Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Coercive vs. voluntary assimilation?

I am a regular follower of other Aboriginal blogs. One is by a Mohawk blogger (and former or current journalist Shmohawk). He prefers anonymity, so I will not begrudge him that. His site can be accessed here: http://shmohawk.wordpress.com
Anyway, on a recent post, he reminisced about a past offer of employment at Indian Affairs. Given the British Crown's history with FN peoples and that of the Canadian state in certain respects, I understand his reluctance about this job offer.
He doesn't want to become part of the system that he perceives to be the problem. Hey, I support that sentiment.
Where I find his argument puzzling, and that of so many others, is the whole issue of assimilation. Indian Affairs seems to be fingered as the main culprit for assimilation. The post then goes on to look at the White Paper and various forced attempts at "assimilation."
Here is where I strongly differ. If funding for First Nation programs eventually ceased, would that mean assimilation for First Nations? I mean seriously, is cultural preservation tied to funding programs? Are we just a few program dollars or programs away from a fully-restored ingenous identity?
I submit we are not. I submit cultural and identity preservation is a matter of family and community will, with some government help, but not in the form some Native activists want.
I attended a symposium years ago in Winnipeg on indigenous languages. It was very interesting and revealed the sad reality that many indigenous languages were threatened with extinction. Ojibway and Cree were two of the strongest languages, but many others were losing speakers all the time.
At the symposium, funding and government recognition seemed to be the favourite approach. I disagree with the first, but could support the second.
Quebec is a good model for understanding language retention. However, I am sure I will lose readers for all sorts of different reasons, but bear with me.
For language to survive, it must become a lived reality. It must be public. There is nothing preventing First Nations (and many do) from trying to use their state powers to post signage in their language or ensure minutes are available in indigenous languages.
Here is where I will lose some. I support government, even constitutional, support for indigenous languages. To me, this makes perfect sense. Why should be pretend there are only Two Founding Nations anymore? I am French-Canadian, but I think it makes sense to preserve these languages even sometimes more than my own. The reality is you can't say to an indigenous person, "go back to where you come from if you want to preserve your language." Even if you accept the scientifically-based Land Bridge Theory, this still places indigenous people here well before everyone else.
Before I continue, I say this does not necessarily funding for language programs. I oppose those largely even for my own language group. This means public documents would be recognized as official if they are written in some Native dialects.
Ok, but there are hundreds of indigenous dialects and languages, you may scream. But, this is why indigenous languages cannot be treated like English or French. This is a largely moral and symbolic change and would mean any indigenous person could speak in his or her original language in Parliament.
Anyways, this means language preservation will fall on the indigenous governments and communities. Obviously, English and French needs to be put first in education curricula, given the needs of our country, but a public face to these languages could be achieved, all within the legitimate jurisdiction of FN governments.
The other reality is that language loss will change because of many non-coercive changes. Natives are marrying and raising kids with non-Natives. This is a voluntary move. How they retain language is not a legitimate area of the state.
Some language loss will be inevitable as First Nations access modern Canadian life. Jobs, education ae chiefly done in English or French. The main job must be at home or within a community. Even studies show that urbanization does not mean one loses one languge, it just becomes a secondary language.
I have seen whole First Nation community meetings conducted completely in Cree. This is a matter of passing on the tongue and ensuring it is respected.
Spirtuality and other cultural values are also tough issues. Obviously, coerced attempts to deny indigenous people their spirituality are wrong, such as the residential schools system approach in many instances.
The question becomes once the coercive policies are lifted, where does responsibility lie? I submit it lies with individual and community. The challenge is that in modernity, it is not possible or moral to impose a public indigenous religious order, any more than forcing mass on a whole community. There is not unanimity among FNs about religion and even if there was, it is not moral to force rituals or beliefs. FNs in large numbers have decided to return to the old traditional ways. That is their choice. No one ought to prevent that. First Nation voluntary associations should play the role of promoting spiritual values, just like churches. The problem is the horribl historic example of churches in these matters. Through coercion and abuse of position, these bodies have given Christianity a very bad reputation on many reserves. Many are completely turned off from the organized churches. I don't blame them. The question, however, is not that that pressure is gone, where is the role of individuals now?
Indigenous traditionalists need to realize that many First Nations have opted for a different way, either Christianity, atheism (I am meeting many atheist FNs these days), or whatever. This may mean that the definition of what is means to be "Indian" needs change. They need a more secular, inclusive definition.
Anyways, the only problem then is political, values orientation. Some would say that assimilation could result from changing what makes indigenous people indigenous. Well, this comes back to what makes indigenous. At its root, it is an ethnic category or a matter of descent. A lot of what we package into what we mean by indigenous or Indian is subjective and debatable. It would be hard to say it is a way of life or mode of existence, given that FNs today live in totally different conditions. Hunting, fishing and trapping are not all shared by all indigenous peoples. The most contested definition is communal ownership of land. Many argue the Creator puts indigenous peoples on their lands, so that has to stay. However, looking back to the discussion on spirituality, it is not clear this is share by all FNs. Many reserves look towards private property as a good. Moreover, some FNs (like Nisga'a) have gone the whole distance in allowing land to be alienated from the community (although still subject to indigenous law). No one an argue these people are no indigenous.
So, given the complexity of even understanding what is "indigenous," how can we say definitively what assimilation is when we do not know from what proper image people are assimilating from? I submit there is no true copy of Indian out there, or proper representation. I think it was either Plato or Aristotle who referred to the image of some object that exists in pure form in our minds. Someone correct me on that if I'm wrong.
So, I live with this thought: the only people who can assimilate First Nations are First Nations themselves. If they fail to exercise individual, family and community will. If they fail to use the jurisdiction over language and culture they already have to their advantage. If THEY fail, "assimilation," whatever that means, is a virtual certainty.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Baby Steps

