Willie Ermine, “The Ethical Space of Engagement.”


Regarding Indigenous peoples and settler colonial society, recommends working towards an “ethical space of engagement” these “two solitudes” where the rules of engagement are clearly marked out; where assimilation is discarded in favour of equality and true poly-cultural coexistence; where Canada’s honor can be linked to its deference to Indigenous knowledge. It “is formed when two societies, with disparate worldviews, are poised to engage each other. It is the thought about diverse societies and the space in between them that contributes to the development of a framework for dialogue between human communities” (193). Ermine has a particular interest in how such a framework can change interactions between Indigenous and Canadian law.

Scope/Organization/Main Points: 


Ermine suggests that Indigenous peoples and “the West” are “divided by the void and flux of their cultural distance,” and in their approach to “encounter each other” exists the substance of their interaction and co-becoming (194). Ermine references Roger Poole’s book Towards Deep Subjectivity and notes that ethical space is governed by “intention” (194). Here he seems to leave room for processes of being and becoming that work against claims of essentialism.


Ethics refers to “the capacity to know what harms or enhances the well-being of sentient creatures” (195). It relates to the boundaries of the self, informed by family, thought, and personal experience, as well as “boundaries imposed by our cultural imperatives such as the community ethos in each of our communities” and by “collective principles” (195). Boundaries drawn from the personal and collective (including treaties) delineate “moral considerations as we discuss issues that are trans-cultural, or trans-boundary in nature” (196).

The Status Quo

Ermine locates the initial “breach of interaction” in “the waning days of the fur trade,” when the “two entities disengaged,” and later came back together for “treaty negotiations and bargaining” over land. The new treaties were “an agreement to interact,” which “would engage Indigenous peoples and the Canadians in a new frontier of promised national and parallel existence” (196). However, interpretations of the treaties have never aligned, and the rift between worldviews has never been bridged; this has been exacerbated by forced assimilation policies of the 19th and 20th centuries. Ermine argues that both groups no longer have a sense of identity, which is necessary for determining what should “guide the association with each other.” The “knowledge bases are so entangled and enmeshed,” which leads people to attempt to disentangle “Indigenous thought from European thought” (197). (I like his metaphor of 2 people on a park bench.)

The notion of the psychosocial, and an interest in rejecting claims of cultural essentialism are important here, but I feel like there are more nuanced takes on the differences between people, which Byrd explores.

Is Ermine suggesting that ethical space is actually a way for people to better know the differences between one another?

The Undercurrent

Many Indigenous scholars are interested in the Western systems of thought that perpetuate the status quo of Indigenous-settler relations. A major issue is “the brick wall of a deeply embedded belief and practice of Western universality,” which includes the idea of “a singular world consciousness, a monoculture with a claim to one model of humanity and one model of society. This is the claim to a God’s eye view on humanity and that this perspective is appropriately located in the West” (198). According to Ermine, the principle of universality runs through the apparatuses of Canadian society (198). The concept of a singular overriding system – and here Ermine is again turned towards the legal system – is related to Deloria’s concern with the singular, linear teleology of Western philosophy (elements of manifest destiny, too, as Western institutions as the end-goal of being embodies the notion of predestination). The ethical space of engagement thus captures the potential for realizing “that diverse human communities do not share a common moral vocabulary, nor do their share a common vision of the nature of human beings as actors within the universe” (198) – a claim that has interesting potential for undermining the humanist presumptions of the West. The park bench theory is different from “consensus” (198).

Indigenous Gaze

The “Indigenous gaze” is “a mindful gaze informed by values, a moral structure, and a sincere interest for justice” (199). It sutures the individual to the community; it links the boundaries of the personal to the boundaries of shared principles, knowledge passed-down. Conversely, the “Indigenous community is the primary expression of a natural context and environment where exists the fundamental right of personhood to be what one is meant to be” (200).  Like Byrd, Ermine sees Indigenous subjectivity and Canadian subjectivity in co-constitution, proposing that Indigenous peoples are a “mirror” that reveals that the “situation of Indigenous peoples in this country” is a sign of “the character and honor of a nation to have created such conditions of inequity” (200).

Emergent Rules of Engagement

The treaties are “nation-to-nation dialogues, between one human community and another, with each party supported and informed by their own autonomy and their respective political and cultural systems” (200) – they are an invitation for future engagement, not contracts or receipts. Further, Constitutional recognition is a reminder of “unfinished business in our trans-cultural affairs” (201).


He argues that “the Indigenous-West encounter is about thought worlds,” which helps to “remind us that frameworks or paradigms are required to reconcile these solitudes” (201). Can resistance be seen as “cross-cultural cooperation” (201) rather than reactivism, as Indigenous peoples attempting to help Canadians develop an ethical space together? 

Points of Importance/Interest:

  • The “void and flux of their cultural distance” (194) is an interesting counterpoint to Byrd’s “transit of empire” and “parallax.”
  • His repudiation of universalism
  • I’m troubled by his invocation of “two solitudes” which I think needs more nuance to consider more complex processes of identity formation, and the supposition that fixed identities exist (an aversion to essentialism that Battiste and Henderson can help me out with perhaps)

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