Hill Dispatches: Can First Nations become subjects rather than objects?

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The scene is the Mid-Way Lake Music Festival, in the Northwest Territories (NWT). We're just off a remote stretch of the Dempster Highway, north of the Arctic Circle, in the territory of the Peel River, or Tetlit, Gw'i'chin people.

It is the late 1980s, and a well-known Canadian singer-songwriter and television host has come here to the extreme northwest of the NWT to film a program focused on the festival and the people who take part in it.

Lifelong hunter and trapper Willie MacDonald -- some call him "old" Willie MacDonald, though at 80 he still lives independently and goes out in the bush regularly -- is part of the festival action. He shakes the television personality's hand when it is offered and, gently wagging his finger, admonishes him:

"How come you don't know me? I know you -- you're in my house all the time, on the TV! Why don't you know me?"

The TV personality is amiable and friendly, but a bit nonplussed.

He is evidently not used to having mischievous, metaphysical puzzles posed to him by aboriginal hunters who wander the woods and tundra north of the 67th parallel.

Are you curious about me?

Willie MacDonald, who is as big as the six-foot-three singer, and -- after a life of hunting caribou and tending trap lines at 35 below -- in awe of no one, pats the TV star on the back and lets him off the hook with a smile.

But did "old Willie" really mean that the person who regularly intruded into his space through the television box should somehow, magically, know him?

Or, did he mean to say: "I have taken the trouble to know you, your culture and your people. What do you know about me?"

In other words, was Willie MacDonald in effect, arguing: "I am a subject as well as an object. We have our own stories here, our own nicknames for just about everyone, our own in-jokes, our own heroes and villains. You talk at us through the television screen. You even come here to visit us, and talk at us from a mosquito-plagued stage. But what do you know about us -- or care to learn?"

'White people are interested in other white people!'

The Peel River rises in the mountains of the central Yukon and flows northward into the MacKenzie River Delta, merging with the Delta at a place, north of the Gw'i'chin community of Tetlit Zheh or Fort McPherson, they call Mouth of the Peel.

Further north, the smaller Rat River plunges down from the Yukon and merges with the most westerly channel of the Delta, at a place where Peel River people have journeyed for many decades to set nets for migrating Arctic char.

During the 1930s, the man they called  the "mad trapper" used the frozen Rat River to get himself through the rugged and unforgiving Richardson Mountains and into the northern Yukon. In fact, that stranger-without-a-name became so identified with that river that they mostly took to calling him the "mad trapper of Rat River."

The story of how that mysterious recluse shot and killed two RCMP officers and was then  tracked by aircraft and gunned down is well known. It is the subject of books, films, magazine articles and television programs.

The late Tetlit Gw'i'chin Chief Johnny Charlie had an interesting reaction, many years ago, to all that interest in one intruding loner from the outside who became a legendary outlaw.

"White people are always interested in other white people," he said, "We have had lots of Indian criminals, just as bad as the mad trapper, but they never want to hear about them. They think they're just 'Indians who got in trouble.' To white people, they're nobodies!"

Another dialogue of the deaf?

Local pride in one's own outlaws and outcasts is -- yes -- maybe a bit funny! But it underscores the reality that to the majority of Canadians the lives and realities of their aboriginal fellow citizens have always been, to use V.S. Naipaul's phrase, an "area of darkness."

On Tuesday, January 24, 2012, there will be a big discussion between the leaders of Canada's First Nations and the federal government, or, if you will, the Crown. It will be an opportunity for frankness, openness, mutual learning and dialogue -- perhaps.

Maybe, it will be just another set-piece dialogue of the deaf.

We have had many such encounters over the past four decades:
-    the  Mackenzie Valley pipeline inquiry, of the 1970s, headed by Justice Thomas Berger;
-    the Parliamentary Committee hearings on aboriginal self-government in the early 1980s, that led to the "Penner" report recommending radical reforms in aboriginal governance that never came about;
-    the series of first ministers' and aboriginal leaders' conferences on self-government, during the mid-1980s, that were mandated by the 1981 constitutional "patriation" amendment, and that ended in futility, with no agreement;
-    the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples that heard from hundreds of witnesses throughout Canada and reported in 1996;
-    the series of roundtables in 2004-2005 that led to the Kelowna Accord, which was then rejected out of hand by the new Harper government;
-    and, most recently, the Auditor General's blistering report of June 2011 on the deplorable and scandalous state of services to First Nations communities.

As well, there have been the many landmark aboriginal court cases and decisions -- from the "Calder case" in 1973 that established Nisga'a aboriginal rights and title in the Nass valley of northwestern British Columbia; to the Malouf decision that temporarily halted a massive hydro project in northern Quebec and led to the historic 1975 James Bay agreement; to the Delgamukw decision of 1997, in which the Supreme Court enunciated the principle of aboriginal land title.

Plus, we now have Aboriginal Peoples' Television Network (APTN); a growing body of theatre, film and literature on the aboriginal experience; and First Nations leaders, who can, at least on occasion, capture national media attention.

