Wednesday, January 30, 2013

This doesn’t have the ring of an imperialist adventure about it somehow.

"The tide of war is receding," U.S. President Barack Obama continues to insist, plumbing the depths of the American capacity for self-delusion and finding it, so far, bottomless. Canada, meanwhile, proves no more useful to the French military operation that is kicking jihadist backside in Mali, but it turns out the French and their British and African allies don't need much help anyway. That's the subject of my Ottawa Citizen column this week: Vive la France.


Saturday, January 26, 2013

Further To The Badgering About Aboriginal "Consent."

Here's some backstory, from my Ottawa Citizen op-ed blog.

In my Ottawa Citizen column this week, "Peering into the abyss of First Nations neglect", I lead off with what you could call a teachable moment that occurred in a testy exchange between Liberal elder Bob Rae and the CBC's Terry Milewski. The back-and-forth occurred at the Ottawa press conference that was called to talk about the terms that ended Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence’s six-week liquids-only fast - as the Aboriginal People' Television Network called it.
Rae gave Milewski a bit of a tongue-lashing for the tone he took in his question about whether it is realistic to expect fulfillment of the ambitious 13-point fast-ending declaration that Rae himself had played some sort of role in putting together as a means to convince Chief Spence to call it quits and go back home.
In my column I take Rae to task specifically for browbeating Milewski about his question about the commitment by the Assembly of First Nations and the Opposition parties to ensure that “all federal legislation has the free, prior and informed consent of First Nations where inherent and treaty rights are affected or impacted.” Milewski referred to this as an apparent demand for an aboriginal  "veto."
I quote Rae as saying: "That is the law today." Also: "That’s the law of Canada." The full quote: "That is the law today, Terry. That is not unrealistic. That's the law of Canada." A little later: "That is the law of Canada, as it has been expressed and interpreted by the Supreme Court of Canada."
I pointed out that in fact, the law in Canada provides for no such thing, and so long as “inherent and treaty rights” can mean whatever anyone says they mean, the words themselves are meaningless anyway. To the extent that the courts have given the words enforceable meaning in specific cases, the ways that aboriginal rights are merely “affected or impacted” requires no consent at all.
Further: The courts have been quite clear that “consent” is desirable in cases where aboriginal rights will be unavoidably infringed; When provinces enact regulations that, say, restrain aboriginal hunting and fishing rights, consent might even be necessary. But even the leading Canadian case on aboriginal title — the landmark 1997 ruling Delgamuukw Versus the Queen — makes it plain that governments are perfectly entitled to infringe upon aboriginal rights for any number of reasons.
These reasons include forestry, mining, the construction of hydroelectric dams, agriculture, economic development generally, and “the settlement of foreign populations to support those aims,” as the judges in Delgamuukw put it. Aboriginal rights will be unavoidably affected by these things. Aboriginal consent is not required.
Seven years after Delgamuukw, in 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada elaborated on the matter of aboriginal consent in Haida Nation Vs. British Columbia (Minister of Forests). The judges ruled: "The process of consultation and possible accommodation does not give Aboriginal groups a veto over what can be done with land pending final proof of the claim. The Aboriginal 'consent' spoken of in Delgamuukw is appropriate only in cases of established rights, and then by no means in every case. Rather, what is required is a process of balancing interests, of give and take."
It's important that what's really going on here is right out in the open.
The matter of "consent" has been popping up in Idle No More rhetoric from the beginning, usually by way of reference to the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Specifically, the foundational claim that Idle No More made for itself was that eight statutes introduced and passed by the Conservative government, including its massive omnibus Bill C-48 (which is to say pretty well the entire Conservative legislative agenda for last fall's sitting of the House of Commons) was in violation of the UN Declaration.
 Specifically, Idle No More claimed that all these laws violate the UN Declaration's Article 19: "States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them."
That's a really, really badly written article. Practically any law in Canada could be said to "affect" aboriginal Canadians because aboriginal Canadians are citizens. It would be interesting to know whether the New Democrats and the Liberals understand the implications of their agreement with the substance of Article 19, and further by specifically agreeing with Chief Spence, in her declaration, on "the full implementation of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples." 
In Canadian law - and indeed in U.S. and Australian law - the courts most certainly do not require aboriginal consent even to laws or administrative measures "that may effect them." Bob Rae was wrong to say otherwise - but is he saying this is what he wants? Is this what the NDP proposes? What might this mean, exactly? How would it work? I know Terry Milewski can drone on a bit, but aren't these fair questions?
Ottawa took a bashing for failing to sign on to the UN Declaration back in 2007 (I gave the Conservatives a bit of a bashing about it myself). There was no reason the Conservatives could not sign on, with caveats - besides, the UN declaration is "aspirational" and unenforceable anyway. And indeed, when Ottawa did sign on in November, 2010, Ottawa did so in good faith, and after registering its caveats, not least was the caveat that "free prior and informed consent" should not be construed as agreeing to an aboriginal  "veto."
Here's how Canada explained itself: "These concerns are well known and remain. However, we have since listened to Aboriginal leaders who have urged Canada to endorse the Declaration and we have also learned from the experience of other countries. We are now confident that Canada can interpret the principles expressed in the Declaration in a manner that is consistent with our Constitution and legal framework."
Is Bob Rae now saying we should be interpreting the UN Declaration in some other way? 
Don't get me wrong. I like Bob Rae, and he was being an honest broker and a decent statesman by trying to find a way for Chief Spence to listen to her own band members and most of her fellow chiefs and walk off Victoria Island with some dignity.
But malarky is malarky, all the same. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

