legal winning streak” and Saul is certainly not immune to its seductions. In fact, it is the courts where Saul sees the most promise to reorient our relationship from one of paternalism to equality. He writes that arguments and decisions in courts show “the continuing ability of Aboriginal peoples to shape not just how Canada functions or will function, but how Canada imagines itself.”

Yet even in light of the recent and much-celebrated Tsilhqot’in andKeewatin decisions, no court in Canada has ever recognized the sovereignty of indigenous peoples. In fact, courts have taken careful steps to lay down a framework allowing provinces to infringe on aboriginal title if it is in the interests of the public good, and these two cases are examples of that calculation. So as long as courts privilege the rights of the many at the expense of the few and as long as indigenous legal orders are conditional on the convenience of Canadians, the stubborn refusal to take indigenous jurisdictional claims seriously will persist.

This is what anthropologist Michael Asch, in On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada, calls the “major impasse” that Canada has created to reconciling the relationship between newcomers and indigenous peoples. This impasse is captured, Asch believes, in the precedent-setting Supreme Court of Canada case R. v. Van Der Peet, where Justice Lamar defines the basic purpose of aboriginal peoples’ constitutional rights to be the reconciliation of the pre-existence of aboriginal societies with the sovereignty of the Crown. Asch asserts that

this logically ought not be the case, if for no other reason than that the political rights of Indigenous peoples already existed at the time that Crown sovereignty was asserted and, therefore, it is the question of how the Crown gained sovereignty that requires reconciliation with the pre-existence of Indigenous societies and not the other way around.

Courts have been unwilling to address this issue. It is certainly true that the case law on aboriginal rights and title has been expanding in recent years, with recognition of indigenous proprietary interests, the special nature of their relationship to the land/underlying title to the land, and their constitutional rights to their treaties and unceded territories. But there is another side to this story not often told. The courts continue to grant provinces underlying title to land and jurisdiction and they continue to unjustifiably view Canadian sovereignty as absolute. They continue, too, to frame the normative nature of our relationship as charitable. Indigenous rights to land are simultaneously seen as inherent, yet treated as delegated from Crown authority, therefore contingent on Canada’s generosity.

The Comeback versus Indigenous Resurgence

Reflecting on these two broad points, we want to emphasize that electoral politics and court “victories” are not strictly unhelpful. They are tools that can potentially lead to some gains. Moreover, they are somewhat subsidiary to Saul’s commitment of changing the narrative and the myths we tell ourselves that underwrites A Fair Countryand The Comeback. However, as prescriptions they also reveal the underlying, unthreatening politics that Saul advocates. After all, he calls his most prescriptive chapter “Easy Steps”! This is the key point on which we depart. The future will not be easy.

The type of change required includes dramatic economic and political shifts. As Dene political philosopher Glen Coulthard writes in Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, without “a massive transformation in the political economy of contemporary settler-colonialism, any efforts to rebuild our nations will remain parasitic on capitalism, and thus on the perpetual exploitation of our lands and labor,” clashing fundamentally with indigenous values of reciprocity with the land. And politically, in Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson’s new book Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, she motions toward a future where indigenous peoples are not forced to struggle against demands that they be Canadian (or American) citizens, give up land and be absorbed into the logic of property; in sum, that they are not forced to stop being politically indigenous.

These recent works by Coulthard and Simpson reject the Canadian politics of reconciliation and instead posit a politics of refusal. This is simply the culmination of generations of attempts to make change in collaboration with a liberal Canada. While it may seem a segregationist turn (a justifiable position, if that were the case), it does not have to be. Invoking the Anishnaabe prophecy, Leanne Simpson describes the deepening of our collective resurgence. In Lighting the Eighth Fire: The Liberation, Resurgence, and Protection of Indigenous Nations, she writes about the Oshkimaadziig, a new people who reject colonialism, assimilation and destruction of the land, and who work together toward a post-material world. This can happen when “settler society [chooses] to change their ways, to decolonize their relationships with the land and Indigenous Nations, and to join with us in building a sustainable future based on mutual recognition, justice, and respect.”

In some ways this is a similar narrative to Saul’s, a mythology that guides us into the future. But there is a fundamental contrast. Where Saul views Canadian institutions and political culture as naturally good, we assert that they are implicated in creating and nurturing settler colonialism. Saul states early in the book, that, “either you believe in the legitimacy of the structure of the state or you don’t. If you don’t, then that leaves only power, which is a form of absolutism.” We do not believe in the legitimacy of the structures of the state. But neither do we believe in absolutism.

There is another way of looking at things, or another way of changing the narrative. Non-indigenous Canadians must recognize that any restoration of the relationship with indigenous nations will first require a “Canadian comeback,” a reorientation of the political economy away from the mythologies of liberal capitalism toward a more sustainable and just economic and social system. At a minimum this means committing to a redistribution of land, resources and power. Ideally, though, it means collective transformation.

