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The Canadian Distinctiveness into the XXIst Century - La distinction canadienne au tournant du XXIe siecle

Chad Gaffield
Karen L. Gould

Individuals, Collectivities, and the State / Individus, collectivités et État

Aboriginal Peoples in the Twenty-first Century: A Plea for Realism

Alan C. Cairns

Texte intégral

1 I do not expect the arguments in this paper, especially those in the last half, to convince all who read or heard this presentation. In fact, if I fail to convince you, I may have succeeded in the much more important task of contributing to a discussion. The Aboriginal policy field has too many converts and too few discussions in which we listen to each other. Converts and discussion have an uneasy relationship: basically, each is the other's most feared opponent. At the turn of the century, converts and ideologies can look after themselves; discussion, however, needs help. Hence the following pages.

2This paper has a single objective – to clarify the debate about how Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples are to live together in the future. We cannot be successfully forward-looking, however, without understanding the past that has shaped us. The first half of the paper, accordingly, focusing as it does largely on the last half of the century, establishes how we got to ‘now.’ Now is defined as the post-1969 White Paper (Canada 1969) era, in which, I argue, there are two roads to the future – the self-government route based on Aboriginal nations and the urban route.

3This is the era of Aboriginal nationalism; of Oka; of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP); of major advances by Aboriginal peoples in the Constitution Act, 1982; of a huge increase in the number of Aboriginal post-secondary graduates; of the dramatic growth of the urban Aboriginal population; of the dawning recognition that Aboriginal communities, especially First Nations, are not going to disappear as believers in assimilation once thought; of the birth of Nunavut (1999); and of many other developments, most of which would have been inconceivable fifty years ago. This background underlines the reality that ours is a new era – that indeed we are creating a new Canada – and that we desperately need more understanding if we are to avoid major policy errors.

4Of the many issues needing attention, I have selected the coexistence of the two roads to the future mentioned above. The last half of the paper, grandiosely subheaded “a plea for realism,” tries to disentangle the issues posed by this apparent choice, to stick-handle through the claims of both the advocates and opponents of each route. I conclude that the debate is poorly conducted and that both roads will be with us for the foreseeable future. We need more information and analysis and less ideology if we are to make progress in one of the most politicized and conflict-filled policy areas on our agenda. (The paper focuses disproportionately on status Indians because neither Inuit nor Métis [with only eight small settlements in northern Alberta] confront the choice between the urban and the self-government route to the same degree.)

From Paternalism to Aboriginal Nationalism

5No dialogue between Indians and the federal government preceded the release of that government's 1969 White Paper which proposed ending the separate status of Indian people and their assimilation into Canadian society. This act of paternalism was repudiated by the organized opposition of Indian peoples, led by the Indian Chiefs of Alberta (Indian Chiefs of Alberta 1970). The subsequent withdrawal of the White Paper was more than the defeat of a particular policy initiative. The historic federal policy of assimilation was in ruins. Since then, it has been generally assumed that Indian communities would survive as such-that they would have a distinct, ongoing communal existence in Canada (Weaver 1990). Thirty years after the White Paper's defeat, Canadians are still grappling with that new reality.

6Since then, the federal government has lost or given up its leadership role. Initially, it appeared that the policy of assimilation had been cast in the dustbin of discarded experiments. For the first decade after the White Paper's withdrawal, the relevant actors repositioned themselves behind the vague consensus that assimilation, at least as a conscious policy, was dead, and that the emerging policy question was how Indian peoples – as peoples – or, as the terminology evolved, as nations-should be fitted into the Canadian constitutional order. In the period leading up to the Constitution Act, 1982, Inuit and Métis emerged and made independent claims for recognition and self-government. This foreshadowed the new constitutional category “Aboriginal Peoples of Canada,” defined in the Constitution Act, 1982, s. 35(2), as including Indian, Inuit, and Métis.

7Increasingly, initiatives in the broad field of Aboriginal policy came from Aboriginal organizations, particularly the National Indian Brotherhood, later renamed the Assembly of First Nations, which spoke for the legal status Indian population living on reserves. Its voice, and that of other Aboriginal organizations, was strengthened by a fortuitous convergence of factors.

8The federal government policy of funding the major Aboriginal organizations – which commenced in the early 1970s, on the premise that the poverty, small populations, and geographical diffusion of Aboriginal peoples would otherwise marginalize them in democratic politics – gave them not only a voice but ultimately a unique status among the claimants for government attention. They quickly came to be much more than the standard interest group speaking for a particular clientele or cause. As the major Aboriginal associations acquired confidence, they decisively distanced themselves from the proliferating ethnic associations which represented the ethnocultural communities gathered under the official policy of multiculturalism. They represented not ethnic minorities, but nations.

9The nation label gained sustenance from the opening up of the Constitution in response to Francophone nationalism in Québec, particularly following the victory of the Parti Québécois in the 1976 provincial election. This placed the question of Canada's future on the bargaining table. What kind of people were Canadians? What revised institutional arrangements and constitutional reforms were appropriate for a country increasingly separated from Europe, with an immigration policy that was transforming the face of major metropolitan centres, one that confronted a Québec nationalist challenge to its very survival, and one with indigenous peoples no longer willing to accept their marginalization? The opening up of the Constitution was quickly seen as providing an arena in which Aboriginal peoples could advance their claims for recognition, self-government, and an end to their stigmatized marginalization.

10Trudeau's assertion “Everything is up for grabs” was a direct response to a reinvigorated, assertive Québec nationalism. Aboriginal peoples successfully inserted themselves into constitutional politics and made major gains in the Constitution Act, 1982. Simultaneously, their self-description as nations gathered momentum. The National Indian Brotherhood renamed itself the Assembly of First Nations. The 1983 Penner Committee, with its ringing advocacy of self-government for Indian peoples in its report, systematically employed the term nation in a clear response to the messages of Indian spokespersons who appeared before it (Canada 1983). The language of nationalism clearly added symbolic legitimacy to claims for recognition and special treatment.

11This was evident in the four Aboriginal constitutional conferences, 1983 to 1987 (Schwartz 1986), primarily focusing on the inherent right of self-government. The conferences gave additional proof of, and stimulus to, the emerging distinct status of Aboriginal peoples. Aboriginal associations participated almost as bargaining equals of the federal and provincial governments on the other side of the table. Their goal was to carve out a separate category of constitutional space for the implementation of the inherent right of self-government. No other interest group that flourished in democratic, pluralistic politics, whether representing women, disabled persons, Italian Canadians, or others, were given similar recognition.

