From time to time students approach me to discuss some project they are working on, usually to do with the indigenous people, because of my longish history of contact with them. Usually these are young women, always extremely polite, pleasant to talk to, and forgotten almost as soon as they disappear (like so much else in my life these days, my memory no longer being anything like it was when I was a young reporter). Occasionally one of them will send me the result of their studies, an article, film, video or written thesis, and occasionally these are very impressive.
I have a slightly ambivalent attitude towards these theses, which is nothing to boast about, but comes from my life experience, which took me from my fourth year at high school directly into the lowest rank of journalism, a reading room in a small-town local newspaper, and embarked me on a working life that has never ceased since I started it in 1945. During that time I have come to think --- perhaps it would be accurate to say I have developed a prejudice --- that inclines me to think that much academic work obsfuscates rather than clarifies.
At first I had an exaggerated respect for universities and those who taught or studied in them: I remember when I was first asked to talk to a University class how I thought there must have been some mistake: how could I tell them anything they didn’t already know? Only after a few such experiences did it dawn on me that many students were bored with their studies, and were happy to have a lay person who spoke easily understandable English appear in their classrooms to bring them the occasional word from ordinary life.
Eventually, at a time of some economic need, I was invited to, and accepted, a job for one term teaching as a visiting professor at the University of Waterloo, which I found a remarkable experience, both because of the limitations it revealed to the university experience (frankly, I disliked it), and because of the remarkable talents and dedication I observed in a few teachers who were ushering their students towards elevated degrees, with astonishing dedication to the job and to the students in their care.
One student who has recently sent me her thesis is a young woman called Shiri Pasternak, who presented her study “On Jurisdiction & Settler Colonialism: The Algonquins of Barriere Lake
Against the Federal Land Claims Policy” in pursuit of her Ph.D at the University of Toronto.
One common factor that has struck me in relation to the theses I have read is that usually one has to plough through a veritable mountain of jargon, which may be important and meaningful for the author and his or her mentors, but that is virtually meaningless to anyone outside academia. Ms. Pasternak has such a chapter at the beginning of her book that she warned me perhaps I should skip. It deals with jurisdiction and its various meanings in terms of law and so on, and I confess it was loaded with language that, from my blunt layman’s view, seems slightly pretentious and frankly aimed at one small group, and thus, elitist. (However, this is just my personal view, and I don’t expect anyone else to react as I always do. This is, after all, how they earn their doctorates.)
Interestingly, she begins her story by telling the tale of how her grandparents settled the arid Negev desert in Palestine, taking over land that had been occupied for centuries by the local people who, willy-nilly, had to be displaced. She makes hardly any excuses for this, except to say the land was not actually stolen, but was bought by the Jewish Agency, though she does ask what authority the sellers had to make the sale.
This does lead her into the main focus of her thesis which is the struggle that has been waged over the last twenty or so years by the Algonquin people of Barriere Lake, a small group of 400 or so indigenous, rooted in their experience as hunters and gatherers, who have found the forest of their traditional lands are being clear-cut around their ears, as it were. Since this is one of the poorest communities in Canada, and has been brought to that status by many decades of oppression by both state and religious orders, a study of their past and present struggle to survive provides, as Ms Pasternak says, a classic example of Canada in its role as colonial power dictating the daily lives of the indigenous peoples who were found living here already when the European invaders arrived.
At first the invaders pretended the land was unoccupied, calling it by the European legal name Terra Nullius, on the basis of which false assumption, and others, they immediately began to erect a series of legislative actions to control the people who so mysteriously claimed prior occupancy and ownership of the territory.
In other words, Ms Pasternak frankly admits (as indeed is incontrovertible) that the entire basis of what became the Canadian nation was erected from the first on questionable assumptions that cannot be called other than racist, ignorant and staggeringly arrogant. Others have told this story in much more detail than she needs to do, notably the late McGill University anthropologist and archaeologist, Bruce Trigger, whose remarkable book The Children of Aataentsic deals particularly with the history of the Algonquins, as well as with its ostensible subject, that of the Hurons. Suffice to say that the Algonquins, original inhabitants of the Ottawa river valley, were subsequently forced to give way before the encroachments of the logging companies that wanted the timber, leaving the Algonquins to make pathetic, unremitting and usually fruitless appeals during many decades, for recognition of their rights in their traditional lands. This is a tale that every Canadian should know, but that is never taught in high schools, so far as I know, and that is certainly not familiar to most Canadians I have met.
What is even more disturbing in Ms Pasternak’s account of this local form of colonialism is her detailed account of the recent negotiations through which the Barriere Lake people --- a group that resisted efforts to gather them into the big reserve at Maniwaki where most of the displaced Algonquins were gathered by the church and state in 1851 ---- have tried to establish what is in effect a new mechanism through which to solve their troubled relationship with the dominant society that has always paid them so little heed.
After a period of negotiation interrupted by acts of civil disobedience, blockade and so on, they managed to get the Quebec and federal government to sign with them a Tripartite Agreement which, if all the work were ever concluded on it, would have established the rights in their forest of each of the contending parties --- themselves, (the party that is customarily ignored) as well as that of miners, loggers, tourist operators, sports hunters and the like. This agreement, negotiated under the leadership of their traditional governing council, has been hailed as a ground-breaking initiative in the always difficult question of relations between the indigenous and non-indigenous contestants for the same lands, hailed not only in Canada, but in United Nations documents, and in other countries.
Anyone who cares about this country should read this story: it is terrifying in its exposition of the bad faith of the governments with whom this impoverished community has had to deal. First the Quebec government began to renege on the deal; then later the federal government. And the measures taken against the people of the reserve have been breathtaking in their effrontery and in their lack of a concern for justice and decency.
One faction within the reserve, built around one of the more powerful traditional families, has opposed much of what the Chief and his followers have proposed, and the government has seized on this to exercise the classic divide-and-rule tactics by which the federal government has normally befuddled its way through this area of Indian policy over many decades. Behind their every action has been their reluctance to implement an agreement that does not deal in land. Because, as Ms. Pasternak makes clear in one of her last chapters, land deals have been accompanied by government insistence that part of every land deal has been the requirement that the native signatories surrender all the rights guaranteed to them under the Canadian constitution. And such a surrender is not implicit in the Trilateral Agreement. The group Defenders of the Land (hailed only this month by Noam Chomsky for their stout defence of the planet Earth, in contrast to the governments that are sailing on hell-bent for destruction, with the Canadian government in the lead) have analysed this policy as one of “emptying out” the guarantees given to Aboriginals in the Canadian constitution, and some of their members have characterized this policy as “Canada’s war against the First Nations.” The many land claims negotiations that are underway across Canada, are all being done at the eventual expense of the First Nations, who will thus be saddled with massive debts as they take off on their brave new course in life, but they have borne little result so far, and Ms Pasternak’s narrative leaves little doubt that the policy should be abandoned. This policy is described by Ms. Pasternak in as much detail as anyone has ever described it , and it will be a great service to the nation if her thesis, possibly edited to eliminate some of its academic language, is published as a book for the general reader.