John Bird, Lorraine Land, and Murray MacAdam, Nation to Nation: Aboriginal Sovereignty and the Future of Canada.

Citation:  Bird, John, Lorraine Land and Murray MacAdam. Nation to Nation: Aboriginal Sovereignty and the Future of Canada. [New ed.]. Toronto: Irwin, 2002.

_________________________________________________________________ Argument:  This book is a collection of essays pertaining to Indigenous nationhood in Canada. It’s divided into 4 sections: Historic Overview: Original Sovereignty and the Colonial Experience; The Road Back to Sovereignty; Transition and Struggle: Community Stories; and Becoming Partners: Non-Native Reflections on Solidarity.

Scope/Organization/Main Points: 

The first essay foregrounds the importance of treaties: “Our people understood what the non-native people were after when they came among our people and wanted to treaty with them, because they had done that many times along themselves. They recognized that a nation-to-nation agreement, defining the specific terms of peaceful coexistence, was being arranged” (Erasmus and Sanders 4). (Erasmus, Georges and Joe Sanders. “Canadian History: An Aboriginal Perspective.” 3-11.)

Tim Schouls (“The Basic Dilemma: Sovereignty or Assimilation” (12-26.) writes about Canada’s previous attempts to assimilate Indigenous peoples rather than live up to their treaty negotiations.

Trudeau’s White Paper is one example, the document arguing that “distinct legal status has denied Indians liberty and equality, and had caused them to be ‘inward’ looking” (19) – presumably referring to a supposed reluctance to participate. (How might I read the white paper for CS-type biases?) The “official Aboriginal response” to the white paper was Citizens Plus, which states that poverty is the effect of “the paternalistic and improper manner in which government historically administered Aboriginal rights. Commitment by government to live up to its treaty obligations would have helped maintain healthy, vibrant communities, Indian land would have been protected […]. The federal government had neglected its duties, thus contributing to Indian poverty” (20).

According to Stan McKay (“Rooted in Creation.” 27-33.) the process surrounding land claims (and perhaps also, duty to consult) are “devastating” to the “cultural values” of Indigenous peoples: “In order to participate in the process, our statements and language are forced to become sterile and technical. Our documents must be written in language suggested by lawyers and understood by judges. The legal jargon we must use contains concepts of ownership that directly contradict our spiritual understanding of life” (29).

By contrast, “’respect’ is central to our movement into harmony with other communities. Respecting others means we accept diversity within the unity of the Creator. We can then engage in dialogue in a global community that does not fall back on defensive arguments to protect any one truth. Instead of making dogmatic pronouncements, we can share stories. Instead of just talking, we can listen” (30).

Olive P. Dickason (“Reclaiming Stolen Land.” 34-43.) notes that early treaties were “for peace and friendship; only later did they focus on land transfers,” a shift occurring with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which allowed for Indigenous peoples in Canada to surrender vast swaths of land to the Crown, which then “presumed it held underlying sovereign title to all of British North America” (34).

Sharon Venne (“Treaty-Making with the Crown.” 44-52.) writes that, in 1992, a UN rapporteur reported that “Indigenous peoples over the centuries have had their populations substantially reduced, their territories limited, and their governments subjected to domestic limitations. However, these factors have not diminished the original status of the treaties” (46), confirming that treaties are living documents that are not made irrelevant by time passing or by changes to the social makeup of a peoples.

Moreover, implicit to this assessment is a warning that ‘modern’ nations cannot claim that they are so because of the murder and alienation of Indigenous peoples: Making declarations about what is signified by the relationship between present and past does not allow one people to claim sovereignty over another.

Joanne Barnaby (“Recognizing Traditional Environmental Knowledge.” 85-91.) defines TEK as “the collective understanding and interpretation of a community that exists in both time and space. TEK has evolved (and is still evolving) from generation to generation, passed on orally and through traditions and ceremonies, and organically modified by the continuing experiences, observations, and insights of community members” (86). “The Dene believe we have a fundamental responsibility as a people to respect what has been given to us by the creator,” but colonization has interfered with Indigenous peoples’ abilities to “fully live out this responsibility” (87).

