First Nations in Canada need human rights legislation to protect individual rights and to set limitations on the power of local governments.
Indigenous dramatist Floyd Flavel announced that he was adapting a theatrical production of the Greek tragedy Antigone for performance in Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. His Takwakin Cultural Initiatives is a First Nation-run theatrical company. Flavel called his adaptation Antigone: A tragic comedy about Native governance. What happened next demonstrated the truth of that description.
On March 29th, the chief of Poundmaker thought the play was a commentary on him and the band council, so he had council pass a resolution banning the performance.
Those putting on the play defended the universal theme of the production. “It’s just a play and the Chief of Poundmaker thinks the play is about him. The play [Flavel’s] Antigone pits universal natural laws against colonial laws. An unaccountable Chief Creon battles his idealistic relative Antigone who wants her deceased brother Polynices buried on the reserve. Chief Creon refuses to allow this burial as Polynices had been banished from the reserve for attempting to disclose financial wrongdoings.”
Even if the play was about Poundmaker’s leaders, the chief and council do not have the authority to ban the performance and trample artistic freedom and expression.
The theme of state control in the play is most appropriate.
The tragedy of Native governance is that shows of power, such as the abuses at Poundmaker, exist in 2011.
Governments grapple daily with questions of individual and minority rights, especially in First Nation communities where band governments control so many aspects of daily life, such as housing, education, jobs, and access to social assistance.
I have never come to grips with these thoughts as much as I did when I considered recent actions by First Nation governments.
Other situations are more injurious to fundamental rights. In January 2011, The Cree community band council of Ouje-Bougoumou in northern Quebec passed a resolution banning sweat lodges and other forms of indigenous spirituality. The justification? “The majority of the Ouje-Bougoumou members are Christian faith-oriented and have strong Christian values.”
Reason and justice indicate this is trampling on individual and group rights. Appeals to majority opinion do not cut it. French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the “tyranny of the majority” in his seminal Democracy in America. He described how elected majorities in a democracy, even while being the source of legitimate power, can oppress individuals.
“I regard as impious and detestable the maxim that in matters of government the majority of a people have the right to do everything, and nonetheless I place the origin of all powers in the will of the majority,” he wrote.
This universal problem is addressed in different ways. The first are constitutional limits placed on legislative and executive power. In democracies like Canada where power is limited, this comes in the form of tradition and a charter of rights for individuals.
The problem for First Nations was the introduction of the Indian Act centralizing power in chief and council. Traditional indigenous governments were not centralized and were based on consensus where, in most instances, differing views were aired.
The centralization of government in Aboriginal settings has meant having “small government with large powers” as Gordon Gibson, a B.C. policy expert, call them.
With few checks and balances (where each part of government has independent powers so one part does not become too powerful), power rests at the top, or as Gibson says in A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy: “Imagine living in a municipality where it really mattered who the mayor and council were and whether they liked you or not. Imagine that the politicians have an absolute veto over whether you have a house or not, whether your plumbing gets fixed, whether your child will be subsidized for college.”
One possible remedy will be the coming applicability of human rights legislation to band governments and tribal councils come June 2011. In 2008, Ottawa passed a bill repealing an exemption of band governments from challenges under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Band governments had three years to come into line. Unfortunately, the law includes an interpretive clause requiring a balancing of individual with collective Aboriginal interests. One hopes this is not used to trample on individual rights for the sake of band interests.
First Nation governments need checks and balances and dispersed powers. They come when the community demands limits on power.
Otherwise, Native communities become tragic comedies of oppression. Just as in Antigone.