Report on the Alternatives to Reconciliation: Indigenous Peoples in Canada – January 18, 2018

Discussion Leaders: Peter Russell, Shiraz Dossa
Moderator: Martin Klein
Report: Harold Atwood

Extensive reading lists were sent out in advance, including several chapters from Peter Russell’s recent book Canada’s Odyssey, several other articles by Peter Russell and other authors, a recommendation to read the 94 policy actions in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report; and from Shiraz Dossa, three short critical readings on recognition of the “settler mentality” in Canada, anti-native racism in Canada, and rejection of the Canadian narrative (attachments include some of this material).

The Colloquium opened with statements from the discussion leaders. Peter Russell argued against accepting “reconciliation” as the primary goal for policy, since it implies that the present relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous dwellers in Canada could be acceptable. Instead, the alternative of “decolonization” would be preferable; and although progress in this has been slow, there does not seem to be a better alternative. The 94 calls for action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report provide good objectives.

Shiraz Dossa’s opening comments, reflecting the assigned critical readings, emphasized the destructive effects of Canada’s past actions on the indigenous communities, and the continuing prevalence of the “settler colony mentality” in non-indigenous society — the idea that the colonizers are necessarily dominant and directive is still widely held. Decolonization is a crucial step towards normalizing a relationship.

In the ensuing discussion, Peter Russell (the established expert on the topic) was inevitably put in the position of responding to, or clarifying, numerous points brought forward by other discussants. Several themes emerged.

1. “Attempted cultural genocide”: The issue of whether Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. MacDonald, was intent on racial obliteration of indigenous peoples was discussed. The suggestion was felt to be inaccurate, since he was against exploitation and favoured giving indigenous people the vote as they became assimilated and integrated into the colonizing society. The aim was cultural rather than racial transformation. Indigenous groups have in fact retained their ideal of cultural identity despite the eroding effects of the residential school experience, and are now speaking up for their cultural rights.

2. Land claims: Although indigenous groups often did not think of land ownership in the same way as the colonizers (“God owns the land, humans use it” — John David Stewart), the steady dispossession of indigenous groups from their original territories increasingly confronted them with the options of revolution and negotiated land ownership, and/or sharing of land and resources. Treaty rights have been put forward vigorously in land claim cases. For indigenous groups in highly developed (“First World”) countries, revolution now is not an option, and most countries would not agree to granting rights that would “break the state” (Peter Russell). Thus, negotiation in various forms is the most logical and practical way forward.
The Canadian government has gradually come to recognize the rights of indigenous groups in their traditional lands, and has acceded to some claims for compensation by indigenous groups en lieu of land repossession. In some instances, shared use of land has, or is being, negotiated. For instance, the “ring of fire” development project in Northern Ontario involves working out shared ownership arrangements with First Nation tribal councils, and ensuring shared benefits of resources, improved infrastructure, and feasibility of travel, among other factors (in recognition of the non-viability of remote, isolated communities in the present-day world — an example is Attawapiskat’s housing crisis). Another example presented by Peter Russell is trading of land between cottagers and First Nations around Georgian Bay: land occupied by cottagers is traded for land elsewhere in the region.

3. Self-Governance: First Nations must adapt to the evolved societies of the colonizers, within the framework of provincial and federal laws, while aspiring to a degree of self-governance. “Partial” self-governance involves more than local regulations on reserves, but funding of self-governing entities with broader scope will require funding to make them “real”. It is not yet clear how such funding will be administered (e.g., for health care — a pressing need). The Canadian government is now looking at arrangements for broader leadership among the diverse First Nation groups (Carolyn Bennett is the minister responsible).

4. Underlying causes of the problems: Daphne Maurer introduced the results of modern studies of human psychology and behaviour, pointing out that the evolution of humans involved selection for inherent tribalism (early-life recognition and identification with a “specific” group). Results of this are overt racism and implicit bias (against “outsider” groups), and these biologically based biases are difficult to overcome. (Human biogeographers, e.g. Jared Diamond, have analyzed this factor in detail). The attempts by the Canadian federal government to reach a satisfactory resolution of aboriginal problems can be seen as an uphill battle against inherent biologically based biases. Canada is one of the few countries making an effort to counter prevailing biases, rather than giving them free rein (which is much easier); for contrary current examples, one can look south of the border, or to various European and Middle Eastern countries.

5. “Broken promises”: The long litany of broken promises outlined in the reading material for the Colloquium has led to a sense of betrayal among First Nations that may be partially, but only slowly and perhaps not completely reversed. The route of negotiated sharing of ownership and resources is the best solution in sight at present. Specific recommendations in the 94 calls for action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission provide informed guidance.

(Notes: Harold Atwood)

Colloquium on Reconciliation with Aboriginal Peoples – suggested readings

Aboriginal Peoples in Peter Russell’s Canada’s Odyssey

ch. 1: Introduction – a summary of the entire odyssey including relations with Indigenous peoples
ch. 3: The Founding Treaty with Native Peoples – the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Treaty of Niagara of 1764
ch. 5: Three Wars and Three Betrayals Lead to Subjugation of His Majesty’s Indian Allies – covers period from 1764 to Confederation
ch. 7:Confederation- English Canada Gets a Dominion, French Canada Gets a Province and Aboriginal Canada Gets Left Out
ch. 8: The Colonization of Indigenous Canada – covers period from Confederation to WW II. Has details about Indian Act and Treaties, Metis and Inuit.
Ch. 12: Aboriginal Peoples Get a Hearing – covers post WWII reforms of relations with Aboriginal peoples up to 1970s, and discusses Indigenous peoples decolonization struggle world-wide
Ch. 14: Patriation: Quebec’s Loss, Aboriginal Gains – covers the recognition of Aboriginal and Treaty rights in Canada’s Constitution and Aboriginal Canada’s constitutional politics
Ch. 16: The Three Pillars Continue Their Odyssey – covers what Aboriginal peoples have gained in recent years and the limits of those gains

Aboriginal appraisals of Canada @ 150
Kiera L. Ladner and Myra j. Tait, Surviving Canada: Indigenous Peoples Celebrate 150 Years of Betrayal. ARP Books; Winnipeg, 2017

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
The Commission has a lot of info on its website – including its 94 Calls for Action

Canada in Comparison with other Settler Countries
Peter H. Russell, Recognizing Aboriginal Title: The Mabo Case and Indigenous Resistance to English-Settler Colonialism (U of T Press, 2005 – the only book comparing the treatment of Indigenous peoples in the 4 countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and USA) that came to be dominated by British settlers.

Monitoring progress in responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s Calls for Action
Peter H. Russell, University of Toronto

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for 94 policy actions to achieve reconciliation. Its report was the truth part of its work. Implementing the calls for action is the reconciliation part, and unlike the truth part depends on actions by many public and private actors in Canada. In this sense Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation is very different from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission whose hearings were both a truth and reconciling process, but which looked to a new South African government led by apartheid’s victims to take action on the policies needed for reconciliation. A call for 94 policy changes and initiatives, one of which incorporates the 46 articles of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, creates a challenge for Canadians who want to keep track of how the country is doing in achieving reconciliation. My paper will suggest how that challenge might be met and how political scientists might contribute to the monitoring of progress towards reconciliation.

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