The Wigwam Conspiracy: why are Canada 150’s Indigenous people stuck in time? (Co-authored with Erica Violet Lee)

“Exile is more than a geographical concept,” he said. ”You can be an exile in your homeland, in your own house, in a room.” — Mahmoud Darwish

The wigwam conspiracy

A common theme in Canada’s 2017 celebrations is the inclusion of Indigenous peoples, and in the early months of this auspicious year, a trend is emerging. That inclusion is signalled via familiar symbols, often the “Indian Village.” At Ottawa’s Winterlude, New Year’s Eve celebrations in Saskatoon and across the country at official Canada 150 events, you will find blow-up igluvigaq, the ubiquitous tipi and maybe a reconstructed wigwam, too.

But touring these exhibits, the familiar tropes immediately appear, ready for Canadian consumption: tanned hides, basket-making workshops and bannock over a fire. Of course the vast majority of us do not live in the tipi or wigwam today. And in 1867, many of our ancestors were living in framed-timber homes. So why don’t Indigenous peoples get the benefit of a contemporary existence and why are the default images in Canada at 150 the performance of stereotypes?

In their proper context, these symbols and practices are appropriate. Tipis are used for ceremonial purposes in Nehiyaw askiy, only along with extensive pole and hide teachings; likewise with the lodge in Anishinaabe aki. But out of context, their warmth and complexity are undermined by the flimsy-cloth-draped-over-sticks versions found at Canada 150 Indian villages.

In the midst of a party celebrating Canadian civilization, Indigenous peoples appear as static, stuck in time. It becomes apparent that 150 years of “progress” is made possible by emphasizing fabricated notions of Indigenous primitivity. Those original nations are presumed extinct with the emergence of Canada, or perhaps they failed to evolve into the present.

Both impressions permit the Canada 150 party to take place without critical reflection and more, permit colonialism’s ongoing free entry. This is the inclusive message of a drafty wigwam.

Just don’t drink the water

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a crowd in Saskatoon that — contrary to what the First Nations leaders say — what the youth need is “a place to store their canoes and paddles so they can connect back out on the land.” It is a kind of paternalism that has shaped Canada’s policy toward Indigenous communities (and specifically children and youth) since 1867.

Cree lawmaker Romeo Saganash took issue and responded in a letter. He also challenged Trudeau’s reference to the land and water: “It is time for the federal government to help maintain our very important spiritual connection with the water. This is a connection that your government further embraces through your approval of projects like Site-C, Kinder Morgan, and the Muskrat Falls Dam.”

The hypocrisy highlighted here speaks to the illusion of Canada. The narrative of this place, self-styled as true North strong and free, leviathan of boreal, granite and freshwater, hiking, paddling, environmentalism and stewardship. These national touchstones are the epitome of cognitive dissonance. Politicians love wilderness, sure, but they love pipelines more.

While Canadians grow richer on clear-cut forests in northern Saskatchewan, bitumen extracted from central Alberta and diamonds from the James Bay lowlands, Indigenous peoples are dispossessed or poisoned out of their homes. Grassy Narrows, Akwesasne, Little Buffalo, Aamjiwnaang, among others, are all familiar with the process.

On-reserve, northern and urban communities alike struggle for safe, affordable housing, with clean drinking water and the comfort of a room or a bed. Many Indigenous people are packed tightly in the extreme corners of our territories while the moose, deer, muskrat and owl are exiled all together. This unfolds as Trudeau, in another replica — this time of this father’s buckskin fringe jacket — paddles towards the camera, killing the river in his wake.

The fire next time

South of the medicine line, that increasingly militarized and foreign border, residents of Oceti Sakowin at Standing Rock burned their tipis and other shelters on the eve of their removal and arrest. To the aghast non-Indigenous onlookers this appeared reckless.

But Indigenous Rising Media explained that “based on the behaviour of the law enforcement in the past, who during raids have broken and thrown away sacred items and who have shown disregard and horrible disrespect to tipis and sacred dwellings, it is best to burn these sacred structures instead of having them desecrated by Morton County and North Dakota law enforcement.”

This was the honourable send-off to temporary homes that provided warmth and safety, undeserving of a fate in the hands of clumsy invaders. The Lakota and their allies sought to avoid the careless destruction of this ceremonial presence. The soil, the fire and the ashes are much deeper than symbols — they are teachings, attachments, memories and resurgence.

There is a truth about many Indigenous homes, inaccessible to Canadians despite the poking and prodding. The smouldering remains, that broken down car in the front lawn, toys scattered across the road: each are manifestations of our love in disarray. They are symbols of Indigenous resourcefulness, testaments to endurance against the odds and in some cases, pride.

Homeland security

There have always been divergent stories of “home” in Canada. Mythic, pluralistic Glowing Hearts, on one hand, oppressive Home on Native land, on the other.

In the former, symbols dominate: empty wigwams and tipis because they don’t speak back to paternalism; sacred stories removed from their keepers to prevent carrying the memories of our worlds into the future; and Indigenous peoples themselves as tokens because tokens offer consent.

In the latter story, the notion of home is one of appropriation, poison and exile, yet sacred all the same because Indigenous realities are not so easily excused or obscured. Indigenous cultures, art and people do not exist for entertainment or gross domestic product nor to soothe reconciliatory anxiety.

Beyond the pretense of inclusion, our resistance remains and our lands, bodies and homes are worthy of care; a galaxy that colonization will never appropriate or erase.

Home is carried on our backs and in our hearts.


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.

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.

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.