If indigenous peoples are indeed leading this comeback, it is not to fill an ethical and civic gap in an increasingly undemocratic Canada. It is to transcend Canada.

Visionary patriot or hateful embarrassment? The John A. Macdonald debate

Amid the current celebration and accompanying debate of John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday, a realization emerged about the very nature of Canada: this place doesn’t really exist. Certainly the idea of the country pervades the imaginations of millions of Canadians and there are internationally recognized borders, currency, and so on. But it is increasingly difficult to accept that Canada possesses a cohesive and honest narrative of itself. Can a nation persist in the present without a shared understanding of its past?

The debates about John A. Macdonald’s role in Canadian history are polarizing. The boosters proclaim the first Prime Minister as father of confederation, framer of Canada’s original constitution, founder of the RCMP, and visionary of a country from sea-to-sea. The detractors see him as a villain, starving Nêhiyawak and Dakota in order to take their land, hanging Louis Riel for asserting Métis Nationhood (charged under the British Treason Act), launching residential schools as the solution to the stubborn Indian Problem, promoting a mostly Whites-only Canada.

Yet even this so-called revisionist reading is rationalized. Macdonald was merely a “product of his time” they say. Alternatively the polite Canadian refrain “nobody is perfect” attempts to retrieve him, as if recognizing his faults somehow sanitizes the nationalist urge to toast a ridiculous, arbitrary birthday of a malevolent, racist thief. Strong language, I know. But in his desire to build Canada the man attempted to “clear the plains” (to use historian James Daschuk’s phrase). So what do you expect?

Still the debate goes on and Macdonald is ever the durable figure. I think part of the apparently necessary festivity pivots on the inseparable relationship between the representation of the first prime Minster and the narrative Canadians tell themselves about their origins generally. The accepted story begins with the ancient colonization of Canada, followed by some very bad things, disease and death, etc. But now we enjoy this beautiful, prosperous, and diverse nation, so it was all worth it.

Lumbee legal scholar Robert A. Williams might describe this as a “discourse of conquest” – a tale designed and promulgated to support the rightness of colonization and in the service of human progress. We see it applied to Christopher Columbus, French Jesuits and explorers, American pilgrims, even somewhat playfully with cowboys and Indians. Acutely we see it anew with Macdonald. Implicitly the discourse is about victory of the civilized over the savage and transplanting the legal norms and values of one society over others because it is simply natural.

All of this sanctions the preservation and celebration of the so-called Founding Father despite his horrific deeds. Genuinely questioning Macdonald’s actions might threaten other deeply committed to truths about Canada, like the nature of “discovery”, exploration, treaty-making, land tenure, multiculturalism and justice. Sincerely challenging Macdonald’s legacy might open the door to fundamentally re-examining any shared notion of Canadian progress, Canadian values, and Canadian institutions.

While many are unwilling to cross that uncomfortable threshold, Indigenous writers and activists are forcing the issue, defending their humanity and challenging Macdonald’s. Indeed an irony in the resistance to this discourse of conquest is that some of the descendants of the very people the father of Confederation tried to starve out of the way are now unravelling foundational Canadian narratives, and with it, unravelling any collective sense of belonging.

Or more accurately, they are exposing the truth about Canada: it is a myth.

First Nations Transparency Act may do more harm than good: Aboriginal people may find themselves with even less power to create change

This week the federal government’s legislation, The First Nations Financial Transparency Act (FNFTA), was made law.

Financial statements and salaries of First Nation council’s were posted on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada’s website earlier this week. And those councils who refuse to participate will face a court order.

According to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, this is an effort to provide First Nations people with transparency and allow them to hold their elected leaders accountable. In other words, to empower them.

Given the early reactions to the publication of this data, I don’t share the assessment. So what can we expect?

First, we can expect the media to find a handful of chief and councils that pay themselves unjustifiable salaries.

This reporting has already begun and at least one B.C. chief has found himself on national news broadcasts and other national media for consecutive days.

Of course, this information is important to know. But we can also expect the media to do little else. Few will cover the hundreds of chiefs and/or councils that make $10,000 a year. Few will examine the extreme AANDC underfunding this new data reveals.

Few will ask critical questions about the consequences of First Nations (which are often both governments and corporations) disclosing the details of business dealings with current and/or future negotiating partners.

Second, because of the likely superficial media reporting we can expect many to run with the popular “corrupt chief” narrative to shape their desired policy changes.

Many so-called experts on First Nations peoples in the media and politics will generalize to indict all leaders as taxpayer leeches (though the language will be more delicate).

