The Unintentional Racism Underlying the Indigenous Rights Movement

Essay, Aboriginal Futures, Peter Best

God hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on the face of the earth.” -Acts 17:26

“Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more that I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the centre grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.” -Black Elk of the Lakota Sioux

Aboriginal political and cultural elites constantly assert that because they have an Indian status card or because they have “Indian blood,” they possess innate human characteristics that set them apart from their fellow non-Aboriginal Canadians, both in terms of personal characteristics and legal rights. They assert that this uniqueness makes them better, “stewards of the land,” with which they have a “special relationship,” and that they possess “traditional knowledge” that non-Aboriginal Canadians don’t have.

Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard, in their brave book, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation write of the Aboriginal assertions:

…that aboriginal people have a particular spirituality leading them to be natural stewards of the environment, [and that] to fulfill the role of steward assigned to them by the Creator aboriginal peoples developed “traditional knowledge”—customs, rules, laws and even institutions that ensured environmental sustainability—racially/spiritually based knowledge that is inaccessible to non-aboriginals. (Emphases added)1

The Toronto-raised, part-Aboriginal, Tanya Talaga2, in her aggressive All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward wrote: 

The Spirit created the universe by forming a circle around the heart and mind. The circle is the fundamental concept of Indigenous Intelligence, underscoring how everything is interrelated and life operates inside a circular pattern. Being of the Earth, we are connected to the Earth. Being of the Spirit, we are connected to the Spirit-and to each other. This is in contrast to the Western worldview.

She further writes approvingly of a painting done by an Aboriginal woman, with two different thematic sides:

One side of the painting is brightly coloured, and there is fluent movement, a synergy of flow and lines. This represents Aboriginal culture [the artist] explains. On the other side non-Aboriginal culture is represented by sharp, hard lines with little colour.3

Another urban Aboriginal writer, Pamela Palmater, in Indigenous Nationhood: Empowering Grassroots Citizens, wrote:

For millennia we governed our peoples and lived in balance in the territories gifted to us by the Creator. Those gifts came with a sacred obligation to live in balance and protect these lands…Indigenous Nations are Canadians last best hope at protecting the lands, waters, plants and animals for all our future generations.4

The essence of these assertions is that Aboriginals, solely because they have some Aboriginal “blood,” have innate, superior personal attributes that will be manifested throughout their lifetimes, regardless of their particular life circumstances, but these characteristics are lacking in non-Aboriginals.

These noxious, intellectually childish, and incoherent ideas—ideas that violate true, universalist, human spirituality as articulated above by both the Bible and Black Elk—ideas strong on self-validating emotions and dreamy romanticism but devoid of rationality or responsibility—ideas that, as described by Widdowson and Howard and peddled by Talaga and Palmater5 comprise the essence of racism, one of humanity’s greatest evils.

The historian and political philosopher Hannah Arendt in her profound, The Origins of Totalitarianism, describes the refinement of the concept of the race nation, by German nationalists after the Napoleonic wars, with its two key constituent elements: 

The insistence on a common tribal origin described frequently in terms of “blood relationship” and the emphasis on the innate personality given by birth and not acquired by merit…which once welded together formed the very basis of racism as a full-fledged ideology.… The discriminatory point of this new social concept was immediately affirmed. During the long period of mere social antisemitism, which introduced and prepared the discovery of Jew-hating as a political weapon, it was the lack of “innate personality,” the innate lack of tact, the innate lack of productivity, the innate disposition for trading etc., which separated the behaviour of his Jewish colleague from that of the average businessman. (Emphases added)6

And, so racism developed throughout Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and disastrously on into the twentieth “the race society as a way of life,” which Arendt described as “unprecedented.” 

The alleged “innate” “Indigenous intelligence,” knowledge and culture and the alleged “innate” connection “to the Earth” and “to the Spirit” that Aboriginal elites claim are particular to themselves, and to no one else, their claim that they have a “special relationship” with “the Land,” and that they are unique and favoured recipients of gifts from “the Creator;” that is, they are essentially favoured by God over less fortunate, inferior, human beings, are fundamentally racist claims. These claims unknowingly invoke variations of the “Volkish,” mystical, anti-intellectual, proto-racist, “blood and soil” rhetoric that prevailed in Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s (blut und boden), and more recently in Serbia, Croatia, and Rwanda. 

Propagandists have just flipped the traditional racist script. Instead of the alleged “innate” racial characteristics being indicia of “the other’s” inferiority, as is more common, Aboriginal elites tout them as indicia of their own superiority.

Of course the concepts of “race” and ”blood” uniqueness and purity, with accompanying innate social traits, are virulent and dangerous myths. 

