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.




Platform of change for First Nations

The Assembly of First Nations will elect a new national chief next week in Calgary. As Phil Fontaine retires after an eight-year tenure, five candidates are vying for his job, the top position in First Nations politics.

This style of politics is actually similar to that practised by non-native peoples in Canada. There are nominations, campaign fundraising, secret ballots and majority votes. Indeed, in much the same way MPs elect a party leader, band council chiefs elect the national chief.

While there’s a robust slate of committed candidates seeking the job, the population the organization purports to serve is increasingly divided.

For supporters, there’s been progress on a number of fronts: squeezing a residential school apology from the Harper government; helping to draft a new specific claims tribunal; and creating more space in the public square for discussion on policy issues.

For detractors, the AFN does a poor job of representing those living in cities (now a slim majority, according to Canadian government figures), and women have had difficulty gaining support from the organization at critical times.

In some quarters, there also is outright rejection of the AFN because it is comprised of band chiefs who derive their authority from the widely despised Indian Act. As such, the organization will always be subordinate to non-native governments that harbour few sincere commitments to First Nations peoples.

Amid this division, the five men running to become national chief of the organization are, perhaps not surprisingly, campaigning on a platform of change for “a new AFN.” From likely front-runners to long shots, the candidates are: John Beaucage, Shawn Atleo, Perry Bellegarde, Terry Nelson and Bill Wilson.

John Beaucage, a former economist and chief of Wasauksing First Nation, has been the grand chief of the 42-nation Union of Ontario Indians (otherwise known as the Anishinabek Nation) for the past five years and is fairly popular in Ontario, winning his last election by acclamation.

Beaucage expresses the desire to transform the AFN into a true confederation of nations – reducing the 600-odd bands to the 60 historic political/cultural entities. This would also include a move away from the Indian Act and toward entrenching self-government explicitly in the Canadian Constitution.

Beaucage is also focusing on First Nations youth – an exploding segment of the population – as well as education, adequate housing and economic development.

Shawn Atleo has been the regional chief of the AFN in British Columbia since 2003 and a hereditary chief of the Ahousaht First Nation since 1999. While there hasn’t been an AFN chief from the West Coast since the mid-’70s, B.C. has one-third of voting chiefs and Atleo appears popular among many of them.

In terms of policy, Atleo shares many of the views of Beaucage but is particularly vocal regarding education, with a focus on skills training and an adequate understanding of the legacy of residential schools in the hope of reconciliation.

Atleo also prioritizes economic development. He seeks to leverage treaty rights in addition to creating partnerships with private industry while maintaining traditional cultural values, including ecological stewardship.

Perry Bellegarde also has the potential to win. The former grand chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and former regional vice-chief for the Assembly of First Nations is Cree from the Little Black Bear First Nation, where he is currently a band councillor.

Bellegarde advocates the creation of “First Nations Acts” in Canadian legislation to deal with varied issues from health to language preservation.

He also seeks the ratification of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and a renewed assessment of the First Nations fiscal arrangement with the federal government.

Diverging from these three candidates is Terry Nelson, chief of the Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation for 10 years and a supposed “firebrand.” But the moniker is undeserved as Nelson asks legitimate questions. For instance: Why, while Canada grows rich on resources obtained in First Nations territory, do the people dwell in poverty?

So he proposes the assumption of jurisdiction over those resources while creating international economic agreements, effectively sidestepping the Canadian government, which will lead to wealth creation in communities.

While Nelson won’t win, he provides a critical and necessary perspective.

Finally, there is Bill Wilson, also a long shot. Wilson is Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary chief from Cape Mudge in British Columbia. While Wilson has been in politics longer than any of the other candidates, he’s been less active in recent years, working instead as a treaty negotiator and consultant.

Like Nelson, Wilson’s patience with the federal government has waned and he promotes a more provocative approach focusing primarily on enforcing and upholding treaties. He also expresses a commitment to addressing poverty, violence against women and substance abuse.

The race will likely be a close one between Beaucage and Atleo, with Bellegarde the wild card. But since the front-runners’ platforms are similar, the supposed new direction of the AFN is predictable – a rights-based approach with a heavy emphasis on economic development and wrestling more jurisdiction from Canada regarding citizenship, social policy and lands and resources.