Certainly we’ll see organizations like The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which spearheaded the legislation in the first place, use the generalization to call for the erosion of treaties, end of “special” Indian status, privatization of reserves, etc. While taxpayer activism is certainly common, it seems to provoke a special kind of fury when involving Indigenous Peoples.

Third, we can probably expect many Canadians to harden their perspectives on First Nations peoples.

With the media likely focusing on the corrupt-chiefs problem and the so-called experts proposing assimilatory solutions, that will be confirmation for many that the Indian problem is the Indian’s own fault.

And since the challenges indigenous people face will be perceived as a self-inflicted suffering, many Canadians will feel absolved of any responsibility to First Nations, and will instead feel permitted to castjudgement and simply wait for civilization to reach the natives.

In short, the transparency act will be an effective tool to solidify apathy and disengagement with indigenous perspectives and ideas.

Fourth, we can probably also expect the federal government to double-down on the unilateral “aboriginal” policy that has been ongoing for some time.

This includes stripping communities of power in areas of social policy, extinguishing rights and title, reducing program resources, and generally trying to transform communities into municipalities under provincial jurisdiction.

With the First Nation leadership being stripped of legitimacy, and Canadians oscillating between aloof and angry, much of the opposition to this increasingly transformative trend will be neutralized. The FNFTA may actually grant AANDC greater licence to intervene in the lives of indigenous peoples.

Finally, we can expect First Nations people to use this data to continue to hold their leadership accountable.

The reality is that most communities already have access to this information (and much more) and generally they do not skirt or ignore issues of bad governance.

From the broad Idle No More movement to specific cases like the ongoing Wahta Community Fire in central Ontario (where a Kanien’kehá:ka community shut down its administrative building because the band council wasn’t following transparency rules), the formal and more provocative examples of communities holding leaders accountable and pushing for new (or very old) governance models independent of the Indian Act are numerous.

All of this is not an argument against the legislation itself or an endorsement of the status quo.

Aside from the obvious absurdity of Canada continuing to dictate to and administer First Nation communities, the content of the legislation is relatively benign. But the consequences may be significant.

In an era where reconciliation seems more to mean confrontation and our public discourse is often shallow, every new policy, law, court decision, protest and blockade is a struggle to shape the narrative.

Despite what Bernard Valcourt claims about the FNFTA, First Nations may find themselves with even less power to create change.

Land ruling’s message to First Nations: You have no place in Confederation

The Numbered Treaties have always been contentious. First Nations view them as sharing agreements, while the federal and provincial governments as land surrenders. Amid a general refusal to earnestly discuss this gulf, the disputes end up in the courts, where there is an increasing perception of a First Nation winning streak. The Supreme Court’s Tsilqot’in decision certainly reinforced that view. But if Tsilqot’in is a “game-changer” in the relationship between provinces, industry and First Nations in non-treaty areas, last week’s Grassy Narrows decision on areas where treaties do exist affirms that the rules are still effectively the same.

There are two features of the decision that underwrite this belief. First, the court has recognized provincial government power to violate treaties. In Grassy Narrows v. Ontario, the Supreme Court suggested that since the province has jurisdiction over lands and resources, “owning the land” as the court said, they should have ultimate authority. So while First Nations have traditionally understood treaties as nation-to-nation and viewed the provinces as junior partners in the relationship, the Supreme Court sees that arrangement inverted and treaty First Nations as subordinate.

The only check in the exercise of provincial power in treaty territory is “the burden” of obligations owed to First Nation. These are three: consultation on potential treaty infringements; accommodation in the case of adverse consequences arising from infringement; and a fiduciary duty, which is the courts way of saying the province should minimize harm to First Nations. In this ruling the court does not comment on Ontario’s record and relies on a past decision to guide the province in alleviating its burden. The result is effectively the status quo ante, which has bordered on apocalyptic.

Known as Asubpeechoseewagong to the Anishinaabe, the community has dealt with residential school and Indian Act trauma typical among Indigenous peoples in Canada. But they have also had their territory flooded by hydro-electric dams, been forced to re-locate their community, been nearly poisoned out of existence by mercury contamination from a pulp and paper mill, and now watch as the source of their food, medicine and a viable economy is hauled away in logging trucks. Instead of addressing this made-in-Ontario tragedy, the province has continued to view its right to issue timber licenses as greater than the Anishinaabeg right to feed themselves.

The additional problematic feature of the Supreme Court’s decision is the shockingly one-sided understanding of history. In a very terse ruling there are two glaring omissions. In its understanding of Treaty #3, the court decided to rely on the text version as well as subsequent federal and provincial legislation. It neglected to consider the perspectives of the Anishinaabeg, including the oral version or the Paypom treaty (Grassy Narrow’s record of Treaty #3). Given the voluminous academic literature on the misleading nature of the written English versions of the Numbered Treaties, evacuating the understanding of the Anishinaabeg from interpretations of the treaty is simply unfair.

