Cecil Chabot August 08, 2012
Northern Ontario First Nations are preparing 30-day eviction notices for mining companies operating in a mineral-rich zone known the Ring of Fire.
Will their action win support among the 64 per cent of Canadians who think "aboriginal peoples receive too much support from Canadian taxpayers"?
According to Ipsos Reid president Darrell Bricker, that negative sentiment is a sign of Canadians' frustration with the "ongoing inability to get started in modern society that exists within the aboriginal communities."
When Kashechewan and Attawapiskat make the news, other Canadians get a glimpse of the young and expanding aboriginal populations who live on the front line of that frustration. But few of us have sustained contact with these communities. As a result, "Canadians seem as oblivious to the plight of aboriginal people as they are to their own vulnerability should aboriginal anger boil over into insurrection," says defence expert Douglas Bland. His 2010 novel Uprising is about just such an insurrection.
Can protest or insurrection accomplish anything? Some years ago, the Quebec magazine L'Actualité published an article on the prosperity gap that persists between Cree in Ontario and Quebec. The Quebec Cree seem to have figured out how "to get started in modern society" - and it began with protests.
When the provincial government announced plans to launch the massive James Bay hydroelectric project, the Cree protested and secured a court injunction, forcing Quebec to negotiate what became the 1975 James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement. Chief Billy Diamond commented: "It has been a tough fight, but . . . (our people) realize that they must share their resources."
Hydro-Québec completed its megaproject, and with the compensation they received in return the Cree set about the task of building the infrastructure and capacity necessary to participate in the very modernization that had threatened their lands and livelihoods. Taking a page from Quebec nationalists and standing up as "masters in their own house," the Quebec Cree avoided being reduced to a socioeconomic liability.
What can be learned from this?
First, we must stop looking at aboriginal Canadians as socioeconomic liabilities or aboriginal rights as a threat to Canadian prosperity. As the head of BMO's aboriginal banking unit has pointed out, Canada needs the "capacity, creativity and skills" of its aboriginal citizens. Like the Quebec Cree, many of them are quietly making enormous contributions to their communities and their country, individually and collectively through mutually beneficial resource development ventures in their traditional territories.
Second, if we remove the obstacles preventing other aboriginal peoples from getting "started in modern society," we will also save millions of tax dollars that are currently wasted on managing, bandaging or avoiding the consequences and liabilities of neglecting aboriginal peoples and their rights.
Third, implementing aboriginal rights is not a threat to Canadian unity. Quebec separatism is in decline because Québécois no longer see a threat to their "aboriginal" rights vis-à-vis English Canadian "newcomers." Likewise, Cree separatism within Quebec is also on the decline because Cribécois - as one Cree leader put it - see good things coming out of their new relationship with Quebec. This relationship was just renewed with the signing of a regional government agreement that shares authority between Cree and non-aboriginal residents of James Bay.
Fourth, except where our dysfunctional system has allowed it, aboriginal rights are not "race-based" or "special." Rather, they are inherent rights that require special attention, at least until the formal legal and political framework fully acknowledges and protects aboriginal peoples' prior relationships to the land, resources and each other.
Fifth, the essence of what aboriginal peoples ask for is what non-aboriginal Canadians take for granted. Who among us worries about newcomers showing up one day and driving a bulldozer into our backyard, building a dam that will flood our farmland or community, or marginalizing us in our own homeland?
Sixth, if non-aboriginal Canadians have their "aboriginal" rights protected already, what we need to do is extend the same protection to aboriginal people. Until we do this, northern Ontario's First Nations are right to protest, and we may finally get beyond the aboriginal vs. non-aboriginal divide, while still remaining Cree, Anishinabe, Québécois, Canadian and whatever else we may become.
Voicing our support for these First Nations can lead to co-operative and mutually beneficial development of the Ring of Fire - and avoid the spectre of an "uprising" against imposed and unco-operative development that takes aboriginal northerners out of a decision process that they have every right to be at the centre of.
Cecil Chabot is a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa and a member of the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development at the University of Saskatchewan.