I watched “8th Generation”, the admirable CBC series on contemporary Canadian Aboriginal life, but with a nagging sense of déjà vu.
This series, expertly anchored by the youthful Wab Kinew, may not have had this effect on most viewers, to whom the subject would have been more or less new.
But I began to write about Canadian native people in 1968, to make films with and about then, to write books about their history and lives, and so many echoes came forth from these programmes of things that people told me more than 40 years ago, or conclusions I came to at that time, that I couldn’t help but be moved by a kind of sadness.
There certainly was something winning about the young people, their energy and hopefulness, their sense that if only they could get an education, they need not relive the traumas that have afflicted their parents. But I think I have to convict the programme’s producers of being too optimistic, of painting too rosy a picture, of in certain cases, not telling quite the whole truth.
For example, the way they described the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, signed by the governments of Canada and Quebec, with the Cree and Inuit people of northern Quebec in 1975, had more than a tinge of euphoria. To hear them tell it, this was a sort of model agreement, one that could be followed by other native groups around the country to their advantage.
In actual fact, it was an agreement that was brutally enforced by the governments, to such a point that the First Nations involved had no option but to sign what they were offered, and hope for something, because if they had refused to sign, they would have got nothing, nothing at all, and would have found a $16 billion hydro project being build across the length and breadth of their traditional lands, whether they liked it or not.
Like every other agreement that has been made with native groups in the last half century, they had to agree to the extinguishment of their rights and titles, which are, oddly enough, protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms --- in other words by the Canadian constitution.
The governments of every stripe have been adamant on this extinguishment as the bottom line for every agreement they have made. Why is it necessary? The evidence suggests it is not. When Toronto’s “tiny, perfect Mayor,” David Crombie, briefly strayed into federal politics, and was made Minister of Indian Affairs by Brian Mulroney, his first action on taking office was to ask 64 questions of his civil service, dealing with the actual way Canada’s government had fulfilled its constitutional responsibility as trustee for the interests of the native people. Those questions were never answered.
Of more relevance to this article, Crombie also struck a task force to advise him whether this extinguishment policy was necessary. The task force after an exhaustive investigation of the subject, advised him the extinguishment policy was not really necessary.
Within three months Crombie had been removed from office, generally supposed to have been undermined by his senior civil servants, who bristled at the idea that Canada might sally forth into the Indian world on a basis of genuine trust with its native partners.
When the James Bay Agreement was negotiated, the federal government’s need not to alienate the Quebec government took precedent over their constitutional responsibility to defend the interests of the Indians in Quebec. In fact, no Agreement would have been signed at all, if it had not been for the judgment in favor of the Aboriginal people made by Mr. Justice Malouf in the Quebec Superior Court, a judgment ordering Quebec not to trespass on the Indian lands, a judgment so powerful that the federal government put pressure on Quebec to enter into a serious negotiation with the native parties to the dispute.
To describe what arose from these negotiations as some sort of model for others to follow would be to pile injury on top of insult. On the other hand, there are lessons to be learned from what has happened since, For example, in recent years the Crees have knuckled under to the governmental pressures, have signed agreements with both governments, have been given many millions of dollars for their new obedience, and have managed to obtain for themselves limited powers of government that at least give them the illusion of having influence over the greater part of their traditional lands (so-called Category Three lands), and have been able to settle into a role as a sort of regional government that is far beyond the powers given to other native groups across the country. The cost of this --- what they have had to surrender in return for their millions of dollars --- is that they have had to sell their cherished, wild, magnificent Rupert river, to Hydro-Quebec, which is now engaged on the work of modifying it, and, in essence, destroying its intrinsic, irreplaceable qualities, Environemntal groups who have tried to save the Rupert have found the Crees, this time, to be on the side of the government, not that of the river. That is a sorry thing.
None of this downside to the James Bay Agreement made it into “8th Generation,” the CBC film.
Another thing that rang a bell with me was the that the younger generation have heard enough about Indian problems, and are more interested in getting on with solutions to these problems. That is a conclusion I came to in about 1970, when I realized that by writing about their problems all the time, I was somehow missing something that was going on in native communities. (It was Harold Cardinal, head of the Alberta Indian Association, who identified at that time what he called “the problem problem”, that is, since most people identified “Indians” with “problems”, to keep harping on about their problems was merely to feed this particular stereotype.) I began to ask the young men who could speak English and were willing to translate for me to take me to their old people, where I found these aged and highly experienced, wonderfully skilful people were more than willing to keep me talking all day, so long as we were talking about things they thought were central to their lives. But then here, again, although I was glad to hear it mentioned, I had a certain sense of sadness this week that this was still worth mentioning after all these years.
Of course, there is a paradox at the centre of modern native life in Canada, and it is one that struck me forcibly forty years ago. I met so many young or youngish native people who were angry that they had been taught to despise the very fact of their Indianness, and were wondering how that had happened (the answer to that: they had been through a process of brainwashing, designed to destroy everything that meant anything to native people).
So it had become obvious that the first task at that time was for a new leadership that could revive the indigenous values on which they had been raised, and that the government had exerted every effort to destroy. It seemed to me that over the 1970s, 80s and 90s, that task was undertaken, and had been achieved to a considerable degree. What was also needed, going in lock-step with the revival of their indigenous beliefs, was a better education, so that they could confront the government machine that was trying to put them through the wringer. This was, and still is, the paradox: on the one hand, they needed to become more proudly native, embracing their values; on the other, they needed to embrace white man’s education just to enable them to defend themselves against the white man’s governance machine.
This is why, when many people seriously try to understand aboriginal people and their lives, there still is such a tendency to laud those who are more successfully assimilated to the white value system. This seems an almost inevitable consequence of where these people are at nowadays: this CBC series of films placed education at the centre of the desiderata for a beter native life. Ipso facto, they have a difficult road to travel between becoming successfully integrated into Canadian society, complete with their graditional values; and the assimilated future held out to to them by their improving mastery of white man’s education.
They need wise leaders to chart these courses. The CBC series revealed a great deal of self-awareness among their younger people, a necessary ingredient as they make this difficult journey.