The Sound and the Fury of Indian Politicians

WHILE THE POLITICAL theatre of a possible meeting of some vague nature between the Prime Minister of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations strutted the national stage, I thought of a few lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 59:

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d,
Which, labouring for invention bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child!

Here Shakespeare adverts to the jaded teacher Qoheleth, the narrative persona of Ecclesiastes who observes that there is nothing new under the sun. How true, and in ways I mean to specify a little further on.

A “second burthen of a former child” nicely catches the relationship of January 2013’s Crown-First Nations gathering to a similar meeting a year ago, but it’s the bit about beguiled brains and their labouring for invention which is my present subject. That surely describes the attempts of columnists this week to bear a viable solution to the problems in Indian country, or the Indian Problem, as such things came to be known in the 1830s.

The ephemera of this week will recede into the fog of news cycles past, but as has been the case in Canada since the early 1800s, an impasse will obtain. Column space will be ceded to debates and proposals familiar to Egerton Ryerson. Today the way forward is most commonly apprehended as the assertion that all people are equal, and that claims to special rights or standing within Canada ought to be repudiated and nullified. One nation, one law, one people.

In the 1840s Ryerson thought exposure to Christian civilization would perform the trick, but by Confederation a more coercive stick-and-carrot approach was felt necessary. Canada participated in the numbered treaty negotiations (carrot) and established a mounted police force and an Indian Act (stick). The historical record discloses that by 1880 all the clever people anticipated the disappearance of Indians within a generation.

Polite conversation tip-toes however around the impasse which is at the heart of Canada’s national project. The unmentionable fact is that, to be successful, the routinely recommended integrationist programs would require a focused, sustained and extraordinarily coercive legislative campaign in which the threat and perhaps even use of military force would necessarily figure.

Consider the to-do list that would have to be drawn up: repeal the Indian Act and related legislation, abolish Section 35 of the Constitution Act, organize and undertake the forced relocation of communities deemed untenable, dismantle the band-and-council system, reconstitute the remaining reserves as municipalities, and (further to this reconstitution) place these municipalities under an interim authority, imposing the policing presence necessary to keep the order. Is it surprising that a politician would prefer an ad-hoc, incremental measure to the grand scheme?

Over twenty years ago I worked at a hospital which treated many Mushkegowuk Cree, including patients transferred south from Attawapiskat. I had many discussions with community folks about life in the north, both the good and the bad. A number of them had, like my own family, left a place of grim prospects to seek a better life. I know from experience that it’s not only the brains of columnists that are beguiled: native people struggle every day with the bread-and butter challenges that from time to time appear in the Main Street news.

I’ve now been to dozens of communities and it’s clear to me there is no broad consensus in Indian Country about the way forward. The discussion among the ordinary folks however is at turns passionate, complex, messy, candid, lively, maddening, surprising, smart, practical and unrelenting. It’s a great misfortune that the tired and familiar scripts of the career politician suck up all the oxygen in this country. Not that “the grassroots” are themselves heroic and enlightened. Far from it. It’s more the case that the people are their own best and only hope or their own worst enemies, and that a commitment must be made concerning which it’s going to be. I look forward to the leader or activist possessing sufficient courage to pose the matter in these terms. That would be something new under the sun.

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