|English: Monument to aboriginal war veterans in Confederation Park, Ottawa, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Classification of indigenious peoples of North America according to Alfred Kroeber, English Version (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Today I heard something from Desmond Tutu, speaking on a BBC programme called Tutu’s Children, that rang a bell with me. Someone asked him what advice he would give to anyone hoping to work in a leadership position in Africa, and he said, “You have to give them (the people) their dignity.”
Soon thereafter, a young woman who is now a business leader in Nigeria, recalled emotionally having heard Tutu speak in the 1990s, and added, “That was the first time in my life I ever felt pride in being a black woman,” and thanked him profusely for it.
I mention this because it reminds me of a decision I came to not long after beginning my travels among indigenous peoples in Canada in the late 1960s. It did not take long before I began to run into people who told me how, in their late teens, they were ashamed of being Indians in Canada, and slowly began to understand they had been taught to feel this way by the governing white power structure. What seemed obvious was that, as the Indians, then so-called, were beginning to get back on to their feet after generations of oppression, the first and most important thing for them was to rediscover pride in their indigenous customs, beliefs and way of life. This, it seemed, came before any imperative such as discovering how to make a viable living, how to raise themselves out of the poverty into which so many of them had been born, how to improve the condition of their lives.
I have never seen anything in the many decades since then to persuade me that this was an incorrect intuition, and it has only been confirmed by the number of Euro-Canadians who after making a peripheral examination of Indian lives, have quickly come to the conclusion that the best way forward is for Indians to assimilate into Canadian life.
These people have trumpeted this conclusion as if unaware of the fact that assimilation had been the policy implemented with such determination by the government of Canada for the last two hundred years or more, and was the very policy, the evil consequences of which, in its application to indigenous lives, had been responsible for the parlous condition into which the First Peoples had fallen.
Now, of course, we are living in a world in which many indigenous people have become successful in business, academia, sports, and many other aspects of Canadian life.
But it is because of my original conclusion that today I find my sympathies lie more with organizations like the Defenders of the Land than with the overtly political organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations and provincial organizations pursuing political objectives, for these still depend on government funding, putting them into an ambiguous position from which they are forced to bite the hand that feeds them: the government can, and does, use its control of their funding to try to influence their decision-making.
The Defenders base their policies on Aboriginal Rights and Title, which, they say, do pre-date European arrival on the continent, but have nevertheless been recognized as guaranteed under the 1982 Canadian Constitution. Policies based on monetary solutions can be seen to have been ineffective as defenders of traditional indigenous values and lifestyles: in fact, modern government policies, it could be argued, are to isolate each band, and then buy them off with offers of money, for which the government still doggedly insists that the receiving groups must abandon their guaranteed constitutional rights (which, they argue, would be henceforth replaced by another given set of agreed rights.)
Why indigenous peoples should be required to surrender their rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution is something that has never been adequately explained to the Canadian people, and a sceptic like myself can see only one rationale: that it is a method for weakening the protections given to indigenous people. One can imagine how indignant Euro-Canadians would be if, say, in return for government funding of hospitals or schools, they were required to surrender fundamental rights outlined in the Constitution.
As long ago as the 1970s, David Crombie as Indian Affairs minister ordered an inquiry into the need for extinguishment of rights, and was advised it was not necessary, but unfortunately Crombie was undermined by his officials and dismissed from office before he could make the needed changes in policy.
I urge any readers of this blog who may have doubts about these policies to embark on some reading of the historical record (I gave it a good working over in my book People of Terra Nullius), or to read any number of excellent works (such as Thomas King’s recent The Inconvenient Indian) which have driven a coach and horses through the government’s case, and that of its many supporters, most of whom have little interest and no faith in the indigenous people of this country.