Past offers few lessons to solve native issues

History may be a guide to present circumstance but it forces no one to act in set ways.

Joseph Quesnel, Policy Analyst – Frontier Centre for Public Policy

History may be a guide to present circumstance but it forces no one to act in set ways.

In meetings between First Nations leaders and the federal government, amidst Idle No More rallies and Chief Theresa Spence on a hunger strike, all players should consider the limitations of historical perceptions.

History is essential to understanding where we are. It explains the establishment of the reserve system, the reasons natives signed treaties, and the marginalization of indigenous peoples. However, there are dangers today in using yesterday’s assumptions about all the parties that are involved.

In this climate, critics should not assume present First Nations leadership will yield or compromise, which has sometimes happened in the past. The Crown-First Nations Gathering last year was historic because the Assembly of First Nations and the government actually agreed on core principles. But the prime minister should not assume National Chief Shawn Atleo is the same as past indigenous leaders.

History is helpful in understanding how we arrived at the current situation but there are three dangers in relying on history to shape our present-day perspective.

The first danger is projecting past sins into current situations. Calling over 10 separate pieces of legislation — some not even introduced — a White Paper (policy document) is one way to do that. Pam Palmater, spokesperson for Idle No More, has compared modern legislation to a former government initiative repudiated by natives everywhere.

The Liberal’s government White Paper, which it presented back in 1969 stated: “The legislative and constitutional bases of discrimination (for natives) be removed.” Under current constitutional arrangements, such action would no longer be possible. Influential native leaders digging up policy that has not been achieved and conflating other legislation to inspire emotion and generate mobilization do so at the cost of distorting understanding.

Palmater has stated several pieces of legislation, not just Bill C-45, are part of an “aggressive assimilatory agenda.” She is assuming the worst because she is viewing the various pieces of legislation through a single lens and narrative — despite each bill speaking to different issues.

In an interview with CBC’s The Current, a First Nations activist informed Palmater many chiefs actually supported changes to the Indian Act to make land designations easier, part of the Bill C-45 reforms opposed by Idle No More.

Non-aboriginal historians are enablers in projecting the past to the present. Daniel Rueck, a historian specializing in indigenous history at York University, tweeted that the “(Prime Minister) Harper agenda is same as (the Pierre) Trudeau agenda, which was same as the (John A.) Macdonald agenda.” But, it is unfair to assume that the people, motives, and circumstances of all these leaders have not changed over time. The next danger is not recognizing that present-day Canada is a different place.

Indigenous leaders and Ottawa will have a much tougher time reaching a historic breakthrough if indigenous leaders go into Friday’s meeting assuming Harper is the same as Sir John A. Macdonald.

The last danger is present-day participants allowing historical mistakes, misunderstandings and wrongdoing to lead them into eternal suspicion. Knowing and understanding Canada’s colonial history allows us to apprehend how we have arrived at the present, but is not necessarily a road map to the future. Simultaneously, the government may have to yield on its historic insistence on controlling the agenda and give generously in an area they traditionally have not.

History should intelligently inform these discussions, but it should not blind us to potential opportunities to move forward. The mistakes of our past do not bind us to mistakes in the present; they allow us to learn from them and seek a more promising future.

Joseph Quesnel is a policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, where he writes mainly on Aboriginal policy issues.