I am convinced more than ever that history will favour those who advocate political and economic freedom for First Nations.
The Nisga'a property rights step is a small one, but I believe it will erode the will of the Native leaders who will not be able to silence the band members who want change.
I think sheer numbers will achieve this. As more FNs leave reserves and see the outside world, they will want to come back to their community to see changes and will become increasingly jaded at leaders as they deny them.
I see a new generation of indigenous youth who are respectful of their traditions and past, but who refuse to take the lack of opportunity and the corruption of the old boys club on reserves.
As more bands clean up their act and these stories get to mainstream attention, more reserves will know there is a better way forward.
Ever notice how most of the big shot Aboriginal leaders don't leave permanently on reserves? Yes, they probably spend most of their time on reserves, but do they live there? Probably not. They believe they are advocating for their people, but in reality, they have one foot in each world and if they had to choose, they would probably stay in the colonial world. Why? Because of the jobs, income, mobility, and opportunity.
No one predict how the demographics will go completely, but I believe things will come down to a heavily urbanized FN population and an increasingly dissatisfied, but younger and more demanding, on-reserve population. They will want to have the best of both worlds. They respect their traditional homelands, yet want the prosperity and cleaner politics of the mainstream. From there, I predict, will emerge a critical class of people open to changes, including property rights, in order to have reasons to stay.
I hope this newer class works with the government and mainstream society, but there are no guarantees they will.
This is why indigenous youth need to be engaged and encouraged in expressing themselves. Unfortunately, militant groups like Wasase are taking over this role, but these organizations are about tuning yourself away from modernity and towards antagonistic rhetoric.
My greatest fear are the urban Aboriginals who have never really experienced reserve life and visit a few times a year and get angry at any discussion about Aboriginal accountability. I met one such youth at a conference in Calgary. They are eager to show their "Indian" credentials to everyone, they hate the Flanagans and Widdowsons of the world they they think they are supposed to, and they respond to any discussion of FN governance issue in the same negative kneejerk fashion.
These people are disconnected from the reserve people who see corruption every day, want change, and are listening to accountability advocates. They are also generally moderate and conciliatory.
If I am correct, these "two-row wampum belt" (one foot in reserve and one in urban setting) urban activist Indians are going to be the greatest threat to political and economic freedom for First Nations.
I could be all wrong, but I am interested to see how things go.. My experience as a policy analyst who travels to reserves convinces me of the basic truthfulness of the descriptions.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Nisga'a move

As many may now be aware, the Nisga'a Nation of British Columbia has moved to liberate its citizens from the shackles of enforced poverty (read: lack of property rights). Nisga'a citizens will have the opportunity now to voluntarily own small parcels of land in fee simple (about half acre plots, so mainly their home and yard).
The difference is they can put up their home as security as it is truly theirs. They can bring that to the bank and secure loans. They can lease their home for income. They can leverage their equity for investments. In other words, they can do the things that most Canadians take for granted.
I have written about this before, so I won't go in complete detail. I have posted this in a past blog post here.
What is most impressive is this is the first step along a journey. All the naysayers cannot say that all First Nations are in love with collective land ownership. This shows that if given a chance, a voice and an opportunity, First Nations opt for something better.
I think this land system will be studied closely. Other Indian bands will be able to see how a functioning First Nation fee simple system works. All of the land, even if it is lost to outsiders for some reason, will remain Nisga'a land and be subject to Nisga'a land. So, we will see what happens. It will be very interesting. I know I will watching and hope to conduct empirical analyses within the next few years about how it is working.
For now, I lift my glass in praise to this courageous indigenous community for taking this step. I wish them well!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

War on First Nations??

