A Conversation with Tom Flanagan

Media Appearances, Aboriginal Futures, Frontier Centre

Frontier Centre: Your new book, First Nations? Second Thoughts, presents a view of aboriginal history that challenges what you describe as the prevailing orthodoxy on the subject. Could you describe that orthodoxy?

Tom Flanagan: The orthodoxy could be summarized by the term “nation to nation” — that aboriginal people have to relate to the rest of Canada “government to government”. I think the relationship should be more person-to-person.

FC: What sort of response has your book evoked among natives?

TF: There have been some public denunciations, but I have also had some very good and thoughtful conversations when we can get away from the television cameras.

FC: You spend a lot of time in your book on the meaning of words like civilization, nation and sovereignty. How far astray have sloppy definitions of these terms led us in the evolution of native policy?

TF: Words are crucial in politics because politics is all about persuasion and words are the means by which we persuade each other. So, for example, the practice of referring to Indians as not only nations but also “first” nations brings a whole set of policies in its wake-policies that are not working.

FC: The ability of native people to participate fully in the Canadian economy has been compromised by sections of the Indian Act. Do you believe that their economic status could be called a form of legislated poverty?

TF: Yes, it is largely a result of the legislative straightjacket that we have put them in. However, the legislation is there for a purpose-to preserve a collective identity-so we have to face up to the fact that if you are going to use government legislation to preserve an identity there are going to be economic consequences.

FC: What changes do you recommend to the Act?

TF: A lot of improvements wouldn’t even require legislative changes. For example, for aboriginal people to begin taxing themselves and, thereby, to improve the responsibility of their governments is already possible within the Act. Similarly, Band governments could devolve some of their functions within the Act. There is much that needs to be done to get rid of anachronistic provisions such as ministerial approval of wills and so on. But, a lot could be done through administrative means rather than through legislative.

FC: How about the issue of property rights?

TF: The legislation already allows for this – the government, last year, passed a Bill that allows First Nations to design property rights codes. They have to opt into it and only fourteen bands have done this so far – but the legislative template has been created. Again, I come back to this point – the government can take administrative steps within existing legislation.

FC: Assimilation is a touchy subject, but isn’t it happening de facto? Do you think that Indian reserves have a future, or are native people voting with their feet?

TF: I don’t think that Indian reserves will disappear. Their existence is now protected by Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982 – they can’t be unilaterally dismantled. Some people will prefer to live on them but, over time, more and more will be moving off. I foresee a divided future -two-track – and we have to try and make both tracks work in Canada.

FC: You recommend local taxation as a means to strengthen lines of accountability in native band councils, and we’ve seen it happen in a limited way on some reserves. Do you think there’s any serious chance that this policy will be implemented in a wider way?

TF: I expect it to be very slow. It has happened on a few reserves; the more enlightened ones have accepted it. But, at the same time, there is a counter movement – there is litigation in the Courts now in at least two provinces in which status Indians are seeking exemption from all taxation on reserve and off reserve. So there is a kind of contrary movement within the aboriginal community and that may be more popular. After all, nobody enjoys paying taxes.

FC: You state in your book that scholars like Terry Anderson in Montana over-emphasize the importance of property rights concepts in aboriginal cultures before Europeans arrived. Yet he provides numerous examples to buttress his arguments. You seem to require a definition of property rights that includes the existence of government authority to validate them. But aren’t property rights derived directly from human nature as we seek to extend our dominion over the physical world?

TF: I don’t know that I disagree with Terry Anderson in principle; it’s really a factual question when you look at a particular Indian tribe – what their practices were. No, I don’t dispute that property rights can exist as a matter of custom and practice – they don’t require formalized, legal codes. I do think that, on the historical evidence for many of the tribes that lived in Canada, property rights were only minimally developed. That would be mainly true of the Prairie hunting nations. On the other hand, property rights were highly developed among the more sedentary Indians of the British Columbia Coast or the farming nations of southern Ontario. So, it’s really next to impossible to generalize across the board, I think you have to work case-by-case.

FC: One topic that makes the rounds in Winnipeg on a regular basis is the concept of urban reserves. Do you think such an outcome to be possible or desirable?

TF: Well, it’s certainly possible – we have them in many cities in Canada now. The way it is happening is that First Nations which have money buy land with the money. then they get the Crown – that means the Minister – to designate it as part of their reserve. So, clearly, it is possible. How desirable it is? I have to question the desirability of segmenting people further. It may provide some temporary leverage as a tax haven but in the long run it would seem to me to be an undesirable concept.

FC: What are the most important steps our governments could take to bring positive change to the native community? How quickly do you think they could be implemented?

TF: The first step I would take would be to stop funding the Association of First Nations – if they want to have a political organization, let them pay for it with their own money – as other groups do. The second step I would take would be to cap the growth of expenditure on aboriginal people in the federal budget. It has been growing very, very rapidly for years and didn’t experience the same discipline that other line items in the budget did in the 1990’s. I think that we are spending too much money on a government-to-government basis and it’s actually making the lives of people worse rather than better.

The third thing I would do would be to try and introduce some of the modest reforms I have mentioned – the introduction of taxation on reserves, reform of governing institutions and the introduction of some degree of private property rights. For example, the private ownership of housing.