12The rhetoric surrounding the concept of nation became the standard terminology used to identify Aboriginal peoples. Indians became ‘First Nations’ in a clear attempt to gain historical priority and a stronger legitimacy than that of the two founding nations of French and English newcomers. The Métis also employed the self-identifying, status-raising label of nation as, to a lesser extent, did the Inuit. Perhaps, however, the most decisive indication of the status-enhancing capacity of the nation terminology was the dramatic diffusion of such self-labelling among Indian bands themselves. By 1999, about 30 per cent of over 600 Indian bands had added nation to their official name. Most of them had populations well under one thousand people (Canada 1985, 1990, 1999).

13The language of nationalism changes the nature of Aboriginal policy discussions. The term nation easily, almost automatically, leads to a justification for an ongoing future existence, and therefore for the policy tools to achieve that goal. Nation attracts the supportive attention of prominent political theorists – Will Kymlicka, Sam LaSelva, Charles Taylor, Jim Tully – in a way that the term ‘villages’ would not. They add a certain philosophical legitimacy to Aboriginal nationalism and to the consequences that logically attach to that labelling. Nation, inevitably and desirably in the eyes of its proponents, stresses an internal within-group solidarity, while stressing the ‘otherness’ of the non-Aboriginal majority.

14This otherness is reinforced by the widespread employment of the language of colonialism to describe the history of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations from which an escape is sought. The colonial analogy is a dramatic reminder that the relation of indigenous people to the Canadian majority from the last half of the nineteenth century to the present has always been massively influenced by international trends-particularly the world of empire and of its ending. In the former, when a handful of European states ruled much of humanity, the wardship status of Indian peoples – their marginalization – their subjection to the demands of a majority confident of its own cultural superiority – did not have to be argued in terms of first principles – it was simply assumed. Canadian rule over indigenous peoples – most dramatically in the case of status Indians – was simply a spillover from the larger world of empire outside Canada.

15The implicit international support in the imperial era for wardship for Indians, for their exclusion from the franchise until 1960, for leaving Inuit (then Eskimo) isolated and forgotten, and for the marginalization of the Métis, evaporated when empire ended. When the British left India, the French handed over power in Senegal, the Dutch lost control of Indonesia, and the Portuguese finally succumbed to exhaustion and retreated from Angola and Mozambique, the message flowing across Canadian borders no longer justified hierarchy with Aboriginal peoples at the base, whether hierarchy was conceived in cultural or racial terms.

16The international system was no longer a club of white states. The Commonwealth – now a multicultural, multiracial association – contrasted dramatically with the older view of the white dominions as Britain overseas. The United Nations was transformed into a multiracial institution, with European states in a minority, after the collapse of European empires and the emergence of more than a hundred new states. The United Nations launched a crusade against colonialism and racism that inevitably challenged the legitimacy of white leadership over indigenous peoples in settler colonies – even if that leadership was dressed up in the language of trusteeship and guardianship.

17We can argue, therefore, that the emergence of Aboriginal nationalism was overdetermined. It fed on the opening up of the Canadian Constitution; on the demise of European empires and the subsequent transformations in the international system; on the funding of Aboriginal associations by the federal government; on the defeat of the White Paper; and on the contagious, world-wide diffusion of nationalism among indigenous peoples. The simultaneous emergence of indigenous nationalism in Australia (Aborigines) and New Zealand (Maori) as well as in Canada, underlines the international forces at work. Those wishing to understand Aboriginal nationalism in Canada, accordingly, must look outward beyond domestic, within-Canada causes to embrace changes in the international environment. To look inwardly only at our domestic selves blinds us to the fact that indigenous peoples around the globe learn and borrow from each other. There is, in other words, an indigenous international.

18The colonial analogy drawn from the international arena and the widespread diffusion of the label nation were appropriate yet, at the same time, potentially misleading. Colonialism was clearly a reasonable description of the system of alien rule and the displacement of Indian peoples onto reserves, thought of as schools for their civilization. It was somewhat less appropriate for Inuit and Métis, in that they were not subject to a separate administrative system, nor subjected to the same degree of cultural assault as Indians. On the other hand, they too were marginalized, defined as backward, and not considered to be full, ordinary citizens.

19Colonialism, however, is also misleading. The end of colonialism in yesterday's world of the demise of the European empires resulted in independence. The new flag of a new country was raised, and the international community acquired a new member. The ending of colonialism in Canada, however, does not usher in independence but requires a rapprochement with the majority – the working out of arrangements that combine self-government where land-based Aboriginal communities exist with membership in the Canadian community of citizens. Colonialism focuses attention on the self-rule dimension, but it positively deflects attention from the rapprochement dimension, which requires a positive collaboration with yesterday's oppressor. Therefore, it contributes to a misunderstanding of the requirements of a workable reconciliation.

20Nation is also Janus-faced. It is status-raising for those who employ it. It speaks to a positive sense of belonging and to a people's desire for a continuing future existence. For peoples whose difference has been reinforced by their treatment by the majority society, the attribution of nation is a logical if not inevitable response to their situation, especially for land-based communities. The term nation, however, can be misleading. Nation is a potent word that presupposes population sizes and self-government capacities that are beyond small populations of several hundred or several thousand people. The accompanying nation-to-nation theme, the key concept in the analysis of the RCAP report (Canada 1996), also misleads as it inevitably conjures up an image of Canada as an international system. It suggests autonomous, discrete actors bargaining the terms of their separate coexistence. If, however, “within Canada” means anything, the reality is that a part is rearranging its relationship with the whole of which it is a part. In other words, when federal and provincial governments are bargaining their future relations with an Aboriginal nation in a land-claims/self-government negotiation for example, the members of the latter group are also and simultaneously represented as citizens by the federal and provincial governments. If this is not so, the whole system of voting and elections in federal and provincial politics and the receipt of standard federal and provincial services are based on a misunderstanding – an assertion that would find minimal support.

21It is possible, and perhaps probable, that the leading players in public discussions realize that the language of colonialism, of nation, and of nation-to-nation in the Canadian context does not carry the same meaning and consequences in Canada as it did in Algeria or Kenya. There may be a tacit understanding on both sides of the table that these terms – colonialism, nation, and nation-to-nation-have a more limited, restricted meaning than the full sense of the words suggests. Even so, their use adds a potential element of confusion to our attempts to work out our relations with each other. The increasingly common description of Canada as a multinational country normally fails to mention that the Québec nation is some 7,000 times larger than the average Aboriginal nation proposed by the RCAP. Further, the RCAP figures – average nation size of 5,000-7,000 people – are not a current reality, but a goal that can only be achieved by aggregating small bands into larger units, a goal certain to generate considerable resistance. We cannot think clearly if we forget such realities.

