Saturday, August 17, 2013

My Log 370: Time to listen to indigenous people, to stop hiding behind excuses and to accept the reality of the indigenous presence in the Canadian mosaic

John Ralston Saul has an interesting article in today’s Globe and Mail in which he says that for at least 100 years Canadians have been nasty towards their indigenous compatriots, that they have known what they were doing, and the indigenous people have, in spite of this, embarked on a comeback which is now irreversible, and it is time for Canadians to listen to them and to shop hiding behind all sorts of excuses when asked to make amends for their horrendous past.

He could have been even more direct, in my opinion: not only did Canadians know what they were doing during all those years, but they actually did it all on purpose, enshrining their purposes in a series of legislative actions that, when considered in total, leave no doubt as to their meaning: they were designed to abolish the so-called “Indians” by turning them all into compliant, non-troublesome ordinary Canadians --- in other words, not to put too fine a point on it, they were engaged in an act of legislative genocide. (And please don’t let’s hear any quibbling against use of the word because it is supposed to diminish the suffering of other genocide victims: the fact is, Canada’s actions towards its native people fits the definition of genocide to a tee.)

I’ve been impressed in recent months by the amount of commentary on indigenous affairs that has begun to appear in the nation’s newspapers, more impressed by the amount of it than by its quality.  Since most commentators in the press these days are instinctively conservative --- they would hardly be allowed to comment if they weren’t, since the owners these days are usually major corporations with interests in other fields that they are likely to be using their newsapers to defend ---- it is no surprise to find that many of them appear to have discovered a magic bullet by which the so-called Indian problem could be dealt with. That magic bullet is the policy of assimilation, in which they are following the lead of the Conservative government.

The government’s policies, designed to undermine the rights guaranteed to the indigenous in the constitution, to undermine their control of even the minimal lands the indigenous have been confined to, and to undercut provisions of treaties made many years ago, have been accurately described by Russell Diabo, author of the  online First Nations Strategic Bulletin, as “the Canadian government’s war against the native people of canada.”

The enthusiasm of so many commentators for the assimilation  policy ignores the fact that this has always been government policy, ever since a policy existed in Canada, which is more than 200 years, and it is precisely this policy that has resulted in the sorry conditions that apply in so many Aboriginal reserves today.

Ralston Saul, in his piece acknowledges that there are contradictions that arise in any consideration of policy towards the indigenous people.  This is one of the first things that struck me when I began to write abut indigenous policies in the late 1960s. I made many visits to native communities and fairly quickly understood that there was more to write about than their often appalling conditions of life. What confronted anyone trying to meet as many Aboriginal people as possible was how many of them had been persuaded to be ashamed of being native people. I can recall many youngsters in their mid-teens who told me how they had been schooled to be ashamed, and it wasn’t until they were 14 or so, and able to do some thinking for themselves, that they realized how false all this was.

The contradiction that struck me was this: 
First, only by  re-asserting their traditional values, re-discovering their ancient ceremonies, and basing their actions and demands on what is, after all the fundamental view of life of indigenous people wherever they may be in the world, that is, a holistic view that sees themselves (and us) as just one of the participants in the cycle of life, and the one with probably the greatest responsibiity for the health of the world, could they hope to recover and take a responsible place in the mosaic of whatever nation they might find themselves in, which in this case was Canada;
Second, it seemed almost contradictory that, faced with having to defend themselves against governments, corporations, intellectuals and others armed with the formidable knowledge and sophistication inherited from the modern world, the secret to their success in this confrontation quite evidently lay in their being equipped by a modern education to deal on equal terms with the moloch that they faced.

Ralston Saul makes this point in his article: some 30,000 native people are in universities and colleges. And a people who wefe forbidden in 1927 from hiring lawyers to pursue their claims, now have 1,000 lawyers among their own people. Time, he says, and one must welcome and heartily endorse his call, time to listen to what they have to say. Otherwise, Canada can nevefr be the country it purports to be, an inclusive democracy with room for everyone to express themselves.

For sure, the native people stand first among those who deserve that chance. But even if there were no question of their deserving it, they are, regardless, seizing it as they comeback from those many decades when they were treated by something not far from contempt by the mainstream society.

On the question of this treatment  I always think of the  short shrift given given in 1928 to Chief Syllaboy of the Mikmaqs, when he pleaded that his hunting rights had been guaranteed in a treaty of 1752. This argument was scarcely even considered; the province argued that Mikmaq rights had been  extinguished.  Sixty years later in 1985 the Grand Council of the Mikmaqs chose one of their men to hunt outside the boundaries of his reserve, to test the continuing validity of the law.  He was convicted, and the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia upheld that conviction, but it was overturned by the Supreme court of .canada, thus confirming a gradual change in the interpretation of Aboriginal rights.

The Supreme Court ruled that the 1752 treaty was still a binding and enforceable agrement between the Crown and the Mikmaqs, and that the protection of their hunting right overrode provincial legislation.

If it proved nothing else, this decision showed that the indigenous memory is long. And it is certain, as Ralston Saul has argued in his piece, that we ignore it at our peril.

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