I receive periodic policy updates from a First Nation individual named Russell Diabo. He publishes a regular update on recent news that pertain to Aboriginal peoples. I have also debated with Diabo on an APTN public affairs panel I am involved with. Diabo seems to advocate a hardcore sovereigntist position within indigenous discourse.
Just recently, I received an update from that worried me somewhat. It was a .pdf document containing presentation notes and it was entitled "Canada's War on First Nations."
Now those who have read this blog or my other writings know I have never tried to deny Canada's shameful history when it came to dealing with indigenous peoples. However, this kind of rhetoric attempts to bring some of the old struggles into the present and even the future. In other words, it wants to make this metaphorical war with the Canadian state the dominant paradigm of indigenous-newcomer relations.
I would have loved to have post it here, but apparently posting pdf documents is an issue on this blog format, so I will just invite you to Google (or your choice of search engine) "Canada's war on First Nations" + "Russell Diabo." I am sure something will come up eventually..
The problem is the choice of words. I find this strategy or way of thinking to be at best counter-productive and at worst, highly dangerous and inflammatory.
While saying First Nations should continue on land and treaty land entitlement claims that they believe they are entitled to, I think adopting a martial rhetoric prevents finding common ground.
Diabo assumes in his writing that because successive governments have not accepted a "third order of government" type way of viewing Aboriginal self-governent, they must be about co-opting and eventually secluding FNs into "ethnic municipalities" as it put it.
First of all, adopting this model of a new order of government is not the only way forward for First Nations. There are many First Nations who I'm sure in the end would not prefer this model. Some First Nations don't want to re-constitute themselves and join other communities to form contiguous nations. This is the reality out there.
The government opposes this because it is a fundamental paradigm shift and would change the way government works completely. More importantly, it would mean changes and complications in how money is collected and re-distributed.
I think this objection on their part is more about state survival logic, rather than a deep-seated prejudice against First Nations or a colonial-like desire to assimilate all First Nations. Diabo is also convinced this means "emptying of Section 35 rights."
In particular, he asserts that all modern treaty arrangements are about surrending Section 35 rights and giving into colonialism.
I think for these self-governing communities is not about giving in. These agreements allow them to maintain their governing structures and continue to live as Indians, while receiving funding to continue.
For them, it is a good bargain.
Why do some of these indigenous writers assume that negotiating or making deals with the government is capitulation? Weren't the historic treaties about engaging the state? Finally, and most controversially for some, why is there this eternal fear of becoming involved within the Canadian state? I mean, why is the "Two-wampum"model of governance the eternal default model for all First Nations, where one can never be both an Indian and a Canadian at the same time?? The Two Wampum model is one model among many and does not have to be the model for all.
In his paper, Diabo mentions the important role of indigenous youth. This is one area I agree with him. But, I worry that if youth read Diabo or other like-minded indigenous writers like Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, they will assume the only model available for First Nations is permanent antagonism. You stay on your side and I'll stay on mine. Already, this model falls apart given that indigenous communities are financially dependent on the colonial federal government.
I am not arguing that all First Nations should jump onto USS Canada and forget their grievances over legitimate policy areas. Engaging Canada must mean it is done on just terms. But, just terms does not mean that any engagement with Canada is somehow seen as treasonous, or an act of capitulation, or whatever. It is just logical to accept that we are all in this together and need to work together..

