The trickery behind Justin Trudeau’s reconciliation talk

Jeffrey Ansloos: Decolonization through abolition of the Indian Act is not ‘modernization’—it’s political revolution. Does Ottawa have the stomach for it?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, celebrate National Indigenous Peoples Day in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 21, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Trudeau, with Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

My grandfather once said: “Sometimes you are better off dealing with the devil because at least you know he wants to hurt you. But beware of the trickster, he’s a sweet talker, before you know it, you’ll have to rent the land you own.” His advice seemed all the more relevant on Thursday as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a speech to the United Nations  that aimed to take global one of his party’s most successful talking points: reconciliation.

In the 2015 election, reconciliation was dripping off everyone’s lips. “Nation-to-nation” was a regular catchphrase for TrudeauTom Mulcair, and Elizabeth May. Except for Harper, all candidates committed to a MMIWG Inquiry. The calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) were a catalyst for Indigenous voters and other Canadians. In the years leading up to the final report of the TRC, the impact of Idle No More had awakened the political conscience of the country, and while the conciliatory action of apology by the Harper government in 2008 was once heralded as a success, the TRC made clear that which Harper later denied: that Canada is a settler-colonial state. Legitimacy of the Canadian state rests upon treaties with Indigenous nations. This land was never terra nullius. When former prime minister Pierre Trudeau called the legacies of the Indian Act, “the Indian Problem” he misrepresented the facts: Canada has a colonial problem, and it begins and ends with illegal occupation and treaty noncompliance. All of Canada is Indigenous land. This guarantees inalienable rights. Despite the failure of the education system to teach this history, Canadians have become engaged in these issues and were mobilized by the promise of treaty renewal. But have we been tricked?

RELATED: Trudeau slips a challenge to Indigenous leaders

The federal Liberals emphasize cultural recognition as their approach to this renewal. Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has said “it is incumbent upon all of us to make reconciliation based on recognition work for all.” But what does recognition mean if it fails to honour the sovereignty of Indigenous people? While Liberals are unafraid to talk about reconciliation, their version precludes questioning the legitimacy of the Canadian state that has been in perpetual violation of its own treaties since Confederation. Liberal recognition takes pride in Indigenous representation to ensure that the cabinet “looks like Canada,” while ignoring Indigenous governance and instead favouring tepid consultation with federally structured band councils and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). It gazes adoringly at Indigenous children singing, yet betrays those same children by failing to comply with human rights rulings vital to their welfare. It spins the renaming Aboriginal to Indigenous in ministerial titles, because words and symbolic gestures matter, while, evidently, when it comes to movement on clean drinking water actions do not. It champions the idea of rights, while simultaneously opposing the Indigenous right to veto impositions on land and water, profiting from territorial exploitation. Reconciliation talk equips politicians with rhetoric, but material justice for Indigenous people is fleeting.

Liberals have begun using the term decolonizing to describe their ambiguous plans to modernize the Indian Act. It is unclear what Trudeau thinks the word decolonization means, but his modernization does not question the persistent colonial supremacy of Canada—it just makes it sound gentler. Decolonization means the material unsettling of the colonial state. While movements for Indigenous self-determinism have taken many forms, decolonization has historically resulted in revolutions.

Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada speaks during the 72nd session of the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on September 21,2017. / AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Trudeau speaks Thursday during the 72nd session of the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

Decolonizing the Indian Act is not a modernizing; it is a political revolution. The unexpected division of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) into the new Ministry of Crown and Indigenous Relations and Ministry of Indigenous Services has been framed as a decades in-waiting follow-up to the dusty pages of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), which is a convenient cover for what is undoubtedly the most significant federal Indigenous policy change in recent historyyet one that has had almost no recent public consultation. In the new model, the government determines which First Nations are “ready” for self-governance, and those that are “not quite ready” will continue to be subjected to federal oversight of services. While Liberals suggest this is all aimed at dismantling patriarchy, it falls short on paternalism. AFN Chief Perry Bellegarde is cautiously optimistic, he has also called for an independent treaty commissioner. While Bennett believes this decision to divide INAC is “a story about decolonizing,” it is unclear as to how this decision results in Indigenous political emancipation.

