Hunger Strikes are Terrorism and Other Racist Bullshit: A Brief Primer on Aboriginal Affairs in Canada
There’s nothing like some Injuns getting uppity and demanding political rights, etc., to draw out the kooky, paranoid racism from their fellow Canadians, including those who write about politics for a living. To wit, I give you Postmedia’s version of General George Custer, Christie Blatchford:
Already, there is much talk of smudging ceremonies, tobacco offerings, the inherent aboriginal love for and superior understanding of the land, and treaties that were expected to be in place “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the river flows”… It is tempting to see the action as one of intimidation, if not terrorism: She is, after all, holding the state hostage to vaguely articulated demands.
Yes, you read it at Postmedia first: Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence might be a terrorist! Hunger strikes are like hostage-taking!
As I write these words, Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence is starving to death in Ottawa. Her hunger strike was sparked by a year’s frustration and resentment after the Harper government attempted to impose a third-party dictatorship in place of the duly elected government of her band last winter, and since then refused to grant her a meeting with Stephen Harper to discuss her people’s admittedly desperate poverty. We’re a couple of weeks into that hunger strike now, and Stephen Harper is presently testing the theory that one more dead Indian won’t make much of a difference in this country. Not enough of a difference, in any case, that he ought to take a few hours out of his very busy schedule to meet with her, duly elected prime minister to duly elected chief.
Even Blatchford seems to realize that Harper’s theory is wrong here. She closes with a comparison to the Irish hunger strikes of 1981 — which resulted in the deaths of the men involved, a wave of Irish republican terrorism, a corresponding wave of British military suppression, a near-successful assassination attempt against the British Prime Minister, and the rise of Sinn Fein. That was the result of another rather headstrong right-wing prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Food for thought.
Incidentally, the phrase “as long as the sun shines and the river flows” isn’t simply a latter-day aboriginal myth about how long “treaties were expected to be in place.” It’s an official statement, informing First Nations how long the treaties would be in place. These words are spoken in the context of, and included within, treaty agreements. I might just as easily say “it’s only the Constitution. It’s unrealistic to expect we’d follow the letter of such an old document in modern times.”
Maybe it’s time for a quick primer on aboriginal affairs. What follows is, basically, current legal fact. I’m sorry if you don’t agree with it, but it doesn’t rely on your agreement or disagreement. It’s what is written in treaties and upheld in courts.
First, all First Nations have had pre-existing sovereignty recognized by the courts and their current status is recognized in the Canadian Constitution. It’s become a commonplace statement from the right that aboriginality is racist in and of itself, and that the sooner off we can abolish separate status for First Nations, the better off everyone will be. It’s a point worth taking very seriously, and I’ll come back to it in a moment, but the first thing to realize is that before the courts and under the Constitution, First Nations really do exist.
Whether you think this is “racist” is really up to you. But before you come to a conclusion, I would urge you to think about your own status. Is it wrong, say, for the Chinese government to send into Canada Chinese workers for its newly acquired Canadian corporations? Should such temporary foreign workers promptly, upon their arrival, be given all the rights and privileges we enjoy, purely by virtue of them being present here? If you don’t think so, if you believe that citizenship is an exclusive category to which only properly screened immigrants and refugees might gain access, then by your own language, you would also be a racist. Statistically, only a small minority of my readers have actually immigrated to Canada. Like me, most of you acquired your citizenship purely by birth, and you probably also believe that certain special rights and privileges should be granted to other people purely by virtue of their birth, too.
Now, it’s another commonplace myth that there are no “real Indians” anymore — they eat pizza, drive trucks, and don’t have “pure blood.” This is irrelevant for the same reason that it’s irrelevant what “blood” new Canadians have. If the band recognizes them as members, and especially if the Canadian government agrees with that recognition, then they’re members, for the same reason that people get to be “Canadian” regardless of where they were born or what their skin colour is or what’s in their driveway, so long as they follow the appropriate legal process for gaining membership in our national community.
It also follows from the above that, since aboriginal peoples had pre-existing sovereignty over the land, that sovereignty must be extinguished and the land formally ceded to the government of Canada by means of treaties. That’s not their law, or a made-up modern myth: it’s our law. In the Western legal tradition, cession must occur either by formal agreement or by military conquest. Conquest didn’t happen in Canada, and it has been a war crime since 1945, so that option’s out. The only alternative is treaty. This principle was established as legal precedent in Canada by the British after the Seven Years’ War, and it has at least in theory applied ever since.
To that end, and leaving aside some fairly huge additional complications, there are basically two types of First Nations in Canada: ones that have ceded their territory to Canada by means of a treaty, and ones who have not done so. In the latter case, which covers most of British Columbia, for instance, technically “Canadian” society is an extra-legal occupation of aboriginal land. Of course, recognizing this, the First Nations have little incentive to settle for relatively low compensation (the way bands on the Plains did), and the federal government has little incentive to agree to high compensation now, as opposed to kicking the can down the road. As a result, the treaty process is basically a quagmire.
In Ontario and on the Prairies, though, land treaties were signed. The Attawapiskat Cree’s relationship with the Crown was laid out in Treaty Nine. That treaty states, among other things, that in exchange for surrendering all lands, the “Indians” will have continuing hunting, trapping, and fishing rights; that they will have reserves equal in size to 128 acres per capita; that they get $4 each per year in perpetuity; and that the cost of all aboriginal education will be covered by the government. There is no promise to provide healthcare in the written text of the treaty, but it was probably guaranteed verbally, and in any event by the time Treaty Nine was signed the federal government had already agreed to cover the medical costs of all aboriginal people living on reserves as a matter of course.
So there you have it. You can’t abolish reserves, or aboriginal welfare programs, unilaterally and without their consent. I’m sorry. It’s out of my hands, and it’s out of your hands. Now, you may feel — as I do — that we should abolish the Indian Act, shut down the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, get rid of reserves, and do any number of other things, and that as long as things like reserves and the Indian Act and Aboriginal Affairs persist in their present form, aboriginal peoples can never be truly free and their status will always be in some sense colonial as a result.
But none of those things can be done unilaterally. Ironically, the people presently braying that we get rid of the Indian Act and “make the Indians” modernize are doing exactly the same thing as the people who passed the Indian Act in the first place: saying that we know what’s best for aboriginal people in this country, and we’re going to provide it for them, whether they want it or not.
No. The way forward is through negotiation and compromise. It will be long, it will be painful, and there will have to be concessions on both sides.
It’s strange to find that the conservatives are my enemies in this. Usually, they insist that big government is never the answer, that people should be allowed to decide for themselves rather than having their choices dictated to them by the state, and that this country upholds the rule of law and the importance of tradition rather than strictly doing what seems expedient in the moment.
Except, apparently, when it comes to aboriginal affairs.