One of the more appealing campaign promises that helped propel Justin Trudeau and the Liberals to a majority government was Trudeau’s pledge to breathe new life into relations between the government and First Nations.
The general impression Canadians seem to have had was that relations had stagnated under Stephen Harper’s reign.
In fact, Harper oversaw a quite activist, if unsentimental and practical, Aboriginal legislative agenda. Some of his accomplishments flew under the public radar because they dealt with legal issues around land claims and matrimonial property and governance revamps that have had an impact on First Nations, but made little impact on the public consciousness.
One initiative was empowering to individual Aboriginals. In 2008, the Canadian Human Rights Act was extended to cover the Indian Act, so members of First Nations and residents of Indian reserves could, like other Canadians, bring grievances of race, gender and disability discrimination to Human Rights Tribunals.
Harper’s First Nations Financial Transparency Act of 2013 (FNFTA) made quite a big impression because published stories of rampant fiscal abuses by unaccountable chiefs of some First Nations had shocked taxpayers. The Act quite rightly ensured that First Nations would file (published) annual audited financial statements, bringing them into line with a standard of fiscal disclosure imposed on every other Canadian government.
Unfortunately, to distinguish himself as a more compassionate leader than Harper, and to ingratiate himself with the Assembly of First Nations, Trudeau foolishly declared he would not enforce FNFTA. But compliance remains high, thankfully, doubtless because rank and file aboriginals, who suffer the most from the unaccountability, won’t tolerate a return to fiscal amateurism and the corruption it invites.
Of course, by far the most consequential decision Harper made was to issue a formal apology to First Nations in 2008 for the residential-schools abuses, which was attended by a $5 billion payout as compensation and a commitment to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
The TRC report, and the emotion-fraught spinoffs stirred by it – both within and outside of the indigenous community – has dominated Trudeau’s mandate, shaking our sense of national identity at its core. Or what most Canadians thought was its core.
As a spinoff from the TRC, the very words “residential schools” have for many Indigenous-rights activists become a shibboleth for horror on the scale of the Holocaust (sometimes literally expressed), an offensive and irrational conflation that nevertheless has been responsible for chilling public discourse on the subject.
The slightest pushback against the notion that the residential schools were a purposeful form of “cultural genocide” ends in the marginalization of bona fide scholars as bigots and the humiliation or firings of reasonable mainstream writers and commentators. Names and statuary memorializing former Canadian politicians who were complicit with the residential school system, even if their motivation was benign, have been “disappeared” with the full cooperation of absolution-seeking officials.
Reverence for Indigenous suffering and compelled ritual self-flagellation for the sins of our fathers (or “fathers” for immigrants who have no connection to this part of the national story) has become a universal ritual for all official political and cultural gatherings. It is forbidden to say aloud that many aboriginal success stories are rooted in residential school educations.
Residential schools must be held to be synonymous with every negative aspect of First Nations life: poverty, alcoholism, prostitution, intimate partner violence, teen suicides and elevated crime rates. Any suggestion that aboriginal social dysfunction may even in part be attributed to causes other than the imposed evils inherent in colonialism is considered racist discourse.
Researchers who know the more nuanced and complex story, who have the requisite knowledge to speak authoritatively and the courage to brave the inevitable blowback are a tiny band of brothers and sisters. Older scholars with tenure, like Frances Widdowson, or retired scholars like Tom Flanagan have paid a big price for speaking their truths in this domain.
For those readers curious to expose themselves to intelligent heterodox views on this subject, I recommend Tom Flanagan’s latest essay, “Harper & First Nations,” in the Autumn/Winter 2017 edition of The Dorchester Review.
Here Flanagan provides a refreshingly candid critique of the TRC and its negative fallout.
He compares Harper’s quiet, but meaningful advances like the ones described above against Trudeau’s virtue-signalling, but so far mostly unrealized promises, such as his (merciful) failure to fulfil his promise to adopt the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, “which would have recognized a First Nations veto over resource development and abrogated the sovereignty of the Crown.” Compared to Harper, Trudeau emerges in his analysis as woefully inadequate to the challenge he set himself.
Flanagan writes, for example:
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission did not follow the normal meaning of reconciliation as mutual understanding and forgiveness. It made little effort to explain why residential schools were established, what the realistic alternatives were at the time, and what good they may have accomplished. Under the heading of ‘reconciliation,’ its report calls for the virtual abandonment of parliamentary democracy in Canada in favour of an unworkable confederation of hundreds of sovereign peoples – again, nothing that Mr Harper or any conservative would have wanted.
I am grateful to The Dorchester Review and its publisher, Chris Champion, for the platform it offers to honest, but always civil debate on sensitive national issues like this. In a cheekier vein, readers may also appreciate Roderick Ireton’s “A ‘How To’ Guide for Decolonizers” in the same issue.
Mockery of political correctness is published at one’s perils nowadays. Kudos to The Dorchester Review, the twice-yearly historical and literary review that safeguards free and sassy intellectual inquiry while our cultural elites are asleep at the wheel.