22Nor can we think clearly if we overlook the constitutional changes and judicial decisions that have provided indigenous peoples with constitutional support for their aspirations. The Constitution Act, 1982, declared that “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed,” and “In this Act ‘aboriginal peoples of Canada’ includes the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada,” (s. 35(1) and (2)). This constitutional affirmation was, in effect, a repudiation of the original British North America Act, 1867, which in s. 91(24) simply treated Indians as a subject of federal jurisdiction, indicating that their constitutional recognition had nothing to do with their rights, but simply with which government had authority over them. Section 91(24) presupposed wards who, for their own sake, had to be governed by others. Section 35(1), by contrast, identified the rights of peoples that are to be recognized and affirmed. Section 35(2) created a new constitutional category, “aboriginal peoples of Canada,” which inevitably generated pressures from the least favoured member of the category – the Métis – who achieved a constitutional recognition in 1982 they had long sought-access to state-provided, positive benefits, available to status Indian peoples. The move from s. 91(24) (1867) to s. 35 (1982), from wards to rights holders, was the domestic equivalent of the end of colonialism in the overseas territories of the former European empires. That domestic equivalent, of course, falls short of independence. The new status to which it leads is to be “within Canada.”

23The courts, which historically had played a limited role in affirming Aboriginal rights, made important contributions in the post-White Paper decades. Two decisions – Calder (1973) (Calder v. AG BC, [1973] SCR 313) and Delgamuukw (1997) (Delgamuukw v. BC, [1997] 3 SCR 1010) – underline the judicial contribution, which can be followed in more detail in any of the standard case books in Canadian constitutional law. In Calder, the Supreme Court dismissed an application by the Nishga (now Nisga'a) Indians of northwestern British Columbia for formal recognition of their Aboriginal title based on their immemorial occupation of the land. Six of the seven judges, however, recognized the concept of Aboriginal title, three of whom suggested that their Aboriginal title had not been extinguished. Subsequently, the Trudeau government announced a land claims policy, which is the origin of the modern land claims settlements already completed and of the many negotiations, especially in British Columbia, that are now underway.

24In Delgamuukw, the Supreme Court confirmed that Aboriginal title existed in British Columbia and that it constitutes a right to the land itself, not just to traditional uses such as hunting. The Court also held that oral history should be included in the evidence legitimately before the Court. Both of these strands of Delgamuukw have profoundly transformed the treaty process in British Columbia by dramatically enhancing the bargaining resources of First Nations negotiators.

The Pervasive Impact of Nationalism

25The emergence of Aboriginal nationalism and the response to it are highlighted in some of the key events of the past decade and a half listed below. This brief and elementary listing – all that space limitations allow – is neither exhaustive nor faithful to the complexities behind the events, but it will serve to underline the temper of the present era.

  • The role of Elijah Harper in preventing debate on the Meech Lake Accord in the Manitoba legislature, just as the three-year ratification clock was running out in 1990, was a crucial factor in the defeat of the accord. Harper's role, backed by enthusiastic First Nations support, symbolized the willingness of First Nations – if their own demands were not met – to defeat a major constitutional effort to bring Québec back into the constitutional family with, in Prime Minister Mulroney's words, honour and enthusiasm.
  • The Oka crisis of 1990, as well as other, less dramatic, indicators of frustration and anger expressed in road blocks, occupations, and demonstrations, underlined the growing tension in Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations.
  • The massive, five-volume report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, released in 1996, its policy recommendations and its governing nation-to-nation theme, confirmed that the status quo was not viable. The RCAP Report is a document of Aboriginal nationalism.
  • The establishment of the BC Treaty Commission in 1993, following the century-long denial by British Columbia governments that Aboriginal title was a continuing reality, suggested that even the most obdurate provincial government could not prevail against the combination of politicized First Nations claims and a supportive Supreme Court jurisprudence of Aboriginal and treaty rights.
  • The passage of the Nisga'a treaty in 2000, in spite of a deeply divisive debate in British Columbia, including a court challenge, suggested that Aboriginal nationalism could be accommodated within Canadian federalism.
  • The emergence of Nunavut in 1999 as a quasi-province with an Inuit majority was an even more symbolic indication of the possibility of finding common ground. On the other hand, the confrontation between Québec and Aboriginal nationalism, particularly of the northern Cree and Inuit, over the territorial integrity of Québec should it secede from Canada, underlined the limits of compromise, and confirmed that Aboriginal nationalism would be a major player and a major complication if Canada was threatened with a split.
  • Nationalism, defined as the unwillingness to forget, and the willingness to pursue claims for redress for past maltreatment was a supportive factor in the emergence into public attention of the history of sexual and physical abuse in residential schools and the pursuit of claims for compensation by thousands of former students. These claims, which threaten devastating financial impacts on the major churches involved in what a recent scholar described as A National Crime in his history of residential schools (Milloy 1999), only surfaced when yesterday's paternalism was displaced by assertive nationalism.

26The recognition and accommodation of Aboriginal nationalism within Canada is one of the most difficult, high-priority tasks confronting Canadian policy-makers. “Within Canada” indicates that the goal is not only to recognize Aboriginal difference but also to generate a positive identification with, and participation in, the Canadian community of citizens. Aboriginal nationalism is not enough. It has to be supplemented by a shared citizenship with other Canadians if our living together is to go beyond a wary coexistence.

The Spirit of the Times – Then and Now

27Cumulatively, the preceding suggest a profound transformation in the spirit of the times from the conventional assumptions of forty years ago; in different language, the self-consciousness of the major players has been transformed; their very identities differ; non-Aboriginals no longer assume an unchallenged authority to be in charge, while Aboriginal peoples sense the possibility that this time historical momentum may be on their side. Differently phrased, Aboriginal peoples now occupy the moral high ground once occupied by the majority society that had justified its former leadership role, by virtue of the superior civilization it was assumed to be spreading. These changes in mood, in temperament, in identity, in consciousness, in confidence, and in taken-for-granted assumptions about who was in charge, and about what a desirable future would look like, are not easily pinned down, yet they are fundamental components of where we are.

28This profound transformation is best illustrated by the fate of the rhetoric of assimilation. Formerly the trademark of the non-Aboriginal liberal/left progressives in the middle of the twentieth century, it recently re-emerged on the right end of the spectrum in the Reform party and its successor, the Canadian Alliance, as a reaction against the policy thrust toward special treatment and a constitutionalized third order of Aboriginal governments. Now, however, the liberal/left end of the spectrum passionately opposes the assimilation it formerly supported; it now sees that assimilation as an unacceptable expression of cultural arrogance and ethnocentrism.

