I generally try to avoid writing on topical issues because I think that the really important stories are on-going. But sometimes I find that I’m timely by accident. I’ve been researching a future story about First Nations issues for the past few months, so I thought I’d “stick my oar in” about the country-wide protests for this week’s op ed. I think that this is a case where background information plus some “big picture” discussion would dramatically increase public discourse.
So here it goes—.
The first thing to understand about native issues is that First Nation’s governance is tremendously complicated. This isn’t something that should be blamed on aboriginal people, however, because it is a result of specific government policies that were designed to destroy them as sovereign nations and make assimilation into “settler” society easier.
I first learned about this decades ago when I was involved in organizing watershed congresses along the Grand river. We thought that we should devote a meeting to discuss the land claims in the watershed. What we found out was that there were—in effect—two different competing government bodies competing for leadership of the Six Nations: the elected and traditional chiefs. Because of their refusal to recognize each other’s authority, we found we could only have one group represented at the event, although there were “unofficial” people who showed up and gave us the other leadership’s perspective on the issue. (They didn’t want to set a precedent, but both groups realized we were trying to act in good faith.)
The reason why these two groups compete is simply because of long-term federal government policy. Indian affairs didn’t want First Nations peoples to keep their traditional forms of government alive, so they decreed that all interaction with Ottawa had to go through chiefs that were elected through a process spelled-out in the Indian Act. This put the population of reserves on the horns of a dilemma. They needed the money and the ability to interact with the bureaucracy. But they also needed to preserve their traditions if they wanted to survive as a people.
As a result, individuals find themselves having to “take sides” in specific disputes. It also allows outside players who don’t put the time into learning about the complexities—or want to mislead uneducated outsiders—to deal with just one group and avoid the other. This is a very old game and it’s called “divide and rule“. Without being an expert on the specifics, it certainly looks like it’s being played between “traditional chiefs” and “elected chiefs” of the Wet’suwet’en. Here’s a quick You Tube video that explains what I’m talking about.
This game has been played all across the nation and anyone who is interested in First Nations issues understands this point. That means that all the sympathy protests across the country were “primed” by generations of “games playing” by the Federal government as it attempted destroy the ability of First Nations to effectively rule their own territory.
For the last month or so I’ve been talking to a local businessman who is interested in creating a platform where local “indie media” people like myself can publish their work. The hope is that this will create a synergistic effect that helps everyone build their subscription base. The fact of the matter is that I don’t think that it is possible to support local news using on-line advertising companies like Google and YouTube. And I don’t think pay walls will work either. That leaves the volunteer subscription systems like Patreon and Pay Pal. We are a community of 135,000 now, so it’s not that absurd to think that a local news blog like the “Back-Grounder” could build a base of 1,000 people paying $1/month, which would translate into an income of $12,000 a year. That would be fair compensation for the amount of work I put into this and it would allow people to support several different “creators” in Guelph without being onerous. So watch this spot for future developments. In the interim, however, there is still a good reason to subscribe to this news blog.
This policy went beyond splitting the local leadership on reserves. It also included sabotaging any attempt by indigenous people to create their own leadership class that would be able to “play the settler game” according to its own rules. In the Indian Act of 1876 it was decreed that
Any Indian who may be admitted to the degree of Doctor of Medicine, or to any other degree by any University of Learning, or who may be admitted … as an Advocate or as a Barrister or Counsellor or Solicitor or Attorney or to be a Notary Public, or who … maybe licensed … as a Minister of the Gospel, shall ipso facto become enfranchised
The important issue here is that term “enfranchised”. This meant that if someone got a higher education in how settler society worked, in a way that would allow them to be a recognized professional in that society, they were forced to leave the reserve because they were no longer considered a “status Indian”. This effectively stopped the development of an indigenous leadership class that could go “toe to toe” with the government in courts.
In the short run, both of these policies are good ways to screw over a people that you’ve conquered. But in the long haul, they are part of an insane policy because they mean that you have removed any effective leadership that settler government can negotiate with. Unless we want to exterminate the First Nations, we have to create some sort of consensus with them about where the country is going. That’s because there are enough of them, they are sufficiently mobilized, and, they have sufficient support among the settler community, to create real chaos for everyone else.
The rail blockades illustrate this power very effectively. Canada ships the vast majority of overland freight using railways that snake through lots of places that are close to First Nations territory. The last week shows how little effort it would take to sabotage a big chunk of our economy if we sufficiently piss off these people. And if the police go in and start arresting—which will eventually mean killing some people—on Wet’suwet’en and other territories, we could see the creation of an internal terrorist movement around land claims. Don’t think that this cannot happen, as we already have citizen militias on some reserves and we came precious close to this happening in the 1990 Oka Crisis.
This is why it is so damned important for reconciliation to actually happen in this country. And why it is so insane for Conservatives like Andrew Scheer to blather on about the need to “enforce the law”. That’s because this point of view totally ignores the key questions: “Who’s law?”—Wet’suwet’en law? Settler law?—and how do you access it when the court system is designed to keep First Nations communities from accessing it like anyone else?
Here’s the second wrinkle. First Nations have been trying to use settler law for generations. But the problem is that it is enormously expensive to hire settler lawyers (remember, it was illegal for an Indian to get a law degree) and argue in front of a judge. And the government lawyers had unlimited resources to draw out court battles. So the tactic used by the government has been to drag out decisions for years and years in order to “wear out” the First Nations to the point where they are willing to settle for a small part of what would actually be a just settlement of their issues. There is a saying to the effect that “justice delayed is justice denied”.
Is it any wonder that so many First Nations people and their supporters have decided that the legal system is a dead letter, so they have to take the law into their own hands in order to get some action on these long festering problems?
The only real way that the long term strategy of Indian Affairs could have worked would be if Canada was willing and able to commit genocide against the First Nations. It tried to do that culturally with the residential school system and the “Sixties Scoop“. Both of those have failed, however, which means that “the Indian” was never beaten out of Indians. And most Canadians are not nasty enough to simply murder all the indigenous peoples. So they remain in the 21st century as distinctive peoples. Indeed, they are becoming more and more self-confident nations who are not willing to simply remain at the margins of Canadian society. Moreover, they have also begun to organize education campaigns for mainstream Canadians of good will. There are indigenous rights book clubs in Guelph. I’ve been to special events in church basements that were completely filled with people interested in finding out First Nation’s history. That’s why there have been demonstrations all across the country in support of the Wet’suwet’en traditional chiefs.