Aboriginal Identity and the Apology

The courts in Canada spend considerable energy searching old treaties and
laws affecting Indians and other aboriginal peoples, some going back to the
era of French and British rule in North America in the seventeenth century.
They consider oral traditions from before the arrival of Europeans. Their
objective is come up with a “list” of features that defined the First
Nations “from of old,” “from time immemorial.” The result is often very
satisfactory for bands that want to extend their fishing, hunting, and
logging privileges. But we know that there are proud members of particular
bands who think that living a traditional life is too confining. They want
to redefine their community and nation in ways that will honour tradition
and history but also free them to participate fully in the politics, the
economy, and the life of the arts and sciences in North America. And why

A scholar like Jeremy Webber (Reimagining Canada, 1994) would say that what
defines aboriginal peoples today is not so much the tradition as the
discussion about tradition. A band is defined by its on-going dialogue about
retaining, or redefining, or discarding aspects of the old ways. Its identity
includes disagreements about recourse to the courts and a variety of
opinions about particular judicial decisions.

To ask “who are we?” suffices, or very nearly suffices to give a definition
to the “we.” Well! Could be. Webber might be right; it’s fun to play around
with his ideas.

One problem is that the “we” is constantly interacting with outsiders. A
people seeking to define itself asks to be let alone, or just as often, more
often, demands “recognition” in law and material rewards. The literature on
demand for recognition is huge; Canadians excel in this field; we are
constantly turning out books on the subject, often good ones. Charles Taylor
comes powerfully to mind, and with him the long history of the idea in
European thought from Rousseau to Hegel.

At any rate there can be no definition of the First Nations without
considering how the rest of Canada sees them. And I will bold1y say that
non-aboriginals have seen the original peoples in two ways. (Blogging
encourages outrageous generalizations; goodbye academic wish and wash.) To
illustrate the first view I’ll cite the Anglican Bishop of the Artic,
Christopher Williams, who argues that the residential schools were necessary
and helpful (National Post, May 19, 2001).“Without them the government would
be guilty of the same sins as the architects of apartheid in South Africa
… If the people had been left on the land living their old precarious way
of life, feast and famine, they would have been bypassed by the twentieth
century and all the great blessings they and we now enjoy. What was the
alternative? Would it not have been abuse to deny the Inuit and Indian
people a place in that modern lifestyle we all enjoy as Canadians?”

In a good and necessary speech, Mr. Harper apologized for the sufferings
endured by children in those schools. I will say only that the establishment
of the schools in no way implied that the youngsters in them were not the
equals of Europeans in natural ability, dignity, and entitlement. The
schools embodied the Enlightenment perspective that there are no superior

The second attitude prevails today. It is Romantic, in the line of thought
that originated in Europe in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. It
admires the particular over the universal, what is original over what is
progressive. It left us, for one thing, with that marvellous phrase, the
“noble savage.”  The Romantic cast of mind rejects Bishop Williams’ argument
because it assumes that North America’s first peoples want the same kind of
things that “southern white Canadians” want, and because it does not see
that the way of life followed by southern white Canadians is cripplingly
deficient and inferior to the aboriginal way.

A perfect description of the Romantic view is found in Michael S.
Whittington’s article, “Canada’s North in the Eighties,” in Michael S.
Whittington and Glen Williams eds., Canadian Politics in the 1980s, a
collection of essays intended for university students at the introductory
level. The book was widely used; it shaped the thinking of a generation.

From the 1981 edition: “Indians and Inuit placed a far higher value on the
collectivity, or upon the community.” “The sharing ethic and the replacement
of the liberal notion of private ownership with the shared inherent right of
individuals to use a resource are nowhere more prominent than in the native
concept of the land.” “The native peoples feel a mystic ‘oneness’ with the
land.” “An extension of the ‘sharing’ ethic described above, when transposed
into the political context – the right of all members of a community to
express their views and to have an influence on the decisions that affect
them – is an ancient and deeply rooted political value.” “Native leadership
is functional because the choice of leader in any given situation depends
upon who is best suited to lead in that particular circumstance.” “The
natives use the resources of the land but they do not permanently alienate
any of its wealth.”

My students loved this chapter. They admired the aboriginals it describes
and they gratefully absorbed the central thesis, that there is something
profoundly less admirable about the “southern white Canadian” way of doing
politics. (“Southern white Canadian” is Whittington’s phrase.)

Do we owe the First Nations an apology for attributing to them this Romantic
straitjacket of a political culture? We fitted them up as noble savages. Do
we owe our students of the 1980s and 1990s an apology?

Further reading on Romantic political and cultural thought in North America:
an oldy-but-goldy! Morton and Lucia White, eds, The Intellectual Versus the
(Mentor, 1962). It offers descriptions of Franklin, Crevecoeur,
Jefferson, Emerson, Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Henry Adams, Henry James,
William Dean Howells, Frank Norris, William James, Jane Addams, John Dewey
Frank Lloyd Wright among others on “why our cities have been the traditional
object of prejudice, fear and distrust.”

There’s nothing about Canadian cities. Pity, eh? But as I’ve said so often
Canada seldom figures on the world map of ideas.

1 Response to “Aboriginal Identity and the Apology”

  1. 1 Oona July 9, 2008 at 10:10 am

    I was quite surprised to hear, a few weeks ago, that the Toronto school board was planning to open an all black school. Apparently they have the idea that the mixed schools aren’t adequately addressing the needs of black kids or the needs of their community. It seems to me that they’ve learned nothing from the residential schools, since in addition to having their problems — i.e. ingrained application of lower standards — these new schools will also do what the residential schools were, according to the Christopher Willliams fellow you cite, designed *not* to do, i.e. exacerbate segregation and prejudice.

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