29Assimilation was formerly the policy of the progressives. The Saskatchewan Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) under Tommy Douglas and Woodrow Lloyd, 1944-64, was a passionate advocate of assimilation well before the 1969 White Paper (Pitsula 1994). Some of this was a spillover from Afro-American pressure to join the mainstream in the United States, a perspective that saw American blacks seeking to ‘get in’ as anticipating what Canadian Indians would seek when their Martin Luther King belatedly emerged. Assimilation also drew sustenance from the belief that industrial civilization was the great leveller of cultural difference. Anthropologists took it for granted that assimilation was both the inevitable and desirable goal toward which we were heading. (Loram and Mcllwraith 1943) Against such a powerful tendency, resistance was seen as futile. More generally, of course, assimilation had been the historic policy of the Canadian state since Canada was founded.

  • 1 The politicization of this policy area generates unusually polemical scholarly debates, as well as (...)

30Support for assimilation has now drifted to the right end of the political spectrum. Preston Manning (Manning 1992), Stockwell Day-now succeeded by Stephen Harper – have replaced Tommy Douglas. Mel Smith (Smith 1995), Tom Flanagan (Flanagan 2000), and others now defend in a very different political-intellectual climate the ideas that attracted Trudeau and the team which produced the White Paper (Canada 1969). The tone of contemporary advocates of assimilation is, of necessity, different from the tone of its supporters of thirty to fifty years ago. Yesterday's advocates wrote and spoke with the easy authority that history was on their side. Contemporary advocates are not so sure. They frequently assert that they write against an unsympathetic climate of political correctness that challenges their right to speak. Other authors have noted the inhibitions which attend speaking out against what they detect as a political consensus behind the overall thrust toward recognition and implementation of the inherent right of self-government (Cairns 2000:14-16 for references).1

31This is another example of the changing spirit of the times: forty years ago, in the Hawthorn report of the mid-sixties (Hawthorn 1966-67) and in the 1969 White Paper, treaties were considered of marginal importance. Trudeau, indeed, found it inconceivable that one section of society could have a treaty with another part of society, declaring that “we must all be equal under the laws and we must not sign treaties amongst ourselves” (Trudeau 1969). Now, the RCAP report informs the reader that treaties are the key, the fundamental instrument for regulating relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples (Cairns 2000:134-36 for a discussion).

32Observing the erosion of yesterday's conventional wisdom too easily leads to a complacent arrogance among the supporters of today's conventional wisdom, convinced that they have arrived at truth. A much better lesson would be a reminder that we, too, will be seen, in hindsight, as yesterday's conventional wisdom.

Some Characteristics of the Present Debate

33The present dialogue or debate has the following characteristics. First, there is now a burgeoning literature. Any reasonably-sized bookstore currently stocks a sizeable collection of books under the rubric of Native studies. The media now devote considerable attention to Aboriginal issues. The National Post, which gives extensive coverage to Aboriginal issues, vigorously and recurrently attacks special status and espouses assimilation. Aboriginal issues are one of the staples of Jeffrey Simpson, the leading national affairs columnist for the Globe and Mail (Simpson 1998; 1999; 2000). Polar positions are now expressed in the national party system. The Reform and the Canadian Alliance analysis of the Aboriginal policy area closely mirror the assumptions behind the 1969 White Paper (Reform Party of Canada 1995; Cairns 2000:72).

34Second, there are prominent Aboriginal participants in the public dialogue. They include the major national and provincial Aboriginal associations whose leaders are often skilled in getting media coverage. They conduct research and publish major position papers. They are joined by a small but growing cadre of Aboriginal scholars in law and other disciplines. Their work receives practical sustenance from Native studies departments, Native studies associations, and specialized journals of Native Studies. They have already made major contributions to our collective search for improved understanding. Their numbers and importance will increase with the dramatic increase in number of Aboriginal graduates of post-secondary institutions.

35Third, there is now an extensive university-based community of scholars whose focus is Aboriginal issues. Research is not monolithic – contrast, for example, on the non-Aboriginal side the work of Jim Tully (Tully 1995) and Tom Flanagan (Flanagan 2000), or on the Aboriginal side John Borrows (Borrows 1999), Taiaiake Alfred (Alfred 1999), and Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond who now sits on the bench of the Provincial Court of Saskatchewan (Turpel 1989-90).

36Given the above welcome diversity, it remains true that the major contemporary academic contributions to the debate come from an influential cadre of university law professors, who have taken on the task of enlarging the constitutional space for Aboriginal self-government. Their goal is to provide a legal rationale for the maximum jurisdictional autonomy for the Aboriginal governments of the future. They are unquestionably the major academic contributors to public discourse. Their importance is magnified by the role of the courts in the evolution of Aboriginal rights. Their contributions are supplemented by political scientists, anthropologists, and historians. Each of these disciplines brings different strengths and weaknesses to Aboriginal studies and to Aboriginal policy.

  • 2 An important research project remains to be undertaken to 1) identify the changing relation betwee (...)

37The conclusion is irresistible that the dominant role of legal scholars in defining the issues at stake, in fleshing out a rights-based discourse, and in contributing to a leading role for the courts has contributed to Aboriginal gains. On the other hand, academic legal contributors in this policy area show little concern for Canadian citizenship as a uniting bond, or more generally, for what will hold us together, and show much less interest in the 50 per cent of the Aboriginal population in urban areas, whose concerns are less amenable to the language of rights.2

A Plea for Realism

38It is perhaps inevitable that Canadians – be they Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, citizens and scholars – disagree on where we should go. We still hear the voices of assimilators and their antithesis-those who describe our future as coexisting solitudes maintaining a possibly friendly possibly cool distance from one another. There is another slightly different divide between advocates of a nation-to-nation relationship – competing solidarities who engage in a domestic version of international relations-and others who stress the necessity, at least at one level of our relationship, of a common citizenship as the contemporary source of the empathy that makes us feel responsible for each other. Each of these divides and the rhetoric that sustains them could easily consume the remainder of these pages. It would be a worthwhile task to explore the plausibilities, the exaggerations, the kernels of truth, and the simplifications that attend each side of the above divides. Each divide, in its own way, is at the very centre of our present search for understanding.

39I have decided to focus on a different divide, or contrast, in the remaining pages – one which deserves more attention than it has received. This discussion will turn on two roads to the future: that of Aboriginal peoples in landed communities on the path to self-government and that of urban Aboriginals. The pressure and temptation when confronting two roads is to assume the necessity of choosing one, to set the two roads as rivals, to imply that those who have not chosen ‘our’ road can only have done so because of some false consciousness which clouds their reasoning, to suggest that the urban Aboriginal is somehow betraying Aboriginality by subjecting him/herself to the perils of cultural contagion that will eat away at Aboriginal difference that should be cherished and protected, or to intimate that the travellers on the self-government road overestimate the possibility of cultural renewal and economic viability for small nations distanced from urban centres.

40I prefer not to take sides, but rather to try to think my way through both of these routes to the future, on the premise that there are advantages and disadvantages to each. To condemn one or the other I view as an unhelpful ideological position at this stage of our understanding and evolution.

