Saturday, January 12, 2013

In Canada, the Natives are Restless

"Idle No More" in Ottawa (The Toronto Sun)
There is something going on in Canada that most Americans are not aware of.

Of course, that is true about most of the things going on in Canada.  But this one involves my First Nations friends up there -- First Nations in Canada are what is known as American Indian tribes in the United States.  And these events involve two ideas that I think are important to keep in mind here, South of the Great White North.

1. The legal and Constitutional obligations that exist between those groups in the United States and Canada and their federal governments.

2. The importance of environmental restraints on industrial and commercial development.

My Canadian friends have been waging a campaign called "Idle No More," a grassroots protest against C-45, a bill recently passed by the Canadian government that makes some sweeping changes in environmental protections of the many, many waterways in Canada.  Many of those rivers, streams, and lakes are on First Nations land.  (You can watch a CBC report on "Idle No More" here.  There have been demonstrations in the United States, too.)

In The Mall of America (lastrealindians)
By "sweeping changes," I mean the Canadian government is removing hundreds of waterways from the previous oversight that limited industrial and commercial development.  These changes were made without consultation of the First Nations effected, and many First Nations people feel those changes are a violation of the Canadian Constitution Act of 1982.  That act states, "The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed."

If a treaty between the Canadian government and First Nations group recognizes its right to a river and, for example, the salmon resources in that river, then that First Nations group needs to be included in any regulations that will impact that river.  If rights to that river are unilaterally reduced or removed, then the government has failed to recognize and affirm those legally binding treaty rights.

Although this issue is immediately impacting First Nations, it should be important to all Canadians.  If a government cannot be trusted to keep its word, to obey its own rules, then no group of citizens is safe from abuse or injustice.  

Sometimes my students and friends in the United States express surprise or puzzlement at this idea of "treaty rights."  At times they object to the idea that a group of Americans will get "special treatment" from the federal government.

This is because they are misunderstanding the situation.  They are understanding the situation in terms of ethnicity rather than the rule of law.  They think a group of people are being "granted" special privileges because of their ethnic status.  (This is an easy mistake to make, and I am not criticizing them for this.)

But the rights accorded to federally recognized American Indian tribes are based upon legally binding agreements between the federal government and the governments of those tribes. Those legally binding agreements arise from the Constitution, which states that "Congress shall have the power to regulate Commerce with foreign nations and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes."  This grants tribes a status rivaling foreign nations -- or at least the states.  

Those rights recognized in treaties extend to the citizens of those tribes, as defined in part by the tribes and by federal government.  This definition is based largely upon descent; one must be descended from a member of that tribe to be a citizen of that tribe -- in much the same way that American citizenship is extended to the descendants of American citizens.  (A major difference is the lack of naturalization for tribal membership.  Someone might be "adopted into" a tribe -- such as Johnny Depp was recently adopted by the Comanche Nation -- but the rights of citizenship are not extended to that person.)  

I say that citizenship is defined by the tribal government AND the federal government because before those treaties membership in a tribe was often not contingent upon descent.  A person could have been accepted as a participating member of that tribe regardless of descent.  The notion that the rights of tribal citizenship depended upon descent was enforced by the federal government -- as a way of limiting its obligations to the tribes with which it signed treaties.  However, today those tribes have exercised the right to determine the degree of descent required for citizenship.

Actor Adam Beach joins Red Hand Singers in Los Angeles
That is how I am a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Most of my ancestry is white, but I am descended from someone (my mother's father) recorded on the federal census for the Cherokee in 1907. Therefore, certain rights and privileges are extended to me that are not extended to other American citizens.  (Since I live in California, I generally cannot take advantage of those rights and privileges.)  The key is not whether I am ethnically white or Cherokee (or Choctaw on my father's side), the key is my legal status as a Cherokee citizen.  

Some people believe it unfair for me to have certain rights and privileges not available to others.  But this is not that much different from the varying rights and privileges available to citizens of different states.  For example, a same-sex couple in Massachusetts can be legally married, whereas a same-sex couple in Oklahoma cannot.  They are all American citizens, but they have differing rights according to their states.  

In Alberta (photo by Blaire Russell)
My friends in Canada are fighting for what they believe to be their Constitutionally guaranteed rights as Canadian citizens AND as First Nations citizens.  These rights are not "special treatment" nor some kind of "welfare" or "charity" extended to First Nations by the federal government.  The treaty rights are real, and they are legal, and they are important so long as Canada wants to be a nation governed by the rule of law.

As for the importance of restraints on "development," which can be another word for "rapid exploitation and degradation of an ecosystem"....

I like to believe that each of the many cultures that compose the United States has an important contribution to make.  I believe the most valuable contribution from American Indian cultures is the respect for the world that surrounds us and from which we are made.  This world includes the land, the sky, the water, the plants, and the animals.  This world is not just something that surrounds us, it is something that feeds us, and therefore it is something that quite literally makes us.  Our  bodies are made up of those things.  The water you drink, the air you breathe, the plants and animals you eat -- they become you.

And when correctly appreciated, this relationship leads to a reciprocation.  Those things contribute to making our lives, and so we should contribute to making theirs.  In this way, we can mutually support each other and contribute to our mutual health.  

Vine Deloria Jr. (1933-2005)
American Indian philosopher Vine Deloria Jr. stated it this way in an interview: "If you see the world around you as a collection of objects for you to manipulate and exploit, you will inevitably destroy the world while attempting to control it.  Not only that, but by perceiving the world as lifeless, you rob yourself of the richness, beauty, and wisdom to be found by participating in its larger design."   

"Idle No More" is fighting for that vital relationship between humans and the world.  "Idle No More" sees that C-45 opens the way for the industrial and commercial exploitation of the land and the water. 

During the recent presidential election in the United States, there was much debate about the kinds of economic policies and  philosophies we should have in government.  There was much simple-minded discussion about socialism vs. capitalism, and there was a lot of chest-thumping from the talking heads on CNBC and Fox News about the virtues of free-market capitalism.

But someone is being truly naive about capitalism (and the industrialization that supports it) if he speaks about its power only in the positive.  Capitalism IS powerful, but capitalism is neither good nor bad; that is determined by how and to what ends its power is used.  The industrialization we have seen unleashed by capitalism in North America has destroyed ecosystems, poisoned rivers, drained aquifers, demolished mountains, wiped out species, and blackened the skies.  Capitalism is too powerful to run loose in the land.  Restraining it is a sign of respect for that power.  I believe capitalism can work with a conscience; but that takes some restraint and humility.

The type of capitalism practiced in North America has too often emphasized immediate, maximum exploitation of a resource -- which ultimately destroys that resource and deprives future generations of its benefits.  It violates that sense of mutual support and respect that I mentioned.

"Idle No More" fears that C-45 will clear the way for the destruction of waterways, especially as corporations work feverishly to exploit the Tar Sands oil reserves. Canada is blessed with many, many rivers, and that means many rivers will need to be crossed by the pipelines needed to get that Tar Sands oil to markets.  "Idle No More" fears that the people behind the Tar Sands see only dollars and not the people and the land that are threatened.

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