Materialism is a problem too, as “accumulating material wealth while living on the land is burdensome since the people need to move frequently. Being out on the land away from communities, exposed to the natural environment and harvesting renewable resources that require wise use and conservation, gives one a sense of the human place in creation that is difficult to find through other means” (87).

I like this quotation from Barnaby, and think I might use it to introduce my field paper: “There was a time when newcomers depended on our people and their skills for survival on our land. The newcomers learned from our ancestors how to locate food, hunt, trap, travel safely and determine where they were. The time has come again to learn from the original peoples of this land. The kind of learning Canadian society needs now is much more complex than before. It will have to question fundamental cultural values and views, and to define new goals” (91).

Lorraine Land (“Gathering Dust or Gathering Strength: What Should Canada Do with the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples?” 131-?) summaries some RCAP’s key themes, including the call for Canada to approach land claims differently: “reforming the land-claims process and ensuring that Aboriginal communities have control over natural and other resources is the key to everything else: self-government, economic development, and building healthy communities” (133).

This grounded and land-based recommendation counteracts some of what I see as abstracted and place-less conceptualizing that happens in Cultural Studies. She goes on, noting a report by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1999) identified a “direct connection between economic marginalization and the ongoing dispossession of Canadian Aboriginal people from their lands, as recognized by RCAP” (137).

Land closes with a quotation by René Dusseault and Georges Erasmus, stating, “A great debt is owing. Governments cannot, in good conscience, default on it. We must bequeath to our children a relationship that is no longer a problem but an asset that contributes to the economic and political stability of the country” (138). The organizing metaphor of debt and economy is interesting for a discussion about how thinking economically might be helpful, both for privileging materiality and for thinking about economy differently.

Terry Glavin has a nifty chapter about Delgamuukw v. The Queen, in “The Fall of Dimlahamid: The Gitxsan Wet’su’weten and the Fallout of the Delgamuukw Decision.” 175-?)Glavin recounts the landmark decision, whereby the Supreme Court concluded that Aboriginal title has never been extinguished. “What the Supreme Court’s six judges said was that Aboriginal title was very real, it was protected by the Constitution, and it was a form of ownership that no one, certainly not the B.C. government, could continue to pretend wasn’t there. It was there in old Canadian law, which did not end at the Rockies, and it was there in songs and in stories told and retold down through the ages” (178). This last part refers to the fact that, after an appeal, the judges determined that oral narrative was a legitimate source of evidence.

Of course, the decision opened the floodgates for treaty making, which meant the legal extinguishment of title in exchange for self-government. The provincial government “favoured the treaty process, so long as native people were forced to ‘cede, surrender and release’ all claims of rights and title in exchange for treaties. But in the Gitxsan country, with or without a treaty, it was sensible and unglamorous work” of locals that would continue the work started by the court’s decision, as articulated in “Chief Justice Lamer’s words about how we were all here to stay” (182).

Glavin notes that having State recognition is useful leverage for getting things done, and while political figures declared that the decision would bring British Columbia to its knees, on a local level, interaction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members in Gitxsan territory has been productive and friendly. Put differently, the decision is not sovereignty as such; rather, it has helped to produce the conditions necessary for Indigenous peoples to practice their sovereignty.

Rod Robinson (Sim’oogit Minee’eskw) (“Niga’a Patience: Negotiating our Way into Canada.” 186-194.) makes a similar claim about the Nisga’a land claim: “Our sovereignty will continue to exist within us. This is our Holy Land. We will continue to have compassion for the land, water, air and animals. To uphold the one thing we were charged with – ‘to be stewards of our land’ – so that we may protect and maintain the resources for the benefit of those yet to be born.” As an example, “Nisga’a negotiators fought hard for a treaty giving us the means to voluntarily limit our harvest of Nass River salmon in order to safeguard the long-trem survival of our stock” (194).   

Points of Importance/Interest: 

  • Treaties as living documents, strengthened and verified rather than rendered irrelevant by changes in social makeup and the passing of time. That treaties are living documents is based on the fact that Indigeneity is in constant flux, in a web of relations (Barnaby’s description of TEK is spot-on, pg 86.)
  • Economics (of ceremony and respect, as well as material sufficiency)     



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