|Idle No More protesters, Huron Church Road, Windsor, Ont.,
Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. Image source.
Canada’s indigenous peoples who, exclusive of the Innu, I will refer to for the sake of brevity as Indians, have had a brutal half millenium since the arrival of Canada’s first settlers. They have been driven from many of their traditional places of residence; their forests have been logged; their open grasslands have been enclosed for agriculture; many of their fisheries have been massively over-exploited; their traditional hunting areas have been bisected by roads and railways, pipelines and power lines; their rivers have been dammed and both rivers and lakes have been made toxic with the wastes from a thousand mines; their children have been targeted for cultural assimilation by institutions that showed a reckless disregard for the health and psychological welfare of those placed in their charge; whole communities have been targeted for extermination with guns or smallpox.
Yet it could have been worse. Genocide is as old as man. Tribes and nations that failed to match the weapons and scale of organization of their imperialist neighbors, have always been in mortal peril. Yet Canada’s settler state was constrained to grant Indians certain rights as enshrined in treaties signed by the Great White Queen, Victoria. Moreover, these rights are still acknowledged, even if their exact meanings remain in a seemingly endless dispute and their practical application is delayed for generations.
|Cree child, Attawapiskat, James Bay, Ontario. Image|
Beside treaties, Indians have two other things going for them. First, despite the tragic past, they are still here, comprising with the Méti and non-status Indians almost 5% of Canada’s population and constituting Canada’s fastest growing ethnic group. Second, developments in electronic communication provide Indians a means never before possessed to organize nationally and internationally, and to speak freely not only among themselves but with all of Canada and the wider world. The Idle No More movement is an expression of this new power, and makes a forceful demand of all Canadians for action that will give real effect to Indian treaty rights.
Protest, however, is insufficient to achieve action. Indians must present clear and workable proposals to achieve their objectives. The demand for Indian sovereignty is simplistic and unworkable. The Governments of Canada and the provinces will never negotiate the creation of 600 sovereign Indian states within the borders of Canada. And even if a deal were negotiable it would be a charade for sovereignty is meaningful only insofar as it is enforceable, and Indian nations with an average population of only two or three thousand would be hard put to gain the upper hand in a dispute with a middle-sized municipal government let alone a Province, the Federal Government of Canada, or a foreign state.
Thus the only possibility for Indian self-government is through the formation of an Indian federation that speaks with one voice, and which demands inclusion within the Canadian Confederation with powers comparable to, though not necessarily identical with, those of a provincial government. United under such a government, Indians would have the financial and other resources necessary to push forward with land claims negotiations, the completion of which would provide Indians with the expanded resources necessary as a basis both for economic development and for the protection of the Indian cultural heritage.
Canadians and Indians alike, should hope that Shawn Atleo, Leader of the Assembly of First Nations, and Stephen Harper are able to devise the governmental machinery that will provide Indians with prosperous self-governing future. The adoption of such a plan will be opposed by some within the Indian community, particularly some among the hereditary chiefs and elders who have enjoyed the greatest benefits under the existing system of Indian administration. But the more enlightened chiefs and elders will surely recognize that their future role in Indian society depends on adaptation. As the constitutional monarchy still serves a useful role in the government of Canada, Britain and many other nations, so the hereditary factor in Indian affairs can surely serve in a new way under a reformed representative form of Indian government.