Nominated for the Donner Book Prize

 

Tom Flanagan, Christopher Alcantara and André Le Dressay, with foreword by C.T. (Manny) Jules, Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights (McGill-Queen’s University Press).

I read the book in manuscript. Here’s how I described it:

The argument convincingly shows what must be done to alleviate poverty and the wretched housing conditions on Indian reservations. I cannot recommend publication too strongly.

In brief, the book makes the case for escaping the Indian Act by developing and extending the First Nations Land Title Recognition Act, a measure already in effect in some jurisdictions, which gives First Nations access to modern, effective property rights while enabling them to retain their autonomy and institutions of self-government. The authors convincingly situate this progressive innovation in the context of Aboriginal economic history from before the first millennium, and – this may be the most important feature of the book – show that the idea for the First Nations Land Title Recognition Act originated in the political thinking and experience of First Nations’ leaders, has been developed and is still being developed by them, and can be put into practice in the First Nations by First Nations governments.

Thanks in large part to Tom Flanagan’s prior book, First Nations, Second Thoughts, Canadians are ready to conclude that the Indian Act, which on a generous interpretation was intended to protect Aboriginals and to preserve their independence, has failed dismally on both counts and far from promoting the welfare of Canada’s original peoples is contributing to continuing poverty. But there is a general feeling of hopelessness. It is widely believed that there is no remedy for the wretched conditions. I have heard this note from serious speakers at several conferences. I have said it myself. At a recent talk I argued that the impoverishment of Aboriginals is the greatest blot on Canada’s record, and one that we do not know how to correct. No one responded by saying: well, but surely there is this prospect, or surely there is that legislation pending. At a conference sponsored some years ago by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, individual speakers and members of the audience cited approaches, programs, courses, sources of funds; some boasted of modest successes. Nothing was said to suggest that there is a way to circumscribe the India Act; none confidently advanced a remedy for the collective poverty. The Frontier Institute recommends pan Canadian elections to the Assembly of Nations, a worthy idea it may be, but not one that will suffice to bring about the necessary revolution. In Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard argue that the Indian Act enriches some individuals and groups at the expense of others. But the strength of their book lies in the analysis. They do not propose a believable remedy.

To repeat: the signal feature of this book is that it proposes credible means to escape the Indian Act, and credibly locates the crucial decision-making powers for making the escape – including the choice whether to make it – at the level of the First Nations governments. Beyond the Indian Act marks an important advance in Flanagan’s thinking. As he himself notes, First Nations, Second Thoughts called for action “at the top,” that is, by Canadian governments. It thus paradoxically reinforced notions of Aboriginal dependence in the course of making the case for independence. In the scheme described in this book, the crucial decisions will come from “the bottom.”

The argument develops seamlessly. There is an engaging Introduction by Chief Manny Jules (who also has the last word in the book). Each of the succeeding three Parts is introduced by a brief, helpful preface. In Part One, Flanagan sketches a history of Aboriginal perceptions of individual and collective ownership, reminding us that the intention of the First Nations Land Title Recognition Act is not to impose assimilation on Aboriginals, but to restore their property rights. In Part Two, Christopher Alcantara shows how present modes of securing title to land on the reserves (Certificates of Possession, Customary Land Rights, etc.) inhibit the individual’s autonomy and way of life, making sustained development of communities expensive and uncertain. The research is exceptional and the stories are well told. The way is thus prepared for the crucial argument of Part Three in which André Le Dressay describes the search for the measures that are taking shape as the First Nations Land Title Recognition Act.

The book’s over-all tone is admirable; it does not deride other authors or cast blame. It is realistic, positive, and conveys a sense of purpose and hopefulness.

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