On January 24 a gathering will take place in Ottawa that will define a point in our shared history where, as a nation, Canada will either succeed or fail. Personally, I am not optimistic. As leaders of indigenous heritage pack their bags for one more effort to achieve peace and friendship with fellow Canadians through negotiations with the Federal leader they may be completely unaware that this is a make-it or break-it moment.
The meeting was called in reaction to news media and public comment about the suffering of homelessness on the Attawapiskat Reserve in northern Ontario.While First Nations leaders see this as an opportunity to address immediate issues of poverty and collapsing infrastructure within their communities, the Prime Minister sees it as an opportunity to showcase his own solutions for the "Indian problem." One cannot help but wonder if it has not been the intention of national and provincial management policy to keep First Nations communities at economic levels hovering just above a humanitarian disaster. To do so would certainly allow them to rush in with ideological solutions and the appearance of "doing good."
Stephen Harper has been preparing for this meeting since the beginning of his career in politics. Ever since he sat around the lunchroom at the University of Calgary with those who would one day choose him as their leader, he has imagined the fate of Canada's greatest obstructionist populations, the Indians. His strategy was simple: like swatting flies hovering over spilled cream and sugar on the table, he could eliminate them one or two at a time. As long as the bait was present, they would eventually all be gone.
I think that most Canadians assume that this meeting will be just one more western movie. They know how much Indians love the land and respect tradition. We just can't give up them old ways of putting collective ideals and values ahead of individual wealth and power. While we make excellent window dressing during times of national celebration, our perpetual poverty must be hidden away to preserve the psychic health of the nation. After all, we got their apology. What else can we want?
Because most Canadians know next to nothing about who, what, and where Aboriginal Canadians are, they cannot take part in the discussion. Sure, you can get an opinion if you look to anonymous comments under online news and editorials in the Globe and Mail, but chances are you might throw up before you get very far. Beyond an uneasy disinterest, most Canadians are unable to string together three intelligent sentences that come anywhere near an understanding of the indigenous realities of Canada.
Without an honest and informed national debate, the agenda for January 24 has already been determined just like Indian treaties of the past. First Nations leaders will attempt to speak with one voice but fail because that is not the way that Indigenous representation works. Although they are great men and women, they will bow to the Prime Minister because they have been conditioned to do so over decades of colonial education. They will assemble under the impressive arches of imperial Canada, take their places in pews within the inner sanctum of corporate governance and they will be persuaded to do as they are told. A new school system will replace the old one.
You can bet that the mainstream news media will portray both the proceedings and outcome of the meeting on January 24 in predictable ways. The Prime Minister will be reported to have made new and generous promises. The Grand Chief will have been asking for more but will be willing to think it over. Some Chiefs will be quoted for their utter contempt of the process while the regular Indian entrepreneurs will hail "new beginnings." And so it goes.
The meeting on January 24 is the most significant of this decade and possibly for our collective futures because it will be a measurable movement in de-indigenizing Canada. In the name of challenging poverty among Aboriginal people, propositions will be tabled that diminish collective Aboriginal rights and title in exchange for pieces of the mainstream, middle-class pie. Moving in this direction will resolve the economic conflicts that come between envisioning land as real and essential for human survival, or purely for speculative profit. Believing in the indigenous values that many Aboriginal people and their settler neighbours share is okay as long as in practice these values do not interfere with an economy based on the virtues of selfishness. In its own small way the meeting on the 24th may well begin the momentum needed to erase altogether cultures based on relationships with the earth and establish designer cultures that are better served by the self-interests of those who know best. Or, it simply may be further cause for pulling the whole God damned thing down.
To pretend that paternalism will heal the wounds of subjugation and entice victims to take up the tools of the oppressor is unqualified stupidity. To place one's faith in an ideological solution is double stupidity. The Prime Minister obviously believes himself when he says that "Canada has no colonial history" and he is apparently missing any understanding of the worldwide decolonization process that has been underway for a century or more. That is why he will posture as the benevolent, all-knowing mediator of the truth.
His testimony will be that God has ordained for all people to rise above a state of savagery by following the path that has been laid down by enlightenment economists and educators. His strict belief in the axiom that all good derives from self-interest will be translated into two pillars of contemporary Indian policy. The first pillar is that more Indians need to be educated off the land and into the middle class and the second, that all indigenous land titles must be subject to privatization -- first into the hands of individual Aboriginal people and then into the hands of mortgage speculators and investment. The Prime Minister must present himself as the "great white hope" in order to deflect any rational analysis of these previously failed strategies masked in the wrappings of false promises. He should perhaps pay attention to what is happening in the pseudo-colonies of the Middle East.
Only a cursory analysis of the Harper Plan shows that it is doomed to further debilitate all Canadians and particularly Aboriginal young people. The "New Aboriginal Education Plan" rests on inviting Aboriginal people into an education system that has neither the capacity nor willingness to understand where these students are coming from or which values of their cultures and homelands they may want to keep.
The potential for history to repeat itself is obvious. Indeed, the prospect of Aboriginal youth migrating from reserve dependency to take up residency in the dwindling Canadian middle-class is horrific. Just spend a few days and nights in the real north end of Winnipeg. The hope that the youngest population in Canada is going to succeed in an economy increasingly dependent on the export of primary resources and progressively less capable of supporting social equity in wages, health care, education and social services has to be wishful thinking at best. As sure as the security of lottery tickets, people on Federal Indian reserves will be offered the chance to convert their ancestral titles to private property. The Reform Parties' proposals will be staged so as not to confuse twisting the arm with breaking it. The only thing in the Harper Plan that makes any sense is the expansion of prisons and fortification of the criminal justice system. He's going to need it.
The real potential for the gathering on January 24 is to challenge the preconceived notions of our shared relationship. Aboriginal people and settler Canadians have come to depend on policies that were established in the 18th and 19th centuries during times when Indigenous economies were most threatened and colonial corporations wielded the military power of imperial nations. This dependence on a transitory and unjust reality has even led the Supreme Court of Canada to declare (against all moral rationality) that the Indigenous Nations are inferior. No matter what the courts say, in practice you cannot have equitable relations when one party can only consult and the other party has license to dominate.
A relationship built upon such a context is doomed to failure. Failure will ensure the continuation of at least cold violence and most certainly will lead to the moral decay of both societies. The colonial government of Canada cannot just apologize. Great leaders must take up the cause and work of de-institutionalizing colonial policy and practice and give equal recognition and authority to those upon whose homelands Canada was founded. Anything less will be movement in the wrong direction.
Robert Lovelace is an adjunct lecturer at Queen's University in the Department of Global Development Studies. His academic interests include Indigenous Studies, Sustainable Development and Aboriginal education. Robert is also an activist in anti-colonial struggles. In 2008, Robert spent 3 ½ months as a political prisoner for his part in defending the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation homeland from uranium exploration and mining. Robert is a retired chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation. He lives in the Algonquin highlands at Eel Lake in the traditional Ardoch territory.
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