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A member of the Assembly of First Nations dances at Fort York in Toronto last summer at the start of a memorial service commemorating first nations warriors who fought in the War of 1812. (Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail)
A member of the Assembly of First Nations dances at Fort York in Toronto last summer at the start of a memorial service commemorating first nations warriors who fought in the War of 1812. (Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail)

Hayden King

We natives are deeply divided. There’s nothing wrong with that Add to ...

I often find myself surrounded by Mohawks. I’ve worked in Six Nations territory for the balance of my career and many good friends are Haudenosaunee. In fact, despite being Anishinaabe I often find myself identifying with the two-row wampum or Great Law of Peace.

But there are also things I just don’t get about those Mohawks (and Cayugas, Oneidas, etc.). They like to claim Anishinaabe land despite overwhelming evidence that it’s ours; they make political appeals to peace, power and righteousness, us to truth, humility and love; and curiously, when they round dance, they do it in the opposite direction!

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The point here is that while we share a lot of important traits, there is also much that differentiates us. This fact, or the fact that there are 60-odd unique indigenous nations in Canada (scattered across 600 communities) is lost on Canadian punditry, media and most of the public generally. Recent attempts to interpret Idle No More movement has resulted in conclusions of sudden divisions, fracturing and “chiefs losing control." But the differences of opinion among people in the reality is that these cleavages have always existed and some are natural.

Outside of the national political and cultural differences, one of the most noticeable rifts within the Idle No More movement exists between those who see the band council as part of the problem and those who see it as a solution, a debate stretching back to the late-1800s. Many of the former group view band councils as representative of the Indian Act and a system that prevents any real power to affect change (largely due to restrictions in the Act and policy direction required by funding arrangements). Ultimately, it’s a system that forces bands to be accountable to the federal government, not community members.

Then there are supporters of the band council, who feel chiefs are best suited to lead the transition away from the Indian Act. This is a position taken by band councils that comprise the Anishinaabek Nation in Ontario or the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. Indeed, these are often good people working towards the resurrection of more authentic governments or the restoration of treaty relationships, but through a less-than-perfect framework.

As for the aforementioned treaties, they are the source of yet another division: communities with a treaty versus those without. The latter are distinct from much of the movement and advocate a better process to create treaties or some mechanism to share the land in the absence of treaties (this latter perspective is a reflection of the growing disapproval of modern treaties). Both non-treaty perspectives advocate jurisdiction over unsurrendered lands.

Finally, there are those who have less connection to the band council, the Indian Act or a treaty. These are Métis and Inuit peoples, but also Dene, Salish and Maliseet peoples in cities and suburbs. Their concerns range from obtaining Aboriginal rights off the reserve, to the protection for ecosystems, an alleviation of poverty, a national inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women, adequate access to education, and on, and on (joining them in the streets are non-Native Canadians expressing solidarity for some or all of the above).

The conclusion of this terse overview of the diverse interests within the movement illustrates that there cannot be a parsimonious message except that federal policies are failing Indigenous peoples. One of the primary reasons for that failure is the continued belief that we’re all the same, which is manifest in one size fits all policy prescriptions. This is a narrative that also leads to misconceptions about factionalism. But as my Mohawk friend and colleague Professor Rick Monture says, “its strange to call differences of opinion ‘factionalism’, we just call it democracy.” It’s an important point. While we all may dance to a similar beat, our footwork can take us in different directions. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Hayden King is Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation and an assistant professor of politics at Ryerson University.

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