Sir David Carradine writes in, The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences

Scientists have reached general agreement in recognizing that mankind is one: that all men [meaning mankind which included women too] belong to the same species, Homo Sapiens. Genes responsible for the hereditary differences between men were always few when compared to the whole genetic constitution of man and the vast numbers of genes common to all human beings regardless of the population to which they belong. It follows that likenesses among men are far greater than their differences…For all practical purposes race is not so much as a biological phenomenon as a social myth… Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood; for man is borne with drives toward cooperation. In this sense, every man is his brother’s keeper. A year later, a second UNESCO group reaffirmed these findings, insisting that there were “no scientific grounds whatsoever for the belief that there were pure races or a hierarchy of superior and inferior groups. (Emphases added.)7

These myths and the resulting race divisions in Canada have been, unfortunately, bolstered by the Courts, which, charged with the responsibility of interpreting Section 35 of the Constitution Act, have issued a string of Aboriginal race-state affirming decisions over the past 30 years. These opinions have recently been augmented by the Supreme Court of Canada in Daniels vs. Canada (Indian Affairs and Northern Development), (“Daniels”) 8 where the Court, in my opinion, rather briefly and on somewhat flimsy legal and historical grounds, declared that Canada’s 400,000 Metis and 200,000 non-status Indians are, for some limited purposes, to be legally regarded as  “Indians” under federal jurisdiction and thus are potential beneficiaries of the fiduciary obligation Canada owes to “Indians.” 

The case is relevant because the Justice who wrote the decision for the Court, Justice Rosie Abella, defined and granted legal rights based on considerations of “native hereditary base,” “mixed origins,” and “mixed ancestry”—that is on blood/race terms. She relied on, without comment, contextualization or qualification, the following statement from a previous Judge in a related context:

It would appear that whenever it became necessary or expedient to extinguish Indian rights in any specific territory, the fact that Halfbreeds also had rights by virtue of their Indian blood was invariably recognized…mixed blood did not necessarily establish white status, nor did it bar an individual from admission into treaty…. (Emphases added)

Metis Professor Chris Anderson of the University of Alberta described the logic of Daniels as “deeply racist.” 9He argued that the Court should have focussed on “community acceptance” as the primary criterion rather than on blood quotient.

The Daniels decision highlights one of the great contradictions of our age. Justice Abella is a descendent of Holocaust survivors. That horrific event was a logical conclusion of the irrational and perverse blood/race myths that permeated Europe at the time—epitomized by the Nuremberg Laws—and these myths now support Canada’s Aboriginal laws and policies. In fact, these myths support the pernicious notion that, depending on your “bloodstock,” your social worth and standing are innately acquired at birth rather than by your merit as a human being, and for your whole life, your legal rights and place in society flow from that. How could Justice Abella and her Court not see the folly and tragic irony in that? When she was conceptualizing and ordering further “blood-based” additions to the Indian Act-related race charts, how could she not think of their similarity to the “blood-based” Nuremberg race charts?

How can our elites, like Justice Abella, all of them so “progressive” and well-intentioned- almost all of them lauding the race-parsing in  Daniels, not realize the deeply racist underpinnings of not only  Daniels, but, as well, Section 35 of the Constitution, the Indian Act, the reserve system, and all the other special race-based rights and privileges possessed by Canada’s Aboriginal people?

Hannah Arendt warned that in a race-based society, individuals “lose all natural connections with their fellow men” and that “race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death.” 10

For Hannah Arendt, for me, and I believe for most Canadians, the positive and inclusive way forward—the way to true “reconciliation”—Black Elk’s way—is “the genuine equal plurality of peoples in whose complete multitude alone mankind can be realized.11

”SeeEndnotes”

  1. Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation (Montreal, PQ: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008), 217-218.
  2. Her father is Polish Canadian.
  3. Tanya Talaga, All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward (Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press, 2018), 25, 101, 102
  4. Pamela Palmater, Indigenous Nationhood: Empowering Grassroots Citizens (Halifax, NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2015), 249-250.
  5. Both of whose books were subsidized by Canadian taxpayer.
  6. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 212.
  7. David Carradine, The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond our Differences (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 212.
  8. 2016 SCC 12
  9. Chris Andersen, “The Supreme Court Ruling on Metis—A Roadmap to Nowhere,” The Globe and Mail, April 14, 2016.
  10. Arendt, Totalitarianism, 157.
  11. Arendt, Totalitarianism, 167.

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Peter Best has practised law in Sudbury for the past 45 years. He is the author of There Is No Difference- An Argument for the Abolition of the Indian Reserve System, (thereisnodifference.ca) which has been endorsed by retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Jack Major.

Photo by Stéfano Girardelli on Unsplash.