Halfway through his quick study, United Nations special rapporteur James Anaya slipped in a fact that colours almost everything about Canada’s First Nations, even though he seems to have ignored its importance.
Of the First Nations communities that receive federal funding, he noted, 70 per cent have fewer than 500 residents. To put matters in a non-aboriginal context, that means communities with smaller populations than the majority of towns in Canada. Unlike most towns, many of these aboriginal communities are geographically isolated from other centres of activity and economy.
When the communities occupy or claim territory, some are willing to consider its exploitation, under proper circumstances, so that some community members can earn income and therefore become less dependent on outsiders, namely government. Others hew to the old ways of hunting, fishing, trapping, part-time piecemeal work and, of course, welfare with all the social problems that derive from idleness and dependency. (Idle No More would quite literally mean in most cases accepting participation in the wage economy and therefore more integration, not less, with the rest of society.)
These First Nations communities, Mr. Anaya correctly observed, wish to be treated and to act as “self-governing nations,” based on treaties, historic occupation and culture, without enough of their people asking where is the capacity and revenue going to come from to provide the full range of services expected of “self-governing nations” with populations smaller than that of most towns? Who is kidding whom about the ability, given these numbers, to provide health, welfare, education, justice, policing and the other services rightly demanded by any population of its own government?
The entire constitutional, political, economic and sociological structures of aboriginal Canada have been based for many decades now on parallelism within Canada, a hard sell to the rest of the population that is strongly integrationist. Canada places a high symbolic value on multiculturalism, even placing it in the Constitution and handing out grants to multicultural organizations, while simultaneously being one of the world’s most integrationist countries. Indeed, just as the social condition of aboriginals is Canada’s biggest failure, its greatest success has arguably been, and remains, the integration of millions of people from the four corners of the Earth with a minimum of social conflict into two linguistic societies.
The rhetoric and political pressuring of aboriginal leadership has been to disassociate their communities to the greatest extent possible from mainstream Canada by, on the one hand, creating parallel institutions while simultaneously, in many but not all cases, objecting to avenues for creating wealth on lands they claim or own. This is the dilemma almost completely absent from Mr. Anaya’s report, based on some reading and a week in Canada.
He offers a long list of projects to which various aboriginal groups object and accepts almost holus-bolus their complaints about not enough funding from Ottawa for this or that program, without even hinting at how the “communities” propose otherwise to support themselves.
He acknowledges, but then misstates, what courts have said about the need to consult and accommodate aboriginal interests should projects be proposed on or near their communities. Despite claims to the contrary, aboriginals do not have a veto on projects unless they pass right through territory they occupy – not territory they might claim, for that can be vast, unproven and even overlapping with other claims.
They have every right to object to proposals, but not the right in law (political pressure and street theatre are other matters) to stop them. And if they are stopped, what then? Where are jobs coming from, and own-source revenues, and a future for their children?
The aboriginal organization once established to provide a coherent voice for their concerns – the Assembly of First Nations – has collapsed in internal political battling, essentially between those who want to work with government and those who wish to confront it.
Running the AFN was far harder than managing a political party, given the existence of more than 600 chiefs, all of whom have but a fraction of the population represented by a Member of Parliament. The former chief, Shawn Atleo, quit when his education deal with the federal government failed to win support from the militant parallelists in the First Nations leadership, who offer more distance from mainstream Canada – a recipe for emotional satisfaction, perhaps, but also more economic stagnation.