Still, to Canadian society in general, the experience of aboriginal Canada remains a distant and hazy reality. Canada does not see its aboriginal peoples as subjects. They are objects, something way out there and separate from the rest of us -- a "problem."

More like a developing economy than part of a G8 country

The research institute, the Centre for the Study of Living Standards (CSLS), did a study of the economic situation of the 300,000 on-reserve aboriginal people.

The CSLS found that while the on-reserve group accounts for about one per cent of the Canadian population, it can only lay claim to less than one-third of one per cent of Canada's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

On-reserve aboriginal people are not just poorer than the rest of us; they occupy an entirely different economic sphere, with a standard of living more in line with that of a developing country than a wealthy and prosperous member of the G8.

Still, aboriginal Canadians do not want to be defined by their poverty. Like Willie MacDonald of Fort McPherson, they want to be recognized as subjects, not objects.

Rarely does the aboriginal-"white" encounter start with and have as its focus the aboriginal peoples themselves, as autonomous agents. We, as a larger society, deal with them as objects of pity charity; or, alternatively, we want access to the resources on their territory, and they become potential obstacles to economic progress -- objects  of annoyance, perhaps, more than pity.

'Some negotiations! Some agreements!'

The James and Hudson's Bay region of Ontario is a case in point. This region is rich in minerals -- gold and diamonds, especially -- and is a hotbed of recent mining activity. Because this is the 21st century and it would be unseemly to ride entirely roughshod over the rights of native peoples, this mining activity has been accompanied by extensive "negotiations" with First Nations communities.

The aim of these talks is to set up "Impact Benefit Agreements" -- IBAs -- between the multinational mining corporations and the small, isolated and poor First Nations communities.

When Quebec wanted to develop the hydro potential of its north, in the 1970s, it could not carry on micro-negotiations with each Cree or Inuit village. It had to negotiate with the peoples of the entire region. The result was an over-arching, comprehensive land claims agreement, a modern-day treaty. It is not perfect; but it is a far cry from what is happening in Northern Ontario.

In Ontario, De Beers and the others who want to get their hands on Canadian gold and diamonds are not under the same compunction as was the government of Quebec almost 40 years ago. Today, the mining companies are free to cherry pick the individual bands one-by-one, and virtually dictate terms.

After all, the bands have almost no leverage.

Natural resources, legally and constitutionally, were long ago assigned to the provinces.

The white men who drafted the BNA Act would have split their guts laughing if anyone had suggested that the new Canadian federation should assign ownership of any mineral or other resources to "Indians"!

Of course, there were no "Indians" at the constitutional table, back then. (Hell, those "Indians" didn't even get the right to vote until nearly 100 years later, in 1960!)

And so we now have these Impact Benefit Agreements with De Beers and other companies for a number of Northern Ontario aboriginal communities. Were they real negotiations between equals, leading to bona fide agreements?

As Winston Churchill might have put it: "Some negotiations! Some agreements!"

Big disappointments on employment and training

The Canadian Business Ethics Research Network (BCERN) has studied and reported on these agreements and concludes that, though there have been growing pains, the BIAs have been at least somewhat beneficial.

However, when you read the details of the BCERN reports for each agreement, a very different picture emerges. At the outset, the BCERN reports there was almost always distrust and misunderstanding.

The BCERN's reports invariably say, in the words of one chief, "these negotiations were difficult. We were not always confident that De Beers understood and respected our ways."

The agreements are usually confidential; and the First Nations communities often had to negotiate under duress, after neighbouring communities had signed, or actual construction of facilities had begun.

Despite that confidentiality, BCERN can report that most agreements include some sort of training and employment provisions, and in almost every case it says the results on those fronts are not good.

Aboriginal people, it seems, lack the needed technical qualifications and education to work in the mines; and the institutions to provide that education and training are simply not there.

BCERN evaluations repeatedly mention First Nations' frustration with lack of progress in education and training.

However, that lack of progress is almost inevitable when we turn people into objects, not subjects.

How do the people see their own future?

Nobody, it seems, ever thought to sit down with the people of Fort Albany, Attawapiskat, Kashechewan, etc., and ask a few simple questions, such as:

How do you see your future?

What resources and assets do you believe you have?

How do you see linking your traditions and culture to economic opportunities?

What needs do you believe need to be satisfied in your region and your community?

Starting with the people as autonomous subjects with their own ideas and their own volition, rather than objects to be manipulated, would not mean there would be no mining, no forestry, no hydro development -- to borrow a phrase from Joe Oliver.

It would mean there was a different power relationship, though.

It would mean a relationship of genuine respect, in which the cultural, spiritual, social, environmental and economic imperatives all had their proper place.

Stephen Harper is right on one thing. The essential challenge to First Nations in Canada is not a dollars-and-cents challenge.

It is not just about money.

But nor is it merely a challenge of how quickly "we" can pacify the First Nations peoples, so that we can build pipelines across their lands and suck minerals out of their soil.

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