Goodbye, Tom Flanagan: What took so long?

Every field has its embarrassing cousin who lives in the proverbial attic. In virology there are scientists who deny the existence of AIDS. There are biologists who deny evolution. There are architects who say 9/11 was a controlled demolition. There are climate scientists who deny climate change. And yes, in the field of political science, there are those who deny Indigenous rights. Most of these "experts" have books and many of them have received a great deal of air time to voice their otherwise marginal perspectives.

 When it comes to political science approaches to Indigenous rights, Tom Flanagan and Barry Cooper qualify as perhaps our biggest embarrassments.

For his part, Flanagan published a book in 2000 titled First Nations? Second Thoughts, in which the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada were disparaged and denied. It hit the scene in much the same way Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged must have, energizing a small but politically boisterous minority. Today the book enjoys a cult following, mostly among non-academics. Since 2000, Flanagan and Cooper have contributed to the public discourse on Indigenous rights in a manner not unlike a lonely conspiracy theorist that the media has mistakenly identified as an "expert." 

It comes as no real surprise to those who have witnessed Flanagan casually call for state assassinations or defend the very civilizing project that led to the abhorrent Indian Residential School system to learn that he made flippant comments regarding child pornography while giving a talk on the Indian Act in Lethbridge, Alberta (comments captured on video by Indigenous activist, Arnell Tailfeathers). So when Flanagan, a former adviser to Stephen Harper, was summarily dropped as a commentator by the CBC and labelled an official persona non grata in the eyes of the Alberta Wild Rose Party and Conservative Party of Canada, the reaction among many in academia was: What took you so long?

Not everyone was relieved, of course. Flanagan's friend and University of Calgary colleague, Barry Cooper, provided a bizarre defense, literally calling anyone who distanced themselves from Flanagan "stupid." As the duo continue to derail, however, it is helpful to remember that despite being media regulars, their dark corner of the discourse on Indigenous peoples has always been a source of embarrassment. 

Consider their most recent commentary on Indigenous rights and Cooper's attempts to beatify the ridiculous. According to Cooper, Indigenous rights claims amount to so many "complaints, assumptions and assertions that have no basis in reality" -- they are simply "projections of the imagination" or what Flanagan calls "word magic." Cooper compares this imaginative whimsy to the "self-evident structure of the common sense world" to which Cooper and Flanagan have gained access. You see, most of us remain enslaved in the Matrix. We live in a dream-castle, if you will -- a lurid fantasy that has captured "aboriginals, bureaucrats and lawyers, both on the bench and at the bar, as well as by numerous academics, journalists and intellectuals" -- in other words, anyone with relevant education or experience.

To evidence this grand deception, Cooper cites an immense body of scholarly literature that has withstood the most demanding levels of interdisciplinary academic scrutiny. Just kidding, he cites "a classic study published in 2000 by my longtime colleague and even longer-time friend, Tom Flanagan, called First Nations? Second Thoughts." Cooper deploys Flanagan's 'classic study' to debunk some common myths: The myth that Indigenous peoples have certain rights because they were here first. The myth that European and Indigenous civilizations were equal and therefore engaged one another as sovereign nations. The myth that they forged nation-to-nation treaties that affirmed Indigenous jurisdiction. 

"In reality," Cooper informs us as he descends from the mountain top, "every human in the New World came here, or their forebears came here, from the Old World." You may recognize this as the stale "We're all immigrants" argument. The trope falls apart the moment we acknowledge that Indigenous peoples weren't immigrants because there was no nation on the North American continent for them to immigrate to. They are it -- they are the original nations. 

One reason people get tricked into supporting Indigenous rights, they argue, is the myth that Indigenous and European civilizations were equals. Preposterous! Anyone properly attuned to reality and common-sense and not magical words can discern that they were not equals because of the "technological, military and political advantages that the Europeans developed, including the legal concepts of sovereignty and the state." As everyone knows, the equality of civilizations is a function of having western technologies and legal concepts. Ergo, the west is superior by definition. Fancy that. Maybe natives should have thought of that before they developed their 35,000-year-old civilization on an entirely different continent than Europe.

In any event, the notion that Indigenous peoples would also possess of form of sovereignty by virtue of having a civilization is a non-starter for the duo because sovereignty is something that only states possess. An astute historian, Cooper informs us that "sovereignty is a 16th-century term developed after the wars of religion to describe the new post-medieval regime. The two go together: no sovereignty without states, no states without sovereignty." In reality, you see, we always use terms in exactly the same way as they were used in the 16th century. For instance, Flanagan means 'reddish', and a Cooper is someone who makes barrels. Also, everyone knows that natives like casinos, but if I were to mention my love of Black Jack you would know immediately that I am referring to a leather drinking vessel sealed with tar. Obviously. We also practice things in exactly the same way as we did in the 16th century. I rode a horse to work today. I am a cobbler for the King. Ergo, sovereignty is a term only suitably used with reference to states. Welcome to common-sense.

Moving from the strange to the ridiculous, we find Cooper contending that the term 'First Nations' is racist because it implies that prior occupancy (being here 'first') gives Indigenous people some kind of special legal and moral standing.

Now, let's leave aside the fact that when Indigenous peoples speak about 'nations' and 'sovereignty' they are not referring to the 600 or so First Nations bands and reserve lands currently administered under the Indian Act, but rather the 60 or so nations and traditional territories currently under occupation. Let's also ignore that recognizing 'prior occupancy' is a fundamental feature of European common law traditions -- our laws are rooted in respect for prior occupancy. Let's instead meditate for a moment on the question of how Flanagan and Cooper have been allowed to take up so much space in the public debate on Indigenous rights. 

Flanagan has provided a qualified apology for his latest gaffe. His only mistake, it seems, was that he allowed himself to be lured into the conversation by a 'rambling' Indigenous person. Perhaps this was an example of the 'word magic' we've been hearing about.

Seriously. What took so long?


Tobold Rollo is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science and the University of Toronto. He specializes in democratic theory and Canadian politics. 

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