Unfortunately this is a theme in the decision. Reflecting on the history of land use in Ontario the court claimed that, “Ontario has exercised the power to take up lands for a period of over 100 years without any objection by the Ojibway.” Yet the history of the relationship between Ontario and the Anishinaabeg (as well as most other First Nations in the province) has been a history of conflict. Physical confrontation, court cases and protests are all endemic features of provincial land and resource management. The long list of Anishinaabe people jailed in Ontario because of these conflicts land is crystal clear evidence of their objections.

So while the case does implore provinces to consult, accommodate and honour treaties, the decision has a dark undertone: First Nations have no place in Confederation. If the province can infringe on the very treaties that led to its creation and which underwrite the existence of the country, there leaves little room for the so-called third order of government that many believe should be embodied by First Nations. Moreover, the courts have embraced a view of history where First Nations simply do not exist except as objects, or rather, burdens who must be managed by one level of government or another.

It is a disappointing decision with a number of implications. For provinces governed by the Numbered Treaties, the ruling means business as usual: consult, infringe, accommodate. For First Nations generally and especially those who do not have a treaty, the Grassy Narrows decision reinforces the Supreme Court’s unstated position in Tsilhqot’in that there is more power to be leveraged where treaties do not exist. In the eyes of the Court, treaties and the accompanying extinguishment of title are a dead-end for First Nations. Finally, for Grassy Narrows, it means that their very long pursuit of justice goes on.

Closing the gap between Canada and Kanata: In thinking about what our country could become, we must be honest about our histories and include the perspectives of the 50-odd First Nations

Celebrating Canada’s birthday has always seemed kind of silly.

I say this as a citizen of the Anishinaabeg, a people who have existed for many centuries. So 147 years seems . . . quaint.

Of course, this probably wouldn’t be the case if we were celebrating Canada’s more authentic birthdate, Aug. 1, 1764. On this day the English and twenty-four Indigenous nations concluded negotiations at Niagara to extend The Silver Covenant Chain with the 24-Nations Belt, or simply, the Treaty of Niagara. The treaty permitted the sharing of the land across the eastern continent and mutual recognition of autonomy among distinct people rooted in peace, friendship and respect. Without it there would be no Canada, neither in ideational nor material terms.

But too often this history is overlooked or relegated as an Indigenous narrative. It is outside popular mythology and so a good example of the gulf between Canada and Kanata. We often talk of two solitudes in reference to anglophones and francophones, but the term is most apt in the context of the disparate understandings of history among Indigenous peoples and Canadians. Whether it is the founding of Quebec City, the character of John A. Macdonald, political changes in postwar Canada, the dissolution of constitutional talks in the late 20th century, or any treaty ever created here (even the new ones), we understand our shared past and our contemporary reality in divergent ways. Indeed, too often Canadian mythology is actually a damaging misrepresentation. It is an understatement to say a truly “national” narrative remains elusive.

So thinking about what Canada could become (or, “what is in us to be?”) I think about understanding. Not the same old discourse of peaceful acquisition, armchair policy expertise, or a Norval Morrisseau on the wall, but substantive understanding among Canadians of Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee and Mushkegowuk perspectives (as well as the other 50-odd nations).

Every kid in school can learn the 13 provinces/territories and also the few dozen original jurisdictions.

Indigenous languages can have official status, but more importantly, be seen and heard on the land and in cities, known by everyone. We can be honest about the birth, life and times of Canada. If all of this is in us to be, we might have something to celebrate.

The Anishinaabemowin version

An approximate Anishinaabemowin version (Gchi’mnissing dialect), translation by Jeff Monague of Beausoleil First Nation:

Goopjinaagwat gwa gchi nendmong dbishkaamgak iw sa ki Canada noongo ezhinkaadek. Mewzha aazhgwa Anishinaabek maa gii awak. Shki awan shwiingo eta Canada. Wishme shwingo nendidsa sabboondgizat Canada. Anishinaabek miinwaa Canada, debwetaadiwinan gii zhibiigemin mewzha. Mii gwa iw nake Canada gaa zhichkaadek. Mii dash iw aadsokaanaamnaan. Gkina weya gwa gda dbendaan. Gkina gwa weya naasaap wdaa awak.

Aabdek gwa gdaa debwewak Canada wgaa kidawaak Anishinaabek. Debwewin eta maa te biinjaying niw Aadzookaanong. Naasaap gwa daa kendaamin. Mnabmaadziwin ge ga kendaamin. Nga kendaamin dash ezhi piitendaagok iw sa enaweying. Giizhpan maanda zhichkeying, mii iw pii wii waawiinjgaademgak iw sa ki Canada noongwa ezhinkaadek.