RELATED: Moving from talk to action on Indigenous affairs

In the 1970s, the White Paper proposed by the first Trudeau Government attempted to abolish Indigenous status. The White Paper was ultimately abandoned because it failed to recognize the special rights of Indigenous peoples within the Canadian state, and the inherent rights of Indigenous nations to self-determinism and political sovereignty. As a policy proposal, it supported the extermination of Indigenous political identity with the aim of creating a subsumed demographic within the Canadian state. This was an early attempt to scrap the Indian Act. It has become trendy for politicians to discuss the abolition of the Indian Act. NDP MPs and leadership candidates Niki Ashton and Charlie Angus have made strong cases for decolonization, with Angus going as far as to suggest the abolition of INAC and presumably its legislative mandate in the Indian Act. Just this week, Conservative Senator Lynn Beyak, famous for her ignorant revisionist comments on Indian Residential Schools, spoke to what she called ‘the Indian Act Industry’ and advocated for a renewed emphasis on assimilationist Indigenous policies.

The Indian Act is a double edged sword. It continues be a colonial structure which renders Indigenous peoples as subject to Crown interests. Through its administration, it has targeted Indigenous people, especially women and children, at times denying basic human rights. Indigenous people have been materially dispossessed, subject to apartheid economics, Indian residential schools and eugenics. There are good reasons to abolish the Indian Act, but abolition alone is a tricky proposal. The Indian Act cannot be disentangled from a broader conversation about the structures needed to guarantee Indigenous rights and treaty relationships. Nor can reconciliation be a top-down process that excludes Indigenous leadership, grassroots activists and Indigenous scholars. Ultimately, abolition requires a new constitutional relationship, and the structures necessary to guarantee that new relationship have not been made explicit by this government.

RELATED: How a new kind of resolution process can support reconciliation

A decolonial future is possible but it will require Indigenous-Canadian political imagination. It creates a future where multiple sovereignties exist in the same geographic space without exploitation; where self-determined Indigenous governments are engaged as constitutional partners; where there are material redistributions of power that give force to Indigenous rights. Canada is not a modern state, it is a modern colonial state, where treaties demand justice, and where Indigenous self-determinism must be governed by Indigenous peoples. We need an education on what it means to be a treaty confederation, and this will require renewed treaties at every level of the state, with new mechanisms for compliance.

Abolishing the Indian Act should be centred in the future of Indigenous peoples, not settler-colonial political interest. And while the current calls for decolonization and abolition sound sweet, until “what comes next” is made clear, I for one worry about tricksters in our midst.

Jeffrey Ansloos is assistant professor of human and social development at the University of Victoria and a fellow of the Centre for Indigenous Research and Community-Led Engagement.



The trickery behind Justin Trudeau’s reconciliation talk

  1. Trickery?

    I do wish the media would act as the media…..and not as the Official Opposition,

    • Komarade E1 you mean like TrudeauVision® (CBC)…??

      • Sorry, I don’t watch TV

    • Just doing their job ensuring everyone sees surfer dude for what he is-a scammer.

    • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, while in opposition, promised to implement all 94 recommendations once in government as part of a commitment to improve Canada’s relations with Indigenous people.

      “We need nothing less than a total renewal of the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples,” said Trudeau. “I give you my word that we will renew and respect that relationship.”

      The report’s 94 calls to action are meant to remedy this problem, and emphasize greater investment in health care, education, employment opportunities, economic development, and clean water for Indigenous communities, as well as government accountability for failures of the past and present.

      To date Trudeau has implemented ZERO of the recommendations!!! Those are the FACTS!!!

  2. Since “decolonization” will precipitate a constitutional crisis anyways, why not replace the House of Windsor, ie Saxe-Cobourgs, as titular heads of the “Crown” – from which all Canada’s laws gain legitimacy – with a chosen indigenous family to pass on the hereditary title for centuries to come? Canada’s laws would then be based in Indigenous spiritual traditions rather than Christianity. We would, in one fell swoop, encompass not just our Indigenous people but those of other global origins.

  3. Where do people come up with this nonsense? No one alive today made any of the agreements referred to. Certainly not me. In a world where equality is considered a high value, this insistence on dividing us up by race runs counter to this. Apartheid refered to in this article, enshrined special rights and obligations to people based on their race. The writer seems to welcome this. Todays situation is what it is. Instead of moving backwards, lets move forward and do what is best for EVERYONE in Canada equally. I am no colonizer.I was born and raised here just like the people living on the reserves and unless they are older than 62, they have not lived here longer than me. Lets get rid of the reserve system and its unsustainable communities and bring these people into mainstream society so they can benefit from everythngn that our society has to offer. A little prosperity never hurt anybody.

