Now that Chief Theresa Spence’s campaign to have a three-way meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston has been downgraded to a “modified hunger strike”—a liquid diet, technically—according to CBC Sunday Morning, it should be possible for Canadians to think more freely.
Constructive discussion of the terrible state of most First Nation communities and reserves in Canada has been heavily constrained by Chief Spence.
After all, she could have been well on her way to being a martyr. In those circumstances, how could Canadians quibble with the logic of her campaign? She may have been ready to give her life for the sake of that meeting—and that gave the idea an irresistible dignity.
Since dying, hopefully, is off the table, and since the meeting issue is largely behind us, Canadians should be able to recognize a lot of pious and paralyzing nonsense.
The elected leaders of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations have spent far too much time this year dancing to myths: that securing justice for First Nations must involve the participation of the British Crown’s representative in Canada and that, ultimately, justice and progress will best be achieved by living up to what that British Crown promised First Nations starting some 250 years ago.
Chief Spence and other radicals don’t insist simply that the present state of affairs is intolerable. They insist redress can be found in getting the “Crown” (and the Government of Canada in its toe) to live up to 18th-century promises, plus interest.
They want the federal government to care. But, more importantly, they want it to deliver health, education, housing, and development resources that were envisioned in treaties that were signed centuries and decades before Canada became a sovereign country.
First Nations can—and do—take legal action to win benefits through court interpretations of those ancient treaties. However, the underlying assumption that the imperialists of the 18th century had a healthy, even superior, conception of how aboriginals and Europeans should live side-by-side should be challenged.
The nation-to-nation wars and alliances of the age of empire may be a source of pride for aboriginal communities. However, looking for justice within our contemporary liberal society—according to its values—will likely be more rewarding.
Gordon Gibson put it clearly in his conclusion to his column today in the Globe and Mail:
“Give individuals the resources for mobility, which means both cash and above all, education. Half of status Indians have already voted with their feet and left the reserves for a better life. The reserves can be a fortress, but they can also be a prison…
“Upon every confused sea, a sailor needs a guiding star. The individual is the fixed point here. Follow that and we will make a safe harbour.”
We don’t need the Crown to prick our conscience or fire our ambition to do better.