Two Roads to the Future

41We have more information and analysis now than ever before to inform our policy decisions. Formerly, non-Aboriginals dominated the policy discussions of Aboriginal issues. This was especially true for status Indians. By definition wards are, after all, objects of policy determined by paternal authorities, not participants in its making. For the last thirty years, in contrast, we have had a dialogue with extensive and growing Aboriginal participation. The scholarly community studying Aboriginal issues is now dramatically larger than even a quarter of a century ago. Non-Aboriginals still dominate the field, but scholarly contributions from Aboriginal academics are on the increase. Further, non-Aboriginal academics are aware that their scholarly authority no longer flows automatically from their skin colour. These are all positive developments. Nevertheless, I argue that our understanding is imperfect, that there are immense gaps in our knowledge, that ideology plays too prominent a role, and that the inevitable politicization of a field in which nationalism and the response to it is the dominant focus often gets in the way of realism.

  • 3 As always, there are exceptions to a simple contrast between self-governing nations and urban life (...)

42Whether we speak of Aboriginal policy writ large to include Indians, Inuit, and Métis or focus only on the status Indian population – the largest of the constitutionally recognized “Aboriginal peoples” – the reality is that there are two roads to the future – the self-government road and the urban route. This is obvious from even a casual acquaintance with elementary demographic data – half of the Aboriginal people live in urban centres.3

43Amazingly, the coexistence of these alternative futures, which should be thought of as complementary, is consistently, if not almost systematically, overlooked or deprecated by those who have cast their votes either for the nation-government route and who see urban life as a distraction or a threat, or by those who see self-government as slowing down the desirable migration to the job opportunities of the city. I argue for acceptance of the coexistence of these two roads to the future, coupled with the belief that each road merits the attention of policy-makers and analysts.

  • 4 Aboriginal students in post-secondary programs are much more likely than other Canadians to select (...)

44My reasons are elementary. Both roads exist and, as noted above, have about the same number of travellers. Of the status Indian population 42 per cent live off reserve, and 58 per cent live either on reserve (54 per cent) or on crown (4 per cent) land (1996 figures, Canada 1997b:xiv). When Métis and Inuit are included, about half of the Aboriginal population overall is urban. Generally speaking, these two roads lead to different goals. The self-government option, especially when it is practised with competence and integrity, can be a valuable instrument for cultural retention and renewal. The urban option, by its very nature, is more attuned to participation in non-Aboriginal society, with the resultant probability of higher income, less unemployment, and so on. Neither of these goals deserves to be deprecated as such – to be defined as unworthy, as representing an irrational choice. To opt for urban life is not an act of betrayal. To remain in an Aboriginal community, in part because that is where ‘home’ is, is not to opt for the past4.

45The fact that both routes exist and that they serve different purposes suggests that they should not be judged by the same criteria. Cultural survival and the modernization of tradition may be the appropriate and priority criteria for judging self-governing nations. Economic opportunities and higher incomes and other pursuits congenial to urban living are the appropriate criteria for assessing Aboriginal urban life. When the RCAP Report foresaw a future in which Aboriginal peoples would be proportionally represented in such prestigious professions as “doctors... biotechnologists... computer specialists... professors, archaeologists and... other careers” (Canada 1996, 3:501) it was not referring to options available in small rural nations. To compare small rural nations with urban settings in terms of their respective capacities to sustain such professions would be to cook the books in favour of urban life. Equally, however, to make cultural renewal the prime criterion for judging the relative merits of urban living and self-governing nations is to predetermine the outcome against the urban setting. Each road to the future should be judged in terms of criteria appropriate to its virtues. This does not mean that economic criteria are irrelevant to judging self-government, nor that cultural criteria have no place in judging the urban situation, but that their relative significance varies according to the setting.

46Clarity is not helped by attaching scare words to one or the other route. ‘Assimilation’ brandished as an aggressive description of the consequences of urban living – sometimes of course by its non-Aboriginal supporters – stigmatizes Aboriginals in the city. Assimilation implies losing oneself in someone else's culture. Further, since assimilation was the official, historical policy of the Canadian state, to be accused of having been assimilated suggests succumbing to a policy initially premised on the inferiority of Indian cultures. Of course, assimilation rhetoric often presupposes that an Aboriginal identity can only survive if it manifests itself in vastly different behaviours and beliefs from those of the non-Aboriginal majority. This is simply simplistic social psychology. Identity divergence and cultural convergence are obviously compatible. Is this not what has happened among the Québec Francophone majority? Culturally, convergence of values with Anglophone Canada is well advanced compared to half a century ago. On the other hand, a nationalist identity is unquestionably stronger. This, however, is not to suggest that identity loss never occurs, or to deny that after several generations of intermarriage in urban settings, individuals may retain only a sliver of Aboriginal culture and be happy with what and who they have become. To say that this could never happen is a form of blindness. To assert that it not be allowed to happen is to deny individual choice. However, my larger point remains – a modernizing, urban Aboriginality is perfectly compatible with the retention of a strong Aboriginal identity.

47Equally unhelpful are scare words attached to the separate existence of Indian communities. In the assimilation era, reserves were pejoratively referred to as the Gulag Archipelago, as representative of apartheid, and as equivalent to displaced persons camps. More recently, given the drive to self-government, they have been criticized as making “race the constitutive factor of the political order” and as “based on a closed racial principle” (Flanagan 2000:194). These are all rhetorical devices to foreclose debate. Indian communities, unlike provincial communities, will be closed communities in the minimum sense of controlling their own membership. To describe them as “race based” (Gibson 2000), however, is not helpful, given the high rate of intermarriage. Further, at the present time, only about 5 per cent of Indian bands employ “blood quantum” criteria for membership and they were reproved by RCAP (Canada 1996, 2 (l):237–40).

48The existence of two roads to the future constitutes the fundamental reality against which should be judged the adequacy of the distribution of attention, of research, and in general, of all attempts to throw light on where we are and might go. From nearly every perspective, the urban dimension of Aboriginality is relegated to secondary importance, when it is not completely ignored. The recurrent use of the colonial analogy contributes to the neglect of the urban situation. The language of nation fits poorly with urban Aboriginals; the possibilities for self-government are limited. Accordingly, since neither nation (as the actor to battle colonialism) nor significant powers of self-government (the purpose of the struggle) make as much sense in the urban setting, urban Aboriginals remain largely outside the purview of one of the most potent organizing labels in contemporary discourse. They are, therefore, naturally overlooked. The leading role of the academic legal community includes paying scant attention to the urban situation, which, in truth, does not lend itself as readily to analysis in terms of Aboriginal rights. Further, the urban setting lacks a compelling, simplifying focus equal to the appeal of nationalism and self-government as self-evident good causes for scholars to support. The urban scene presents a host of discrete practical problems that resist consolidation under a single rubric.

