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.)

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.

Treaties 1763-2005 (Click to enlarge)

Then there are those Indigenous organizations who have opted to set up according to Treaty boundaries:

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.

6 thoughts on “Why First Nations calling for a Nation-to-Nation relationship might want to walk their talk first

  1. My immediate reaction (setting a bad example because I’m not really thinking things through) is:

    1. I think we are living in the most exciting time for Aboriginal self-organizing that I remember, and it is a great time to rethink, re-plan, and reorganize.
    2. That having been said, no organization has ever rationalized itself while being able to fully capture and represent all of the human diversity it is attempting to include.
    3. Furthermore, organizations that have grown up over time have often adapted to and deal with reality in ways that are not immediately apparent to outsiders analysing them. Reorganizing can bring harm.
    4. All that having been said, however, I am excited by Rick Harp’s points. My gut response is to support the creation of organizations that identify peoples in their own terms (e.g., an overall Grand Council for each and every one of the peoples) which would include sub-councils to deal with Canadian federal and provincial governments. Therefore, for example, a Grand Council of the Cree Peoples, which would include a Council of the Cree Peoples in Ontario, a Council of the Cree Peoples in Saskatchewan, and so on.

    With all best wishes!

  2. I don’t know about the “smarter minds”…. you’ve done a great job of posing questions that first nations need to answer. I don’t believe it’s possible to find absolute, definitive, beyond-argument answers. I do believe it is essential to find some kind of consensus. No consensus, no new relationship between the governments.

    Questions I see are:

    1: How many First Nations will there be in the new relationship? The Royal Commission says 60-80 nations in total. Assume that many of those nations will form confederations of different sorts. Could that produce 40 “Amalgamated First Nations”? (For comparison, there are approx 40 Canadian cities with populations of more than 100 thousand.)

    2. Will there be a set of overall protocols and rules that apply to all nations and all governments? How will that be established?

    3. Will each nation also negotiate additional protocols that apply only to itself and the other governments that sign the agreements? How will those specific protocols be established?

    4. How much consensus will there be within each nation? Of course there is much diversity of opinion; but when a national government says, “this is our position,” we expect it to be so, until the people of that nation throw the government out. Or until someone overturns a position in court.

    5. If disagreements arise within a nation, what mechanisms will people use to resolve them? Do those mechanisms include de-confederation, or some other word for seceding from the nation?

    6. A question of dreary practicality: How long do you believe it will take to reach consensus on these questions (and the others that I’ve glossed over)? Another way of asking it: If you don’t think consensus is required, what kind of scenario do you imagine that will create a new relationship? 60 to 80 nations holding bilateral talks with the Canadian government? One group negotiating for all the nations?

    As you might infer, I don’t feel optimistic about a major new deal, with new rules for everyone (or consensus about what the existing rules mean). When settler governments have tried big bold plans, they have accomplished less than they hoped. Ditto for First Nations, at both the political and grass-roots levels. Incremental change seems to work, but not everyone likes the kind of change that occurs that way. THIS is when we need the “smarter minds than I”.

  3. I agree with everything you say Mr. Harp. It’s exactly what I’ve been saying here in Coast Salish Country.

    I was raised at Musqueam Village. Musqueam is the name of a place within the present Musqueam IR #2. It was never used as the name of the people until the crown set up the Indian Reserve. When we begin to speak of our ancestral lands there are always those that demonstrate their level of colonization by talking about our reserve lands. This is only one example of the perspectives that need to change in our return journey to nationhood.

    In pre-contact time we would never have been confined to our village of birth. We could travel and stay anywhere we liked within Coast Salish territory from southeast Vancouver Island to the Sunshine Coast to the Fraser Valley to Washington State and even beyond where we had friends or family ties.

    We had our own economy in relation to these lands trading everywhere within and without them. We accessed without hindrance all of the resources we needed from them in order to feed and support our people.

    It would not be practical for Musqueam, Tswassen, Katzie, Kwantlen, Coquitlam, Ts-Leil-Wau-Tuth, etc. to attempt to operate as separate “nations”. In fact, such an attempt may lead to our demise. We need to retrieve our unity and return as best we can to the independent society we once had. It’s understood that with the presence of the settler population and extensive changes to the lands and habitats with our lands that we’ll never be able to go all the way back.

    Taxation is something our people do not like to talk about. However, we could never be self-determining if we continued to be reliant on external sources for our revenue. Once we re-establish access to resources and business opportunities and begin reaping the benefits of those we’ll then need to contribute some of those profits to support our own governance. Our people need to realize that there’s no other way to be independent, self-determining.

  4. I agree with everything you say Mr. Harp. It’s exactly what I’ve been saying here in Coast Salish Country.

    I was raised at Musqueam Village. Musqueam is the name of a place within the present Musqueam IR #2. It was never used as the name of the people until the crown set up the Indian Reserve. When we begin to speak of our ancestral lands there are always those that demonstrate their level of colonization by talking about our reserve lands. This is only one example of the perspectives that need to change in our return journey to nationhood.

    In pre-contact time we would never have been confined to our village of birth. We could travel and stay anywhere we liked within Coast Salish territory from southeast Vancouver Island to the Sunshine Coast to the Fraser Valley to Washington State and even beyond where we had friends or family ties.

    We had our own economy in relation to these lands trading everywhere within and without them. We accessed without hindrance all of the resources we needed from them in order to feed and support our people.

    It would not be practical for Musqueam, Tswassen, Katzie, Kwantlen, Coquitlam, Ts-Leil-Wau-Tuth, etc. to attempt to operate as separate “nations”. In fact, such an attempt may lead to our demise. We need to retrieve our unity and return as best we can to the independent society we once had. It’s understood that with the presence of the settler population and extensive changes to the lands and habitats with our lands that we’ll never be able to go all the way back.

    Taxation is something our people do not like to talk about. However, we could never be self-determining if we continued to be reliant on external sources for our revenue. Once we re-establish access to resources and business opportunities and begin reaping the benefits of those we’ll then need to contribute some of those profits to support our own governance. Our people need to realize that there’s no other way to be independent, self-determining.

  5. Nation to Nation??

    I believe there is a CRUCIAL issue that needs to addressed by the
    Indigenous people of this land. We must start to think on a Nation to
    Nation basis. How do we as Indigenous nations relate to each other? WE
    have to start with ourselves as well as thinking about the relationship
    with the Nation of Canada. It has cultural and needless to say political
    implications! Once we can get our thinking/hearts around this issue it
    will have tremendous strategic and tactical implications….We need to
    look to pre-contact protocols as to how we related to each other on a
    Nation to Nation basis.One important model is that of the Bowl – Naugon
    Treaties. One such Bowl treaty was between Anishinaabe, Ongweoneh,
    (Iroquis) Cree and Cherokee of the Eastern Nations of Turtle Island. Another tool used was the Wampum Strings, belts to assist in organizing relationship

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.