It is difficult to be Canadian sometimes. We pride ourselves (well, most of us at least) on being tolerant, forward-thinking people. Part of our national neurotic need to be seen as distinct from our American cousins pushes us to be more collective, more restrained, more self-effacing; a contrast to the stereotype of our indvidualistic, brash and assertive southern neighbours.
The reason this stance is difficult is because of the cognitive dissonance present in seeing ourselves as progressive and inclusive, and yet becoming increasingly aware of the abhorrent way we have treated our most-maligned minority group: First Nations and other aboriginal people. Whereas slavery is America’s admitted national shame, Canada has not yet donned the sackcloth and ash required to atone for our past (and current) sins. We saw a dramatic manifestation of those sins this morning.
It is not enough to simply allocate increased funding to First Nations communities, or to issue public apologies for past mistakes (although both of those are helpful in their own way). We need to instead change the narrative we have about the relationship between the nation of Canada and its First Nations across the country. High-profile discussions like this may yield some hope:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a group of First Nations leaders are set to meet early next year to discuss key issues facing aboriginal people, including living conditions in First Nations communities. The Jan. 24 gathering was announced after a meeting in Ottawa Thursday between Harper and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo. “We can perhaps consider this moment and the idea of us gathering as a moment to reset the relationship between First Nations and the federal Crown,” Atleo said.
I’ve mentioned this previously, but I like Shawn Atleo’s rhetoric. I don’t know much about the man aside from reading/watching a few speeches, but he speaks about problems and the types of solutions therefore in a direct, uncompromising, clear manner. He doesn’t simply ask for increased funding, or increased attention, or increased autonomy, he wants to set the agenda for a partnership between the federal government and its First Nations people.
Of course, the danger in his asking for a partnership with the federal government is a bit like getting a piggyback ride from a polar bear. Even if you can get an agreement between the two parties, there’s a pretty good chance that, when the chips are down, you’re going to get devoured pretty quickly. First Nations Canadians don’t have nearly the power and influence required to be truly equal partners with Ottawa. Quite frankly (and cynically) the only influence they really have when it comes to moving policy is appealing to the guilt of non-aboriginal Canadians. Guilt is, as I’ve said before, not a particularly useful mechanism for achieving long-term change. Guilt quickly makes room for resentment as people find new ways to resolve the conflict between wanting to be a good person (“they need help”) and justifying the status quo (“we’ve given them enough help, they must be lazy”).
Perhaps recognizing this fact, some First Nations groups have been increasingly asserting their own sovereignty. Most recently in British Columbia:
First Nations leaders will not allow the proposed Enbridge and KinderMorgan pipelines to cross their unceded territory, saying they will stand in front of bulldozers if they have to. The pipelines would run from Alberta’s oilsands to the B.C. coast, carrying oil to tankers for export to the US and Asia.
“Everyone involved — including myself — have made commitments that we’ll do whatever it takes legally and otherwise,” said Haisla elder Gerald Amos. He said they will resort to civil disobedience to halt the pipelines. “I am prepared to do as others have done before me in our communities and stand on the line to prevent any machinery moving onto the site.”
This tactic is a high risk one, but it has the potential for a high payoff. The federal government desperately wants this fuel pipeline to be built, but cannot do it without the consent and co-operation of the communities through which it would run. That’s the rock. The hard place is that events like the crisis in Attawapiskat have forced them to make statements like this one:
In a statement, Harper said he looked forward to meeting with First Nations representatives to determine “how we can work together to further improve the quality of life and long-term economic prosperity of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples.”
The forced construction of an unwanted fuel pipeline over the unanimous objection of the residents of the area (reports that there is a dissenting band are based on false information) does not gel with the idea of ‘working together’, nor will it improve the ‘quality of life and long-term economic prosperity’ of anyone concerned. While I am optimistic about Chief Atleo, I place absolutely zero faith in the words of the Prime Minister, who has demonstrated his ‘say anything’ policy on multiple occasions (most recently during his victory speech following the election).
My prediction is as follows. Given Stephen Harper’s megalomania and habitual betrayal of small-government principles in favour of big business and his own twisted vision for Canada, construction of the project will be forced through regardless of the community’s objections. The residents, left with no other course of action (save rescinding their ultimatum and losing any hope of gaining influence), will block the construction bodily. RCMP will be called in to deal with the “domestic terrorists”, which is what they will undoubtedly be called on the Opinion page of the National Post.
What happens next depends on who fires the first shot. If RCMP officers assault and/or kill any of the protesters, a crisis of national proportions will emerge, forcing the government to come to the table and make major concessions or face an electoral drubbing akin to what happened to the Progressive Conservatives during the rise of the Reform Party (a bit of Canadian electoral history for non-Canadian readers). If, however, more radical elements of the First Nations resistance resort to violent tactics against federal law enforcement, then the federal government will have the free hand it needs to militarize the pipeline construction with little objection from the majority of the electorate. While hard-line liberals and First Nations rights advocates will go ballistic, most Canadians will find multiple ways of saying “they deserved it” (in a variety of languages, to boot), and First Nations sovereignty will be once again trampled in the (now oil-contaminated) dirt.
There is a third way for this crisis to resolve: for the government of Canada to recognize that First Nations Canadians are just that – Canadians. They should enjoy the full rights and privileges that accompany such a label, which means that steps must be taken to ensure their ability to safeguard their own lands from corporate intrusion. The government could pick up major points, both nationally and internationally, by changing its tune and standing up to Enbridge instead of its own citizens. In a speech that might begin something like “The Canadian people have spoken…” the government could tell the company that any deals on Canadian lands must be accompanied by the consent of Canadians. Prime Minister Harper could spin this as a return to an ‘individual rights’ model of government, and pick up an endorsement from First Nations groups and centrist liberals in the process, virtually guaranteeing his re-election.
Of course I don’t think that will actually happen, I’m just saying it could.
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