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Chief Clarence Louie

Recently, I spent a few days in Osoyoos, B.C. I was attending a conference on Aboriginal economic development, hosted by the Osoyoos Indian Band and the famous Chief Clarence Louie.
This was easily one of the best conferences I have attended.. ever... Believe me, I've attended many as both a reporter and as a policy analyst.
It was great mainly because I was blessed to hear Chief Louie speak. I have read his statements in the press and have seen him on video clips, but this is the first time up close.
The first thing that came through was his passionate concern and love for his people. It quickly became obvious to me that Chief Louie is not an ideologue or connected to any movement or anything like that. He is genuinely moved to place his community's improvement ahead of his own.
He is a very down-to-earth kind of guy. He also almost speaks in an accent as if he came off the street, if you know what I mean. He has little tolerance for BS and he gets straight to the point. He collects good sayings. During his speaking, he mentioned hearing different indigenous leaders and highlighted good, original things they have to say. He also humorously noted that he has collected dozens of speeches over the years and highlighted the commonalities between them. He said that he has dozens and dozens of speeches from chiefs that almost sound identifical. He says that many chiefs are great on promise and talk, but fail to deliver on many levels.
I was also honoured to hear National Chief Shawn Atleo, who I have a new found respect for.
I had heard him before, despite attending the recent AFN leadership vote (I missed the speeches).
Atleo impressed me with his dedication to put economic development on top of his agenda. Let's hope he lives up to it.
We also heard from Stephen Cornell, a professor from Arizona who is associated with the Harvard Project on Native American Economic Development. Cornell laid out several bands and tribes that were doing wonderful (will little resources in many cases). Cornell gave concrete examples of how to de-politicize band business from band politics. Too many band-led (tribal in many of his case as he studied mainly American examples) entreprises get politicized in the sense that enterprise managers, CEOs, etc. get their marching orders from chief and council, rather than independent boards of directors or their own business decisions. As a result, people get hired for political reasons, not for merit reasons. As a result, he said, the band business managers think their business becomes an employment centre for the community. In one case, a band business kept hiring to satisfy politics and the business payroll became too unmanageable.
These observations about band-politics relationships could easily be discussed in the context of band service delivery and administration. Too many of these areas receive marching orders from elected chief and council, which distorts their mission.
For example, I know of one housing director on a southern Alberta band who complained that as soon as he assumed his position, band members who had been promised housing during the election were demanding their housing allocations. As a result, young families and those truly in need of housing went without it because the chief had to pay back his supporters. Sometimes, my housing director friend said he refused, but the band member would just complain straight to the chief and certain councillors. As the director is responsible to chief, not ultimately in fact to an independent board of directors, he could not refuse for very long. His job and possible advancement was on the line.
We also heard from INAC officials who addressed the government's new federal framework for Aboriginal economic development. Although I support this re-orientation, I think it is sad to see government-led economic development. This has proven not to work. Bureaucrats are not good at picking winners and losers and are not good business managers.
I also think the new economic development framework is sidestepping the issue of private property on reserves. This is the big elephant in the room. One of the policy people said they will continue their program of the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT guaranteeing loans against any losses on First Nation reserves. While this is good on some levels as it introduces the capital to the communities, it is not sustainable for our government to take on every loan on every reserve.
This will create more rent-seeking incentives to secure these loans than to improve conditions on reserves to make investment happen. Sometimes, I think government policy people are living on another planet and are not cognizant of the incentives/disincentives they create through their programs.
This shows me the Feds (even a Conservative government committed to free entreprise in theory) are afraid of opening up the private property debate on reserves. It's still all about government-backed mortgages and other loans. Government-directed economic development. No doubt, First Nations need assistance from Ottawa in economic development, but it should include the necessary tools for them to advance themselves. Individuals need the opportunity to own property that can be pledged against loans.. Individual band members need to liberated to build their own business, not just band-led initiatives.
Anyway, the forum was excellent overall. Besides the gorgeous landscape and the delicious wine (this is wine country, so I had to enjoy some liberal libations!), the Osoyoos people were terrific hosts. The Spirit Ridge Resort where we stayed was beautiful.
This is the start of a great debate in Canada.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

New Aboriginal blog

It is always great to discover new blogs by Aboriginal people. Well, my good friend Jamie Wilson, director of education from Opaskwayak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, has introduced a new blog callerd Intemperate North (good title!!) that looks at indigenous issues (although not exclusively) from a limited government perspective.
Here's the URL: http://www.intemperatenorth.com/
I have met Jamie and he is an articulate, passionate man with concern for indigenous people, the province of Manitoba and all of Canada.
Please becoming a follower of his blog is you are able.
First Nation people need different perspectives on issues. The same old ain't cutting it anymore. Jamie's commentary is a great start!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Is Canada colonial?

Hello all:

The latest controversy/scandal concerns comments Stephen Harper made regarding Canada as not being a colonial country.
I am divided on this. On the one hand, I think it is a tremendously unhelpful choice of words and I am surprised that HArper's speech writers could not foresee how this could be interpreted by First Nations people.
On the other hand, I think the words are being taken out of context and a look at history will reveal that Harper's comments make sense in context.
Canada itself is descended from a colony. New France was a colony, as was British North America. Up until the 1930s, we still made appeals to the British legislature to change our own laws and our constitution was only patriated in 1982.
First Nation people here controlled and placed under "wardship" similar to a colonial system. In that sense, it was an insensitive thing to deny that aspect.
However, when Harper uttered this remark he was referring to the world financial market. What he meant was Canada has never maintained an overseas empire like so many European powers and created a core-periphery relationship of stripping them of resources for the home country.
Of course, Canada's "Ward-colonial" relationship does continue under the Indian Act system. So, while I understand Harper's context, I think he should issue a more clear statement, acknowledging that indigenous peoples have been under this relationship.
This is the type of incident, unfortunately, that can undermine efforts on the part of the government to gain the trust and confidence of First Nations. This new Conservative Aboriginal Caucus is a good start, but PM Harper will need to clarify this statement and actually respond directly to it, not through a media spokesperson.
Canadians understand so little about their own history as it is; this does not help.
The other side is all the ideological hubbub surrounding "decolonization" exaggerates our colonial history, so there is that aspect too.