After Atleo, does the Assembly of First Nations serve any purpose?

The resignation on Friday of Shawn A-in-chut Atleo as Assembly of First Nations national chief marks a shift in indigenous politics in Canada. It is the manifestation of whatever Idle No More has become and a growing and sustained assertiveness – in a long history of resistance – of Dene, Lakota and Mi’qmaq peoples, among others. While some will lament this reality and raise concerns about the vacuum left in the wake of Mr. Atleo’s resignation, there are also reasons to greet the development with something akin to subdued hope for fundamental change.

First, the resignation seriously limits any moral authority the federal government might have assumed to push through the much-loathed Bill C-33: The First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act. With the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs’ aggressive posturing (essentially calling those who oppose the bill terrorists) paired with dissent from First Nations leaders representing a majority of on-reserve communities and debate from opposition parties, Mr. Atleo was the only remaining source of legitimacy.

When Bernard Valcourt called on the critics to “follow Shawn Atleo’s lead” he put the former leader in an unsustainable position with few choices given the proliferating awareness of the problematic features of the bill. Since there has already been revisions from the original First Nation Education Act, it will likely become law. But it seems clear that the unilateralism and paternalism characterizing the legislation – and federal Indian policy generally – will no longer be accepted.

Second, those who claim Idle No More quietly disappeared haven’t been paying attention. More than challenging Canadians, the movement was also about forcing First Nation leadership to answer to communities. And ever since the Jan. 11, 2013 meeting in Ottawa between Mr. Atleo and the Prime Minster – as protesters surrounded the building – the now-former national chief was considered by many in the Idle No More movement to be a sell-out. Scrutiny and criticism has been sustained over the past year and his resignation was the inevitable conclusion a perceived betrayal.

The fact that Mr. Atleo is the first national chief to resign from the AFN in the organization’s history reflects the growing power of community members. Credit to him is owed for responding. And while the politics of whatever Idle No More has become are divisive, as all politics among all people necessarily are, it does seem clear that the type being practiced independent of institutional arrangements is increasingly effective. Any organization claiming to represent indigenous peoples should expect skepticism, and more importantly, to be held accountable.

Third, and related, the AFN will be forced to reflect on its purpose. Following Mr. Atleo’s departure, the organization’s executive will take over until the broader chiefs-in-assembly decide what to do. They will likely appoint an interim leader this week, schedule an election and possibly re-instate the senate-like Confederacy of Nations to provide oversight of the executive. Amid all of this chiefs will re-visit the neglected campaign to renew the AFN. It will be the fifth attempt to have the discussion in the organization’s 30-year existence.

Past recommendations have remained static. There was the suggestion to allow individuals to vote in AFN elections, as opposed to strictly chiefs. There has been the call to reject federal funds, which many feel allows undue influence on the organization. Finally, some want to disband the pan-First Nation AFN all together in favour of coalescing around national organizations (Anishinaabe, Mushkego, Kanien’kehá:ka, etc), which would provide more genuine representation. Whichever direction potential renewal takes, unless there is serious movement, the AFN will continue its slide into irrelevance.

Underscoring all of this is the nature of band governance. Each of these recommendations requires the will of constituent chiefs. There is little indication they are committed, either struggling to create change in their own under-resourced and over-stretched local governments, or in contrast, accepting and protecting the limited power delegated by the Indian Act. But people are recognizing the need more authentic governance models and more legitimate leaders. Chiefs and councils, treaty and regional organizations would be wise to absorb the lessons of Mr. Atleo’s resignation.

Many will see these developments as the triumph of confrontation over conciliation. They won’t be wrong. But it is offensive to excuse the sentiment as belonging to “angry Indians” as if deference should be the common sense posture in the face of a continuing history of conflict. Instead, from the Idle No More movement through to the decline and perhaps disappearance of the AFN, and the ongoing imposition of paternalistic legislation, there is a refusal to accept this situation at all levels. The new politics of refusal will seek nothing less than wholesale transformation.


Why is Ottawa consigning First Nations to inferior education?

It has been one year since the emergence of Idle No More, the most recent articulation of the oldest activism in North America, and very little has changed. The relationship between indigenous peoples and the federal government is worse today than it was in December, 2012, a time when leaders starved themselves for some of the things Canadians take for granted. And the apathy of those Canadians is still profound, unmoved by tens of thousands of protesters in streets and malls. An example of this dysfunctional relationship is manifest in First Nations education policy.

