Indigenous cultures rivalled those of many other civilizations

Thomas Jefferson once remarked that those who don’t read newspapers are better informed than those who do, even as the former may know nothing, the latter only know falsehood and error. This brings to mind Margaret Wente’s recent column about Olympic official Dick Pound, who said, “400 years ago, Canada was a land of savages.” Ms. Wente’s Saturday column has likely set back the first nations’ campaign for an accurate representation of native peoples in the mainstream media by 10 years.

In fact, a brief survey of the original peoples of this continent illustrates an array of accomplishments that rival civilizations around the globe, including those in Western Europe. Yet today, in North America, the ancestors of those from both continents live side by side, separated by a canyon of misunderstanding. To gain insight, we need only turn to indigenous oral traditions, wampum belts, birchbark scrolls and Tsalagi and Aztec texts. In addition, scholars of all stripes from all corners of the globe have contributed to a greater knowledge of indigenous cultures.

Perhaps most impressive among their findings is that indigenous peoples were adept farmers, originally cultivating and harvesting two-thirds of the foodstuffs the world consumes today. These include the tomato, peanut, potato, chili peppers and corn. In fact, at the time of contact, and long before Gregor Mendel’s experiments with pea plants, the Huron in Ontario had genetically engineered 17 different varieties of corn. Not quite the Stone Age hunter-gatherers of Ms. Wente’s column.

But the achievements don’t end there. And because Ms. Wente uses European-inspired standards of success when measuring first nations “savagery,” a comparison is in order. At a time when the Anishinabek had societal codes forbidding incest, the crowned heads of France and England were as inbred as poodles. While Christians were burning “heretics” at the stake for suggesting the Earth wasn’t the centre of the universe, the Mayans were charting the movement of the stars, creating a calendar within seconds of modern-day atomic clocks. The Wet’suwet’en practised a matriarchal society, while on the other side of the Atlantic, women were the property of men.

In addition, and contrary to Ms. Wente’s assertion, the Haudenosaunee did influence the U.S. Constitution. American “founding fathers,” including Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson, explicitly recorded the first nation contribution. John Rutledge even articulated the structure of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and their “Great Law of Peace” to the drafting committee. (He spoke of a complex federalism whose leaders included executive, legislative and judicial branches – the latter of which were generally a group of elder women). The Haudenosaunee actually practise a 900-year-old democracy and the longest lasting peace between nations in recorded history.

Yet another disturbing aspect of Ms. Wente’s column was the dismissal of traditional ecological knowledge – this is the sum knowledge of a given first nation or Inuit community that has been accumulated and amended for thousands of years. Dismissing it reduces us to conclude, for instance, that the Inuit have survived in the world’s harshest climate by sheer luck. Of course, this is nonsensical. Sophisticated knowledge of ice flows, animal migrations, wind patterns and temperature fluctuations ensured their success in the past and educates scientists, the military and resource companies in the present.

In fact, such traditional ecological knowledge also significantly contributes to Western medicine: essiac is a cancer treatment, evanta cures leprosy, foxglove aids heart care, kava kava reduces stress, and quinine treats malaria. All of the above are indigenous inventions. Not only can such ecological knowledge save lives, it may also help save the world. First nations peoples have lived sustainably in North America for tens of thousands of years, respecting all life, however small, putting an emphasis on reciprocity and understanding that their relationship with ecosystems is one of life and death. At a time when first nations peoples can teach us so much, Ms. Wente would have us ignore them.

Indigenous cultures were and are diverse and vibrant.

They lived in cities larger than those in contemporary Europe, had greater populations, taller buildings, sophisticated governance structures, varied art forms, tested scientific knowledge and on, and on. What is truly savage is the perpetuation of a false representation of first nations, Métis and Inuit peoples, particularly when they’ve worked so hard to overcome racism and stereotypes.

But perhaps Jefferson was right all along, we shouldn’t expect much from newspapers anyway.


When will there be real justice for First Nations people?

When speaking on the phone with friends who live on-reserve, it’s often amusing to begin the conversation with the customary caution that the line is tapped. In recent days though – having learned that Mohawk activist Shawn Brant, along with his friends and family members, had had their conversations recorded by the OPP without a court order – this amusement has turned to dread. And the dismal reality that is the relationship between First Nations people and the justice system has been illuminated as well.

In this particular case, the OPP and Commissioner Julian Fantino, sought to end a blockade of Highway 401 during last summer’s “National Day of Action” in late-night telephone negotiations with Mr. Brant. Fair enough. But it’s unclear why a wiretap was necessary. It certainly didn’t help bring the action to a close as Mr. Brant endured into the morning despite Mr. Fantino’s threats of “grave consequences.”

For First Nations people, injustice is nothing new. This example is only the latest in a disastrous history whereby the Canadian legal apparatus has been used or abused to persecute First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples. For that reason, First Nations people represent a majority in our prisons (despite being a minority of the population). They are also more likely to be charged with a crime, sentenced for longer periods, and denied parole more often. Indigenous women are 28 times more likely to be sent to prison than non-indigenous women. Yet, when crimes are committed against them, rarely are they investigated or prosecuted. How else can we explain the hundreds of unsolved cases of missing or murdered First Nations women?

