Con­ver­sa­tion starter

Indige­nous his­to­ri­ans of­fer valu­able in­sights on Canada’s past. It’s time to lis­ten to them.

Canada's History - - CHRISTOPHER MOORE - Christo­pher Moore com­ments in ev­ery is­sue of Canada’s His­tory.

Who gets to de­fine Cana­dian his­tory? Last May, Cana­dian writ­ers took sides in a pas­sion­ate de­bate about “ap­pro­pri­a­tion of voice.” Nov­el­ists and jour­nal­ists in­sisted on their free­dom to write what­ever they pleased. They said free­dom of speech was in peril.

This de­bate about ap­pro­pri­at­ing the voices of marginal­ized peo­ple also ur­gently con­cerns Cana­dian his­tory and his­to­ri­ans.

In May, I also read On­tario Pre­mier Kath­leen Wynne’s leaked warn­ing to the nine chiefs of the Matawa First Na­tions in far-north­west­ern On­tario. The prov­ince could de­lay no longer, Wynne said, on an all-weather road to give min­ing com­pa­nies ac­cess to the so-called “Ring of Fire,” an area of the James Bay Low­lands rich in chromite and nickel. If the chiefs, as a group, would not agree to her “weeks, not months” timetable (Wynne faces an elec­tion in 2018), the prov­ince would ne­go­ti­ate in­di­vid­u­ally with those na­tions who want the project.

Wynne’s state­ment was just one small in­ci­dent in a long strug­gle, and I am no ex­pert on these mat­ters. Like most On­tar­i­ans, I have never been near the Ring of Fire.

But even from south­ern On­tario, I know enough about the his­tory of Treaty 9, the one that cov­ers north­ern On­tario, to know that when the First Na­tions there — like oth­ers else­where — agreed to share that land, they in­tended to run their own af­fairs and to con­trol the re­sources vi­tal to their sur­vival. They did not au­tho­rize min­ing roads to be built by out­siders with­out lo­cal con­sent.

That was not a his­tory that Wynne and her team seemed to know at all.

Re­cently, I talked with David Paul Ach­neepineskum. He has worked on self­gov­ern­ment and re­source is­sues since he was a kid at Marten Falls on On­tario’s Al­bany River. To­day he is CEO of the coun­cil of chiefs in the Ring of Fire re­gion. After forty years of ef­fort, he says, “there is no knowl­edge! Even at the govern­ment level, with se­nior bu­reau­crats and mid­dle man­age­ment, there is ab­so­lutely no knowl­edge of treaties. So there is no will at the po­lit­i­cal level to talk about treaties.”

Canada has com­mit­ted it­self to fol­low­ing the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion, but real progress on rec­on­cil­i­a­tion de­pends on Indige­nous peo­ple be­ing able to run their own af­fairs and to con­trol the re­sources to make that pos­si­ble. “We are all treaty peo­ple,” First Na­tions lead­ers say. But many non-Indige­nous Cana­di­ans, even ones in po­si­tions of power, hardly seem to have heard that mes­sage.

There is a pro­found chal­lenge for his­tory and his­to­ri­ans here. Many fine his­tor­i­cal schol­ars study Indige­nous is­sues in Cana­dian his­tory. Jim Mil­lar, Sarah Carter, and Arthur Ray come to mind, as do Indige­nous schol­ars such as Blair Stonechild and Ge­orges Sioui.

Ma­te­ri­als are at hand via which we can in­form our­selves about treaty re­la­tion­ships, res­i­den­tial schools, vi­o­lence against Indige­nous women, and other vi­tal public pol­icy ques­tions. Canada’s His­tory mag­a­zine in­cludes more Indige­nous his­tory now than ever, while last fall’s Canada’s His­tory Fo­rum fo­cused on Indige­nous his­tory in part­ner­ship with the Na­tional Cen­tre for Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. But Wynne’s re­cent state­ment sug­gests un­der­stand­ing of these vi­tal ques­tions is hardly wide­spread.

So are jour­nal­ists and nov­el­ists — and his­to­ri­ans — free to write what we please?

We are. But ex­pe­ri­ence sug­gests that free­dom to imag­ine “In­di­ans” has mostly given us what his­to­rian Daniel Fran­cis has called “The Imag­i­nary In­dian.” We need more Indige­nous his­tory of Canada. It will be more pow­er­ful and more per­sua­sive when more of it is re­searched, writ­ten, and pre­sented by Indige­nous his­to­ri­ans — schol­ars who know their own tra­di­tions and is­sues.

‘There is no knowl­edge! Even at the govern­ment level ... there is ab­so­lutely no knowl­edge of treaties.’ — David Paul Ach­neepineskum

Former Fort Hope First Na­tion Chief Char­lie Okeese looks over the min­ing claims for the Ring of Fire project.

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