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 Trudeau, Tom 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?
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.
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 history—yet 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.
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.
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.