The Discourse of Aboriginality (Pt IV): The Contemporary Discourse of Aboriginality

The previous chapter provided an outline of two major organizing themes of the historical Canadian discourse on Aboriginal peoples, vis., the Noble Savage and the Vanishing Indian Race. In this chapter, a few contemporary examples of that discourse will be examined in order to determine the degree to which the themes outlined above persist. Again, these examples simply serve to illustrate this paper’s thesis, and do not in any strict sense provide the sole basis for its claims.

To put it mildly, 1990 was an eventful year for Native/non-Native relations. Over the course of that year’s “Indian summer,” two major incidents occurred: the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and the so-called ‘Oka Crisis.’ To recap briefly, the ‘Oka Crisis’ involved the setting up of a roadblock on the Kanehsatà:ke reserve by a group of Mohawks known as the ‘Warriors,’ who were protesting the planned appropriation of historically disputed lands by the nearby non-Native community of Oka. According to the perception of the federal and Quebec governments, the situation at Kanehsatà:ke did not represent any such historically motivated act on the part of the Mohawk people. Rather, the governments chose, in the words of then Canadian Justice minister Kim Campbell, to regard the “situation we see at Oka today [as] a law enforcement situation.” Campbell continues, indirectly addressing the notion that Mohawks, as a self-determining people prior to the invasion of proto-Canadian forces, do not fall under Canadian authority:

The governments of Canada and Quebec cannot and will not accept that the Warriors are not governed by the laws of this country, including the Criminal Code.

They receive the full protection of our laws, including the Charter. Neither they nor anyone else in Canada can pick and choose the laws they obey.

The Criminal Code applies to everyone in Canada. There are no exceptions. Only those with legal authority and who are under the control of democratically elected governments may use firearms and force to uphold the law. Our government will not tolerate such use of force by others [emphasis added].

This passage is an extremely telling one for the analysis of dominant Canadian discourse about Native peoples. Firstly, left entirely unstated by Campbell’s view and yet fundamental to its logic, is the mythical notion of European conquest, a fundamental aspect of the Vanishing Indian Race theme. ‘We won,’ so the logic goes, and thus any and all ‘misguided’ notions on the part of the Indians that the lands they have traditionally occupied are still theirs is about as worthy of consideration as the notion that they are still ‘real’ Indians. In other words, Native peoples, their histories, their experiences, and most of all, their lands belong to Canadians now.

Secondly, by drawing upon the discourse of law and order, Campbell effectively displaces mainstream attention away from the historically based grievances of the Mohawk nation, framing their actions in a criminal context instead. Moreover, by situating the confrontation in Oka, Campbell localises events in geographical and historical terms, and thus restricts their significance, when in fact much larger issues are at stake. As Debbie Wise Harris points out,

The term ‘Oka Crisis’ itself constrains the meaning of the set of events. The word ‘crisis’ denotes a temporary, escalated, critical moment, a notion which negates the reality of the permanent crisis in which Native peoples all over Canada (and the world) are living and have lived since colonization. Also, the modifier “Oka” situates the events in an isolated geographical place (Oka), although demonstrations were also happening in [Kahnawá:ke] (Chateauguay) and all over the country; it also defines the location in legitimized terms of the state… preferring the meaning of the ‘crisis’ as a crisis for Quebeckers (and not for Native people).

Finally, Campbell, by referring to the polarized notions of “we” and “others,” calls up explicitly the dichotomy underlying imperial discourse as identified by Said. The discourse Campbell employs continues to rest upon a White/non-White, European/non-European, us-and-them ontological and epistemological division. Thus, “we” are lawful, they, being “others”, are not. “We” have had a long tradition of self-government; “they” have not. All of this goes a long way towards legitimizing and entrenching the continued imposition of foreign authority on historically Native lands. The repeated failure to mention this fact is simply to erase the real domination of its effects.

Another major recent Canadian event impacting on Native/non-Native relations was the 1992 referendum on the Constitution. Within the constitutional package agreed to by the federal government, all the provincial and territorial leaders, and certain representatives of Native peoples, was a significant set of proposals regarding ‘Aboriginal self-government.’ In the weeks leading up to the actual vote, a great deal of debate took place on the possible risks Canadians might be taking in ‘giving’ ‘self-governing’ powers to Native peoples. Of all the opinions expressed which were critical of the self-government component of the package, the comments of William Johnson of the Montreal Gazette are perhaps most representative. In a May 5, 1992 column entitled, “Not all are leaping on the self-government bandwagon,” Johnson begins his comments by positioning himself as the neglected voice of reason languishing on the fringes on mainstream thought:

The conventional wisdom accepts recognizing Indian self-government as an inherent right. The Beaudoin-Dobbie report favored it, as does Joe Clark. It seems that self-government is a done deal.

Not to be outdone, Johnson cites the credentials of Patrick Lewtas, a Toronto lawyer who not only worked for the Windigo Tribal Council (and thus, so the logic goes, must ‘know’ what Indians are all about) but went to Harvard and the University of Toronto Law School as well. According to Said, the ushering in of such ‘authoritative’ sources is a common discursive tactic employed by those pleading the imperialist case. As we shall see, Johnson sees no irony in his position as one who is able to make his claims in the absence of any effective counter-response. His sovereign viewpoint as self-appointed representative of the dominant Canadian consciousness does not acknowledge that his capacity to speak authoritatively on these matters is a relatively privileged position, one ultimately based on a recourse to force. Such a position of authority, including the ability to have one’s self widely heard, is simply not possible for Native peoples given their comparatively weaker status in the Canadian context.

