Colonialism is the corruption: Critics of Idle No More ignore history

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Tony Kaye

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Simply alleging financial mismanagement on the Attawapiskat First Nation is a tired response that continues unhistorical views about Aboriginals in Canada. The mistake is that critics almost never frame the ongoing First Nation-Government of Canada relationship with enough honesty about the formation of Canada.

If it enters their minds at all, most commentators rely on sentimentalized versions of Canadian history, like Rex Murphy's tangent that the supporters of Idle No More "alienate a large section of the public" by invoking the imperial roots of Canadian history. In this segment of the public mind, Canada's history is a story of valiant pioneers, Fathers of Confederation, and John A. MacDonald's National Policy all leading towards the inevitable result of establishing the nation of Canada on the world stage.

But when I led Canadian History tutorials at the University of Saskatchewan, my undergraduate students couldn't reconcile how the government of Canada applauds Louis Riel as an important nation-builder today yet executed him as a conspirator a hundred years ago.

 A more truthful view of Canada's past would include how Indigenous people, like Chief Mistahimaskwa, or Big Bear, recognized that British expansion would likely forever remove the ability of the Cree to control their own destinies.

 In addition to prosecuting Riel, the government of Canada also tried and sentenced Mistahimaskwa for his uncertain leadership in the Frog Lake Massacre, where Cree warriors killed nine Europeans who were living in the area. The resistance of Riel and Big Bear, as well as the quick response to prosecute opponents in government, helped frame Canada as a classic imperialist power asserting its will against native opposition.

Canada belongs to a significant group of countries whose modern nationality is a result of British expansion overseas. The colonial history of Canada and the West African country of Ghana, for example, have their beginnings with the British Crown. British agents used treaty making in each region as legal justifications to themselves and their competitors that specific native leaders would "Cede and Surrender" their traditional rights over land in exchange for the Protection of the English Monarch. In both colonies, the altruism of "protection" in the treaties hid the British plan to gain control over the region without the expense of projecting its full military force.

Interestingly, a similar issue that arose as a result of British intervention eventually drew different responses from observers.

Like the current allegations about Attawapiskat, Ghanaian chiefs attracted public criticism for improper financial dealings in their communities. Everyday people complained about extortion, bribery and accumulation of wealth among chiefs, who grew in political and financial stature in non-traditional ways as a result of British Indirect Rule. Similar to the present relationship between First Nations and the government of Canada, government authorities in Ghana paid native chiefs salaries and other state administered benefits, so long as they supported British plans to modernize the colony.

The arrangement was not very dissimilar to the relationship in Canada, whose founders relied on specific treaty agreements with native chiefs as Indigenous permission to pursue modernizing goals en masse -- except in native reservations -- where the government agreed to pay chiefs annuities from the Queen of England "forever."

Years after colonial rule in Ghana ended in 1957, generations of scholars, politicians and activists from throughout the world examined the accusations of wrongdoing among chiefs under British rule. Not a single voice concluded that chiefs were the only cause of the scandals. Nor did they advocate that increased accountability would have protected people from injustice. Instead, scholars contextualized abuses of power among chiefs within the more important discussion about the effect of colonial rule in Ghana.

Were chiefs brought to justice for irregularities when they occurred? Very certainly. Offending chiefs were fined, imprisoned and even executed as examples of the ruthless extent the British would reach to maintain peace, order and good business in the colony.

A clear difference between the responses to both stories emerges. Most discussions about chiefs in Canada completely omit the historical construction of the many severe social problems on First Nation reserves.

Part of the difficulties include incomplete or ineffective financial accountability, and the intense anxiety it creates for everyone (Link 8). Yet, the mainstream Canadian outcry, sadly, mimics the character assassination the British pursued in Ghana, just read the comments after any First Nation story online these days. Both reactions are superficial responses that failed to reflect on how the Crown, and not native chiefs, was the real source of the trouble.


Tony Kaye completed his Master of Arts in history at the University of Saskatchewan. His thesis focused on British colonialism in northern Ghana, and he also studied Treaty History in Canada. His ancestral background is a mixture of Métis, Chinese, and European. 


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