Monday, September 28, 2009

UN Declaration

Hi all:

I have just released a new column for the Frontier Centre about why I do not support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. http://www.fcpp.org/main/publication_detail.php?PubID=2946
To to be honest, my biggest complaint about the UN Declaration it is an easy diversion from important work that needs to be accomplished at home. During the negotiations over this document, indigenous leaders from all over Canada (and elsewhere) were taken away from Canada, shuttled around on flights and put in expensive hotels, to negotiated for a non-binding legal document that already overlaps with so many court judgments pertaining to Aboriginals in Canada already.
I also strongly oppose it because it provides, once again, illegitimate moral cover, for leaders to avoid band accountability issues in Canada.
This is all besides the legal and constitutional issues that the document presents.
Canada has constitutional protection for First Nations, thank you very much, they do not need a one-size-fits-all approach from Geneva, Switzerland or New York City.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Some good news in Indian Country.
Apparently, AFN national chief Shawn Atleo has stated that he will push for First Nation economic self-sufficiency, as he recognizes that political independence and economic independence are inescapably linked.
This is from a recent news story in the Globe and Mail. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/afn-chief-vows-to-push-economic-self-sufficiency/article1290784/
This is encouraging news and I wish the best to Atleo in his plans to work towards FN self-sufficiency.
It's funny how I was called a right wing crank on APTN for suggesting this by First Nation journalist and co-panelist Trevor Greyeyes.
I have said that PM Stephen Harper could truly be a transformational leader in this area as Trudeau was with the Charter if he took this issue as his own and expended political capital.
The debate over ending the Indian Act and freeing up First Nation business activity should start now.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The need for polling in First Nations

In my job as a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, I help distribute and conduct analysis on surveys for our Aboriginal Governance Index. We ask questions about all areas of band governance, economic development and service delivery. One thing we are looking into is gauging opinions on abstract questions. One area I want to explore are notions of individual rights and opinions about the limits on government. We could even ask band members how they feel about how regional grand chiefs or even the national chief of the AFN is selected.
One thing that has always bothered me are grand statements made by indigenous leaders and academics about how different First Nations are from everyone else. We need culture-specific programming for everything. Aboriginal philosophers assert that there is an "Aboriginal way of knowing" or Aboriginal epistemologies (study of knowledge).
I don't doubt that First Nations have different opinions and values than perhaps other Canadians. They have a different understanding of Canadian history; there is no doubt.
However, I am not as convinced that their commitment to individual rights, their basic beliefs about government, are as different as they are made out to be. I believe First Nations would also show support for individual property rights on-reserve, if given the opportunity to voice their opinions.
This is why I believe there need to be more polls done of on-reserve First Nation populations to discover these things. Let's settle some of these issues of whether Natives have different values once and for all.

Monday, August 17, 2009

APTN panel

Hello everyone:

Sorry for the delay in posting! I have been uber busy recently with different work and home-related issues.
I was on APTN tonight. This is actually the second time I have been on this national news show.
The show can be viewed here: http://www.aptn.ca/pages/news/index.php?wmv=monday/six
It is hosted by the talented Patrice Mousseau. Patrice is an excellent host/producer. She allows her panelists the freedom to explore different areas, yet manages to keep things under control!
Tonight, I was debating the relevancy of the Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs.
The whole issue went off the handles when we discussed First Nation housing and I raised the issue of (cue ominous music) private ownership of homes and the condition of housing.
One panelist I argued with was journalist Trevor Greyeyes. For those in Manitoba, Greyeyes is a reputable First Nation reporter. He now freelances at the Drum/First Perspective (www.firstperspective.ca), my old stomping ground. The Drum is an Aboriginal newspaper that is committed to Aboriginal governance reform.
I was very disappointed that Greyeyes felt he had to be argumentative with every point I made. Greyeyes has written in support of accountability measures for bands, so I am surprised he felt he had to attack me because I work for the Frontier Centre being as we promote such measures. This is the evil "right wing" he was referring to in his commentary.
Anyways, I think it is accurate to mention that private ownership is a key component of any successful housing strategy. I mean urban Aboriginals have access to individual housing, so why should on-reserve First Nations be excluded from the benefits? There are MANY bands out there that are experimenting with private housing.
I wanted to ask Greyeyes whether or not he felt that if a First Nation person owned their own house they were somehow less indigenous than someone who did not.. I think this is the crux of the issue. Certain indigenous activists like Greyeyes have this pre-conceived, deterministic image of what an Indian is and has to include ideas of collective land ownership. There is no room for change in their view. I wonder what this means for urban Aboriginals who own their own home? What about the New Zealand Maori who do not live on reserves and live in cities? Are they not indigenous?
The bottom line for me is does a system work or not.. And if it does work, why can it not work for everybody? Why would the benefits of capitalism all of a sudden stop working for Indians? Because there is some magical force that makes indigenous people so much different than anybody else?
I like to compare it to technology. When one particular society comes up with a great new invention or new labour-saving technology, we do not obsess over where it came from, like we do with certain ideas. This whole "I can't support this because it is Western or Eurocentric and we are indigenous" argument is very unconvincing and silly. When we invent new technologies, we allow all humanity to benefit from it, regardless of their background or culture. The same can be said for conceptions of individual human rights or the free market.
Are they good ideas or not? If so, why are they applicable to some groups and not others. I am not arguing we should impose ideas on people, but I feel that the truth or utility of something can be verified empirically irrespective of its origins.
I argue that First Nations should embrace individual rights and capitalism because I believe fundamentally it will create the conditions to stop group oppression and in the case of capitalism, it will enlarge their material conditions which will allow them to prosper.
Please tell me why arguing for this is evil..

