Greg Poelzer and Ken Coates's From Treaty Peoples to Treaty Nation, which I was starting on last week, is reviewed in the current Literary Review of Canada, now in the mail. That particular review is not part of the online edition, unless you subscribe.
Poelzer and Coates mostly take an optimistic and non-confrontational approach to indigenous/Canada issues. Yes, Prime Minister Harper cancelled Paul Martin's Kelowna Accord, they write, but indigenous issues really were important to the Harper government. They open with a broad historical review -- in impressive detail -- of a wide range of policy approaches that have been advocated by indigenous scholars and leaders as well as by non-aboriginal Canadians. But they themselves mostly endorse the vision of "education and entrepreneurship," arguing that improving the economic circumstances of indigenous peoples over time should be sufficient, particularly if it is supported with reconciliation, respect, encouragement....
Their most ambitious proposal is for First Nations to organize a new "Commonwealth" -- a kind of First Nations parliament that would receive funding based on Canada's existing obligations and take (from Canada's Indigenous Affairs department) management of how the funding is spent.
The word "treaty" though it appears twice in their title, plays little part in their analysis. They define treaties as spelling out "government obligations tied to Aboriginal land surrenders." (p. 274) -- mostly cash payments. They do not take up the argument that most treaties as actually negotiated were about sharing, not surrendering, land. In looking forward to education and entrepreneurship as the best hope for indigenous progress, they show little interest in the idea that "treaty implementation" --that is, implementing the treaties as they were actually negotiated on the ground -- would immediately make most northern reserve communities not poor but relatively wealthy, as co-owners of immense values of timber, minerals, hydro power, and transportation and recreation potential. Now that could provide some fuel for indigenous entrepreneurship.
Poelzer and Coates's analysis puts almost no new obligations on Canada beyond tolerance and respect. But they do accept and even celebrate the existence of indigenous Canada as a cultural and political reality. They reject the argument, recently promoted by Jean Chrétien, the editor of The Walrus, and Maclean's, that the solution is simply assimilation: move reserve communities into cities, put the kids in school, let 'em find work like anyone else. And their acceptance of the existence of self-governing indigenous communities makes them far too radical for the Literary Review's reviewer, Andrew Furey of Sun Media. Furey rejects any proposal that proposes the ongoing independent existence of First Nations as contrary to Canadian multiculturalism and based on the "stuck in the past" notion that Canadians have colonialist attitudes.
Canadians don't see indigenous issues in terms of a struggle between white people and aboriginal people, Furey declares. He reject the idea of collective responsibility for past injustices. Duncan Campbell Scott, he argues, was simply too early in his assimilationist program. All we have to do is welcome indigenous Canadians into the mainstream. From that perspective, "the aboriginal narrative is increasingly a good news story."
And there we are. If well placed commentators assume the problem is solving itself, if Poelzer and Coates's modest proposals, demanding so little of Canadian government and society, are too radical.... well, we have a long way to go.
This will not be the last crisis at Attawapiskat, I guess.
Image: National Post