Crossing the aboriginal divide

The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Perhaps former Ontario premier Bob Rae, returning from mediation at Burnt Church a wiser man, will want to flip through the pages of insight recently offered Canadians by Professor Alan Cairns.

Not that Prof. Cairns, one of Canada's top political scientists, has anything to recommend about settling the dispute over the Mi'kmaq fishery. But in his book, Citizens Plus,he's on to some wider possibilities that might bridge the dangerously widening divide between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.

You just have to spend a week in rural British Columbia, as I recently did, to appreciate that divide. Whether the issue is apportioning resources (fish, lumber), control of land or self-government, the gaps are wide and widening. Everywhere, there is a sense of a zero-sum game, of finite resources being allocated to create winners and losers.

The courts -- especially the Supreme Court of Canada -- are widely seen as the natives' ally, the political process their potential foe. For the moment in B.C., the provincial NDP government is seen as sympathetic to natives, but that government, barring a Lazarus-like recovery, is on its way out of office, to be replaced by a hard-line Liberal government.

Federally in B.C., the Liberals are directing native policy from Ottawa and their political enclave in the Lower Mainland. Everywhere else in the province, however, the Canadian Alliance is unshakably strong. It best reflects public opinion outside the Lower Mainland, and what it says about aboriginal affairs is anathema to the natives.

The much-heralded treaty-negotiation process in B.C. is going nowhere fast. Recently, the Sechelt band turned thumbs down on an agreement in principle, in part because its members found almost all aspects inadequately generous.

A sharp polarization of attitudes is thus apparent, one likely to be exacerbated by Matthew Coon Come, the new grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

On the one hand, there is the widespread view, articulated politically by the Alliance, that all citizens are equal and that, ultimately, the best thing for natives and non-natives would be to scrap most special arrangements for natives. This harkens back to an old dream of non-native Canadians that aboriginals should become fully part of mainstream society, and if that means long-term assimilation, well, so be it.

The other view, articulated forcefully by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Affairs, is that natives stand apart as "nations" within Canada, and should deal with the rest of Canada on an exclusive "nation to nation" basis. This makes little practical sense for the dozens of tiny bands (or "nations") that lack the personnel to provide the services of a third order of government.

Prof. Cairns now arrives with a timely analysis, rejecting both extreme positions of the kind demonstrated in microcosm in the Burnt Church debate, where the Mi'kmaq "nation" rejects federal control of the fishery, and the non-native fishers insist that all those seeking a living from the sea must be treated "equally."

Assimilation as practised for decades by Canadian governments was an arrogant and costly failure, Prof. Cairns argues. It cannot be the basis for sound relations between native and non-native Canadians, because it rejects the "aboriginality" of native people.

By contrast, the "nation to nation" approach is too exclusive. It denies the reality of urban aboriginals who now form about half the country's aboriginal population. It minimizes the joint citizenship of natives and non-natives (that is, of what they have in common). It might avoid what is happening now -- a focus on what divides people rather than what might bring them together.

Prof. Cairns suggests breathing life into an older notion once accepted by many aboriginals but now scoffed at by their leaders -- "citizens plus," the idea that aboriginals share many things in common with their fellow citizens but should be accorded certain specific rights by virtue of their historic standing in Canada.

This idea tilts against prevailing mythologies in both directions. But it does provide the seeds of how to avoid the zero-sum mentality now so prevalent across Canada. It puts the emphasis on what we share in common, the foundation of sensible mutual relations, rather than on the idea that we share next to nothing or that aboriginals' distinctiveness is of no value to them or us.