I started to work for the National Indian Brotherhood, the predecessor of the Assembly of First Nations, in 1972. One of our big ambitions at that time was to convince some members of the Ottawa press gallery to stop quoting activist Kahnitenata Horn in every story and referring to her as “a Mohawk princess,” thus demonstrating a further ignorance since the Mohawk nation and the other four nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy have the world’s oldest democratic, written constitution and have never been a monarchy.
We’ve come a long way in the last 40 years. If we can just go twice as far in the next 40 years we will have really gone somewhere. When I look around today I see a lot of progress tempered by a great deal of regression. The amount of support for the Idle No More movement and for Chief Theresa Spence has been truly impressive -- I don’t think that would have happened a few years ago. I’ve never seen the level support that I’ve seen for the events happening the past few weeks.
Still, the rafts of misrepresentations of first nations policies, goals and objectives has not shrunk, even though the number of non-aboriginal people who have become more supportive and sometimes even better informed has grown.
“Too many first nations people live in a dream palace” was the heading of a recent Jeffrey Simpson column. My first impulse is to ask “What is wrong with having a dream?” It’s how Martin Luther King Jr. began his best-remembered speech. Sir Wilfrid Laurier had a vision for Canada in a century then just starting. There is no good reason for excluding first nations from the possibilities that open up to those whose dreams become visions for their people.
In 1983, the Commons Special Committee on Indian Self-Government presented a report detailing a framework by which first nations could take control of their own lives rather than simply administering federally created programs. The 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples laid out a similar plan in far greater detail and a series of reports from the Senate Standing Committee on Aboriginal Peoples has worked within that framework while addressing a long list of Aboriginal issues. Somehow, the Department of Indian Affairs (now Aboriginal Affairs) has managed to keep a tight hold on policy so that none of these reports have gone very far.
One of the things on which the Commons Committee, the Senate Committee and the Royal Commission have all agreed is that the Indian Affairs Branch, however much it gets re-named, can not be the organization that represents the Canadian state in forging a new relationship with first nations. These inquiries have called for a senior minister to be given specific responsibility for forging a new relationship while having the department continue to administer programs that first nations communities have not yet taken over. That sounds pretty concrete to me. If a Commons Committee, a Senate Committee and a royal commission all find that the Aboriginal Affairs Department is not a suitable point of contact for “resetting the relationship,” then maybe we ought to wonder how the department continues to maintain control.
One of the currently popular misrepresentations paints Chief Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation, whose hunger strike triggered this new political confrontation, as a dreamer with no concrete plan.
From the outset Chief Spence has said, time and again, that what she is seeking is to have the outstanding promises of her people’s treaty fulfilled. Given Ottawa’s record on treaty promises perhaps that is a dream of sorts. But is unreasonable to ask that promises made by Canada to first nations in many parts of this country be honoured? The government should remain mindful that of the admonitions of the Supreme Court that governments should act, in their dealings with aboriginal peoples, on the knowledge that “the honour of the Crown is at stake” and that “no sharp dealings are to be allowed.” These and similar statements have been reiterated in a long line of Supreme Court decisions from 1984 to the present. Government policy does not seem to have budged very much.
One of the demands of Idle No More is that the several different bills that this government rammed through parliament in the fall be re-considered. The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that projects that affect first nations require consultation. Not only was there no consultation on these bills, but several of them were tucked inside the budget bill and sent over to the Aboriginal Affairs Committee for only a very slapdash hearing with a very few witnesses.
The Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, with a Conservative majority, issued a report saying that the Government’s strategy was “deeply insulting.” One of these bills requires first nations to publish their accounts on a website every year and to include the accounts of any businesses they might control. I don’t see any effort to make a similar requirement of small businesses owned by non-aboriginal people.
In my dream palace there is an image of a time when the kinds of misrepresentations I have discussed here will no longer be woven into the fabric of the Canadian nation.
Michael Posluns, who is currently completing a Master of Laws thesis at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, began chronicling the legal and political status of first nations with his 1974 book The Fourth World: An Indian Reality. His most recent book is The Emergence of the Vocabulary of First Nations’ Self-Government, published by Routledge.