Friday, July 31, 2009

Being called an "assimilationist" seems to be one of the worst criticisms levelled by certain First Nation activists. I have been called such by one blogger. I was accused of being a part of the "assimilationist" crowd.
The problem is I do not really understand this criticism. Most First Nation people have become integrated into the Canadian Western mainstream over the last several generations. This does not mean they have forgotten their languages, their history or do not practice some form of indigenous spirituality.
This means they have integrated to some degree into the market economy (they buy things from non-Aboriginal businesses, they do not all engage in traditional subsistence economic activities, like hunting, trapping and fishing). This also means they have adopted some mainstream values as their own. This also in most instances means they do not dress or necessarily act as their ancestors did.
But, this is all a part of the natural, inevitable process of cultural contact. European societies all changed as they encountered different peoples and value streams.
In the words of the post-modernist, let's "deconstruct" or "unpack" this concept of "assimiliation." In the way that indigenous critics use it, it is as term of derision for someone who has adopted European ways. But, as I explained above, this is illogical as ALL indigenous peoples (with the exception of the most remote Inuit or First Nations) have "assimilated" to some degree. This is the case of the pot calling the kettle black. I mean, I always find it funny, that these Native Studies-types criticize others for being "assimilationist" when they are part of a "colonialist," white-initiated university system.
Here is my view: Everyone has a right to retain their culture and be proud of it. I have never told an indigenous person to forget their roots, to abandon their language or even encourage them to move off the reserve.
My only concern is with values. I make no bones about it, I don't accept the notion that all cultural values or practices are equal. Some practices in our modern context are downright despicable. When I call for First Nations to respect a regime of individual rights, that may mean some practices have to go. I believe individual rights must include the right to dissociate yourself from a community. Thinkers like Taiaiake Alfred define freedom for indigenous peoples, but only freedom as connected to one's place within indigenous community (this is how I read his arguments in his good book Wasase). I believe you can accept that, but it is not necessary. There must be space for all First Nations to view themselves as humans first and foremost. I say the same thing for my own French-Canadian heritage. I am a human deserving of certain rights and then a member of a community, which I can associate with or not associate with.
This is why I argue that the rights of the individual need to be fleshed out BEFORE self-government arrangements are figured out. Why? Because I think without that, you exchange one form of oppression for another. You go from being under the subjection of the Indian Act and under oppressive chiefs, to under a self-governing system where you still have oppressive chiefs. You need to figure out the package of rights for all citizens first. I also believe accountability measures need to be figured out now before the great self-government experiment. Ultimately, I think that is best for indigenous communities.
So, I do not accept the label of "assimilationist." I am a human rights advocate over a cultural advocate. Let people practice their culture, language and religion as they see fit, but do not use any of those things as a cover for individual oppression.
'Nuff said.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Simpson column on Aboriginal education

Excellent column yesterday in the Globe and Mail about First Nations and the education system. Jeffrey Simpson, in lauding recently-elected AFN head Shawn Atleo, discusses the challenges in closing the gap between Aboriginal Canadians and the mainstream when it comes to education. Read it here: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/atleo-sets-an-example-for-indian-education-reform/article1232880/

