Daring to Challenge the Aboriginal Orthodoxy
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, April 26, 2004

In his book First Nations? Second Thoughts?, Tom Flanagan writes about the baseball cap inscribed with the words ‘Lubicon Lake Band’ that was purchased at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. One of his most prized possessions, the University of Calgary political scientist calls it an invaluable artifact from the archaeology of knowledge.

“Today the Lubicon, like other Indian bands in Canada, refer to themselves as a nation, indeed a ‘First Nation.’”

Winning wide public acceptance of this terminology has been one of the most striking victories of the aboriginal political movement but, he asks, what does ‘nation’ mean? Is it a political or a cultural definition? What are its legal implications for Canada’s future?

Last week, the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation Centre for Aboriginal Policy Change released its paper on aboriginal issues. It calls for the transference of reserve lands to individual resident natives who would then decide for themselves how and where they wish to live. Tom Flanagan, along with the etymology and implication of words like ‘nation’, also discusses this in First Nations? Second Thoughts?

It’s not the first time someone has proposed a devolution of power to native individuals. This happened in 1969 when then Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Jean Chretien, released his White Paper on Indian Policy. The White Paper gave rise to what Flanagan calls the aboriginal orthodoxy which in turn paved the way for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) that cost $50 million and 5 years to prepare before it was released in 1996.

Flanagan’s book, published in 2000, defines aboriginal orthodoxy as the weaving together of “threads from historical revisionism, critical legal studies and the aboriginal political activism of the last thirty years.”

Unless there is serious public debate, sooner or later “Canada will be redefined as a multinational state embracing an archipelago of aboriginal nations that own a third of Canada’s land mass, are immune from federal and provincial taxation, are supported by transfer payments from citizens who do pay taxes, are able to opt out of federal and provincial legislation, and engage in ‘nation to nation’ diplomacy with whatever is left of Canada.”

Flanagan challenges all the key propositions of aboriginal orthodoxy including concepts like the ‘inherent right of self-government’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘nationhood’ as well as any recognition that aboriginal cultures were on the same level as those of European colonists. He also challenges land claims propositions and assertions that aboriginals through a combination of self-government, transfer payments, resource revenues and local employment will become prosperous and self-sufficient.

Government, he believes, must make and enforce rules that allow society to function, not categorize it with different rights. He also believes that representative government, a free market and advances in science, technology and social organization have improved the human condition.

By failing to adapt, aboriginals aren’t enjoying the advantages of the modern state. Encouraged by wrong-headed policies and a misplaced sense of collective guilt in the general Canadian population, many are effectively condemned to costly ($8 billion a year) yet deadly (epidemics of suicide, alcoholism and diabetes) Third World conditions.

Moreover the orthodoxy creates a race based political order and encourages aboriginals to see themselves as victims in perpetual need of redress. “This means only the political and professional native elites do well for themselves while the aboriginal enclaves they manage are worse off than ever.”

As a classical liberal, Flanagan eschews magic formulas but he does ask us to imagine what would happen if those billions in transfer payments and programs were simply divided up as cash grants among those 700,000 status Indians. Taxing themselves, they could support whatever collective activities they wish.

Jean Chretien suggested something similar in 1969, including an end to the reserve system and shutting down Indian Affairs. RCAP resulted instead while Paul Martin’s meeting with aboriginal leaders this week demonstrated anew the orthodoxy’s continuing virulence.

Be that as it may, let’s hope for some relief. This week, parliament votes on the controversial self-government bill that could put a small band of natives and about 8,000 non natives living on the Westbank band’s reserve land near Kelowna, B.C. beyond the reach of the Charter. And on the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation land in east Saskatoon, a private MRI clinic is scheduled to open in 2005 that will likely elude provincial jurisdiction.

Professor Flanagan can’t be surprised.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

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