Tuesday, January 8, 2013


Natives have been much in the news lately. In no particular order we have Chief Spence on a hunger strike, there is the IdleNoMore protests, there was a Federal court decision about Metis and non-status Indian rights, along with assorted other protests for various environmental and other reasons.

Let me get one thing clear right from the start. The Native, Metis, and Inuit people in what is now called Canada have been getting the shitty end of the stick since well before there was a Canada. I do not propose to list all the issues, or even a representative sample of them.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Native relationships with both French and English have been fraught with misunderstanding for centuries. What we've ended up with is a system that doesn't serve anybody well, yet seems impossible to change. Some Native reserves are essentially third world enclaves, complete with rampant disease, poor housing, poor education, poor job prospects, and generally speaking poor life prospects. In some cases, corruption is rampant too, with the chief and his buddies living very well. Some of the people living off reserve do very well, and some do very poorly.

I read of some reserves that appear to be well run, such as the Osoyoos Indian Band, whose businesses now include Nk'Mip Cellars, North America's first aboriginal-owned winery; two resorts; a golf course; and retail stores, among a handful of others. The band, which administers its own health, social and educational services, has 700 mostly non-Native employees and contributes $40 million annually to the local economy. Chief Louie has made it clear that economic development is the best path to success and weaning themselves off government dependency and they seem to have done very well. Yet I have with my own ears heard Native people calling him an apple, a red man who has sold out his heritage and background to become white inside.

Natives in Canada are a very diverse group. There are about 615 bands with about 800,000 people registered. Many bands are smaller than 1000 people. Some bands prefer the term First Nation, which is actually the term I want to discuss.

Were the various bands in fact Nations when Europeans arrived for the second time about 600 years ago? (The Vikings didn't stick around long enough to have any real impact.) Are they in fact nations now?

There are two related concepts in "nation". There is nation-state, a sovereign entity that we normally think of when we say Country. And there is a cultural or ethnic identity that is sometimes caught up with nationalism. There is no denying that the various Aboriginal groups have a cultural and ethnic identity distinct from "white" Canadians. They are proud of it, and have been struggling to retain it in the face of many challenges from the modern world. I believe this is the sense in which they are using the word nation.

For sure they are not sovereign entities. They exist on Canadian soil. Admittedly, virtually all of it was taken by force, trade, or treaty from Aboriginal groups, but the fact is that Canada is the sovereign entity. The reserves in some cases are well established by treaty. Many native groups never signed a treaty, and are still working on it now. In BC, for example, all the Native land claims add up to more land mass than exists, due to overlapping traditional grounds. But for all practical terms in the modern world, Canada is the sovereign territory in every respect.

Most bands are dependent on the government, which I'm sure rankles them. Nobody likes to be dependent. It rankles taxpayers too, because all they see are dollars flowing onto the reserves, and apparently nothing ever changing.

Everybody is caught between a rock and a hard place here. Giving the band money with no intention to track where it goes is an invitation to corruption. Some Natives already think they are entitled to a never ending supply of tax free money. Putting in a manager to watch the money tells the band that the government thinks they are corrupt and incapable of governing themselves. The Indian Act, and yes it's really called that, is central how how Natives and the Federal Government relate to one another. It's been amended over the years, but many people say it needs to be scrapped. Unfortunately, discussions about even trying to do that have failed, with Natives saying they were not consulted. There are practical difficulties in consulting with more than 600 groups, but I'm sure we can do better.

I'd like to believe that these groups truly do not wish to become sovereign, with a seat in the United Nations and all. Nauru is the smallest population country I can find that is not a dependent state, and their population in 2011was just under 10,000. It's 21 square Km island in Micronesia. (I don't count Vatican City as a country.) At some point a country is too small to be viable, and since they are accepting Australian aid to stay afloat, it could be that this is too small.

Even if some of the reserves are sitting on oil or other mineral deposits, I don't think that's enough to run a country on, even if the skills are there, and at best, most bands are just working on that. So what then, do we all work towards? And how? They talk of being self governing. Are they to be treated like provinces? A municipality? How do they get the practice governing without feeling patronized or bullied? How do we know when they've demonstrated competence at running their own affairs?

Sometimes the Native groups consider themselves to be meeting nation to nation with Canada, as equals. I'm sorry, but that's really funny. A bit of spin to maintain your pride is one thing, but that is completely false to fact. Whether they like it or not, most bands are completely dependent on the flow of money from Ottawa, and a thousand people are not equal to 35 million. That's hardly a meeting of equals. We have to, somehow, recognize today's realities. The Natives aren't going away, and neither is Canada. Unfortunately, neither is the taxpayer who has to pay the bills.

So in one sense, I'm happy to see the increase in the Native profile. We need to learn more about each other, as we really are, in order to move towards a more mutually agreeable way of living together. We need to build confidence in each other, and that will be nearly impossible. That well has been poisoned again and again by white people, over the centuries, and recent Native blockades and some protests have pissed off a lot of white people too.

In another sense, I'm sad to see the increase in the Native profile. An increased profile will inevitably shine light on the weakest parts of that society, the ones least able to withstand the glare. People in power that do not want to share, will point at the drug addicts, the corrupt, the (apparently) lazy, and anything else negative that they can, as examples of why nothing should change, or change to give them even less. It's a dirty game, and can be played by both sides, with the Natives pointing to corrupt cops, and a network of agencies and corporations that infantilize them as they struggle to regain their world.

That won't get us anywhere, or at least, it hasn't yet, and unfortunately, that looks like the direction Harper is taking, in response to a woman who is starving herself to death with as much dignity as possible. Bad start.

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