An Uprising in Canada

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Rodney Clifton

Ten years ago, Douglas Bland, a retired lieutenant-colonel from the Canadian Forces and the Chair of Defense Studies at Queen’s University, wrote Uprising: A Novel.

In this 500-page work of “fiction,” Bland outlines how militant Indigenous warriors and their allies could, in the tradition of Louis Riel, hold Canada up for ransom, stopping rail traffic, blocking highways, disrupting government offices, and even bombing hydro towers north of Winnipeg.

Like Riel, these protestors will not succeed in the long-run, but in the short-run they could cause considerable damage to the Canadian economy, making many hard-working citizens distressed because they truly want to help Indigenous people take their rightful place in this country.

Without due care, these radicals would easily alienate liberal Canadians, without realizing that they are their natural allies. Of course, their radical cause is doomed to failure, but it would take a few weeks and a lot of wasted resources and considerable anguish for this to happen. The perceived racism against this small group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, however, will last forever.

Bland’s book is a strategic plan for how Indigenous warriors can destroy the “Goose that Lays the Golden Egg.” These warriors and their allies seem to have forgotten that all Canadians, including themselves and their relatives, rely on a functioning economy for food, electricity, heat, water, and transportation.

The warning signs for this crisis have been evident for many years. But, most citizens—and all our leaders—have misinterpreted the signs.

In 2007, for example, Phil Fontaine, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told a CTV reporter: “We have a right to be frustrated, concerned, angry—anger that’s building and building.”

The same year, Manitoba’s Terrance Nelson, Chief of the Roseau River First Nation, told CTV: “There are only two ways of dealing with the white man. Either you pick up a gun or you stand between him and his money.”

So far, the Indigenous warriors are only standing between Canadians and their livelihood. Fortunately, they have not yet resorted to guns.  

As well, over the last 25 years, there has been the recognition that “Indian Reserves” are “First Nations.” Then came the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, the Liberal government’s overturning of the Accountability Act, and finally the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Report.

Embedded in this 3,500-page report are demands that Canada, the Provinces, Churches, and businesses accept the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. In fact, 16 Calls to Action mention this declaration as a necessary step for reconciliation. Reconciliation cannot happen without accepting this declaration.

The Provincial Legislature in B.C. has accepted this declaration in provincial legislation. Now it will pay a high price for this foolish decision, and so will other Canadians.

This declaration gives Indigenous people power over many economic, environmental, and developmental projects in B.C. More problematic, the declaration implies that the B.C. government will need to renounce some of its sovereignty because the United Nations will become the court of last appeal, especially in its disputes with Indigenous people.

The clearest statement of this Call to Action is buried in Volume 6 of the Report (pages 89 to 91):

What is clear to this Commission is that Aboriginal peoples and the Crown have very different conflicting views on what reconciliation is and how it is best achieved. The Government of Canada appears to believe that reconciliation entails Aboriginal peoples’ accepting the reality and validity of Crown sovereignty and parliamentary supremacy in order to allow the government to get on with business. Aboriginal people, on the other hand, see reconciliation as an opportunity to affirm their own sovereignty and return to the ‘partnership’ ambitions they held after Confederation.

Canadian governments and their law departments have a responsibility to discontinue acting as though they are in an adversarial relationship with Aboriginal people and to start acting as true fiduciaries… There, we conclude that Aboriginal claims of title and rights should be accepted on assertion, with the burden of proof placed on those who object to such claims.

Clearly these two short paragraphs mean that Canadian governments must agree with Indigenous claims even when they are unfair to other Canadians. If governments disagree with Indigenous interpretations of B.C.’s laws and policies, the government will not be acting as fiduciary stewards of Indigenous rights.

This requirement for reconciliation clearly discounts the responsibilities that democratic governments have in balancing the complex, overlapping, and often competing interests of various citizens. In a democracy, laws and policies are always contested, and politicians need to balance various interests.

Most Canadians probably think that reconciliation means showing mutual respect, providing equal opportunities to people regardless of their cultural background, thereby eventually coming to an agreement.

But the TRC Report rejects this notion by sustaining the validity of Indigenous people’s interpretation of what reconciliation really means. In fact, the Report implies that reconciliation cannot be achieved unless all Indigenous people agree. If one person disagrees, reconciliation has not been achieved.

Of course, cynics are wondering when the young warriors will pick up guns, like Riel, and make the Oka crisis look like a sandbox spat between two 6-year-olds? Too bad the municipal, provincial, and federal governments are not tuned into the cynics’ concerns.

 

Rodney A. Clifton (rodney.clifton@umanitoba.ca) is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba.