|Cree (Photo credit: Evan Prodromou)|
When one has been writing about indigenous peoples for more than 40 years, one becomes familiar with patterns of behaviour among the non-indigenous as they try to relate to the problem of these mysterious people living among them.
Every now and again, for example, there is a flurry of interest among academics and journalists who write sometimes long and detailed accounts of the problems, and usually end up by producing their prescriptions of what is needed. This happened around the development of the Reform party a few years ago. Headed by Tom Flanagan, a Goldwater republican from the U.S. who became a close adviser to Stephen Harper, the right-wing academics and journalists suddenly began to trumpet their newly discovered solution to the problems of the indigenous: all they need to do is to assimilate to the dominant society, to forget their inherited values and beliefs, and to face the facts of life just as if they are any white Canadians, scrabbling for an education that would fit them to make a living, and going out there into the labour market to get a job. Tom Flanagan wrote two books on the subject without ever having set foot in an indigenous community in Canada. Unfortunately, they all ignored that it was the Canadian policy of assimilation, their very solution, that has ben government policy for at least 200 years and that has landed the indigenous in their present unhappy condition.
The indigenous are as a community, so poor that even to organize to have a political voice, they have had to depend on the federal government providing the money to back their organizations. This has set up a conflict of interest that has for many years bedevilled relationships between the indigenous and the dominant society.
Any native leader worth his salt has chaffed under this conflict of interest, especially when his freedom of action is restricted against the threat of withdrawal of funds, something that happens all the time. So flagrant is this conflict of interest that the federal government’s management of the funds entrusted to it is not something that can exposed to examination. When David Crombie was minister of Indian affairs many years ago, he asked 64 questions of his officials, all of which had to do with the federal management of its trustee funds: Crombie was removed from office by Brian Mulroney (under pressure from his officials) before they had time to answer any of those questions (which remain unanswered to this day.)
We are in the midst of yet another of these flurries of interest, and as I sit here thinking about this, flashes of things I have seen over the years keep coming back to me:
*When I began in 1968 I went to the small town of Armstrong in the roadless tract of northern Ontario, north of Lake Superior, where I found two groups who depended for their support on the federal government. At one end of the town the staff of a Mid-Canada corridor tracking station, living in comfortable houses, eating the best food money could buy, their every need catered to by a grateful government employer; at the other end of town, huddled in a handful of miserable huts, a community of Ojibwa who had moved in desperation from their reserve on the shores of Lake Nipigon during the war, and were now trapped in the most abject poverty, their every need ignored by an indifferent government which was supposed to be concerned with their welfare.
*Four years later, when the James Bay Cree went to court in 1972 to contest the Quebec government’s decision to fill their traditional hunting territories with dams and mile after mile of dykes, and huge reservoirs, and vast electricity generating stations, whose production was to be sold to consumers in New York and other New England states, I listened to the lawyers for Quebec argue that they really didn’t have a case to answer because the concept of Aboriginal rights and titles in the land the Cree had always occupied was totally illusory, did not exist in any recognizable legal form, and would not occupy them for more than a couple of days, if that.
*Nine months later, Judge Albert Malouf, in a memorable judgment, declared that interference in the way of life of the Cree population threatened their very existence, and he ordered Quebec to stop trespassing on the Cree land and halt all work on the project. This judgment sent a shock wave through the legal profession in Canada, for was not the law in place to defend property rights, and was not this land the property of the Quebec government? Malouf, to put it mildly, cast doubt on this.
*Within a week the exhaustive inquiry carried out by Malouf over more than six months of hearings was set aside in a two day hearing of the Quebec Court of Appeal, which declared the balance of advantage favoured the state-owned company that was already doing the preliminary work on the project. And so, after a lengthy negotiation, the Cree, gun held at their head, signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, implementation of which occupied their lawyers almost non-stop for the next 25 years until the Cree, worn out by the struggle, gave up and accepted money in return for their agreement to add their cherished homeland river, the Rupert, to the list of rivers that Hydro-Quebec has dammed and diverted.
Enough of these snippets. I had seen enough to realize that the first and essential step in rehabilitation of the life of Canada’s indigenous people was for them to rediscover their pride, their values, the beliefs instilled in them by their ancestors, in other words, to base their revival on the concept of Aboriginal rights and title, a concept and practice that far preceded even the arrival of European invaders in the seventeenth century, a concept that they call today their inherited rights and title to this land known as Canada.
How often, over these years, have I met young indigenous people in their twenties who have told me how ashamed they were at the age of 13 or 14 to be Indians, and how they had suddenly awakened to the fact it was nothing to be ashamed of, their shame was willed on them by the dominant governmental powers, but that on the contrary their race and heritage should be a matter of intense pride?
So here we are today in another of these flurries of interest. The same old tiresome clichés are being trotted out to portray the indigenous as sort of half-witted, trapped in their meaningless concepts from the past. Probably Canada’s leading political columnist, Jeffrey Simpson, of the Globe and Mail, this week, in a shameful article, has consigned all of the indigenous past into a sort of dream-palace, as he describes it, into which most indigenous people in Canada have retreated as they wallow in poverty and backward conditions, utterly out of touch with reality, hoping the federal government will keep them alive with its contributions.
But is there something different this time around? Have the indigenous peoples at last got themselves together to stand proudly on their Aboriginal rights and title, as guaranteed in the Canadian Constitution of 1981? In 2008 a group of indigenous leaders got together, calling themselves the Defenders of the Land, and issued a manifesto dedicating themselves to creating “a fundamental movement for indigenous rights.”
Among other things they declared:
“We have the right and responsibility to look after our lands and waters. No development can take place on our lands without our free, prior, and informed consent. ‘Self-government’ that does not include control of our lands is no self government at all. A ‘duty to consult’ that does not allow us to say ‘no’ to development is meaningless.
“We reject the extinguishment of Aboriginal title through treaty, and any interpretations of historical treaties that falsely claim, against the united voices of our Elders and ancestors, that we have extinguished title to our traditional territories. We reject any policy or process that aims at extinguishing Aboriginal title, including contemporary treaty and comprehensive land claims processes.
“The Indian Act is a fundamental injustice and the product of racism and colonialism. It has no basis in any treaty and has been imposed on our peoples by Canada without our consent. It imposes on us a foreign system of government in which accountability is to masters in Ottawa and not to our peoples. It denies us our freedom to define for ourselves who we are and who are the members of our nations. Only Indigenous peoples have the right to make these determinations.”
Now, the Defenders of the Land have welcomed the Idle No More movement, also a movement that rejects the government-imposed system of indigenous governance.
This movement is standing on the proud heritage of the beliefs and values handed down from their elders and ancestors, who formed self-governing nations, capable of governing themselves, conducting trading relationships, and defending their lands, before the arrival of the Europeans, and the subverting influence of Christianity came among them.
Prime Minister Harper will need to step very carefully when the meets the chiefs and the leaders of Idle No More, with Defenders of the Land also in attendance, at the end of this week.