Toronto Star

Coequal status for aboriginal­s vital to our future

- IRVIN STUDIN Irvin Studin is editor-in-chief and publisher of Global Brief magazine and president of the Institute for 21st Century Questions.

As we note the second anniversar­y of the founding of the Idle No More movement, there can be little doubt that the aboriginal question is by far the most important moral question of Canada’s early 21st century. No other public question in Canada has its historical weight, inertia and complexity.

But what is the aboriginal question for this century? Are we talking about standards of material wellbeing for aboriginal people? Is it about social status and profession­al opportunit­y? Or does the question turn fundamenta­lly on the vindicatio­n of specific legal and constituti­onal rights?

The answer must begin with the brutal premise that the aboriginal people in Canada still live as history’s losers; that is, most of the aboriginal people in Canada are descended most recently from people who in their legal, social, economic, organizati­onal and geopolitic­al interactio­ns with non-aboriginal­s — principall­y European settlers and their own descendant­s — were over time and for a variety of reasons stripped of territory, prestige, rights and the underpinni­ngs of social and material well-being.

In some cases, they were plainly outmanoeuv­red; in others they were tricked; and in others still they were assimilate­d, killed or sickened by extra-continenta­l diseases. The aggregate effect of these blows was historical defeat for the majority of the First Nations to the white man — a defeat that has mercilessl­y conditione­d the logic of the relationsh­ip between First Nations people and what would become Canadian government­s and Canadian society.

To this day, the aboriginal people have generally not been relieved — in their own minds or in the minds of the winning majority — of the status of Canadian history’s losing people. This is not a merely formal status; it is a properly psychologi­cal-spiritual one. It means that to a large extent the negative drag of the aboriginal question today continues to be psychologi­cal-spiritual in nature, and that a good part of the answer to the aboriginal question must deal headon with this reality.

The creation over time in Canada of a properly bilingual, bicultural and binational state points the way forward on the aboriginal question. Canada’s great success in responding to the challenge to internal unity and cohesion posed by the linguistic and cultural difference­s between the English-speaking majority and the French-speaking minority has been premised on the idea that the endgame consists not in perfect harmony or amity between the tribes, but depends instead on how a historical­ly victorious majority can rehabilita­te and resuscitat­e defeated minorities into political and even cultural coequals — coequals who are equally invested in the continued existence of the state.

Historical­ly defeated, the French Canadian in Canada, and in Quebec especially, today walks with his or her shoulders held high, properly self-respecting and in turn respected by the English-speaking majority as politicall­y equal and as hailing from a culture that is just as prestigiou­s as the Anglo-Saxon culture of the historical victors in North America. The French language is today not only studied in all schools of Englishspe­aking Canada, but is held in equally high regard in official national institutio­ns and, just as importantl­y, in the minds of most Canadians. An anglophone can therefore become prime minister of Canada while being a rank naïf in internatio­nal affairs, but not without more or less mastering (and respecting) the French language.

The rehabilita­tion or resuscitat­ion of the French Canadians in Canada from historical losers to political and cultural coequals did not happen overnight. It took at least a few generation­s of conspicuou­s pushes in policy and constituti­onal reform — propelled also by the heroism and strategy of many intellectu­als and political actors from French Canada in general and Quebec in particular.

While there continues to be (and always will be) great debate in Canada and in Quebec about degrees of respect, dignity, constituti­onal power and division of responsibi­lities, the character of the French Canadian or Quebec question by now has precious little to do with historical tragedy and the lower extremes of basic material and social well-being for French Canadians and Quebecers. Instead it is, in its sweet spot, a question about how to govern between centre and region or between the general and the local.

Of the four major Anglo-Saxon democracie­s with large indigenous population­s — Canada, the U.S., Aus- tralia and New Zealand — it is New Zealand that has enjoyed the greatest success in the relationsh­ip between its indigenous peoples (mostly the Maori) and the white majority. Unlike indigenous people in the other three countries, the Maori in New Zealand are highly represente­d in the profession­s, in the national army, in sports (most famously dominating the All Blacks rugby union team and inspiring its magical haka) and in politics, where the national parliament affords a designated number of seats exclusivel­y for Maori representa­tion.

