Friday, January 11, 2013

The Best Way Forward????

THe big news in Canada this week has been a meeting that might not even have happened (I have not been following the news closely enough today to know what the final result was) between the Prime Minister, the Governor-General and various First Nations Chiefs.   This is the culmination (thus far) of a movement called Idle No More and following quite directly from a hunger strike that Chief Theresa Spence  of the Attawapiskat First Nation began a month ago.

In essence the Idle No More movement is about the relationship between Canadians whose ancestors arrived from Europe (and Asia and Africa but let us be honest and admit that mainstream Canadian [and USan] Culture is Eurocentrically based) in the last half-millenium and those people whose ancestors were here to greet them.  And of course this is a question that has been bubbling away for most of that half-millenium.  And more to the point there is NO easy (or single) way to describe what that relationship is, what it could be or what it possibly should be.  I would even tend to believe there is, at present, no complicated or difficult way to answer those questions ether.

The most basic way these questions have been raised in recent years has been t ask how we live out the reality that we are treaty people.  Some talk about most Canadians living on "stolen" land -- which is one approach to those treaties.  Some suggest that the descendants of those who signed away their land need to "grow up" and "get with the program" and realize what the realities are [except that reality is a very fluid thing based on your viewpoint].

AS I see it, based on my limited understanding and information, one of the first things that needs to be nailed down is how many nations we are talking about.  Are we talking about ethnic Canadians whose heritage happens to be Aboriginal or are we talking about nation-to-nation negotiations?  Did the signing of those old treaties extinguish the nations that were here and bring them all under the aegis of the Canadian Government under the British Crown (the treaties are formally with the Crown but in practice they are with the governing authority [either the British for early ones or the Colonial Office or the Canadian Government for later treaties] or so those nations continue to exist as separate national entities?  ANd the language used in the discussions does not make it clear.  Neither does the history of the relationship.  But unless that very basic starting point is clarified we can not move forward.  Because the discussions look very different if it is citizens of Canada we are talking about or nation-to-nation discussions.  {to be totally honest I think that in the end we are talking about some sort of a hybrid of those two options based on the history and the political realities}

What is  undeniable (IMO) is that the old treaties were not then and have not worked out as good deals
for the non-European side.  Partly that is because the game was rigged from the beginning in the Europeans favour, particularly when you get to the 19th Century treaties.  Partly that is because the governing powers have not done a spectacular job of living up to the obligations that were understood in those treaties. And partly it is because the unspoken intent of those treaties was (in the opinion of some of us) to extinguish the "savages" and bring them into the realm of the "civilized".  Certainly a main focus of those treaties was to allow Europeans to have access to the land and its resources -- mainly by removing it from the control of those who were already on it (which is why the talk of "stolen" land can be a legitimate point of discussion).

But how do we go forward?  First Nation rights and treaty right were enshrined in the Constitution Act of 1982 (although many federal politicians of various stripes over the years have wanted to continue towards extinguishing any special status for First Nation peoples).  And yet what exactly those rights are remains terribly uncertain.  We live in a reality where First Nations people are heavily over represented in the Canadian underclass, where entire First Nation communities live in Third World conditions.  But how do we change this?

THat is the question that the Canadian body politic has steadfastly avoided for generations.  We may tinker with the system from time to time (the current government is doing lots of tinkering) and some of that tinkering has positive effects while some of it is not so positive. But a wholesale reworking of the system has not happened.  But it seems that the time is coming soon when it can not be avoided.

So what is our relationship?  I would suggest that although First Nations talk about nation-to-nation status that is not going to serve them best. Unless, that is, the old treaties are revisited and heavily renegotiated to meet modern needs and to be more an agreement between equals (I tend to believe that the old treaties failed on this latter point, and that the European negotiators never saw them as such anyway).  ANd I am not sure, based on what is being said, that First Nations folk want to be seen as non-Canadian anyway.  When it comes right down to it, much of what is being asked for is that they have the same rights and freedoms and possibilities as all other Canadian citizens.  And yet are we to see First NAtions folk as merely another form of Ethnic Canadians?  Given the damage (intentional and "accidental") that has been done to them over the past decades that seems setting them up for a failure as well. 

I would suggest that a whole new understanding and describing of the relationship is needed.  The old treaties and the structures/assumptions (such as the Indian Act) that came from them have and are not working.  Unfortunately, I do not see that this is going to happen, at least not in the short term.  So we are stuck with a situation that is going to be getting worse.  The options of either tinkering, divide and conquer, or talk with little action to follow which have so often been used in Canada are starting to fail as more and more people (both First Nation and European-heritage) are willing to name that the "Emperor has no clothes".  Thus far the Idle No More movement has been peaceful and law-abiding.  But how long will that last if no progress is apparent?  How long will non First Nation folk put up with blockades and travel disruptions (recognizing that some people never have put up with them and the comments sections of some stories over the last month have been full of what can only be called overt racism)?

I don't know.  But I think we may be headed to live out the old curse "May you live in interesting times".  ANd our neighbours to the South would do well to take notice.  Because many of the same issues are present there too.....

Then there is the question of how the church should respond, and possibly even take a leadership role, in this discussions.....

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