49Indeed, when the heady language of nationalism, of treaties, of inherent rights to self-government, and of nation-to-nation relations casts its aura over one route to the future – self-government and cultural renewal – the second, urban route, which can easily be portrayed negatively in terms of youth gangs, Aboriginal ghettos in the urban core, language loss, and high rates of intermarriage, can be seen as an embarrassment. Indeed, it may even be seen as the road that obviously should not have been taken.

50The nation and self-government focus of academics simply duplicates the historical operational bias of the federal department of Indian Affairs which, in administering the Indian Act, 1985, concentrated overwhelmingly on reserve-based Indian communities. The focus on Indian land-based communities is reinforced by the fact that the strongest and most visible national Aboriginal organization, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), rests squarely on the Indian bands/nations, whose status is governed by the Indian Act, 1985. For nearly twenty years, the most visible Aboriginal leader has been the Grand Chief of the AFN.

51The favourable bias toward Aboriginal (especially Indian) nations and their self-government is graphically underlined by the RCAP Report, that is dominated by the nation-to-nation theme, contrasted with what it portrays as a “rootless urban existence” (Canada 1996, 2 (2):1023). This negative judgment of the urban situation supports the focus on nation and on self-government as its servant for the task of cultural renewal. Alternatively, the nation preference, supported by a global ethnic revival and by a colonial analysis that sees self-government as the culmination of the anti-colonial struggle, requires a negative view of urban Aboriginal life, seen as getting in the way of the movement of history.

52From these perspectives, urban Aboriginal life is distinctly unpromising. Urban Aboriginals come from too many diverse nations to coalesce into a sharing, self-governing group even if they had a coherent land base, which they do not. Further, urban Aboriginal life is, by definition, the setting for increased cultural contact leading both to cultural erosion and the diminishing use of native languages and traditional customs. From the cultural perspective, therefore, urban living is easily viewed as a threat, not as a promise, and those who choose it are seen by its critics as, in a sense, lost to the cause.

53Further, especially in the major cities of western Canada, but not confined to them, the Aboriginal concentration in urban core areas has depressing ghetto characteristics. Crime, drug abuse, youth gangs, violence, and prostitution are widespread (LaPrairie 1995). Recent reports speak of normlessness; of a fractured social fabric; and “the emergence of Canada's first US-style slum” in Winnipeg, evident to even a “casual visitor,” and becoming evident in “other Prairie cities” (Mendelson and Battle 1999:25; National Association of Friendship Centres and the Law Commission of Canada 1999:63-5).

54In the absence of some countervailing evidence, the preceding passages would constitute an almost unanswerable condemnation of the urban route. There is, however, another side. The RCAP outlined numerous positive features of urban life. The employment situation is superior; incomes are markedly higher; urban Indian people have the highest life expectancy among Aboriginal peoples; various indicators of social breakdown are much higher for the on reserve compared to the non-reserve population (Cairns 2000: chap. 4). As well, preliminary findings of the Department of Indian Affairs Research and Analysis Directorate, based on 1991 data, reported a marked advantage for off-reserve status Indians in terms of life expectancy, educational attainment, and per capita income. Life expectancy was 4.6 years longer and per capita income 50 per cent higher (Beavon and Cooke 1998). Evelyn Peters reported “a significant urban Aboriginal population earning a good income” of $40,000 or more in 1990 (Peters 1994: 28 and Table 15).

55These trends feed on the truly dramatic increase in the number of Aboriginal post-secondary graduates. In the late 1950s, there were only a handful of Indian university students. In 1969, there were fewer than 800 Aboriginal post-secondary graduates. Now, more than 150,000 Aboriginal people have completed or are in post-secondary education (Borrows 1999:75). There was an increase in the number of Inuit and Indian students enrolled in post-secondary institutions of nearly 750 per cent from the numbers in 1977-1978 to the more than 27,000 reported in 1999-2000 (Canada 1997a: 36 and 2001:33).

56This dramatic educational expansion, and the urbanization to which it will contribute, will almost certainly increase the out-marriage rate (see also Clatworthy and Smith 1992:36). In a recent study employing five-year data ending in December 1995, the overall out-marriage rate was 33 per cent, ranging from 22.8 per cent out-marriage on reserve to 57.4 per cent off-reserve. In general, the smaller the reserve population, the higher the out-marriage rate (Canada 1997b:21-3).

57It is implausible to assume not only that this educational explosion can be contained but also that most graduates can have satisfying lives and find meaningful employment in small, self-governing nations with a weak private sector. This remains largely true even if, by a process of consolidation, the average population of self-governing nations is raised to the viable level of 5,000-7,000, as advocated by the RCAP.

58Further, as John Borrows argues, Aboriginal peoples should seek to influence the overall structure of the larger society through vigorous participation. For Borrows, to think of Indianness, or more broadly Aboriginality, as restricted to self-governing, small national communities is to be condemned to a limited and partial existence. Borrows argues, in effect, that the expression of a modernizing Aboriginality should be diffused throughout society in politics, culture, the professions, and so on. He denies that Aboriginality is a fixed thing; he is obviously open to a selective incorporation of values and practices of non-Aboriginal society. As he says “Identity is constantly undergoing renegotiation. We are traditional, modern, and post-modern people” (Borrows 1999:77). Accordingly, the self-governing component of Aboriginal futures, while important, is by itself not enough. Neither, however, is the urban route.

59Hundreds (sixty to eighty if RCAP hopes for consolidation are realized – more if they are not) of small, self-governing native communities will be scattered across the land, wielding jurisdictions proportionate to their capacity and desire. They are not about to disappear in any foreseeable future. Aboriginal and treaty rights “recognized and affirmed” in the Constitution Act, 1982 s. 35(1), cannot be removed by anything short of a constitutional amendment, the pursuit of which would be an unthinkable act of constitutional aggression. The relocation of communities is not possible. Dispossession of lands and setting band members adrift is not a policy choice. A ruthless cutting of benefits to encourage exodus is neither humane nor an available option. Any expeditious attempt to wind down the existence of small, self-governing nations would arouse an opposition that could not be overcome in a democratic society. Such a policy cannot be implemented; even if it could, to do so would be undesirable. The result would be a rapid exodus to the city that would add many more individuals to the dark side of urban life and would exacerbate the developing Aboriginal urban crisis while adding few success stories.

60If we eliminate the pipe dreams of assimilation advocates from the spectrum of available policies, we are left with about half the Aboriginal population living in small, self-governing communities: these communities are not going to go away. They are sustained not only by inertia and by the fact that they are home, but their survival is buttressed by Aboriginal and treaty rights. The powerful force of nationalism can be mobilized on their behalf. Although limited by small populations, the availability of self-government provides some leverage for Aboriginal peoples to shape the terms of interaction with the majority society.

