Why First Nations calling for a Nation-to-Nation relationship might want to walk their talk first
I didn’t really mean to be too provocative with that headline. (Okay, that’s a lie. Still, if it got your attention…) But, I have to say it: all these calls of late for nation-to-nation relationships between the Crown and Indigenous peoples? They don’t appear to have been backed up in practice on much if not most of the Indigenous side. (The Canadian side is a whole different kettle of Kanata.)
Here’s what I’m talking about. Below you’ll find a list containing the majority of what we might call the higher-level political Aboriginal organizations. Look it over, then see if you don’t notice a pattern. (Hint: there’s something ‘linking’ them all together.)
- Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs
- Chiefs of Ontario
- Council of Yukon First Nations
- Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations
- First Nations Summit [of BC]
- Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak
- Mi’kmaq Confederacy of PEI
- Southern [Manitoba] Chiefs Organization
- Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs
- Union of New Brunswick Indians
- Union of Nova Scotia Indians
- Union of Ontario Indians (Anishinabek Nation)
Spot a thread there? Well, besides their being fairly workmanlike names, they’re also pretty darn derivative — in more ways than one. Indeed, every one of these ostensibly independent organizations has opted to fashion and form itself according to the inherently dependent boundaries of non-Indigenous provinces (and one territory). The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, the Chiefs of Ontario, the Council of Yukon First Nations… you get the picture. But, in principle, shouldn’t this picture be painted differently, i.e., more in accordance with our traditional borders, ones that are closer to what existed prior to contact? (Métis homelands obviously emerged post-contact but the principle here is the same.)
So, what is meant by an Indigenous or Aboriginal Nation? The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) laid it out pretty plainly in 1996:
An Aboriginal Nation should be defined as a sizeable body of Aboriginal people that possesses a shared sense of national identity and constitutes the predominant population in a certain territory or collection of territories. Thus, the Mi’kmaq, the Innu, the Anishnabe, the Blood, the Haida, the Inuvialuit, the western Métis Nation and other peoples whose bonds have stayed at least partly intact, despite government interference, are nations. There are about 1,000 reserve and settlement communities in Canada, but there are 60 to 80 Aboriginal nations.
(FYI, the Assembly of First Nations, or AFN, is made up of about 630+ reserve communities, or about a 60 per cent chunk of that 1,000 figure that RCAP mentions.)
Now, as AFN’s list of ‘provincial/territorial organizations’ (PTOs) reveals, they don’t all necessarily confine themselves to strictly non-Indigenous parameters: some approximate the Nation ideal, such as Denendeh (Dene Nation) and the Innu Nation. Others opt for what we might call a ‘sub-Nation’ approach, a regional federation of smaller communities who, generally speaking, share the same language and culture. The Confederacy of Mainland Micmacs and the Eeyou Istchee (Grand Council of the Crees) are examples of this.
Then there are those Indigenous organizations who have opted to set up according to Treaty boundaries:
- Grand Council Treaty No. 3
- Confederacy of Treaty No. 6 First Nations,
- Nishnabwe-Aski Nation (Treaties No. 9 & 5)
- Treaty No. 7 Management Corporation
- Grand Council Treaty No.8
That Treaty basis of self-organization speaks to the nation-to-nation notion in that only nations can enter and negotiate treaties.
Last up in this crude effort at a basic (and no doubt incomplete) typology of large-scale Aboriginal political organizations, are those regional federations whose geographical and/or political situation (but not necessarily cultural ties) made an alliance attractive to its constituent communities. In some cases, their membership overlaps with some of the other entities referenced here (for example, the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs, whose Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Innu and Passamaquoddy Chiefs hail from 38 Communities in Atlantic Canada, Quebec, and Maine). The Association of Iroquois & Allied Indians, another such cross-cultural entity, considers itself “unique among [PTOs] in Canada, because it is an association of several different member Nations; the Oneida, the Mohawk, the Delaware, the Potawatomi and the Ojibway.”
(I do need to be honest that I am unclear as to where I might slot the Council of Conne River Micmacs, aka Miawpukek, which, as the lone, somewhat small, reserve community on the island province of Newfoundland was listed on AFN’s website as a PTO.)
Permit me to return to my larger point, which applies in the main to those Indigenous organizations who remain attached to and aligned along a provincial/territorial border, a boundary of their own choosing but not at all of their own making. For I do think an argument can be made that structuring yourself according to another political entity’s borders is both counter-intuitive and contradictory to the case for sovereignty. If ‘First Nations’ are in fact different, should they not act and organize differently here?
While it is entirely possible that I am being needlessly reductive (and would in that instance sincerely invite some course correction in the DISQUS comments section below), I ask that you examine each entity I have listed here to see if what I say might apply.
Moreover, none of this is to say provinces, territories, and other sundry borders don’t matter or should be utterly disavowed: they very much matter. But just like many political bodies allow for some form of internal clustering or sub-groupings (caucuses, committees, etc) on a permanent or temporary basis, so too could Indigenous bodies.
Take my peeps — Nehiyawak or Crees — as an example. If there was a Cree Nation, a confederacy comprised of Cree now living across multiple provinces, a territory and one US state (see the map; click to enlarge), all those non-Cree boundaries cutting through our traditional lands and waters would likely give rise to the need for specific caucuses to address concerns unique to a region. (In a sense, replicating what the Grand Council of the Crees in Quebec have already done in their part of ‘greater Cree-dom.’)
My somewhat scurrilous headline aside, none of this has been meant as a criticism so much as an observation. And frankly, it would be less confusing to others when they hear the calls for recognition of our respective nation-hoods if they could see us walk our own talk. Arguably, Idle No More has opened a space for this sort of discussion. Or should I say re-opened that space — as Métis blogger extraordinaire âpihtawikosisân recently pointed out, when it comes to imagining the terms of a renewed relationship, RCAP has already done much of the heavy lifting. Here’s some of what the Commission had to say about restoring the Nation model to Indigenous peoples:
the right of self-government cannot reasonably be exercised by small, separate communities, whether First Nations, Inuit or Métis. It should be exercised by groups of a certain size — groups with a claim to the term ‘nation.’ The problem is that the historical Aboriginal nations were undermined by disease, relocations and the full array of assimilationist government policies. They were fragmented into bands, reserves and small settlements. Only some operate as collectivities now. They will have to reconstruct themselves as nations.
Now, our messy histories together — Indigenous and Settler — means that all of this is waaaayy more complicated than I admittedly present it here (for example, I know that in largely treaty-less British Columbia it’s reasonable for Indigenous communities there to have found common cause in a common problem vis-a-vis BC and affiliate accordingly, co-existent with tribal councils spanning smaller areas). But, I hope my basic point has been made and found to be of some use. May it fit beneficially into a larger discussion about truly operationalizing our quest to live out Indigenous Nationhood as we see it, not necessarily and automatically as others would have us do it.