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Stereotype of the Month Entry
(6/19/02)


Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

A better life for natives -- a whiter one, too

Jonathan Kay
National Post

Matthew Coon Come, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has long decried the 126-year-old Indian Act as "a racist document." So one might have predicted he'd be a big fan of the First Nations Governance Act, which overhauls the Indian Act and eliminates Ottawa's veto power over First Nation by-laws. But no: Speaking Friday, the AFN leader claimed the legislation's focus on native "accountability" is a Eurocentric scam. Ottawa's real aim, he says, is "to entrench Euro-Canadian models, principles and standards on [natives]. It is, in a word, assimilation."

At first blush, it seems like an unconvincing rant. Many chiefs, I suspect, don't oppose the Governance Act because the plan is "racist," but because the legislation will force them to adopt state-of-the-art accounting and electoral practices that will limit their ability to dole out cash and favours to cronies. The obvious suspicion is that Mr. Coon Come relies on the racism charge only because he can't attack the merits of the new legislation without seeming to be an apologist for the nepotism, hereditary chieftaincies and corruption the legislation is designed to phase out.

But I'm willing to take Mr. Coon Come's argument seriously. Whatever his motives, I think he makes a valid point about the effects of the new legislation.

Like virtually everyone in Ottawa, Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault, who introduced the Governance Act last Friday, says he wants to protect aboriginal culture. But that doesn't square with his accountability plan. From Red Deer to Ramallah, tribal societies are typically dominated by strongmen who dole out favours to kin and clan. The idea that leaders should be elected through secret ballot, and be held accountable through governance codes and audits, is an entirely Western concept.

Mr. Coon Come's use of the word "assimilation" is accurate, too. Canada's natives, itinerant foragers and hunters two centuries ago, are now sedentary welfare-collectors. Their relationship with the land has eroded greatly because they no longer depend on it for food. Thanks to television, they are also abandoning native languages in favour of English and French, and have largely shed their animistic faiths. (The AFN's Web site proclaims: "Our peoples are the original peoples of this land, having been put here by the Creator." But many chiefs are actually Christians. Mr. Coon Come himself belongs to an evangelical group and recently spent a year at a Florida Bible college.)

In short, one of the only authentic elements of native culture that remains is the one Mr. Nault is targeting: the traditional, patriarchal, kin-based system for distributing resources and choosing leaders. But white-style accountability rules don't permit such systems. Under Mr. Nault's legislation, moreover, the Indian Act will no longer be exempt from application of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which means tribal councils rooted in ancient traditions might suddenly be hauled before a human rights tribunal for say blocking a gay political candidate. Will the new legislation make life better for ordinary natives? Yes but it will also make it a lot more white.

This does not mean the First Nations Governance Act is a bad idea. Getting rid of poverty and the deadly social pathologies that go along with it on native reserves is a lot more important than stoking the dying embers of aboriginal culture. By Euro-Canadian lights, "kin-based" is merely anthropological shorthand for "nepotistic"; "patriarchal" means sexist; and "traditional" means undemocratic. If going Euro is the price natives have to pay for reforming their political structures and cleaning up corruption on reserves, so be it.

What I would like to see, though, is an admission from the federal government that Mr. Coon Come is partly right that the Governance Act really is about assimilation. But as with the rest of federal aboriginal policy, the new legislation has been advanced under the false conceit that we can promote aboriginal economic well-being and protect authentic native cultures simultaneously.

It is this conceit that prompts Ottawa to encourage Indians to remain on remote, economically desolate bantustans instead of migrating to city jobs. While the First Nations Governance Act will help make life more tolerable on those bantustans, it won't solve the underlying problem. Most Indians will remain second-class citizens until Ottawa has the courage to use the A-word openly.

Copyright 2002 National Post

A chief responds
Chief Stewart Phillip helpfully lists all the stereotypical comments in Kay's editorial:

To whom it may concern,

For your consideration for publishing, please find the attached letter of reponse to Jonathan Kay's June 19 editorial from Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and chief of the Penticton Indian Band.

Re: Jonathan Kay's June 19, 2002, Editorial "A better life for natives a whiter one, too"

Dear Editor:

I am no longer shocked by the misleading and anti-Aboriginal racist drivel, which routinely passes for editorial comment on Aboriginal policy by the National Post, particularly by Jonathan Kay. After all, Mr. Kay has made his socially conservative views about assimilating First Nations known in previous articles written for this newspaper. Mr. Kay apparently reflects the views of owners of the Canwest Global chain of newspapers since similar anti-Aboriginal editorials have appeared across the country simultaneously this past week.

However, as a Chief of my community and President of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, I must challenge Mr. Kay regarding his bigoted and erroneous interpretation of First Nations opposition to the federal government's proposed "First Nations Governance Act" (Bill C-61).

As your readers may recall earlier this week, Mr Kay made a number of odious assertions about why he believes that First Nations Chiefs oppose Bill C-61, some of Mr. Kay's comments bear repeating here:

I find it reprehensible that a national newspaper would allow Mr. Kay to express such patently racist opinions, which are not only grossly ill informed, but in my opinion, Mr. Kay's views border on promoting hatred against First Nations.

Rob's comment
For more on the controversial act, see Canada's First Nations Governance Act Is Nothing of the Sort.

For more of Kay's stereotyping, see Kay:  Indians Are Preserving "Hunter-Gatherer Traditions." Kay repeats many of the same falsehoods and I dismiss them there.

Related links
Indians as welfare recipients
The "outdated" reservation system
The myth of Western superiority
Guns, Germs, and Steel
"Primitive" Indian religion
Native vs. non-Native Americans:  a summary


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