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Reflections on the Aboriginal Question

Winter / Spring 2014 Features

Reflections on the Aboriginal Question

Reflections on the Aboriginal QuestionThe Canadian state’s answer must start with psychological-spiritual resuscitation of the Aboriginal people, but cannot overshoot to the point of emasculating the strategic centre

If the Quebec question will remain, for the foreseeable future, central to the constitutional survival of Canada, then the Aboriginal question is by far the most important moral question of Canada’s 21st century. No other public question in Canada has its historical weight, inertia and complexity, and no other public tragedy has affected as many generations of Canadians through the vectors of economic destitution, social dysfunction and spiritual disorientation. Indeed, on virtually no other public question can commentators and analysts outside of Canada point, with considerable credibility, to the country as having failed abysmally in reversing indicators of well-being that in many cases rival those of developing countries.

But what is the Aboriginal question this century? Over the last four or five decades – and particularly since the advent of the first series of important Supreme Court decisions in respect of Aboriginal people in the 1970s (starting with the 1973 Calder case, and accelerating after the constitutionalization of section 35 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) – as Canadian policy-making has migrated away from the assimilationist paradigm, the question has been framed variously as one of social justice for oppressed or colonized peoples, reconciliation between First Nations and white Canadians, fiduciary duty and honour of the Canadian Crown (or government), and self-government tout court. The result of this intellectual evolution is that there is in Canada today a reasonably consensual endpoint among policy-makers to the effect that the ‘good life’ should be far more attainable for Aboriginal people – individually and collectively – this century; and also that Aboriginal people ought to have far more capacity to define that ‘good life’ on their own terms, as they see fit.

Whatever its precise trappings, in general terms it seems to be presumed that this ‘good life’ for Aboriginal people should include some mix of material assets (housing and a living wage), social status, professional opportunity (including through high-quality education), legal rights and, in the collective, title to land, where history so warrants. At the same time, what may be highly underappreciated in its centrality to the Aboriginal condition is one basic fact: the Aboriginal people in Canada continue to live as history’s loser; that is, most of the Aboriginal people in Canada are descended, most recently, from people who, in their legal, social, economic, organizational and geopolitical interactions with non-Aboriginals – principally European settlers and their own descendants – were, over time, for a great variety of reasons, stripped of territory, prestige, and the underpinnings of social and material well-being. In some cases, they were plainly outmanoeuvred; in others they were tricked; and in others still they were assimilated, killed or sickened by newly come diseases. The aggregate effect of these blows was historical defeat for the majority of the First Nations to the white man – a defeat that has, ever since, mercilessly conditioned the logic of the relationship between First Nations people and what would become Canadian governments and Canadian society.

To this very day, the Aboriginal people have not been relieved – in their own minds or in those of the winning majority – of the status of Canadian history’s losing people. This is not a merely formal status – it is, instead, a properly psychological-spiritual one. It means that, to a large extent, the negative drag of the Aboriginal question today continues to be psychological-spiritual in nature, and that a good part of the answer to the Aboriginal question – that is, to the transformation of the Aboriginal condition in Canada – must deal frontally with this psychological-spiritual reality.

The creation over time in Canada of a properly bilingual, bicultural and binational state – in the constitutional and political senses – points the way forward on the Aboriginal question in this early new century. By design (and, to be sure, some serendipity), Canada’s great success in responding to the challenge to internal unity and cohesion posed by the linguistic, cultural and ideational differences between the English-speaking majority and the French-speaking minority – itself descended from the losers of the decisive Seven Years’ War – has been premised on the idea that the endgame consists not in perfect harmony or amity among the tribes, but rather depends on how a historically victorious majority can rehabilitate and resuscitate defeated minorities as political and even cultural co-equals – co-equals who are equally invested in the continued existence of the state. Historically defeated («Je me souviens»), the French Canadian in Canada – and in Quebec especially – today walks with his or her shoulders held high, properly self-respecting and in turn respected by the English-speaking majority as politically equal and as hailing from a culture that is just as prestigious as the Anglo-Saxon culture of the historical victors in North America. The French language is today not only studied in all of the schools of English-speaking Canada, but is held in equally high regard in official national institutions and, just as importantly, in the minds of most Canadians. An Anglophone can therefore become prime minister of Canada while being a rank naïf in international affairs and strategy, but not – to be sure – without more or less mastering (and respecting) the French language.