    • PAULJAY you make way way way too much sense. These days racism is good, the progressives embrace it. The legal profession, politicians, social activists and others twist themselves into pretzels trying to deny all the rights based on race isn’t racism. Like the nose on my face; it’s not really a nose, it’s a nostril and that’s completely different. What rubbish.

      • I for one, went into a little store in Cape Breton in the late eighties and asked the short, South Asian proprietor for pretzels. He pretended not to know what pretzels were and would not sell any to me. This is why I have never gone back to Cape Breton nor do I trust these Indians.

  4. This article looks at the issue of colonialism through a backwards telescope: perhaps/hopefully the intent is some sort of reductionism to make a point or more likely just more evidence of how effectively British colonialism has been embedded into all corners of Canadian society. British colonialism is founded on differentiation by race, status, gender and religion: the logical conclusion is that certain individuals by virtue of certain attributes are naturally superior and have a God given right to be on top. The basic ideas are inculcated into the population at large including the educational system so that much of it is reduced to common understanding: as minor example, ‘everybody’ knows that John Cabot, i.e. not Giovani Caboto a Venetian, was the first European to ‘discover’ the North American mainland because it was necessary to British colonial principles to Anglicize the story.
    It should be noted that the British notion of race is not the obvious thing (race is a stupid concept): they claim that northern Europeans (for general consumption) and Anglo-Saxon (for domestic consumption) constitutes the superior race – the latter to exclude Finns, Laps, etc which though northern are supposedly of an inferior race. This peculiar thinking also manages to exclude low Irish from the ‘true Brit’ collective. As a result we are taught a British history that excludes non-Anglo-Saxons (e.g. picts, Norse, etc) from the narrative, an approach which has resonance in Canadian English-French founding nationalities myth.
    Sexism is another vestige of colonialism which has yet to be eradicated and one might note that the author is far from alone in disparaging female politicians. Since British colonialism greatly informed our political system, women, along with various races, ethnicities and class, were late in being allowed the right to vote, own property or even entry to public spaces; it’s almost a century since the last ‘no negroes, no Indians, no Irish’ signs came down and ‘no women allowed’ signs were still common in my youth. To this day, women have yet to achieve equality. One might note that the executive council of the AFN which comprises national and regional chiefs (another colonial invention – in the 17th century they called them kings) has but one women in the group.
    One interesting side-bar is that even many indigenous groups have absorbed this thinking with many that historically had maternalistic civic organization and/or rule by consensus now have male dominated majority rule (which some quite rightly call out) and support, in some cases enforce, patralineal descent.
    The article also suggests an artificial/simplistic polarity i.e. federal government versus indigenous nation which ignores the part played by provinces/territories as well as people of indigenous background outside of treaties and/or conventional band organization (ignoring for the moment that the ‘band’ as an organizational unit is a colonial simplification). Provinces after all have been given major control over land use, civic government, education, environmental issues, etc. Most provinces are well behind the federal government when it comes to perpetuating colonialism. The province of Ontario, for example, legally stands on the principle that late 18th century British racism, misogyny, miscegeny and paternalism constitute a precedent for current treatment of indigenous groups; they also rely on the notion of absolute hegemony of the crown in all matters concerning Ontario residents. Ontario has also revisited the stupid idea of race which, in the case of ‘Indians’ in Canada has required the fed to revise the definition of ‘Indian’ multiple times, ultimately ending up with multiple classes of ‘Indian’ and/or indigenous persons: Ontario has created the concept of ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ aboriginals: sparing the details, suffice it to say this a paternalistic construct. Obviously, in the Canadian confederated system, provinces/territories are a substantial part of the equation – fed bashing alone is simplistic. Curiously, Ontario is not alone in the construction of the authenticity meme as several indigenous groups have adopted similar classification schemes.
    There is certainly an issue with Canadian history as it is represented when in fact few British were interested in settling in Canada (even among early United Empire Loyalists Iroquoians, Germans and Irish outnumbered English). Our severely Anglicized version of history is a persistent residue of colonialism. One must wonder why the history and memorialization of the Battle of Queenston Heights is all about Isaac Brock who showed up late and was almost immediately shot and generally fails to mention groups of ‘Indians’ lead by John Norton and John Brant or that ultimately won the day except to diminish their effort … oh wait, only one of them was an ‘authentic’ Englishman.