I'm Not Your Aromatherapist. It's Not My Job.

From my Ottawa Citizen op-ed page slot:
Two months into Idle No More, this is the sound of the rubber hitting the road: Canadians' overall level of concern about the problems plaguing aboriginal communities is unchanged from two years ago despite the Idle No More movement, Chief Theresa Spence's liquids-only fast, and everything else attending to the disquiet in First Nations communities, a new Ipsos-Reid poll shows.
I draw attention to the poll results not to suggest that the grassroots flash-mob attendees and round-dance goers should be faulted in any way for having failed to "raise the consciousness" of the Canadian public about aboriginal concerns. But I am drawing attention to the important fact that aboriginal concerns are already Canadian concerns, and this has been the case for some while. Nearly two-thirds of us want Ottawa to work to raise the quality of life in aboriginal communities, same as two years ago.  
Undertaken for Postmedia News, the poll was conducted from January 7 to January 14, the zenith of the media focus on Idle No More. The poll's sample size was just over 1,000 people, which is good enough to be reliably accurate to within plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 95 per cent of the time.
So. If everybody wants forward movement, why no traction?
My Ottawa Citizen column this week is an attempt to explain a major cause of that paralysis. For a lot of perfectly decent people who have found themselves swept up in Idle No More's excitements, I'm afraid it's not going to be very pleasant reading. As for those people who talk about Prime Minister Harper in the same drooling hyperbole as the famous American celebrity crackpot Donald Trump employs when he's talking about President Obama, they will want to go and have a good lie-down.
My column concerns itself with a privileged, bullying minority of reactionary and obstructionist chiefs and "activists" who persist in their grim determination to reject, derail and sabotage every opportunity for real progress opened up by Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo. It is the main unwritten story of Idle No More so far.
I see the Macdonald-Laurier Institute's Ken Coates has come at it from a slightly different angle in today's Globe and Mail. Coates refers to "a momentous political and ideological change among first nations," with dishonorable mention going to "those who sense their power ebbing."

Since my first column on the subject of Idle No More appeared two weeks ago, I've been listening very closely to the perspectives of objectively progressive aboriginal leaders who would prefer to be building proper schools in every single First Nation community that needs one, rather than going to meetings where the first order of business is always to find some new and imaginative way to put Prime Minister Harper's name in the same sentence as the word "genocide."
I'm not at all displeased with the results of my labours, and I'm not displeased either with a comical pattern that has been repeating itself. As with that first column, and with the appearance of my column last week, and the impudent appearance of this essay, the pattern is unfolding again in all its satisfying train-schedule regularity this week. It's mainly a "social media' thing. It plays out like this.
One after the other, dizzy white hipsters parade past, calling me a racist, hectoring me about being insufficiently familiar with the history of social movements, expounding upon weighty historical subjects about which they know nothing and harrying me about the sacred contents of treaties they've never read.