The rehabilitation or resuscitation of the French Canadians in Canada from historical losers to political and cultural co-equals did not happen overnight. It took decades and at least a few generations of conspicuous pushes in policy and constitutional reform – doubtless propelled also by the heroism of many intellectuals and political actors from French Canada in general and Quebec in particular. And, as mentioned, while there evidently continues to be (and likely always will be) great debate in Canada and in Quebec about degrees of respect and dignity and constitutional power and division of responsibilities, the character of the French Canadian or Quebec question by now has precious little to do with historical tragedy and the extremes of basic material and social well-being for French Canadians and Quebecers. Instead, it is, in its sweet spot, a purely first world question about how to govern between centre and region, or between the general and the local or specific.

Let us continue with this logic. Of the four major Anglo-Saxon democracies with large Aboriginal or indigenous populations – Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand – it is surely New Zealand that has enjoyed the greatest success in the relationship between its indigenous peoples (mostly the Maori) and the white majority. Unlike indigenous people in the other three countries, the Maori in New Zealand are highly represented in the professions, in the national army, in sports (most famously dominating the All Blacks rugby union team, and inspiring its magical haka) and, to be sure, in politics, where the national parliament affords a designated number of seats exclusively for Maori representation. To be sure, the Maori also suffer from many of the social dislocations of indigenous people in the other three countries; however, in no case do the indigenous populations of these countries have anything resembling the upside suggested for New Zealand’s Maori on the score of most indicators of socioeconomic well-being. There would seem to be one signal reason for this difference: grosso modo, the Maori, uniquely among the indigenous people of the four countries in question, fought the colonizing white man more or less to a strategic draw in the mid-19th century. While its just interpretation (and implementation) remains hotly contested, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, the founding constitutional document of the New Zealand state, reflects this broad logic of strategic parity between settler and native at time zero. As such, the constitutional-political development of the New Zealand state has, in the main, been in the direction of making the Maori the constitutional-political equal of the white man in New Zealand – that is, self-respecting and, to be sure, respected by New Zealand’s majority, including linguistically and in national rituals and symbology.

By contrast, a deep spiritual and psychological disorientation prevails today, foundationally, among many members of Canada’s First Nations. This disorientation – indeed, spiritual anomie – stems from strategic loss in history. It conduces to a deep-seated insufficiency of self-belief and self-confidence, reinforced by a general and painful disrespect or outright misapprehension (at best, indifference) by and from the white majority. If we accept this premise, then the grammar of the challenge for Canada must be to appreciate this spiritual-cultural disorientation and indeed, over the medium and long term, launch a process that aims to consciously rehabilitate and resuscitate the Aboriginal people into co-equals in the political stewardship of the country.

Indigenous history and tradition themselves arguably anticipate, if not suggest, this path for Canada. Brutal and not infrequent wars took place among the many powerful indigenous confederacies prior to contact with the Europeans. These wars indubitably yielded winners and losers – changing but, critically, still preserving the relationships between the belligerent nations. The victor nations became the ‘big brothers’ in the relationship, assuming a responsibility to look out for the ‘younger brothers’ – that is, to protect them from their remaining enemies, and to rebuild or reconstitute them so that they could become allies of equal consequence. In other words, victory led to protection and resuscitation of the defeated, which led, for purposes of survival, to reasonable co-equality in alliance.

Clearly, part of this push to co-equal status in Canada for the Aboriginal people will involve making the binational logic at the heart of Canadian constitutionalism far more porous for purposes of Aboriginal representation, control of territory, and governing responsibilities. This would involve reimagining the internal borders and identities of Canada in ways that are more eclectic and indeed promiscuous than the very Cartesian ten provinces-plus-three territories paradigm that predominates in most school textbooks and therefore in the psyche of most Canadians. Douglas Sanderson wrote about this rework of Canadian federalism this century, in the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of GB, in terms far more informed than I could muster. But I would humbly add, for good measure, that, if we accept the diagnostic of psycho-spiritual disorientation and anomie at the heart of the condition of Canada’s Aboriginal people, then a key vector in the resuscitation of the Aboriginal people must be not legal or socioeconomic, but rather cultural in character. A pivotal aspect of this cultural game surely must be the stimulation, revival and mainstreaming of Aboriginal languages. Renewed study across Canada in provincial schools of, say, Cree, Ojibwe, Inuktitut and Michif — to take but four major Aboriginal tongues — would not only give Canadians a better appreciation, if not understanding, of Aboriginal realities – and mentalities – but would also lend prestige to the more general Aboriginal cultures that were brutally relegated to the peripheries of Canadian society. Aboriginals, in turn, would be given an opening and an audience for the proliferation of books, magazines, blogs, films, radio and television shows across Canada and internationally in tongues that have renewed currency and credibility. We might then imagine a Canadian prime minister, in the year 2030, easily mastering English, French and Cree. (As I wrote in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of GB, Canada’s internal dynamics and dominant international strategic game commend to it a national languages strategy involving the generalization of fluency or competence in English, French, and a key third international tongue – Mandarin, Russian, Spanish or Arabic – and/or a key Aboriginal language.)