Whatever the outcome, the new national chief will face challenges. While he will push for treaty rights, the government will seek to undermine them; while education is more critical than ever, funding is being cut. Above all, the new national chief will have to work very hard to ensure that the new AFN is not the same as the old AFN.–platform-of-change-for-first-nations

Book recycles paternalistic native stereotypes

A book that tonight could win the prestigious Donner Book Prize for Public Policy presents the troubling argument that First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples must abandon their cultures to be successful in Canadian society.

While this position wouldn’t be tolerated if directed at Catholics, Buddhists, Kurds or any other group, Albert Howard and Frances Widdowson’s case for the cultural extinction of native peoples is regarded as respectable enough to be eligible for an award.

In their Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, Howard and Widdowson assert that a conspiratorial “aboriginal industry” has duped native peoples into pursuing unsurrendered lands, achieving a semblance of self-determination and revitalizing their cultures. Indeed, they argue that these aspirations will actually hinder First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples.

This is nothing more than a restatement of century-old paternalism that ignored the desires of native peoples and treated them instead as childlike wards of the state.

The authors open with a pertinent question: Why has so much government funding had so little impact?

It’s a question common among Canadians as well, although they may not like the answer: It’s not enough.

To put the $10 billion in context, only half of the funds get to the community; the rest goes to the government bureaucracy. Actual spending on native people amounts to just 1.9 per cent of Canada’s 2009 budget. That’s not enough money to build schools in 45 communities or get clean water to more than a 100. Nor is it all lost to corruption, as the authors assert. According to a Canadian government report in 2003, only 3 per cent of all First Nations had financial accountability problems.

Regardless, the pair insists the “aboriginal industry” directs funds to misguided projects like traditional ecological knowledge (TEK).

Despite Howard and Widdowson’s impoverished experience with TEK, they claim that most native knowledge is essentially junk science. However, those who have actually investigated TEK can attest to examples among the Haudenosaunee in obstetrics/midwifery, the Menominee in forestry operations (they are the world’s only 100 per cent sustainable loggers), the Nisga’a in resource management with fishwheel technology, and so on.

But the duo is steadfast in their belief that “aspects of aboriginal culture are inhibiting aboriginal survival today” – a statement that contradicts the majority of research on the challenges facing native peoples. Nearly every report, study or inquiry done in the last 30 years cites cultural loss as the problem. Indeed, the common sense solution would be to restore those cultures and help to support the tools that native communities need to address many of these challenges. In terms of policy, this strategy is only infrequently employed and certainly not the hegemonic force the authors insist it is.

In a further attempt to prove their point, Howard and Widdowson focus on education, claiming that consistent failure among native peoples is the result of cultural elements in school curriculums. To demonstrate a cultureless success story, the authors point to Grandview/Uuquinak’uuh Elementary in Vancouver, where the school succeeds “not by instituting `culturally sensitive’ programs, but through a focus on literacy, academics and objective assessments.” Yet, according to the former principal who brought the changes to the school, she actually “honoured aboriginal culture and incorporated it into the curriculum and daily routines.”

Howard and Widdowson have only disdain for native cultures, generalizing and simplifying, calling them “superstitious” and suggesting that “no rational person believes that modern problems can be solved by reverting to the ways of our ancestors.” Here their hypocrisy is clear: every modern society builds its institutions on the work of previous generations.

Indeed, it appears the authors actually believe that culture among all peoples evolves in linear fashion through gradual stages toward an apex, which is Western civilization – classic ethnocentrism.

I don’t disagree a change is required in “aboriginal” policy by the Canadian government and native organizations. However, that change needs to trend in the opposite direction from the one prescribed by the authors.

In the areas of criminal justice, health care, education and suicide, it is not fewer cultural components that are required, but more. Just as other Canadians use cultural-specific solutions to cure social issues, native peoples should be granted that same right. This is not an argument for segregation or isolation, but rather inclusion.

I also agree that an “aboriginal industry” does exist, as do some exploitative lawyers and consultants within it who are taking advantage of First Nations.

But native peoples are not the naive victims of the industry cabal imagined by Howard and Widdowson; rather they have goals that often require help with legal issues, economic development and education. Most of the people in the so-called industry are working in genuine support of those desires.

The work of Howard and Widdowson is undermining their efforts, and tonight the Donner Canadian Foundation risks sharing that distinction.–book-recycles-paternalistic-native-stereotypes