It's hilarious, but it provides a perfect opportunity to repeat something serious that cannot be repeated often enough, precisely because it has been airbrushed out of all the "activist ally" propaganda attending to Idle No More. It's largely ignored by the arch-villains of the mainstream press, too. It concerns what happened the last time the "activist" Left mobilized so broadly around First Nations issues. That was in 1992, when the "social movements" worked in combination with the populist Right to defeat the Charlottetown Accord, destroying its provisions for a constitutionally-entrenched third order of aboriginal government.
No matter how you deconstruct that shameful bit of history you just can't make it fit the argument that the emancipation of aboriginal people from their shackles as wards of the state will come only after ordinary Canadians have been obliged to troop in their millions through cultural-sensitivity training programs. As the polls consistently show, the average Canadian might not understand a lot of this stuff, but nobody needs a wake-up call. We've all been awake for some long while now. Ordinary Canadians are not the problem. 
If the more degenerate outliers of the Canadian bourgeoisie want to sit around cross-legged playing pass-the-feather at teach-ins organized to examine the discursive constructions unpacked in the interrogation of heteronormativity in decolonized spaces, let them go right ahead. The rest of us need nothing of the kind.
For those of that warped disposition and temperament who have been so predictably and laughably recoiling at my trivializations of the past couple weeks, all I can say is this: You seem to have mistaken me for your wine steward.
 It's actually not my job to make you feel good about yourselves. It's certainly not my job to help you dupe angry young aboriginal people into believing the ugly and deliberately divisive pseudo-histories you've concocted. It's not my job to write things that will help you justify your Intifada-envy complex.
It's just not my job. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Censored No More: Julie Burchill.

It all started when Suzanne Moore was browbeaten and bullied and hounded to the ends of the earth for an essay she wrote. Courtesy of New Statesman, here is the offending essay, and here is the offending paragraph: 
"The cliché is that female anger is always turned inwards rather than outwards into despair. We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual. We are angry that men do not do enough. We are angry at work where we are underpaid and overlooked. This anger can be neatly channelled and outsourced to make someone a fat profit. Are your hormones okay? Do you need a nice bath? Some sex tips and an internet date? What if, contrary to Sex and the City, new shoes do not fill the hole in your soul? What if you aspire to another model of womanhood than the mute but beautifully groomed Kate Middleton? What if your anguish is not illogical but actually bloody spot on?"
She's a bit sick of the cliché, is the point, a point not a few idiots failed to get. Julie Burchill, the Observer's delightfully cantankerous resident genius, decided to have a go at all the precious offence-taking. For her trouble, she had her column pulled by the Observer's cowardly editor. On my Ottawa Citizen page, you can read Julie's censored essay, in its entirety.
You're welcome.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

More Idle Chatter.

(Ottawa Citizen op-ed version is here.)