On the first anniversary of the so-called “Round Dance Revolution,” Anishinaabe and Cayuga peoples, among others, were once again on the steps of Parliament. This time frustrated and angry with the federal government’s proposed First Nations Education Act (FNEA), legislation that would amend the Indian Act’s sections on community education, encouraging the creation of regional First Nations school boards and potentially transferring control of education to provincial jurisdictions. The crux of the debate is about power.

According to government literature, the proposed act allows “First Nation control over First Nation education” and “respects treaty rights” and “provides the opportunity to structure the schools in a way that respects community and cultural concerns” – all wonderful prescriptions … if they were actually in the proposed act. Instead, the legislation liquidates the limited control over primary education communities do have and re-installs the minister of Aboriginal Affairs as school superintendent.

With the proposed act, the minister: decides if schools are meeting imposed standards; can take over administration of schools that aren’t (leading to the inevitable rise of the third-party education manager); determines qualifications for school staff and administrators; approves budgets; and, finally, transports us back to 1846 by setting student disciplinary policy. A man oblivious to irony, the Minster of Aboriginal Affairs, Bernard Valcourt, has called this proposal both “transformational” and “revolutionary.”

But Mr. Valcourt’s most oft-quoted talking point during the rollout of the proposed act has been: “I don’t believe in throwing federal funds at the problem.” This is a virtual guarantee that the chronic underfunding of community education will persist, ensuring the proposed act’s attainment standards won’t be met. First Nations teachers and “problem”-students will be set up for failure.

The philosophy and content of the proposed act is the first issue. The other is the aforementioned persistent apathy of Canadians. With a few exceptions, the public response to FNEA has been positive and the minister’s talking points about resources repeated. The Globe and Mail’s editorial boardendorsed the FNEA repeating, “the solution is not to just throw more money at the problem” and earlier this week another Globe article said National Chief Shawn Atleo faced the choice of supporting the act or risking “consigning another generation of First Nations children to an inadequate education.”

The implications of these sentiments are twofold. First, Dakota and Innu peoples are not worth it. If Canadian schoolchildren in any region of the country didn’t have clean water to drink at school the unequivocal solution would be to fix the problem – with money. Not so for native kids. Second, First Nations’ opinions on the act don’t really matter. In other words, even unanimous opposition to the proposed act from actual indigenous people cannot compel reconsidering.

Where does that leave us? I recently heard Jessica Danforth, executive director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, talk about the responsibilities that we as indigenous peoples have for ensuring that the rights of children are maintained. She made it clear that there isn’t a program or service offered by the federal government that can restore that responsibility. We are the program, she said. It reminded me of the National Indian Brotherhood’s 1972 “Indian Control of Indian Education,” a policy that placed obligations on children and parents for their own education.

All of this is obvious. But it is an important reminder for indigenous peoples in a Canada that is flooded with forms of racism and paternalism that quality education won’t be achieved through appeals to Canadian governments (whatever the treaty right). Merely cost-effective, “reform” further distances First Nations’ control of education from First Nations peoples. Consider that in opposition to FNEA, leaders are forced to defend the current system, which we know isn’t effective either. Are the only options bad or worse?

Instead, the escape from this inertia might require communities to disengage with the system altogether. This would require more will than currently exists from community leadership, a steep commitment from educators and administrators, and even more sacrifice from students. But it might allow communities to be pro-active, to teach and learn in Anishinaabemowin or Kanien’kéha, to cultivate land-based education, and to actually live autonomously. Perhaps this is the type of activism we should be considering.

When the UN probes Canada’s First Nations tragedy, don’t expect results

After months of failed attempts seeking permission to enter Canada and investigate the relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canadians, James Anaya, Special Rapporteur to the United Nations on Indigenous peoples, has arrived. He was greeted earlier this week by more than 50 protests, rallies and round dances across the country (under the banner of Idle No More), most proclaiming treaty rights or rights to land and resources.

As he travels the country over the next week, Mr. Anaya will hear a lot about violations of these rights in Canadian law but also international law, specifically the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It’s unclear if any of it will matter.

There is no doubt that the 500-year long struggle for indigenous rights in international law has been hard-fought. Foundational laws like The Doctrine of Discovery and concepts of Terra Nullius declared indigenous peoples non-human and permitted the “legal” theft of entire continents. It wasn’t until 1957, with the United Nation’s Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, that indigenous peoples were able to challenge their imposed inferiority. Since then, negotiations with states on the scope and nature of indigenous rights has produced a number of legal instruments, most importantly, the aforementioned Declaration in 2007.

As the preamble states, the Declaration represents a “standard of achievement to be pursued in a spirit of partnership and mutual respect” between states and indigenous peoples. Over forty-six articles, the document espouses rights to define membership and identity, rights to have previous poor treatment redressed and the right to revitalize their traditions and cultures. Rights to participate in both domestic governments that make decisions that affect indigenous peoples and their own governance systems, the right to self-determination. Of course, there is also the right to free, prior and informed consent on all legislation or development plans affecting indigenous peoples.

