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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

Jeffrey Simpson: So aboriginals are divided. Aren’t we all Add to ...

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
–William Faulkner

It’s easy to lose count of the breathless recent commentaries portraying aboriginal peoples as “divided.” Just last week, they say, aboriginal leaders failed to agree on whether and where to see the Prime Minister, whether to demand that the Governor-General be present, whether to embrace the Idle No More movement, whether to defy the law by blockading streets and rail lines.

What else is new? But it’s not just aboriginals who are divided this way.

The last time anyone looked, the Canadian Parliament was divided, too.

There are always divisions between Ottawa and the provinces, and inside provinces themselves. In mainstream newspapers and electronic media, different voices expound on the issues of the day. From business lobbies to gay-rights advocates, from unions to dairy farmers, interest groups fight to protect their gains and, if possible, expand on them.

Just as non-aboriginals disagree, so do aboriginals. The notion that some underlying unity of purpose and shared history exists among them is largely a myth – except for the almost universal experience of having been dispossessed and poorly treated.

Even that myth doesn’t hold much with some aboriginal groups that have thrown off the history of dispossession, signed modern agreements with governments or otherwise just got on with building a better life for their people, such as the Cree in northern Quebec or British Columbia’s Osoyoos, Musqueam or Westbank bands, among others.

More than 600 chiefs select the grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He or she is their spokesperson, but since the chiefs very seldom agree unanimously on much – just as in non-aboriginal society – the grand chief is on a short leash. No wonder the current grand chief, Shawn Atleo, has taken sick leave.

A prime minister is surrounded by MPs and, in a looser sense, by party members across the country; a grand chief is surrounded by chiefs, who are leaders in and of themselves. Chiefs give orders; backbenchers take them. The difference is profound.

It is said that a few chiefs are corrupt, while others are incompetent. Has anyone read the news about the Quebec corruption inquiry, which has already toppled mayors and may yet shake the foundations of provincial politics? Toronto Mayor Rob Ford does not appear to be in any way corrupt, but neither does he appear very competent to run the country’s largest city. He and Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, heroes to their admirers, have much in common as administrators.

There are dozens of distinct linguistic and cultural groupings of Indians in Canada, with sub-units among groups, as with the six groups inside the Iroqouis Confederacy and the five within the Dene Nation. The Cree and Ojibwa are the most numerous; others have fewer than 1,000 people. Only a minority of Indians still speak their native languages.

Within these distinct linguistic and cultural groups, there are divisions upon divisions. Two bands, side-by-side, might take entirely different views. One will refuse to recognize Canadian sovereignty, the other will do so and deal with government.

Of 617 bands, according to the Indian Registry, 120 had more than 2,000 members, with the 20 largest having between 5,000 and 25,000. But 58 per cent had fewer than 1,000 people. And since almost half of band members on average live off-reserve, that leaves many on-reserve populations of just a few hundred.

Some will live near resources that can be extracted for profit; others have the misfortune to live nowhere near such resources. Some live close to mainstream society and can establish fruitful relations; others are so isolated as to make relations fleeting. About half of Indians now live in cities, with varying links back to the reserves.

Many successful Indians in the arts, business, law, medicine, universities and other fields are proud of their heritages and retain links to their communities, but they have integrated to varying degrees in mainstream society and made their peace with this double existence.

There will always therefore be divisions, just as there were long before “white” settlers arrived, Indian mythology to the contrary. Indians’ sense of the past the memories that animate their various actions today will never go away.

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