61Further, Canadians through their governments are now engaged in major efforts to respond to Indian land claims where Aboriginal title still exists-most visibly in British Columbia, but also in Québec and Atlantic Canada. Discussions are underway to enlarge the land and resource base of many First Nations. When the preceding efforts are coupled with various attempts to increase economic activity on Indian reserves, the continuing significance and presence of self-governing Aboriginal communities is one of the taken-for-granteds of the Canadian future.

62Neither the self-government route nor the urban route is an easy road to an unblemished, positive future for Aboriginal peoples or for their relations with their non-Aboriginal neighbours. The urban route, as already indicated, holds out the disturbing possibility in several metropolitan centres of becoming a Canadian version of those American cities that have a black middle class coexisting with a black ghetto. The Canadian parallel of an urban Aboriginal middle class and an Aboriginal ghetto could undermine the civility and social stability of a number of Canada's major metropolitan centres.

63There is no easy answer to this unhappy prospect. The present relative inattention to the chequered reality of urban Aboriginal life is, however, obviously damaging. Since it would be arrogant of me to make specific recommendations, that would almost inevitably be either obvious, platitudinous, or superficial, I will restrict myself to the observation that we have studies and a literature that is helpful. Seen But Not Heard: Native People in the Inner City, by LaPrairie, is an excellent analysis, replete with policy suggestions and references to the pertinent literature (La Prairie 1994).

64The route of self-governing nations, even if there were no more outstanding claims and if existing lands and resources were significantly supplemented, will not produce across-the-board successes – healthy, Aboriginal communities, functioning democratically, whose members have standards of living comparable with neighbouring non-Aboriginal communities. Most communities are small; many are isolated; and the politics of which are often dominated by kinship relations in circumstances where the public sector is large and the private sector weak. Conditions are therefore often not propitious for victories over poverty, anomie, and existing inequalities.

65The RCAP Report launched a comprehensive package of proposals, too detailed to be listed here, to improve the quality of Aboriginal life in every major dimension. Achievement of these goals, the report argued, required an extensive reallocation of lands and resources, economic opportunity expenditures, major improvements in housing and community infrastructure, dramatically enhanced educational opportunities and attainments, including training 10,000 Aboriginal professionals in health and social services within ten years, and much more (Canada 1996, 5:213).

66The RCAP Report proposed a massive increase in annual public spending, rising to an additional $1.5 to $2 billion in year five, to be sustained over a number of years (Canada 1996, 5:56). Elsewhere the report wrote of an investment of up two billion a year for twenty years (Canada 1996, 5:60). This was defined as a “good investment for all Canadians” (Canada 1996, 5:55), as after fifteen to twenty years the positive benefits of these expenditures would generate a net gain, that would benefit both Aboriginal people and other Canadians and then governments (Canada 1996,5:57). This cost-benefit analysis is surely at best somewhere between an educated guess and a leap of faith. Even assuming the translation of RCAP proposals into government policy, many Aboriginal nations will remain impoverished, welfare dependent, and anomic.

67Canada does not have a clean slate. The legacy of history cannot be wished away. The present distribution of Aboriginal peoples in towns, cities, reserves, in Nunavut, and elsewhere is not going to be transformed by depopulating the reserves, or Nunavut, or Métis settlements in Alberta by a massive migration to urban settings. But it is equally the case that the urban Aboriginal presence is not a passing phase to be repudiated by a massive return to various homelands. Many Aboriginals in the city have no homelands or, if they do, have no desire to return. Both these realities will confront Canadians in any middle range future we care to visualize. There will always be movements of individuals back and forth for a multitude of reasons. Where self-government successes occur, those nations may receive a net inflow, if the would-be returnees are welcomed (Canada 1997b:5). Conversely, if positive urban Aboriginal role models become more frequent, urban life may become more of a beacon – seen as a plausible choice to make.

68The coexistence of alternative futures should be viewed positively. Since the two routes do not have the same advantages – cultural renewal may be more likely in self-governing contexts and economic gains for individuals more predictable in urban settings – each route acts as a check against the other. They are complementary rivals, especially for those who have homelands to which they can return.

69In these circumstances, the task of the state is to encourage both successful adaptation of individuals to urban life and community success stories in self-governing nations.

Policy for the Future

70Sound future policy requires an evolving understanding of what is developing in two different contexts. A series of natural experiments is unfolding at this very moment. There are hundreds of nation-renewing experiments already, or soon to be, underway. What works and what does not, and why? Multiple experiments are underway in urban settings too, and their significance will surely deepen and more innovations will occur as more urban governments and politicians are seized of the complexities, the dangers, and the possibilities created by the urban Aboriginal population.

71If, by constant monitoring, we were made aware of what works and what does not, we could facilitate the diffusion of successful practices among both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal governments. Achievement of this goal will require independent monitoring bodies to examine and report on both roads to the future. Similar proposals have surfaced in previous inquiries. The Hawthorn Report of 1966-67 proposed an Indian Progress Agency with the task of “preparing an annual progress report on the condition of the Indian people of Canada” to include, inter alia, educational, legal, economic, and social data and analysis (Hawthorn 1966, 1:402-3). The purpose was to improve the quality of policy-making and public discussion and hence, in general, to act as a constant reminder of what remains to be done.

72Thirty years later, the RCAP proposed an independent Aboriginal Peoples Review Commission headed by an Aboriginal chief commissioner, with most of the other commissioners and staff also to be Aboriginal. The Commission's task would be to monitor and report annually on progress being made “to honour and implement existing treaties... in achieving self-government and providing an adequate lands and resource base for Aboriginal peoples... in improving the social and economic well-being of Aboriginal people; and... in honouring governments' commitments and implementing” RCAP recommendations (Canada 1996, 5:19-20). The Commission's focus would be broad. It would include “the activities of provincial and territorial governments within its review” (Canada 1996, 5:19). The essential task would be to act as a watchdog to see that non-Aboriginal governments do not slacken in their endeavours. Judging the performance of Aboriginal governments does not appear as part of its mandate, however, though some monitoring might indirectly be undertaken by RCAP's proposed Aboriginal Government Transition Centre, which would be assigned various tasks to facilitate successful transitions to self-government (Canada 1996, 5:167-69). The Transition Centre would presumably have only minimal, if any, interest in Aboriginal peoples in urban settings.

73The proposal offered here is more complex than that proposed in either Hawthorn or the RCAP. The recommendation is for two monitoring agencies. Implicitly they would be providing annual material to facilitate the comparison between an urban route and a self-government route. Explicitly, they will provide ongoing commentary and analysis – in the one case on the probably hundreds of self-government experiments underway and in the other on the developing indicators of achievements and shortfalls in urban Aboriginal life.