Yet there are also problems with Declaration. The most significant is the last Article, included in eleventh-hour negotiations as a bone for states. Article 46 states that “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as…encouraging any action, which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States.” Unfortunately “territorial integrity” and “political unity” can be interpreted unilaterally by those states. When Australian officials endorsed the UNDRIP they noted, “our concerns with free, prior and informed consent will be interpreted in accordance with Article 46.” This is effectively a backdoor out of the Declaration.

Moreover, the UNDRIP requires only voluntary implementation by states, which ultimately reduces the relationship to status quo ante – indigenous peoples struggling to convince Canada to recognize rights. In this sense, the tools of international law fall within the scope of what Glen Coulthard calls “the politics of recognition,” a form of negotiation that entrenches and reinforces state authority over indigenous peoples by requiring the latter seek validation and permitting the former to offer modification of any potential rights. When confronted with a country adverse to indigenous rights, this is a big problem.

Canada is indeed adverse. Despite the malleability of the Declaration, officials from this country first lobbied hard against it (leading the United States, New Zealand and Australia along). Then, when finding itself the very last hold-out to endorsement, eventually acquiescing but with stipulations: former minister John Duncan emphasized the Declaration as “aspirational” and “non-binding” and that the Articles were already “consistent with this government’s approach”. When Mr. Anaya was invited by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs to investigate violations of the Declaration in Canada, the government refused to respond to his requests for eight months.

So, will any of Mr. Anaya’s work in Canada actually lead to change? Given that the deference the Declaration offers states doesn’t go far enough for Canada or that minimum standards of internationally protected rights beyond those established in domestic law (and then barely those) have yet to even be considered, it is difficult to imagine how Mr. Anaya might help. Certainly communities will express frustration and demonstrate unfairness. Mr. Anaya will then write a report to be used by educators and activists to shame Canada. But they’ll be dealing with a government impervious to shame (consider the unchanged legislative agenda post-Idle No More).

Thomas Berger called the treatment of indigenous peoples under international law a “long and terrible shadow.” When that shadow started to recede with the endorsement of the Declaration, Cree legal scholar Sharon Venne proclaimed indigenous peoples were finally “subjects as opposed to objects” of international law. I agree with both sentiments. But International law or Special Rapporteurs have yet to stop the alienation of indigenous peoples from the land and the resulting socio-economic challenges in Canada. Until there is a government willing to seriously consider the Declaration, to embrace “the spirit of partnership and mutual respect” those tools will continue to fail.



Critical Review of Joseph Boyden’s “The Orenda”: A Timeless, Classic Colonial Alibi

I wanted to like Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. I’ve been a fan of Boyden’s work. Three Day Road, Born With a Tooth and Through Black Spruce all had compelling themes of redemption amid loss. Moreover, the advanced reviews proclaimed The Orenda a masterpiece, Quill & Quire calling the book a “magnificent literary beast”. So I was eager to read and happy to get an advanced copy from the publisher. Within the first few of the nearly 500 pages, it was clear why it was receiving the glowing reviews. But it was also clear I wouldn’t like the book. The Orenda is a comforting narrative for Canadians about the emergence of Canada: Indian savages, do-good Jesuits and the inevitability (even desirability) of colonization. The themes that push this narrative are a portrayal of Haudenosaunee peoples as antagonistic, the privileging of the Jesuit perspective, and a reinforcing of old story-telling tropes about Indigenous people. These themes work together to convey the message that the disappearance of the Huron and the loss of their orenda was destined happen.

The book takes place in Wendaki, or contemporary central Ontario (in fact the community that I come from, Gchi’mnissing in southern Georgian Bay, plays an important role as a haunted safe haven). It covers the last years of the Huron Confederacy, after they’ve formed a trade relationship with the French and on the eve of their dispersal by the Iroquois in a period sometime between 1640 and 1650. To tell a fictionalized account of this story and provide space for each representative group Boyden uses a useful narrative device, shifting the perspective between three characters: Bird, a Huron warrior and leader, Snow Falls, a young Haudenosaunee girl adopted by the Huron, and finally and Christophe the Crow, a Jesuit missionary who comes to live among Bird and Snow Falls and based on Jean de Brebeuf (if readers don’t know the history of Brebeuf, this review includes what might be considered spoilers).

