Words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools. –Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651
Many Canadians seem baffled by the insistence of Chief Theresa Spence and other first nations leaders on meeting with Governor-General David Johnston – and not just for a ceremonial encounter, but for an extended policy discussion. What’s going on here? Didn’t they study responsible government in Political Science 101 and learn that the governor-general always acts on the advice of the prime minister and cabinet?
Actually, native leaders’ focus on the governor-general as the representative of the Crown is based not on a lack of information about the Constitution but on a different understanding of it. They know perfectly well that the prime minister and government of the day are installed by the political process of the nation of Canada, but they don’t see themselves as part of that process and that nation. They see themselves as separate nations, dealing with Canada on a “nation to nation” basis. They see the Crown as a governmental structure above Canada – and therefore the authority with whom they should deal.
Sovereign nations do not legislate for each other; they voluntarily agree to sign treaties after negotiations. The radical conclusion from this premise is that Parliament has no right to legislate for aboriginal people without first getting their consent. Hence the hue and cry about consultation and the demand to repeal those parts of the government’s Budget Implementation acts that allegedly impinge on aboriginal and treaty rights. Today’s claim is that Parliament had no right to amend the Indian Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act before consulting with (read: getting the approval of) first nations. But the same claim could be made regarding any legislation, for all laws made by Parliament affect native people. Enforcement of the Criminal Code arguably affects aboriginal rights by putting large numbers of aboriginal people in jail, and so on.
This indigenist ideology is not new. It started to appear in the 1970s, as a reaction to Jean Chrétien’s 1969 White Paper, which proposed repealing treaties and abolishing the special legal status of Indians. In its usual well-meaning but sometimes witless way, the Canadian political class thought it could deal with the reaffirmation of indigenism through word magic. Adopt the vocabulary of the radicals. Start calling Indian bands “first nations.” Pretend to recognize their “inherent right of self-government” or even “sovereignty.”
But talking the talk has not been enough. Aboriginal leaders, at least the more radical ones, also want Canada to walk the walk. Yet Canada still legislates for native people, still decides unilaterally how much money to transfer to first nations, still demands reports on the spending of that money. That’s not how nations ought to treat each other.
Of course, one may ask, if first nations really are sovereign nations, why should Canada support them at all? In the international sphere, nations are expected to support themselves. But indigenist ideology has an answer for that question, too. The first nations have paid in advance by allowing the colonizers to share their resources. They never surrendered their ownership of the land (though that’s what the written treaties say). They agreed only to share it, and for that they are entitled to a perpetual share of resource revenues.
The ideology is a direct challenge to the existence of Canada as a state. There are only 193 United Nations member states. Canada is not going to last long if it really contains more than 600 sovereign Indian bands, now known as first nations, plus the Métis, plus whatever the courts eventually determine non-status Indians to be. That’s why no prime minister should agree to a working meeting between the governor-general and the Assembly of First Nations.
Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a campaign manager for conservative parties.