Indigenous ter­ri­to­ries help de­fine First Na­tions


Ac­cord­ing to Pa­trick Mas­coe’s re­cent col­umn Ac­tion, not in­sin­cer­ity, what’s owed First Na­tions (Oct. 29), ac­knowl­edg­ing Indigenous ter­ri­to­ries is a mean­ing­less, pa­tron­iz­ing ges­ture that only has the “power to erase white guilt and re­store Indigenous pride.” Backed by the opin­ion of an Al­go­nquin scholar and sound bites from the prime min­is­ter, Mas­coe notes that ac­tions, not words, are the only way to achieve rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. As such, ac­knowl­edg­ing Indigenous ter­ri­to­ries is only adding to the prob­lem First Na­tions peo­ple face in this coun­try.

Mas­coe is cor­rect in crit­i­ciz­ing the hyp­o­crit­i­cal and mean­ing­less rhetoric of Canadian gov­ern­ments, but in com­pletely dis­re­gard­ing his part in the in­jus­tices faced by Indigenous Peo­ples, he misses the sig­nif­i­cance of ter­ri­to­rial ac­knowl­edge­ments. If oth­ers like Mas­coe be­lieve land ac­knowl­edge­ments are empty, then we should give them substance by em­body­ing Indigenous le­gal tra­di­tions.

It is true ter­ri­to­rial ac­knowl­edge­ments have ex­isted for hun­dreds (if not thou­sands) of years. They did not, how­ever, ex­ist for the sake of ac­knowl­edg­ment. In­stead, they were a part of a broader le­gal sys­tem that up­held ter­ri­to­rial or­ders and re­spected the au­ton­omy of dis­tinct na­tions. Ge­orges Sioui, a Huron-Wen­dat his­to­rian and philoso­pher, has out­lined in his pub­li­ca­tions the re­spect given to ter­ri­to­rial rights by Indigenous Peo­ples re­gard­less of how strong — or weak — the in­hab­i­tants were. Land ac­knowl­edge­ments then, were (and are) the means to up­hold the ter­ri­to­rial rights of dis­tinct na­tions. This prin­ci­ple was em­bed­ded within in­ter-na­tional treaty pro­cesses that ex­isted long be­fore the ar­rival of set­tlers. Even Lynn Gehl, the Al­go­nquin scholar whom Mas­coe uses to jus­tify his opin­ion, also writes about these treaty pro­cesses, which she calls “wampum diplo­macy.”

But who cares? After all, Mas­coe doesn’t “owe any­one an apol­ogy” nor has he “ever taken any­one’s land.” Yet this type of at­ti­tude sweeps the con­tin­ued dis­pos­ses­sion of Indigenous Peo­ples from Indigenous lands un­der the rug. Land dis­pos­ses­sion is what Indigenous Peo­ple speak of when they speak of colo­nial­ism.

And the colo­nial pro­ject is still alive and well in Canada. For ex­am­ple, the over-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Indigenous peo­ple in Canada’s prisons per­sists de­spite an over­all drop in in­car­cer­a­tion rates. Ad­di­tion­ally, 52 per cent of chil­dren younger than 15 in the foster care sys­tem are Indigenous. In late 2017, Jane Philpott, Indigenous Ser­vices Min­is­ter, said the over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Indigenous chil­dren in the foster care sys­tem is “very much rem­i­nis­cent of the res­i­den­tial school sys­tem where chil­dren are be­ing scooped up from their homes, (and) taken away from their fam­ily.”

I speak to this not to en­act guilt on a Canadian set­tler-state so­ci­ety, but to show that sys­tems of dis­pos­ses­sion are still ac­tive to­day. Peo­ple can­not care for their ter­ri­to­ries if they are locked up or taken away from their homes, and Canada has ad­mit­ted its fault in the up­keep of these sys­tems.

Mas­coe, how­ever, does not do the same. In­stead, he places the blame on the empti­ness of land ac­knowl­edge­ments, and claims that un­less the talk­ing stops, he will be­come so de­sen­si­tized he will no longer care about the plight of Indigenous peo­ples.

Land ac­knowl­edg­ments are nei­ther mean­ing­less nor pa­tron­iz­ing if they em­body Indigenous le­gal tra­di­tions, and peo­ple like Mas­coe need to own up to this re­al­ity. Ash­ley Courchene is a mas­ter’s student in the law and le­gal stud­ies de­part­ment at Carleton Univer­sity. He also sits as the On­tario Chair for the Cir­cle of First Na­tions, Inuit, and Metis stu­dents at the Canadian Fed­er­a­tion of Stu­dents. @AshCourch­ene

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