I thought it was weird last fall when, out of the blue, the National Post ran an editorial heaping praise on a discussion paper put out by the Gitxsan Treaty Office. My reaction at the time: clearly the right wing knows whose interests this proposal serves. The proposal is effectively a “self-termination” model which would, in the name of the Gitxsan becoming “the same” as other Canadians, abolish the Crown’s fiduciary obligations to the Gitxsan, and abolish Gitxsan collective rights, with the exception of some say for hereditary leadership in land use on Gitxsan traditional territory. Self-determination would be abandoned for a limited property interest covering the whole of their traditional territory, as defined in impact benefit and resource revenue sharing agreements. This residual interest in the land would be circumscribed by the limited concept of accommodation set out by the courts, who at the end of the day still see Aboriginal title as contingent on the ongoing pleasure of the Crown. The proposal is a market solution that reduces Gitxsan title and rights to an economic stake in development. Not only the National Post loved this idea; the Globe and Mail also gave space to Gitxsan Treaty negotiator Elmer Derrick to extol the virtues of the proposal. An earlier article by Derrick, arguing that privatization of Crown lands might be a good thing, shows his line of thinking.

The release of Derrick’s “Alternative Governance Model”, which unleashed a storm of opposition in BC Indian Country, coupled with the right-wing media’s blitzkrieg in support of it, raised a lot of questions. Although it purports to speak for all Gitxsan, the proposal came as a shock to many, and does not appear to enjoy the full support of the Gitxsan traditional leadership, the Gitxsan band council, or the Gitxsan people. Well, guess what. It turns out that the Gitxsan Treaty Office has been getting its advice from Fraser Institute senior fellow Gordon Gibson, whose fingerprints are all over the ideas in the proposal. Gibson has just released a book-length argument for abolishing Aboriginal rights called “A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy”.

Gibson, far from offering a new look or the fresh ideas of an outsider, puts out the same shopworn agenda for municipalization, assimilation, and the abolition of Aboriginal rights that Jean Chretien tried to bring in with the White Paper in the late 60s. Like Gibson, the White Paper argued for the abolition of Aboriginal (collective) rights in the name of giving Indians the “same” individual rights that other Canadians have. Not a new idea at all — in fact, already enshrined in various municipalization schemes and the so-called “emancipation” provisions of the late 1800s, under which Indian men would gain the right to vote if they gave up their Indian status.

Gibson’s ideas are ideas that the highest level of policy makers in Indian Affairs and the Canadian government have been trying to push on Indians since the White Paper went down to defeat. At various stages they have found re-expression: in Bob Nault’s First Nations Governance Act under the Chretien government and in the book of Stephen Harper’s mentor, Tom Flanagan, First Nations, Second Thoughts. Recently, there has been a boom in right-wing diatribes masquerading as “fresh ideas” on Indian policy: Gibson is only the latest messenger. There has also been the brittle racism of Frances Widdowson’s Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, and the columnizing of right-wing Aboriginal commentator Joseph Quesnel in the Globe and Mail.

Gibson rhetorically positions his ideas as anti-establishment, and the ideas of Aboriginal collective rights as the orthodoxy of “the System” — as if the Canadian government’s fundamental policy hasn’t always been about extinguishing Indigenous Peoples’ title to the land by any means expedient. What Gibson doesn’t consider in all this is that Aboriginal collective rights don’t persist because people in Ottawa want them to; they exist even though Canada would like them to go away, because Indigenous Peoples have struggled to maintain them. Gibson doesn’t deal with questions of justice. He doesn’t leave space for the idea that First Nations may not want to assimilate; that they may want to retain real control over their lands, to practice their customary governments (in creative ways relevant to the contemporary world); that they might want to practice their cultures and economies in ways that are not necessarily convenient for Canada and the provinces, and that they have the right to do so. Gibson focuses, in a negative way, on the fiduciary obligations of the Crown with respect to Indians, but disregards the way Indian policy first and foremost serves Canada’s colonial agenda, in particular the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples of their lands and the constant meddling in their right to fully govern themselves and determine their destinies. Canada uses its power to further these objectives through deceit, legal attrition, and criminalization of those who stand up for their court-recognized rights. Gibson’s proposal would do nothing but accelerate the dispossession that is at the heart of colonial injustice.

The recent Special General Meeting of the Assembly of First Nations showed that this is a time when even chiefs and councils have overwhelmingly recognized the bad faith of the Crown in the current comprehensive land claims process. The comprehensive land claims process and the BC Treaty Process are going nowhere. New ideas are needed. Yet there is an absence of credible, organized Indigenist alternatives for the moment. At such times, dangerous ideas can have purchase – and into this breach a platoon of well-funded right wing thinkers have stepped. First Nations beware.

Addendum: I thought I’d share two great points sent in by a correspondent. 

“They (this fan club for municipalization, privatization of land, single tax regimes etc)  all actually mis/represent themselves as being voices against the orthodoxy of the powerful vested interests in Indian Country, albeit Widdowson frames Indians as dupes of powerful vested interests…like anyone who disagrees with her. Thus, the oppressive and dominant political perspective of colonial elites is now constructed as the radical opposition of orthodoxy.  Nice trick.”

This point is especially ironic in light of the following–the self-described radical outsiders are the only ones given a platform by the establishment newspapers.

“The mainstream media seem to be providing an uncontested podium for those who agree that Indian/indigenous rights are problematic.  Other scholars and activists get little opportunity to share their views.  The Globe et al are agenda-setters — explaining to primarily white Canadians how to think about these matters, in the absence of any alternative.”

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Corvin Russell

Corvin Russell is an activist, writer and translator living in Toronto.