So we have established the central structure of the Aboriginal question in Canada in this early new century: how to make the Aboriginal people political-constitutional co-equals in the governance of Canada – resuscitated from the spiritual anomie caused by strategic defeat, but loyal to, or invested in, the continued existence of the Canadian state. This psycho-spiritual question seems to inexorably beg a fundamentally strategic question that is fraternal in logic to the notion of securing the said interest and investment – or even loyalty – of Aboriginal people vis-à-vis the Canadian state. This strategic question involves the very governability, efficacy or coherence of Canada in the context of proliferating Aboriginal land claims and rights to resources and rents on treaty lands.

Of course, as mentioned above, if the framing of the Aboriginal question has undergone intense evolution over the last four or five decades, it has still never been framed in strategic terms – more precisely, in relation to the capacity of the Canadian state to achieve basic strategic interests or ends given the dynamics and imperatives related to the Aboriginal people. The landmark 1997 Delgamuukw case came close to suggesting such logic when Chief Justice Lamer stated that the scope of constitutional validity or justifiability for state objectives that infringed section 35(1) Charter rights was broad, and that most of these objectives related to the “reconciliation of the prior occupation of North America by aboriginal peoples with the assertion of Crown sovereignty.” Unfortunately, given the absence of a deep strategic culture in the Canadian judicature – as with much of Canadian public life, for reasons that I have discussed in past issues of GB – most of the Crown objectives listed by the Chief Justice were patently domestic in character. And yet, in the context of a strategically more difficult century for Canada (again, discussed in past issues of GB), and in the context of a Canada that may wish to, or indeed may be forced to, become one of the world’s major states, there is great medium- and long-term potential for friction and contradiction between the emerging constitutional capacity of Canada to efficiently, decisively and credibly move in ways that advance strategic interests and the legitimate claims and purposes of the Aboriginal people. Whether this friction is mitigated or exacerbated by a move to make Aboriginal people co-equals in Canadian governance remains to be seen. The verdict in this regard surely is not indifferent to the talents and temperament of Canada’s governing classes this century.

Still, it is increasingly clear that extant and emerging legal-constitutional strictures being put on the Canadian Crown – in respect of the honour of the Crown, the Crown’s fiduciary duty and consultation obligations vis-à-vis First Nations, and also in respect of control of huge chunks of Canadian territory tout court (the case of William v. British Columbia, currently being litigated at the Supreme Court, is a key one to watch) – will tend to blunt the capability of the federal government to move directly and independently on a host of strategic fronts. (Provincial governments, although less strategic actors than Ottawa, will also be handicapped.) The combination of accumulated jurisprudential wins and a move to become co-equals in Canadian governance could have the paradoxical effect of increasing Aboriginal expectations to the point where the centrifugal pulls and asks or demands – not necessarily always peaceful – on the Canadian state become extremely difficult to manage or resist.

From Arctic sovereignty to the exploitation of natural resources, the building of cross-Canadian infrastructure and even the capacity to prepare or mobilize for war (certainly not excluded in a continental theatre the territory of which will be more hotly contested) are all national strategic projects that will bump up against Aboriginal considerations with great regularity and increasing intensity. The federation, with Aboriginal people more than ever at its core as equals, will become internally more grand and complex, and, from the external vantage point, more difficult to manoeuvre with great purpose and for great purposes. If this dance is to be negotiated, the federation will require greater public men and women at its helm.


Irvin Studin is Editor-in-Chief & Publisher of Global Brief.

(Illustration: Anita Kunz)

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