Some interesting points. Simpson challenges the traditional AFN call for more funding for First Nation education. Yes, there is a funding gap as far as we can see and it should be dealt with. Anything less is discriminatory. But, Simpson raises important points about other factors that place First Nations behind, such as living in an isolated reserve enviroment. There are also issues of how much parental involvement one has in their education and the how much community and family value formal education. Those aspects would need to change as much as per capita education funding.
Simpson also points to the amazing role model that Atleo would be as an accomplished educator in B.C. He earned his master of education and gave a high ranking to education in his AFN platform. I think education is absolutely critical for First Nations, but I would add the priviso that it depends on what First Nations are being educated in.
At the recent AFN annual general meeting, I heard an excellent talk from a representative with the Aboriginal Financial Officers Association. He mentioned the problem being that indigenous youth all wanted to go into law, social work or another similar field, whereas the needs on reserves are in financial managers (self-serving to his point but nonetheless spot on). This lack of capacity could explain what become financial impropriety. I would add to his list entrepreneurs and business leaders. First Nation parents should encourage their children to go into these useful roles, as these are the true "nation building" functions.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The debate over the representative nature of the AFN continues.
One blogger named Shmohawk thinks that it is a travesty to even consider one member, one vote for the AFN.
His big argument is, "The AFN has never been an organization of individual status Indians." Profound, eh?
Of course, not having a history of being representative must mean it must forever be that way. Shmohawk is one of those indigenous activists who believe that indigenous culture must never change.
To add more fun to the discussion, Shmohawk compares the AFN to a national union: "The AFN’s structure is closer to that of a national union, like CUPE, for instance. The union’s membership in a local (say Local 233) vote for a local representative, much like band members vote in band council elections.Local reps may then elect regional or provincial representatives, similar to the way in which John Beaucage was elected to head up one of the regional Indian organizations in Ontario."

And then he goes on:

"Local and regional union reps then get to select the national executive for CUPE. (Correct me here, but I don’t believe every member has a direct vote for national president of CUPE.) Similarly, every now and then, the chiefs cluster to select a new head of their national organization, the AFN. It was never meant to be a “one member, one vote” system."

Of course, all of these theorizing ignores the AFN's own Renewal Commission of 2005 which called for a change in the AFN's internal structure, including a move towards a one member, one vote system.
One of my good indigenous friends, Annette Cyr, has even provided some excellent other suggestions, such as referenda at the band level, so that at least the chief is voting for who the average people want.
People like Shmohawk do not understand the difference between what things were intended to be and what they could become.
No one argues the AFN is an indigneous government. It does not have governmental powers. It is a registered lobby group. But, if it affects the national Aboriginal agenda and sways legislation that affects the lives of everyday indigenous people, don't those people have a say?
Especially if their chief does not consult with the membership on who they should vote as national chief, this institution needs to be reformed.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

New AFN national chief

So, Shawn Atleo will be the new national chief of the AFN. This is what many expected, but most did not expect the long, protracted battle to get there for him. It is also the case Atleo did not even obtain the required 60 per cent threshold. I think he ended up receiving 58 per cent of the vote, which prompted Bellegarde to concede defeat.
Some thoughts on Atleo. He is a younger, polished, telegenic candidate with an eye towards working with Ottawa and he is committed to working with the private sector to lift First Nations out of poverty. He would likely be eager to reach deals with natural resource companies developing FN traditional territories. This might get him into conflict with some more ardent traditionalists.
Some disappoints with him, for me, would be his avoidance of the band-level accountability issues. His own campaign website says that First Nation leaders face "unfounded assertions" of lack of accountability. This is avoiding the problems that are so obvious as to defy the imagination. This is part and parcel of the chiefs-only system. Atleo cannot attack the chiefs that select him.
This brings me to the second major issue which is AFN reform. John Beaucage from Ontario was the only candidate who openly discussed changing the national chief selection process to make it more representative and open. It was disheartening that he did such a poor showing on the first ballot.
Some people point to some undemocratic aspects of the mainstream non-Aboriginal political system when I bring this up. They mention that prime ministers and premiers are chosen at party conventions by delegates. But, I counter that by mentioning that at least those delegates are grassroots Canadians. Second, at least every Canadians has the chance to vote for a local candidate who indirectly impacts who the prime minister will be.
Pointing to the un-democratic aspects of the mainstream system does not change the reality that the AFN system is even MORE undemocratic than the mainstream in so many ways. The AFN race can be compared to a leadership convention where only leaders are welcome and then it ends there. At least in the mainstream, all candidates for PM face general election, and after all, many voters base their local selection based on their perception of the national leader they want as PM.
Anyways, Atleo ignored the AFN's own 2005 Renewal Commissison report which called for one-member, one vote.
Lastly, I am worried Atleo will end up opposing any governmental efforts or legislation that will improve the lives of average indigenous people. His commitment to a rights-based agenda is fine, it is means standing up for treaty resolution and supporting constitutional rights, but it should be taken so far as to hide behind self-government rhetoric every time Ottawa moves to engage FNs in progressive reform.
Also, Atleo is a BC leader where treaties are being negotiated in a modern context. One thoughtful reporter friend of mine mentioned that this may make Atleo more amenable to negotiations and new ways of thinking. Let's hope so!

