Which Abo­rig­i­nal ‘Age of Aquarius’ will pre­vail?

Pierre’s tough love or Justin’s ide­al­is­tic vi­sion?


For­mer PMs Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chre­tien were ar­dent sup­port­ers of a pan-Cana­dian iden­tity, not un­like that of Sir John A. Macdonald.

That is, they had the stated goal of a sin­gle Cana­dian iden­tity that would unify all the play­ers, Abo­rig­i­nal and non-Abo­rig­i­nal alike.

Trudeau’s ap­proach, called the “White Pa­per” in 1969, pre­cip­i­tated a huge back­lash and or­ga­nized cam­paign by many of Canada’s pu­ta­tive Indige­nous peo­ples, who felt threat­ened once again by white colo­nial­ists.

With that move­ment gain­ing mo­men­tum and other is­sues on their plates, Trudeau and Chre­tien, his then min­is­ter of what at the time was the depart­ment of In­dian Af­fairs and North­ern Devel­op­ment, grudg­ingly ca­pit­u­lated.

The nascent Assem­bly of First Na­tions drove that cam­paign be­cause there was an op­por­tu­nity to build a na­tion-wide or­ga­ni­za­tion at the time that would cap­ture the com­mu­nity’s imag­i­na­tion.

While cur­rent PM Justin Trudeau thinks he can suc­ceed where his fa­ther failed, it is worth­while to dili­gently re­flect on Pro­fes­sor Frances Wid­dow­son’s per­spec­tive and opinion on the mo­tives of the Abo­rig­i­nal Rights move­ment.

The de­tailed analysis in her book, Dis­rob­ing the Abo­rig­i­nal In­dus­try – The De­cep­tion be­hind Indige­nous Cul­tural Preser­va­tion, painstak­ingly dis­sects and probes the is­sue with an au­topsy-like rigour.

These ex­cerpts cap­ture the essence of her views.

In her in­tro­duc­tion, Wid­dow­son re­veals “an event (in 1996) that would dra­mat­i­cally al­ter our per­cep­tion of abo­rig­i­nal pol­icy in Canada.”

That was the Fed­eral En­vi­ron­men­tal As­sess­ment Re­view of Bro­ken Hill Prop­er­ties (BHP) Inc.’s pro­posed di­a­mond mine in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries.

Four ex­perts were tasked with prob­ing the ini­tia­tive’s im­pli­ca­tions.

The panel di­rected BHP to give “full and equal con­sid­er­a­tion” to Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples’ “tra­di­tional knowl­edge” in the im­pacts of the pro­posed mine. Tra­di­tional knowl­edge (TK) had be­come

a buzz­word in abo­rig­i­nal and en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy — es­pe­cially af­ter the govern­ment of the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries de­vel­oped an un­prece­dented “Tra­di­tional Knowl­edge Pol­icy” di­rect­ing govern­ment em­ploy­ees to in­cor­po­rate TK into all govern­ment pro­grams and ser­vices. TK was de­fined as “knowl­edge and val­ues which have been ac­quired through ex­pe­ri­ence, ob­ser­va­tion, from the land or from spir­i­tual teach­ings, and handed down from one gen­er­a­tion to an­other.” TK was to be con­sid­ered a “val­ued and es­sen­tial source of in­for­ma­tion” since Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples “had lived in close con­tact with their en­vi­ron­ment for thou­sands of years.” Wid­dow­son said these events, “in­ad­ver­tently un­cov­ered the subterfuge” and “the ex­ten­sive chi­canery” that was “only the tip of the ice­berg” of prob­lems af­flict­ing abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties. As she con­tin­ued: “Fur­ther­more, the so­lu­tions touted for abo­rig­i­nal de­pri­va­tion — the de­vo­lu­tion of con­trol to abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties them­selves — has re­sulted in a large amount of cor­rup­tion, where pow­er­ful fam­i­lies siphon off most of the re­sources while the ma­jor­ity re­main mired in poverty and so­cial dys­func­tion. Priv­i­leged lead­ers live in lux­ury and are paid huge salaries while most abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple rely on so­cial as­sis­tance.”

Wid­dow­son’s view is grounded in his­tor­i­cal ma­te­ri­al­ism which con­tends that eco­nomic progress “re­quires so­cial­iz­ing own­er­ship so that goods and ser­vices are pro­duced not to ob­tain prof­its but to sat­isfy hu­man need.”

She felt a “crit­i­cal eye rather than a bleed­ing heart” is needed be­cause “ad­dress­ing the abo­rig­i­nal ques­tion en­tails its root causes” — “ed­u­ca­tional de­fi­cien­cies, de­pen­dency and dys­func­tion that cur­rently plague the na­tive pop­u­la­tion.”

Wid­dow­son’s per­spec­tive is tan­gen­tially echoed by a re­cent C. D. Howe re­port en­ti­tled “Clos­ing Indige­nous Skills Gaps Key to Fu­ture Suc­cess,” which ex­am­ines the fac­tors in de­tail, con­clud­ing that “a thriv­ing Canada must see ev­ery­one ben­e­fit from eco­nomic progress. This means en­sur­ing a pros­per­ous fu­ture for Indige­nous peo­ple.”

So, which “Age of Aquarius” — Pierre’s tough love or Justin’s ide­al­is­tic vi­sion — will pre­vail? Re­gret­tably, Justin’s ha­bit­ual ig­no­rance and self-right­eous grand­stand­ing ten­den­cies, for ex­am­ple his en­fee­ble­ment of the Cit­i­zen­ship test, pan­der­ing to Is­lamists, and pay­ing lip ser­vice to “Indige­nous” rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, with­out be­ing pre­pared to do the hard work and tough ne­go­ti­at­ing it re­quires, pre­clude op­ti­mism.

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