Politicized Scholarship: Exploring Themes in Aboriginal History, Part II

A few weeks ago, we published the first post in a short series examining the origins and evolution of Aboriginal history the Canadian context. We traced some of the more influential works in the field to explore the hold of prominent analytic debates, and explored the contribution of recent studies such as James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains. Today, we continue our short series with a brief post on the influence of legal affairs and land claims, examining in particular the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry and the Hawthorn Report.   

By highlighting mid-twentieth century protest in their work, historians J.R. Miller and Kerry Abel played a part in opening Indigenous history and Native-Newcomer relations to contentious political debates. Such debates became the paramount focus of the field in the mid to late-1990s and recognizing the dominance of assimilative narrative structures, studies that examined the historical treatment (or mistreatment) of Indigenous peoples began to engage with sensitivities that had long gone without debate. Historians such as Kenneth Coates, who had lived in the North, wrote and published work in support of Indigenous rights. One of his first major contributions was The Modern North, co-published with Judith Powell in 1989. Coates and Powell pointed to the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry as a watershed in Indigenous-state relations. In March 1974, the Trudeau administration initiated the inquiry to investigate the cultural, environmental and economic impact of a proposed pipeline that would carry oil and natural gas from the base of the Beaufort Sea to markets in southern Canada and the United States. The final report was submitted to the Canadian government in April 1977 by Mr. Justice Thomas Berger, an outspoken advocate of Native rights, who was tasked to head the inquiry. Berger’s findings prompted the government to postpone the pipeline project for ten years, during which time auxiliary options were explored. Berger also urged the government to settle northern land claims and to protect the sub-Arctic environment through the establishment of a national park in the northern Yukon.

 Mackenzie River

Mackenzie River

According to Coates and Powell, prior to the Berger inquiry, the federal government’s policy towards Indigenous peoples was historically subordinated for other considerations. Instead of sociocultural matters, questions of government spending, economic development, and the activities of non-Indigenous peoples dominated Canada’s northern agenda. The Berger inquiry’s direct and lasting impact is perhaps most evident in perceptions of the North and its Indigenous inhabitants. The inquiry brought widespread attention to Indigenous issues that had long been overlooked and made the government realize that it “would no longer do to treat the North as an uninhabited appendage of the nation-state; Northerners would not stand for it and, increasingly, neither would many Canadians.” While this argument mirrored developments in the wider Indigenous historiography, Coates and Powell maintained the view that the federal government considered the North as a treasure trove for natural resources exploitation.

Public policy expert Allan Cairns picked up this debate in Citizens Plus, by arguing that Canada’s treatment of Aboriginal peoples is premised on notions of fundamental inferiority. Cairns was a senior researcher on the Hawthorn Report, which, in 1967, proposed that Canada’s Aboriginal peoples deserve treaty rights in addition to the equal rights and duties granted by their Canadian citizenship. Using the phrase “citizens plus,” Cairns explored the relationship between Canada’s Indigenous populations and the federal government. Unlike Coates and Powell, Cairns sees the watershed in Indigenous-state relations is the government’s acknowledgement of existing Aboriginal and treaty rights in 1982. Yet, in spite of this, he argued that the discourse of assimilation “enjoyed a long hegemony largely because those who were opposed to it – especially the status Indian population – were silenced by their marginalization and by official policy.” Cairns’ study sympathized with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians. He maintained that representative roles of Aboriginal political organizations in Canada have been weakened by historically shaky foundations, and that non-Aboriginals, in some cases, have been subject to “various cultural constraints that inhibit candour.”

  Monument to Aboriginal war veterans in  Confederation Park , Ottawa.

Monument to Aboriginal war veterans in Confederation Park, Ottawa.

Cairns’ work embodied many issues related to Indigenous-state relations in the second half of the twentieth century, but his conclusions differed from Coates and Powell. Cairns suggested that the failures of assimilation are behind us, and that Canadians need to move beyond the suspicions that past policies have fostered. By arguing that “our present discourses have difficulty being simultaneously sensitive to our diversity and yet sympathetic to and supportive of a togetherness that is more than geographical,” Cairns called for the construction of a new and complex Canadian identity, in which cultural differences are recognized without risk to civic individuality. For this to happen, Cairns contended that Canadian politics be reformulated to address deficiencies in existing language and discussion. A viable constitutional vision, he argued, must address two facts: “Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians differ from each other; our differences are not total. There is much overlap – and we share a common space.” In this context, any current discussion regarding Indigenous-state relations is too polarized and insufficient attention is paid to finding a middle ground. Future constitutional arrangements, in Cairns’ view, must accordingly foster some version of “common belonging” so that shared responsibility amongst Canadians fosters constructive growth to accommodate the differences that create division.

Cairns relied heavily on secondary literature to form his argument. Central to his synthesis was a thorough and engaging discussion of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), which released its final report in the fall of 1996. Almost thirty years following the release of the Hawthorne Report, the RCAP Report recommended Canada’s Indigenous peoples exert their sovereignty through autonomous government, but did not suggest ideas of common citizenship. Cairns argued the Report failed to get an adequate response from the federal government and was ineffective at stimulating constructive public discussion on issues of Indigenous relations. While there may be much to admire about Cairns argument, including his discussion of Indigenous mistrust towards concepts of citizenship and government, he arguably understates Canada’s colonial past.  Conversely, Coates and Powell offer a less positive but seemingly more realistic interpretation of Indigenous-state relations. Based on a wide reading of primary and secondary sources, their study was supported by balanced evidence that is lacking in Cairns’ work.

These arguments are indicative of one of the more important developments of recent Aboriginal scholarship in Canadian historiography. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars have contributed to the field, but legalities and cultural sensitivities affect research. Some scholars choose to distance their work from “real-world” legal affairs, while others embrace contemporary debate and engage in political discussion. The field is certainly diverse and contentious as a result, but equally progressive and highly educational.