According to Johnson’s source, the real problem facing Native peoples is to be regarded as follows:

The real issues that are facing us are not political issues. The real issues are social and economic. By making them political you not only miss the real problems, you put in place institutions and create vested interests that make it very difficult to address the real issues…

Later on in the article, Johnson’s ‘expert-in-the-field’ gets to his main point:

‘Self-government’ will not usher talented Indians into important positions in the larger world… It will instead mould them into a governmental elite with a vested interest in its people’s inequality… With self-government, Canada would acquire a collage of legal systems under which different groups would exercise different powers and different people would enjoy different rights. Race would be the standard by which rights are allocated.

Finally, Lewtas concludes that

It seems that Indians must live in the modern world and must adopt modern culture to do so. Aboriginal cultures depend too much on obsolete lifestyles to be salvageable. And the attempt to save them through self-government will produce modern totalitarianism rather than traditional culture.

In other words, the Noble Savage is alive and not so well. Johnson ends his article by citing a common refrain of opponents of Aboriginal self-government, namely, that “the current system of funding native organizations has produced an Indian middle class that is almost totally dependent on the [Canadian] public purse.”

What Johnson’s article reveals in a rather rich and complex fashion is a direct reliance on the themes of the dominant Canadian discourse on Native peoples. To apply the analysis of Said, Johnson is first and foremost a Westerner consciously speaking on behalf of other Westerners, his railings against “conventional wisdom” notwithstanding. Eurocentrism clearly colours his perspective. Indeed, at one point in the above article, he compares the aspirations of Aboriginal peoples to those of the Middle Ages in Europe. The implication being that Native concerns can only be understood in terms of what they represent within a European conceptual framework.

That the Noble Savage paradigm is clearly in use is demonstrated by the dichotomy Johnson and his source impose between the “modern world” and presumably less advanced Aboriginal cultures. As if to offset such a bald-faced claim, Johnson includes references to the discourses of race and equality as well, claiming that by instituting Aboriginal self-government Canada will become a ‘racist’ state with “different powers” for “different groups.” Such a discussion fundamentally distracts from the fact that Aboriginal self-determination is predicated on the recognition of Native peoples as members of “Nations,” not as a race. And once again, the end result of this discourse on the unrelated matters of race, not to mention “equality,” has been the effective masking of the on-going domination perpetrated by the Canadian nation-state against those who have held historic claims to their lands for thousands of years.

. . . . . . . . . .

Where there are no Indians,
there is no wealth.

Franciscan (Spanish) proverb,
circa 16th century

The irony of the above statement is a painful one for the many Indigenous peoples of this world. For the non-Native recognition of the wealth of Aboriginal lands has seen Native peoples systematically dispossessed of those lands and their lives indelibly scarred. And yet, Native peoples and their cultures have persevered. Regrettably, so have imperialism and colonialism. And while it is undoubtedly disturbing to recall these events, even more disturbing has been the manner in which the dominant discourse of the West has so callously, liberally and high-handedly discussed these matters.

In this paper, I have argued that one of the major mechanisms of imperialist and colonial power which continues to organize Native/non-Native relations in Canada has been the discourse of Aboriginality. Two principal themes of this discourse, namely, the Noble Savage and the Vanishing Indian Race, have been identified, along with an indication of how they work to maintain relations of domination. I have demonstrated the dominating effects of this discourse by examining some contemporary examples of these themes at work, which have been located within the context of their long and continuous history. It is worth repeating that this paper has not argued for individuals’ personal motivations as the prime determinant of political relations. Rather, it has sought to address the certain degree of relative autonomy intrinsic to discourse, and how that discourse ultimately draws upon certain recurring and thus recognizable themes.

Of course, there have been a number of areas which certain limitations of space and time have not permitted me to explore. These include the internalization of the discourse of Aboriginality by Native people themselves, a phenomenon perhaps best seen within the 1992 constitutional rhetoric of Native leaders. In light of Foucault’s understanding of power, one must question these leaders use of such terms as ‘inherent right’ and ‘sovereignty’ as possibly unconscious usages of the discourse of ‘equality’ and ‘right.’ Then again, the employment of these terms may simply indicate the exigencies of entering into any form of discussion with the dominant society. After all, one must articulate one’s desires in terms others can understand.

Engaging with the discourse of Aboriginality for the possibilities of resistance raises other potential research questions for the future. According to Foucault, given that resistance is simultaneously present wherever power can be seen to circulate, it would no doubt prove fruitful to examine such attempts to negotiate the discourse of Aboriginality. In my opinion, some of the most exciting discursive negotiations being carried out are by Native artists such as Gerald McMaster, Robert Houle, Jane Ash Poitras and Joane Cardinal-Schubert, to name but a few. All four artists recently took part in the ground-breaking exhibits, Indigena and Land, Spirit, Power, at the Museum of Civilization and The National Gallery respectively, in Ottawa.

Other key moments in the Canadian Native discourse in need of further research are its sheer possessiveness vis-à-vis Native peoples, a discourse which speaks of “our” native peoples, “Canada’s” Indians, Native “Canadians,” and the Native peoples “of” Canada. How this appropriation of Native experiences has served the Canadian ‘nationalist project’ is an issue I was unable to deal with here. Indeed, if I had to predict the future shape of Native/non-Native relations in this country, I would have to say that in addition to the deeply felt issues of land occupying the main focus of those relations, culture will be the greatest source of contestation. In the process, perhaps the popular social science notions of ‘identity,’ ‘race,’ ‘culture’ and even ‘the nation’ will finally come under the scrutiny they deserve.



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