Gordon Gibson has written yet another of his screeds in the Globe and Mail advocating assimilation (integration) as the solution for the social troubles of Indians. In doing so he suggests that this is someway a novel idea that has yet to be tried.
Stepping back and actually looking at it, it is a bit tricky trying to actually determine what Mr. Gibson is recommending unless it is the wholesale abolition of the special legal standing of aboriginal people. The reality is that there are no legal or policy impediments to integration for any aboriginal person who is so inclined. Every aboriginal person has the rights that the non-aboriginal people have: the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to move or leave the country, the right to access the nation’s health care system and education system. What distinguishes aboriginal people is that they have additional rights such as their constitutional rights and their statutory rights in relation to the reserves under the Indian Act.
It seems that what Mr. Gibson is really advocating is the wholesale abolition of these rights and privileges as well as the special protections afforded to aboriginal people so that they disappear as a distinct social problem. This would entail the abolition or breaking up of the reserves, the disbanding of the band councils, the repeal of the Indian Act, the extinguishment of aboriginal and treaty rights and finally the repeal of s. 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 and s. 91(24) of the Constitution Act, 1867. This would no doubt result in immediate assimilation from a public policy perspective as then there would no longer be a category of persons defined as ‘Indians’ and their poverty and desperation would merely be absorbed into the great mass of the rural and urban poor. The colour of desperation would remain the same but at least the label would disappear.
What is pathetic about Mr. Gibson’s analysis is that it is so ignorant of real history. The policy of integration (also known as assimilation or enfranchisement) is that it has been the cornerstone of Canadian aboriginal policy since the 1750’s. Colonial officials were faced with an inconvenient truth of their own: there were a lot of Indians in this supposedly empty colony and they had the ability to make everyone’s life sticky. Colonial officials being more pragmatic men than Mr. Gibson knew that they could not merely wish the Indians away (“presto, you’re white”) and so they devised a series of policies which recognized the ‘facts on the ground’ (namely that the Indians were on the land and apparently had rights) while establishing conditions that created incentives to either assimilate or disappear. These incentives included limiting practical land rights to reserves, limiting the right to vote (unless enfranchised), denying the right to own property (unless enfranchised) and denying educational choice (unless enfranchised). As the aboriginal threat became lesser the assimilative pressure was increased by attacking cultural institutions such as the potlatch and language through the Criminal Code and the residential school system.
What is obvious though is that it did not work. For some reason, aboriginal people declined to give up their homes, move away from their families and abandon their culture. They refused to integrate even under substantial pressure from the government. In his article Mr. Gibson suggests that the choice for us as a society is between promoting personal choice as oppposed to promoting collective choice. This is in fact nonsense, under our existing system we have allowed both with personal choice taking primacy. The real choice we have as a society is whether or not be are going to force aboriginal people to choose between maintaining their identity, culture and rights and therefore being condemned to poverty or assimilating into the mainstream in the hope of economic progress. The Indian industry that Mr. Gibson so despises promotes the idea that perhaps we should try to find a way to let the aboriginal people maintain their existence and have a decent life (oh yes, and have some real freedom to make personal choices).