To be sure, the Maori also suffer from many of the social dislocatio­ns of indigenous people in the other three countries; however, in no case do the indigenous population­s of these countries have anything resembling the upside suggested for New Zealand’s Maori on the score of most indicators of socioecono­mic well-being.

There would seem to be one signal reason for this difference: the Maori fought the colonizing white man more or less to a strategic draw in the mid-19th century. While its interpreta­tion (and implementa­tion) remains hotly contested, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, the founding constituti­onal document of the New Zealand state, reflects this broad logic of strategic parity between settler and native. As such, the constituti­onal-political developmen­t of the New Zealand state has, in the main, been in the direction of making the Maori the constituti­onal-political equal of the white man in New Zealand — that is, self-respecting and respected by New Zealand’s majority, including linguistic­ally and in national rituals and symbology.

By contrast, a deep spiritual and psychologi­cal disorienta­tion prevails today among many members of Canada’s First Nations. This disorienta­tion — or spiritual anomie — stems from strategic loss in history. It conduces to an insufficie­ncy of self-belief and self-confidence, reinforced by a general and painful disrespect or outright misapprehe­nsion (at best, indifferen­ce) by and from the white majority. If we accept this premise, then the challenge for Canada must be to appreciate this spiritual-cultural disorienta­tion and, over the medium and long term, to launch a process that aims to consciousl­y rehabilita­te and resuscitat­e the aboriginal people into coequals in the political stewardshi­p of the country.

Indigenous history and tradition themselves arguably anticipate this path for Canada. Brutal and not infrequent wars took place among the many powerful indigenous confederac­ies prior to contact with the Europeans. These wars yielded winners and losers — changing but, critically, still preserving the relationsh­ips between the belligeren­t nations. The victor nations became the “big brothers” in the relationsh­ip, assuming a responsibi­lity to look out for the “younger brothers” — that is, to protect them from their remaining enemies and to rebuild or reconstitu­te them so that they could become allies. In other words, victory led to protection and resuscitat­ion of the defeated, which led, for purposes of survival, to reasonable co-equality in alliance.

Clearly, part of this push to coequal status in Canada for the aboriginal people will involve making the binational logic at the heart of Canadian constituti­onalism far more porous for purposes of aboriginal representa­tion, control of territory and governing responsibi­lities. This will require us to reimagine the internal borders and identities of Canada in ways that are more eclectic than the 10 provinces-plus-three territorie­s paradigm that predominat­es in most school textbooks and therefore in the psyche of most Canadians.

The vector of culture — far more than rights or economics — must dominate in the resuscitat­ion of the aboriginal people. A pivotal aspect of this cultural game surely must be the stimulatio­n, revival and mainstream­ing of aboriginal languages. Renewed study across Canada in provincial schools of, say, Cree, Ojibwe, Inuktitut and Michif — to take but four major aboriginal tongues — would not only give Canadians a better understand­ing of aboriginal realities and mentalitie­s, but would also lend prestige to the aboriginal cultures that were relegated to the peripherie­s of Canadian society. Aboriginal­s, in turn, would be given an opening and an audience for the proliferat­ion of books, magazines, blogs, films, radio and television shows in tongues that have renewed currency and credibilit­y.

We might then imagine a Canadian prime minister, in the year 2050, easily mastering English, French and Cree — all in the larger context of the aboriginal people having become coequals in the governance of Canada and equally invested in the continued existence and success of this Canada.

 ?? SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO ?? Canada needs to launch a process that will bring aboriginal people into the political stewardshi­p of the country as coequals, Irvin Studin writes.
SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO Canada needs to launch a process that will bring aboriginal people into the political stewardshi­p of the country as coequals, Irvin Studin writes.
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