Monday, July 20, 2009

I though it was funny to hear Phil Fontaine on CBC's The National last night actually defending the undemocratic and anachronistic system of electing the national chief.
Here is my favourite.. The national chief is selected by chiefs who are in turn elected by their communities, so it must be democratic.
Well, in my years as an editor at an Aboriginal newspaper and my experience traveling to over 30 First Nation communities I have never heard of an Indian Act chief consulting his or her community about who he/she should pick for national chief. It doesn't happen.
The chief-only system is a secret, backroom affair.
I am not saying that the AFN itself is legitimate, but if FNs want it to exist, it must be more representative. As it is, with chiefs only, there will be never even be a debate over whether or not to move away from the AFN system.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The race to succeed Phil Fontaine will be an interesting one! The field is wide open and there is no obvious successor to the previous incumbent.
Although reports point to Shawn Atleo as the "frontrunner," I am hoping that the contest becomes more competitive.
While I believe the AFN needs to be reformed (let grassroots reserve people vote) and I do question its legitimacy as the "sole representative of all First Nations people," I think as long as it exists in its present form, we should pay attention, as it sets the national agenda on FN issues.
Perry Bellegarde has been endorsed by one First Nation columnist in the Calgary Herald because he is seen as very experienced and is traditional, but not overtly so.
My personal preference is John Beaucage. His calls for increased private home ownership for First Nations and economic development are what is needed to build indigenous prosperity.
He is also big on asserting First Nation jurisdictional authority. I think he does this in a smart way, as he wants to negotiate control over certain areas of control. He doesn't appear to be confrontational with Ottawa. He's an economist, for heaven's sake! I think it was Fontaine's ability to compromise and negotiatate that allowed for progress on the residential school file.
Anyways, I am open to any and all thoughts about the contest! I will at the AGM on July 22nd and will be blogging from the convention floor while there..

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Nisga'a Property Rights Issue

I was interviewed last night on a Calgary talk radio station AM 770 about my recent piece on Nisga'a property rights that appeared in the Globe and Mail.
Here is the copy posted on Troy Media: http://www.troymedia.com/NewsBeats/The_Health_and_LifeStyle_News_Beat/2009/07/FCPP070909.htm
The issue of property rights on First Nation communities is a sensitive one, as many critics try to argue that any move in this direction is an attempt to "dispossess" indigenous people of their traditional territories or to turn it over to developers.
I received one response from an activist named Lisa Barrett from British Columbia. She attacked my piece, arguing that I was really being "cynically opportunistic."
These arguments are silly given that they are based on cynicism and lack of evidence. Assuming there is a developer hiding behind every proposal is conspiracy-laden, and in the case of the Nisga'a, silly given that the proposals are First Nation-driven. The proposed legislation involves small o.5 hectare (half an acre) residential lots. The Nisga'a government will still have legislative authority to regulate land use, so these schemes to whole-sale dispossess First Nations are impossible.
During my interview, I raised the crucial issue of whether First Nations should have a right to take risks and be responsible for choices just like the rest of us. This legislation does propose giving lenders the right of seizure if loans are defaulted. That is part of the attraction to lenders and investors. They need these assurances that they can recoup on their investments.
Like any other citizen, indigenous people would learn the responsibilities associated with home and land ownership. I think the Nisga'a government is being very wise in educating their public about what this all means.
With freedom comes responsibility. With the chance for progress, there is risk.
This proposal is voluntary, meaning the Nisga'a government offers you transferable rights to the property you have a Nisga'a entitlement to. You can decline the offer and the land remains under the ownership of the Nisga'a Village Governments.
I think the best part of this proposal, if it is eventually passed and they are debating it, is that indigenous people would get to see how private property really works and see the benefits and the responsibilities.
This is far from a proposal, like the Dawes Act in the United States, that saw the federal government divide up large lots to individuals, without any real effort at educating the masses on property ownership. That WAS a transparent attempt to dispossess indigenous people. But, it is not the model we should follow in Canada.
If the Nisga'a property experiment works, it would be a model for all First Nations. The best thing Ottawa could do would be to amend the Indian Act and give all Indian Acts ownership of their land. Then, they could provide it to individuals. Indigenous governments would be empowered to ensure that the indigenous groups retain ultimate ownership to their land through land use regulations and other powers.