If there is such a thing as a two-tiered justice system, First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples are on the bottom tier. It was only a few weeks ago that the Chief and Council of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation were released from prison. They had been sentenced to six-month terms for refusing to allow mining on their territory, but an Ontario Court of Appeal reduced their six-month sentences to time served, saying imprisoning the protesters only magnified the “estrangement of aboriginal peoples from the Canadian justice system.” On the other side of the country, a commission of inquiry is investigating the death of Frank Paul. He was a heavily intoxicated aboriginal man left by Vancouver police in an alley where he froze to death in the middle of winter. Perhaps the inquiry should recall the findings of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba of 1991, which determined that the legal system has institutionalized the oppression of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.

Of course, Canadian governments pay little attention to findings such as these. The Hawthorne Report in the late 1960s indicated that the past 100 years of Indian policies had done more harm than good, yet the government maintained course. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the mid-1990s described challenges within the justice system and prescribed apt solutions; the government completely ignored them.

The Ipperwash Inquiry recommendations, released last spring, noted that policing confrontations with First Nations peoples must be handled with fairness and understanding, yet, the Commissioner of the OPP threatens Shawn Brant.

Canadians, First Nations or otherwise, should be concerned. The emergency wiretap power has recently been found by judges in British Columbia and Ontario to violate the Charter of Rights. Such “emergency” phone taps, which don’t need court approval, are only permissible in “in circumstances where there is a likelihood that an unlawful act will be committed and a likelihood that an unlawful act will cause serious harm to a person or to property,” according the Ontario judge. In the Brant case, where such an emergency wiretap was used, not a single person was hurt, nor was there serious potential. There are also reports the OPP posed as the media to get close to Mr. Brant, a tactic that undermines freedom of the press and only serves to enhance suspicion and distrust.

Most readers will likely react to the police antics with apathy. Natives are terrorists anyway and probably deserved it, as public sentiment generally goes. But at the least, this myth of special treatment for First Nations people under the law should be dispelled. For them, in the Canadian legal system, justice is relative. Indeed, the next time I call friends on-reserve, I’ll be wondering who else is listening.

The Globe and Mail (archived)

Native reserves aren’t the problem

Mould-infested homes, contaminated water, dirt roads: It’s hard to advocate for Canada’s native reserve system in light of the obvious dilapidation. Nevertheless, Jonathan Kay’s recent column advocating the dismantling of the system (“Off the Reservation,” Oct. 23) is woefully inaccurate, and fails to identify the real barriers to First Nations development.

The foundation of Kay’s column rests on two myths. First, that the federal government spends “over $8-billion on reserve-resident natives, or $80,000 per reserve-resident household.” In reality, 50% of that amount pays the salaries of bureaucrats and government lawyers. Moreover, federal funding is not keeping pace with the fact that indigenous peoples are the fastest-growing population in Canada. As such, the actual amount spent on First Nation families is less than half that spent on their counterparts in Canadian jails.

Kay’s assumption that self-government doesn’t work is also wrong. Self-governing First Nations actually have fewer health, education and substance-abuse challenges. The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development even found that self-government is a key factor to establishing stable First Nation economies.

As for Kay’s “three well-observed empirical truths learned the hard way,” which are supposed to act as an indictment of the reserve model, they are equally untrue in relation to reserves.

First, Kay attacks rural Canada, suggesting that rural economies don’t generate wealth. Yet Canada’s economy is driven by resource exports. The oil, energy, forestry and mining industries are all based in rural Canada and in proximity to First Nations.

If Canada and the provinces fulfill their consultation obligations regarding development that affects First Nations, there is a real chance for prosperity. Attawapiskat is in the diamond business, Pikangikum in forestry, the Blood and Siksika in oil and the eastern Cree in electricity. Kay wants First Nations to move away from their homes and land at precisely the time when it’s becoming profitable to stay.

Next, Kay makes numerous references to the Iron Curtain and Karl Marx, as if First Nations were communists, even making the assertion that the reserve system persists as a “utopian experiment.” In fact, Canada designed reserves with the opposite in mind. The 195 sections of the Indian Act have handicapped reserves with malicious policies such as the criminalization of economic transactions without the permission of an Indian agent. How’s that for a free market?

True, many indigenous peoples do view the land as communal. More specifically, many view it as sacred, as their Grandmother. How do you parcel up and sell your Grandmother? In fact, privatizing reservation land was attempted once in the United States under the Dawes Act. It led to the wholesale pillaging of Indian lands by outside speculators.

Real barriers to economic development include the Indian Act, a lack of formal education, limited access to capital, and ineffective government co-ordination. Canada needs to immediately review the negative impacts of the Indian Act and find solutions to address the restrictions that limit economic development.

The federal and provincial governments must also draft large-scale and co-ordinated strategies for economic development. Currently, Canada operates under the 17-year-old 1989 Canadian Aboriginal Economic Development Strategy, which the Auditor-General eviscerated in 2003. Access to capital can be achieved with the settlement of land and treaty entitlement claims. Recently, Price Waterhouse calculated the cost of not settling treaties in British Columbia at $1-billion in lost investment and 1,500 jobs per year.

For the last 150 years, Canada has essentially legislated Indians out of the economy. However, this does not mean reserves should be abandoned in favour of more assimilation as Kay suggests. Instead, reserves need economic development that is integrated with traditional values and overseen by native leaders, something that is owed to First Nations and well overdue.

National Post (archived)