The Never-Ending, Debilitating, Civic Childhood of Canada’s Aboriginal People

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Reconciliation, Peter Best

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

-Corinthians 1

It is the right of all capable, adult citizens of Canada to share the same civic rights and to shoulder the same responsibilities. The equal shouldering of these rights and responsibilities creates the sense of unity amongst the citizenry that is crucial, not only to the health and well-being of the country, but also to the well-being of its individual citizens. It is the social glue that holds this country together.

Yet Aboriginal Canadians are not afforded equal civic status with other Canadians. To their enduring harm, they are kept in never-ending, civic childhood.

Since our country’s founding, they have been treated as civic non-adults of whom nothing in the way of shouldering responsibilities is either demanded or expected.

Even worse, their leaders demand the expansion of this historic dependency for their people.  Never in Canadian history has a proud and noble people been so ill-served by their leaders.

Today’s Aboriginal state of dependency has its origins in the nineteenth century collapse of their traditional hunting, gathering, and subsistence economy, which brought about the final, tragic end of their pre-contact cultural and political organizations. In the pathos-filled treaty talks which ensued the unequal power dynamic existing between the representatives of “the Crown” and the Indians bands, was clearly illustrated by the frequent use of the parent-child analogy. The Crown was often called “The Queen Mother”, or “The Great Mother,” and the Indians were called her “children” or her “red children.” Tellingly, both sides used this terminology.

It is from this original relationship of dependency that a justly fiduciary-like relationship between Canada and its Aboriginal peoples began.

For about the first 75 years of our country’s history, this assumption was realistic. But now, their “living off the land” is no longer feasible. From about World War 2, Aboriginal families have been leaving the reserves and migrating into the towns and cities. By the mid-1970’s almost half of Aboriginal Canadians were living away from their reserves, assimilating into mainstream Canadian society.

Beginning with the passage of section 35 of the Constitution Act, Aboriginals have gained unprecedented new rights to participate in the Canadian economy. Now, no new resource projects can proceed without all nearby Aboriginal bands giving their consent after being consulted and “accommodated.” These rights have been monetized in the form of “impact benefit agreements” and have become a major, lucrative source of tax-free income for Aboriginal bands.

The old fiduciary-like view of the “Crown honour” principle is no longer justified. Aboriginal Canadians have “grown up.” Today they neither need nor deserve to be treated like civic children.

Yet, that is how they are still treated.

And when people are treated like children, they act like children, and deprive themselves of the immeasurable, individual and collective life-fulfilling benefits and responsibilities of civic adulthood.

On this ground, our elites, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal—are now disrespecting ordinary Aboriginal people by insisting that they must still be regarded as incapable, non-adult dependents

Our Courts patronize Aboriginal people in ways that create a tilted playing field, and a demoralizing two-tier justice system that continues this infantilization

In the 2021 Ginoogaming First Nation v. Ontario case (21 ONSC 5866), the Ginoogaming band sued for an injunction preventing the holder of a mineral exploration permit from exercising his permit rights because the band decided that the permit lands were “sacred” to them. They were successful in court. No such superstitious argument advanced by Christian, Muslim, or Jewish litigants would have been taken so seriously in a Canadian court.

In the case, the judge ruled that the use of letters and emails was not an effective means for the government or the permit holder to communicate with the Ginoogaming band. Thus, the court was saying that the band’s culture was too pre-literate to handle written communications. This was condescending, infantilization on the part of the judge.

The media have been especially guilty of infantilizing Aboriginal Canadians, eschewing their obligations to pose hard questions and demand verification of their many unsubstantiated assertions.

Canadian elites are besotted with the issue of residential schools. Even though no more than a third of eligible Aboriginal students during their 113-year existence ever attended one, it is asserted that providing some Aboriginal Canadians with an education constituted a form of “genocide.” That is, all Aboriginal Canadians can blame residential schools for their problems, all attendees are “Survivors,” and all descendants can blame their problems on the handy excuse of “intergenerational trauma.”

Of course, this narrative suggests to impressionable Aboriginal Canadians that they are not as resilient as other members of the human family, when history is full of groups that have suffered much more telling tragedies. None of these now-successful peoples are claiming “intergenerational trauma” and blaming whatever present problems they might have on events that only happened to their grandparents. They are all “getting on with their lives” as capable adults do.

The false residential school narrative is essentially a childish ploy. When Aboriginal Canadians are force-fed such a foundational narrative, they pay a very high price–the price of being condemned to a Peter Pan-like state of perpetual, self-pitying, civic childhood.

This is a condescending, defeatist, insult to Aboriginal Canadians.  They’re as capable and resilient as any other group of Canadians, if only they were regarded and treated as such! It’s a classic example of the soft bigotry of low expectations.

It’s time to treat Aboriginal Canadians in the same legal and social manner as all other capable, adult Canadians are treated.

 

Peter Best is a retired lawyer who lives in Sudbury, Ontario. He is the author of There Is No Difference- An Argument for the Abolition of the Reserve System, which has been endorsed by retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Jack Major.  An extended version of this article is published on the There Is No Difference website, thereisnodifference.ca.