The Aboriginal Voice

This year has seen a revival of Aboriginal community activism focused around the Idle No More movement.  Though many commentators have dismissed it since its disappearance from headlines in early 2013, the movement remains a potent force in bringing together Aboriginal peoples.  Such activism has not always been a present among Canada's Aboriginal peoples, so today we offer an extremely abbreviated review of its emergence in Canada.

For much of Canada's history, Aboriginal people were largely silent from public discussion about their place and treatment in society.  Racist or paternalistic attitudes silenced their voices from public discourse, as many Canadians believed they were incapable to contributing worthwhile commentary on government policy.  As well, few of Canada's Aboriginals were able to achieve levels of higher education that would allow them to interact with government policy in a meaningful way.  Meaningful, at least, for the policy makers in the Department of Indian Affairs.  It is only in the 1960s that we see a cohesive and vocal organization response on the part of Aboriginals to influence government policy.

In 1969, the Liberal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau published a “White Paper,” which proposed vast changes to the Indian Act.  Essentially, the “White Paper” amounted to a modern policy of assimilation by the Canadian Government. It recommended that the provinces assume control of Indian Affairs and the elimination of a separate legal status for Aboriginal people.  In response, a Cree writer Harold Cardinal wrote Unjust Society, mocking Trudeau’s “Just Society” policy. Cardinal’s work expressed a Native reaction to the “White Paper” and condemned it as a step backwards in native relations with the Federal government.  His criticisms of the “White Paper” were broad and applied to wider Canadian society as well as the specific government intervention.  

To him, the federal government policy was simply another notch in a long chronology of racism and assimilation policy in Canada.  The book called on the “Indian people of Canada [to] assume new confidence” so that they could finally choose their own path.  The strength of Cardinal’s words and arguments struck a chord and he represents one of the first modern attempts of an Aboriginal writer to express their experience of Canada's history to a non-Aboriginal audience. His solution to the endemic racism throughout Canadian history was an expansion of Indian-based initiatives that would educate “White society” about its Aboriginal neighbours.  This, Cardinal believed, would bring either “cultural renaissance or civil disorder.”  Unjust Society advocated for a new conceptual approach to Aboriginal issues.  It would be a precursor to many other works, some of which proposed similar solutions, but all understanding that the current framework encompassing Aboriginal issues was broken.

A decade after Cardinal’s work, another self-examination of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, Métis activist Howard Adams’ Prison of Grass, was published in 1975.   It examined the racism experienced by Aboriginals in Canada while revising the “white” version of their history.  The book had four sections: the first detailed Métis history up to 1885, the second examined the 1885 Rebellion of Louis Riel, the third focused on the plight of modern Natives while the final section attempted to describe how these conditions could change.  Included in the book is his own life experience with racism and the lessons he has learned.  At times, it is more a story of his life than of his people as the text flows naturally between the two.

Adams’ book took a Marxist perspective and he believed that economic conditions were one of the main reasons for Aboriginal’s maltreatment. The integration of Aboriginal peoples, he argued, was effectively impossible as long as the capitalist system remained dominant.  A revival of Aboriginal culture and traditions was required, as “colonialism has seriously mutilated the native culture and ideology and has left it with weakened traditions, institutions, and philosophy.”  Similar to Cardinal, Adams believed that Aboriginal culture had suffered tremendously in the centuries since contact and certainly since Confederation.  If they were to reclaim their rights as independent groups separate from Canadian society, they would have to go through a process of decolonization that deconstructed the legacy of colonialism.  Adams’ incorporation of his own personal narrative side by side with his appraisal of the Canadian history of Métis people reflected an intimate form of history.  It was an Aboriginal way of telling stories, where history and life experience intertwined.

These books and others helped to raise awareness among Canadians and Aboriginals themselves of the issues that their people faced.  A generation of young Aboriginals in the 60s and 70s read these works while also hearing about the American Indian Movement in the United States. A.I.M. Their occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 made national headlines, though the mounting violence surrounding the group stymied its goals.  Still, they proved that a strong organization with a purpose could attract attention.  Unfortunately, A.I.M. also emphasized that the use of force was often heard better than other means of communicating a message.

The Oka Crisis in 1990 brought Canada's Aboriginal peoples into the national spotlight, for better or for worse.  The dispute between the residents of Oka and the Mohawk community at Kanesatake erupted over an expansion of a golf course onto a burial ground and land claimed by the Mohawks. The Mohawks occupied the land to stop the proposed expansion and an armed standoff began.  After an initial attempt by Quebec's provincial police to end the standoff resulted in the death of a police officer,   a stalemate between the two sides developed. Across the country other Aboriginal groups expressed solidarity with the Kanesatake Mohawks, some even blockading major transit routes. Eventually, the Canadian Army was called in to deal with the crisis and negotiated an end to the 78 day standoff.  Canadians saw how far Aboriginals were willing to go to defend their land, while other Aboriginals saw the success of a determined, organized force against the government.  The Oka Crisis helped push the Canadian government to form the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.  Though few of its recommendations would be followed, it remains as yet another important legal document reflecting on the state of Canada's Aboriginal peoples.

The formation of the Assembly of First Nations (previously the National Indian Brotherhood) and the historic opposition to the Meech Lake Accords by Manitoba politician and Oji-Cree Elijah Harper also helped spur further organization and political action by Canada's Aboriginals. As a result, and influenced by writers and activists like Cardinal and Adams, the powerful example of the Oka Crisis helped lead to much stronger Aboriginal voices in the Canadian political discourse. Legal decisions regarding land claims that (sometimes) sided with Aboriginals, such as British Columbia's Nisga'a, made Aboriginal issues all the more relevant to Canadians.

Today, the Idle No More movement echoes Occupy Wallstreet, though its impact seems to have had a far longer reach.  While most have resigned the Occupy movement as a flash in the pan with little consequence on American politics, it would be foolish to do the same for Idle No More.  The coming together of Aboriginal communities in cohesive actions across the country is another step in the organization of Canada's Aboriginal peoples as they define their role in 21st century Canada.  One consequence is the split between those who believe the Assembly of First Nations continues to represent Aboriginal issues to the government, and those who choose to follow Derek Nepinak's breakaway group, the National Treaty Alliance.  It is important to remember that recent developments in Aboriginal politics do not exist in a vacuum.  They are a part of a decades long process of Canada's Aboriginal peoples in regaining their voice and agency. Whether you agree with their tactics and goals is another matter, but hopefully our readers today better understand their influences and the long history behind them.