Here's what we've been missing about the viral phenomenon called "Idle No More," the thing we're all supposed to be dazzled about on account of its radical freshness and its innovations in horizontal leadership and its exciting and unpredictable momentum to who knows where.
But first off, as for all those young aboriginal people who have taken the opportunity of all the media attention to get out there and drum and chant at shopping mall flash mobs and whatnot: Good for them. Fair play to them and all the best to them. There's still a fighting chance that from that new generation there will arise a disciplined vanguard to mobilize all this excitement around some real and achievable goals. Modest goals, maybe, but opportunities like this don't come along every day.
But what such a "movement" will have to arise from is the thing Idle No More is now, which is not a new thing. Its foundational assertions reflect a tedious pow-wow style and a New Age lexicon that depends upon cartoonish historical revisionism and a grave abuse of the legacy of countless brave aboriginal leaders who spent decades in struggle in the courts, on logging road blockades and in fishing-ground confrontations, in order to get aboriginal people where they are today.
And where are aboriginal people today? In terms of recognition and respect, the state of aboriginal rights law, the constitutional position and federal policy. . . aboriginal people have probably never had it this good. This is precisely because of the victories that aboriginal people have won by actually exercising their rights, not just by banging on about them at rallies. Fishing rights, by going fishing. Hunting rights, by going hunting. And in all those vast regions of the country where aboriginal title is still very much alive and enforceable, by getting up and going outside and acting like they owned the place.
Where aboriginal people are today in terms of the social and economic conditions in Indian country, that's another story. It may be as bad as it's ever been, especially in remote reserve communities and in the inner cities.As I noted in my Ottawa Citizen column last week: Aboriginal teenagers in Canada are perhaps six times more likely to kill themselves than non-aboriginal youth. Among the Inuit, youth suicide is 11 times the national average. Between 2005 and 2010, Health Canada spent $65 million on a National Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy. The kids kept on killing themselves, and in 2011 the Ontario Chief Coroner’s Office released a 215-page report on aboriginal suicides in Northern Ontario. One of the report’s key recommendations: the creation of a national suicide prevention strategy.
Don't kid yourself. You can call Prime Minister Stephen Harper all sorts of wicked names - any jackass can do that, including me - but this government is no worse than its predecessors. Here's as close as I'm going to come to giving the new generation of aboriginal activists some advice: You're going to have to take it yourself. Nobody's going to give it to you. You're going to have to sort out your own affairs - no government is going to do it for you. Militancy is all very romantic and thrilling and you'll have legions of earnest white "allies" urging you on. But if your point is to fight, you're headed down a dead end. If you're point is to win, you've got a fighting chance.
The thing that continues to creep me out about Idle No More is the subject of my column today. There are eagle feather rituals and sacred fires to attend to and prophecy-recitations and matriarchal warrior-spirit invocations and shout-outs to the Creator. There are spirit healers and bundle carriers and white people lining up to be smoke-cleansed and it's all so, like, spiritual. But most of this stuff is just pow-wow performance art that doesn't even have the most tenuous connection to any real aboriginal traditions in Canada. 
My point is: enough with the fixations on aboriginal hyper-authenticity and play-acting in period costume already. There's nothing new about this. It's old - but only as old as the traditions that white people began when they first started holding up funhouse mirrors for aboriginal people to see themselves in.
Here's what I mean. See that gadgie with the spear in the photo to the right? The famous photographer Edward S Curtis took that beautiful picture in Clayoquot Sound in 1916, just a stone's throw from Ahousat, the home village of the eminently competent Assembly of First Nations grand chief Shawn Atleo. The photograph is called The Whaler. The handsome geezer in the picture is believed to have gone by the name Kalespiel. The photograph, like pretty well all the Idle No More media imagery, is a set-up job. It's play-acting in period costume. Nuu-Chah-Nuulth people didn't dress anything like that in 1916. But here's what's more important.
In Kalespiel's father's generation, Nuu-Chah-Nuulth sealers were already overwintering in the Sea of Okhotsk and enjoying their shore leave in the Japanese port city of Yokohama. Kalespiel's dad's people owned their own fleet of schooners - in the late 1800s at Ditidaht, Jimmie Nyetom, Charlie Chipps and Jim Nawassum each owned schooners and ran their own ships' crews. The Heiltsuk halibut fisherman Fred Carpenter built his own sealing schooner way up in Bella Bella at a cost of $4000, a fortune at that time. Maquinna John Claphanhoo ran a fleet of three schooners, and down at Makah, Chestoqua Peterson owned the 42-ton brig Columbia and ran his own fur trading post.

