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Nations within Nations within Nations…

September 2, 2008

When Canada’s Constitution was repatriated back in 1982, Aboriginal leaders worked hard to ensure that the protection of Aboriginal rights became part and parcel of the new rules for Canadian society. Their efforts bore the fruit of the small but powerful sentence of Section 35.1:
“The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.”

It is only now – 26 years later – that we are slowly coming to terms with the true meaning of this simple declaration. Supreme Court decisions are setting precedents, major industry players are negotiating partnerships, and governments are building new relationships out of respect and understanding of these Constitutionally protected rights. But what exactly is it that is being protected?

What do you think of when you hear the term “Aboriginal rights”?

Unfortunately, most Canadians probably haven’t been able to keep up with the changing vocabulary – Indian, Native, First Nations, Aboriginal, Indigenous – to truly understand the first word, much less the second. The Constitution at least provides a definition for Aboriginal peoples in section 35.2: “In this Act, ‘aboriginal peoples of Canada’ includes the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.” But when it comes to defining rights, the Constitution is deafeningly silent.

You can spend a lifetime delving into the complex legal decisions to try to grapple with this question if you wish, but I think the heart of the issue can (and must) be discussed in much simpler terms. What is the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the rest of Canadian society? Do Aboriginal peoples have a right to simply practice their particular customs uninhibited, or do they have a right to survive as a culture living and evolving both within and beside modern Canadian society? Is this purely a conflict over land rights, or is this about reinventing the concepts of sovereignty and governance in a multi-cultural settler society?

The lawyers will continue to make their fortunes quibbling over the minutia of these questions, but the answers will only be found when the average Canadian is equipped to begin a dialogue at a higher level. Now that we all seem to agree that Quebec is a nation within a nation, perhaps the time is ripe to recognize the other nations that are living among us.


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4 Comments leave one →
  1. adamfritz permalink*
    September 30, 2008 10:26 pm

    Thanks for the book recommendation Melissa! I will be sure to find a copy of I Am Woman.

    I just watched a documentary on the Algonquin people that I highly recommend: Le Peuple Invisible / The Invisible Nation

    Although it focuses on the Algonquin people around the Ottawa River, there are many parallels with First Nations experiences across the country.

  2. Melissa permalink
    September 3, 2008 6:16 pm

    These are such complex issues. I don’t know where to begin to comment.

    I wrote and essay in university once about the First Nations right to autonomy in the education of their own. I came across a stunning book by Lee Maracle called I am Woman. Because of this book, the entire scope and focus of my essay changed. I came out of the experience believing that we all would benefit from a First Nations based education. I would like to see Canada truly honoring and embracing our First Nations heritage as a nation. How would things be different for all of us if we had been brought up with the ancient stories and lessons from our country’s first peoples? If our childhood history books recognized that our nation is built on many mistakes and crimes against our first inhabitants? What if we grew up inviting elders of all ethnicities into our classrooms to share their wisdom and pass on their skills? What if our unifying identity as a nation came from our aboriginal one? What a different world it would be.

  3. adamfritz permalink*
    September 3, 2008 2:22 am

    Short answer: no (but I think you knew that already)

    Longer answer:
    Putting the issue of what a “nation within a nation” really means, I think the real question is: What is the relationship between the original inhabitants to a land, the initial colonizers and the subsequent waves of immigrants who eventually form the larger nation?

    It is fairly straight forward that those newly arrived immigrant communities do not have the same arguments for “nation” status since they arrived at our shores in full understanding of the rules of the land and their status within it. Multi-culturalism may protect people’s right to practice certain beliefs, but it doesn’t provide them the right to self-determination.

    The tricky part is figuring out how to reconcile the wrongs of the past while living in the reality of the present. Italy just compensated Libya $5 billion in recognition of the wrongs it committed during 30 years of occupation. As difficult as those negotiations undoubtedly were, they are even harder to undertake when the colonized and the colonizer are still living side by side in the same sovereign land.

  4. corsullivan permalink*
    September 2, 2008 9:46 pm

    A slightly mischievous question – would you extend this concept of “nations within nations” only to aboriginal peoples and the Quebecois, or do you think it should apply to other ethnic groups as well? If “we all seem to agree” that the Quebecois are entitled to their own volkstaat within Canada, should, for example, the Chinese, the Punjabis and the Slavs be getting in line along with the Cree and the Dene?

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