While less complex, the multi-narrative technique is reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It works for The Orenda especially well because it neatly divides the three central perspectives, often re-telling the same episode from each point of view. The device is also used, I think, to attempt to provide balance to the story and equal space to each of the three groups involved in French colonization. Indeed, in his review of The Orenda the Montreal Gazette’s literary critic Ian McGillis praises Boyden for his fairness and “refus(ing) to draw easy lines between good and bad” and if there are “nominal villains” they are the Jesuits. Boyden himself has said a goal in writing the book was to recount an accurate history without casting blame or making it about “white hats and black hats.”

But almost immediately black hats do emerge. It turns out that the Haudenosaunee are not represented well at all. The girl Snow Falls soon becomes Wendat and the only other Iroquois character of note is Tekakwitia, leader of the army that eventually destroys the Huron and tortures to death Christophe the Crow (and he appears only in the final chapters). In addition, the plot driving the story from the first pages is the threat posed by the relentless and terrifying Haudenosaunee. Bird, Christophe and many of the minor characters spend most of their time worrying and preparing for the inevitable attack, sometimes out-maneuvering the Iroquois, but always living in fear. So readers learn very little except that they’re a menace, lurking in the dark forest, waiting to torture or cannibalize. In light of this limited (or skewed) portrayal it’s hard not to see the Iroquois as “nominal villains”.

Early in the book, the Jesuits don’t fare well either. Christophe is portrayed as bumbling and ominous. Yet he ends up doing the bulk of the storytelling and has to be considered the central character of The Orenda. He is the anxious and pious Jesuit who arrives among the Huron in a time of war, hopelessly inept until finding his footing (or in this case his voice, the language of the Wendat), and finally earning conversions, becoming an authority among the Huron, and eventually dying a martyr. His perseverance, dedication and selflessness in the wilderness seem familiar. It actually reminded me of Atwood’s take on the nature of Canadian literature generally. She writes,

“The central symbol for Canada — and this is based on numerous instances of its occurrence in both English and French Canadian literature – is undoubtedly Survival, la Survivance…it is a multi-faceted and adaptable idea. For early explorers and settlers, it meant bare survival in the face of “hostile” elements and/or natives…”

Atwood even cites literature about Brebeuf as an example or Canadian survivance. So The Orenda reinforces who and what Canadians believe they are. Christophe the Crow tells a story they know and can identify with. It’s through his eyes they see and interpret the New World. He becomes the protagonist, the doomed hero that reinforces colonial myths of savagery on the one hand, and salvation, on the other – “survival in the face of hostile Natives.”

Hostile is an understatement. The vivid descriptions of torture are excessive. I haven’t read a book as violent since McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Interestingly that was also a story about colonization, the violence reflecting a lawless, incomplete social order but also a comment on the universality of violence among humans. This is a contrast to The Orenda, where violence and torture is both the exclusive domain of the Indians and endemic in their societies since time immemorial. The inevitable conclusion is that Indians were really just very violent. It’s not a surprising conclusion considering that Boyden seems to rely heavily on travelogues (journals of Jesuits) for his historical information. This despite the obvious bias stemming from the interest Jesuits had in perpetuating tales of savagery among the Indians – it justified their own existence, after all. So problematic are these accounts of sadism, they’ve long been excused by critical thinkers, many academics, and Indigenous peoples themselves. The Haudenosaunee have insisted that some of the practices depicted in the book ended hundreds of years earlier.

There are other tropes throughout. There is mystical Indian, reflected in a “magical” Anishinaabe sorceress and to a lesser extent Snow Falls. Both can (or have the potential) to see the future and heal in inexplicable ways. There is also the child-like Indian, Hurons who are awe-struck anytime the French introduce something foreign: a crystal chalice, muskets, a clock. Finally there is the noble Indian, reflected in Christophe’s frequent caveat in his musings on their heathenism (i.e. these Indians are child-like savages but, oh Lord, they are as beautiful and stoic as the most impressive Greek statues). All of this is not to say the characters are one-dimensional. They aren’t. Snow Falls, Bird and others are complex, coming from a community with well developed culture, economy, spirituality, relationships, and so on. Yet their component traits resemble outdated narratives of Native people, which have been used in the past to justify civilizing policies.

The consequences of these themes – the marginalization of the perspective of the Haudenosaunee, the centering of the Jesuit point of view and the cultivation of old tropes, specifically the savage Indian – amount to a tale about the inevitability of colonization. The vanishing Indian was ordained (even desirable) because of his/her character. Indeed the un-named Sky People who open each section of the book observe the carnage below and conclude the grim history was pre-determined partly because of the selfishness, arrogance and short-sightedness of the Huron. Even Christophe’s torturer, Tekakwitia, will be converted: soon after the events of the book take place Kateri Tekakwitia is born, living a Christian life and eventually becoming a Catholic saint. It’s a grim reality and a difficult book to read. At least it will be for many Native peoples. For Canadians, The Oreda is a colonial scribe and moral alibi.