 I wrote about all that in this book.
My point here is the proposition that until white people came along, Canada was populated by barefoot spirit-beings called "Indians" who pranced around in loincloths with their pointed sticks in the forest primeval - that's just white people talking, and the "Indians" who talk like this have merely internalized this outwardly benign but nonetheless racist hogwash. I'm bored sick of it. We shouldn't need to point out that there was slavery, oppression, and often almost interminable warfare in much of Canada, back in the day. Not to be indelicate about it, but "Indians" were acting like a bunch of damn Europeans long before Champlain and his crowd showed up.  
I'm also coming at this with some baggage, I confess. My first book was A Death Feast in Dimlahamid, which is a chronicle of the Gitxsan and Wet'suwet'en "land claim" struggle that led to the landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision known as Delgamuukw Versus the Queen. It was a slam-dunk for the aboriginal-rights cause, happily. I spent much of this past summer back up with my old pals in the Skeena country. I had the great pleasure of going fishing with the Loring family at Gitsegukla and spent some time up at Fort Babine at the fishery there too - a magnificent fishery only lately revived after a century - and it was a glorious thing to behold, let me tell you. Lots of Babine kids working hard and pulling down decent wages, besides.
I spent years covering aboriginal affairs as a reporter for the Vancouver Sun during the darkest and angriest days of British Columbia's aboriginal rights fights, and there were lots of fights. A third of Canada's "Indian bands" are in B.C., and the province is almost all "untreatied," so there we are. My second book, Nemiah, the Unconquered Country, I co-wrote with the Xeni'gwet'in people out in the West Chilcotin. I also co-authored Amongst God's Own, a book about residential schools, with the survivors of Saint Mary's Indian Mission.
I also spent a few months as an analyst with the Native Council of Canada in Ottawa during the aboriginal self-government negotiations in the Charlottetown Accord, and when it went down in flames in a national referendum in 1992 it was in no small part because of the "social movement" activists who campaigned against it because it didn't contain a constitutional amendment for a "social charter," if you can believe it. They are among the same Occupy and anti-globalization and white Idle No More "allies" we're hearing so much from these days, and they've yet to be asked to explain themselves for their complicity in the unresolved self-government and "nation-to-nation" imbroglios the AFN is mired in even now.
I even spent time as an analyst with the B.C. Treaty Commission (a bureaucratic and policy catastrophe if there ever was one) during its first six months of operation, when Chuck Conaghan was the boss (a fine Ulsterman he was, too). Quite sensibly, most B.C. First Nations are just getting on with life as best they can as though the B.C. treaty process isn't even there. They're just acting like they own the place, enforcing Delgamuukw's admonition that the Crown and First Nations must reconcile aboriginal title with Crown sovereignty, and the mining companies and the logging companies are obliged to make a "reasonable accomodation" with aboriginal rights and interests, and for the most part, everybody's muddling through. For now. The rednecks lost the war ages ago, in any case. 
I don't set this out to "credential" myself. My opinions aren't necessarily better than anyone else's and I am only vaguely interested in my opinions anyway. But I thought I'd get this down just to be clear about where I'm "coming from", as they say. There's a bit more of that here, too, in a broadcast of a panel discussion on Steve Paikin's excellent program On The Agenda, with the Mohawk intellectual Russell Diabo (we disagreed about the nature of Idle No More but I really admire that guy), Idle No More personality Pam Palmater, Hayden King, and Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux.
Anyway, here's the thing. Even in those First Nations communities where the culture is flourishing and people are relatively healthy and there's work to be had, it's like this: the old people speak the old language, the working adults speak the old language and English, and the youngsters speak only English. A 6,000-year-old language dies that quickly. The Gitxsan kids who were just being born when I wrote Death Feast, now they're 20.

You can lose an entire generation of kids to suicide, drug abuse, welfare ennui and alcoholism in the span of a single term of an AFN Grand Chief. There's no more time for grand solutions.

There's work to be done.



Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Idle More Likely or Idle No Maybe?

I don't know. Let's just say that when you'd half expect Old Winnetou to show up at one of these Idle No More flash mobs, you should be forgiven for doubting that much is going to come of it. More's the pity, too. There's a fighting chance that if the younger crowd pours out of the reserves and starts asserting itself at the vanguard of this thing - which isn't anything like a "movement," at least not yet, no matter how the less-than-assiduous in the media tents might like to describe it  - it may go somewhere. But for now:
That's my take, in my Ottawa Citizen column today. I don't want to saddle my dear old comrade Ernie Crey with any of my notions - his views are his, and mine are mine - but I was both surprised and somewhat heartened that my own notes and observations are quite  fully confirmed by his analysis, which I've always trusted: “We've got to get past this stage. There is no magic policy bullet that’s going to come out of some meeting with the prime minister or the Indian Affairs minister. We’re dealing with issues here that have bedeviled the very best of the aboriginal leadership for years.”
Another reason to be cautious is that the same radical-chic trendsetters who were proclaiming Occupism to be the magic formula that would overthrow corporate capitalism once and for all are now hyperventilating just as frantically, and in the same lexicon, about Idle No More. A bit like this, for instance, which is a slightly toned-down version for a change.
I was sufficiently wicked in my column to liken Occupymania with the Great Tanganyika Laughing Epidemic of 1962, which might have thrown some readers off. Here's what that was about: "The epidemic was characterized by episodes of laughing and crying. It is not only of interest from the sociological aspect but as it has disrupted the normal life of the community for six months, it is of considerable public health importance."
The other thing I might mention is that I'm a bit "conflicted" about Chief Theresa Spence and her hunger strike. It's a family thing. My dad was one of the heads of the Irish Prisoner of War Committee during the 1981 Hunger Strike campaign. Ten republicans starved themselves to death that year. It was, you could say, traumatic. It also just happens that I was named after Terence McSwiney, the playwright and Lord Mayor of Cork, who died on the 75th day of his hunger strike in Brixton Prison, in October, 1920. 
I don't want a glorious funeral to be the way the story about Chief Theresa Spence ends.