74Surely such an ongoing set of monitoring and analyzing reports would reduce the ideology that dominates contemporary discussion. How these agencies should be institutionalized and how their analyses should be disseminated to have maximum effect would have to be worked out. The proposal may seem threatening, even paternalistic, especially to self-governing nations. Relatively soon, and possibly even immediately, however, the staffs of these agencies will have Aboriginal majorities. This is not the time for specifics, but rather for throwing out an idea for public discussion. Those who resist the proposal should suggest alternative means by which we can profitably learn from the fact that we are in the early stages of major policy experiments in areas where our ignorance is vast. To reduce that ignorance is to reduce the cost it imposes on Aboriginal peoples. Some will deny that these are experiments and thus there is nothing to learn, but such claims are not believable. Others might argue that if self-government is an inherent right, the manner of its exercise should be immune from public scrutiny. Such a claim will only survive if evidence of misgovernment is rare or sporadic, which is implausible given the number of small nations potentially involved and the immense problems and temptations they will encounter.

75Both routes-the self-government and the urban – place the Aboriginal future directly within Canada. Even the largest unit of self-government, Nunavut, is clearly fully within Canada and deeply dependent on external funding. This will be overwhelmingly true for First Nations. They cannot realistically isolate themselves from the provincial, territorial, and Canadian contexts in which they live. Only 5 per cent of Indian bands – 30 out of 623 – have on reserve populations of more than 2,000; 405 of 623 bands have on reserve populations of less than 500. There are 111 bands with on reserve populations of less than one hundred (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada 1997: xvi). The RCAP reports that a “disproportionate number of Aboriginal people live in small, remote, and northern communities” (Canada 1996, 5:39). The RCAP recognized that the jurisdictions they are capable of wielding are severely limited, so the commissioners recommended aggregating bands to produce an average size of 5,000 to 7,000 for the sixty to eighty nations they hoped would emerge. These are still small populations, with a limited capacity to deliver services. Their populations, therefore, will be heavily dependent on federal and provincial governments for many services; the services they will receive from their own governments can only be provided if their governments are recipients of large infusions of outside monies. This double dependence makes it imperative that individual members of self-governing nations be thought of as full Canadian citizens in the psychological and sociological sense of the term. It is for this reason that the Hawthorn Report of the mid-1960s coined the phrase “Citizens plus” as an appropriate description of the place of Indian peoples in Canadian society. (Inuit and Métis were outside Hawthorn's terms of reference.) If Aboriginal individuals and the communities where they live are seen as strangers proclaiming “we are not you,” the danger arises that the majority will agree that “they are not us.” We must constantly work towards a common citizenship to support the “we” group that sustains our responsibility for each other. This will provide the secure basis for pursuing the “plus” dimension of Aboriginal Canadians.

76Recognition as members of the Canadian community of citizens is equally necessary for Aboriginals in the city. Intermingled with non-Aboriginal neighbours, with at best only limited self-government possibilities, their links to municipal, provincial, and the federal government will be crucial to their quality of life.

77In both cases, therefore, it is essential that Aboriginal people be thought of as fellow citizens. In contemporary, democratic Western societies, citizenship provides the bonds of solidarity. Empathy weakens when citizenship erodes. At a certain point in the erosion, we see each other as strangers, owing little to each other.

78If this thesis is accepted, one responsibility of our governors and of the major Aboriginal organizations will be to work constantly for a reconciliation between Aboriginal nationalism and Canadian citizenship. This is also an appropriate, indeed urgent, responsibility for scholars who wish to influence the course of events. The RCAP, the most elaborate inquiry into indigenous peoples and their relation to the majority society ever undertaken, failed in this task. The idea and reality of Aboriginal nations and nationalism crowded out that of Canadian citizenship. Discussion of the former was fulsome, passionate, and repeated. Discussion of the latter – mention is perhaps more accurate – was infrequent and typically lukewarm, except when claims for equality apropos the receipt of services were made. Thus, the shared rule dimension of Canadian federalism-participation in the Canadian practice of self-government via elections and Parliament-was little more than an afterthought. Access of Aboriginal governments to section 36 equalization payments did not receive the standard justification that it is a response to our common shared citizenship; instead it was justified on the weak claim that we share an economy.

79In other words, the RCAP, the most exhaustive inquiry ever undertaken of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations in Canada, failed to ask the elementary question “What will hold us together?” and thus the RCAP failed to answer it. This is a mistake that should not be repeated.


80Realism suggests the following:

  • There are two roads to the future: the nation or self-government road and the urban route; both require the attention of policymakers.
  • Both roads can be thought of as natural experiments that need to be carefully monitored so we can learn from success and avoid the needless repetition of policy errors. Accordingly, two monitoring, analyzing, reporting agencies should be established to reduce the number of gaps in our knowledge.
  • Both roads are clearly within Canada. Canada is not just a box or container, but a political community bound together by a solidarity based on citizenship. Aboriginal peoples must be part of, not outside, that community. A nation-to-nation description of who we are is insufficient. Aboriginal nationhood and Canadian citizenship should not be seen as rivals, but as complementary patterns of belonging to a complex political order. If we recognize only our diversities, “we” will become an uncaring aggregation of solitudes.



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1 The politicization of this policy area generates unusually polemical scholarly debates, as well as exchanges between authors and reviewers that threaten civility.

2 An important research project remains to be undertaken to 1) identify the changing relation between Aboriginal peoples and those who study them, and 2) assess the shifting relative influence of various disciplines. The hegemony of law is less than a quarter of a century old. Such a study should also track the emergent, growing role of indigenous scholars in the major disciplines. In doing so, it should also note their distribution among the three categories of Aboriginal people-Indian, Inuit, and Métis.

3 As always, there are exceptions to a simple contrast between self-governing nations and urban life, where nation has limited salience. There are urban reserves and urban nations. Further, some, albeit limited options for self-government can be made available to urban Aboriginals. Nevertheless, the contrast between self-government for Aboriginal nations and an urban existence is sufficiently real to focus discussion around these two alternative visions of the future.

4 Aboriginal students in post-secondary programs are much more likely than other Canadians to select trade non-university programmes than university programs – 76 per cent to 24 per cent for registered Indians; 70 per cent to 30 per cent for other Aboriginal students, compared to 58 per cent to 42 per cent for other Canadians (1991 figures) (Santiago 1997: 14-16).


Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo and Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia where he taught Political Science from 1960 to 1995. He has received honorary degrees from Carleton University, University of Toronto, and the University of British Columbia. Officer of the Order of Canada and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, he is the author and editor of books and articles on Canadian politics, historical development of Canadian federalism, the Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and Aboriginal/non Aboriginal relations. His most recent publication is Citizens Plus: Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian State (2000)

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