Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Gordon Gibson Pines for the Good Old Days

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).

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David P. Janes said...

Wow, I thought you proposed this magic wand - presto, you're "white" [1] - here in this post and even proposed the exact mechanism to do it.

[1] this isn't in 1950 anymore, did you notice?

Die said...

I read this in the paper this morning before I'd had sufficient coffee to get really riled up. Not being a proud person, I'll admit, I did not know who Gordon Gibson was. However, I had an inkling of who he might be when I read about FNs having "equal choice of participation" and his description of Chuck Strahl as an "intelligent and compassionate man". Mmm hmm. I see that he is a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute and I really don't need to know any more than that.

You know exactly what he is proposing: remove all of the legal protections you listed from First Nations people so that everyone will be "equal". This is exactly what Mike Harris wanted to do in Ontario. During the stand-off at Ipperwash, while being briefed by counsel, Tory cabinet ministers could not wrap their heads around the notion that FNs had protections under the Charter and insisted that the Common Sense Revolution had brought a new day in Ontario where everyone would be treated "equally". We all know how that approach ended for Dudley George.

Looking at Gordon Gibson's bio, he is not "ignorant" of the issues, he just has a very righ-wing viewpoint that would be disastrous for First Nations people, were it to be implemented.

It drives me crazy that the Globe publishes these guys constantly. This time they didn't even acknowledge that he works for the Fraser Institute. I take solace in the fact that one of his appointments is as "Chair of the Audit Committee of the Westshore Terminals Inc. Fund". Scintillating, to be sure.

Robert Janes said...

My brother draws a contrast with my position vis a vis aboriginal people and my comments regarding educational reform in Ontario. The point at one level is good but at another breaks down. The point regarding aboriginal people is that removing their special rights does not tend to do anything to solve the problems that Mr. Gibson identifies. If Mr. Gibson were merely making the argument that differentiation of peoples on any basis was wrong the argument would be a different one but that is not what he suggests in his argument. Similarly, if aboriginal leaders were suggesting that their people should be deprived of core human rights (eg have to live on the reserve or have to accept band education) I would be standing side by side with Gordon waving the flag. Indeed even if the proposal was that aboriginal parents could opt their children out of an education system that taught them a core curriculum I would be supportive of his views.

What his views though really boil down to is a solution that calls for depriving people of vested rights which show some signs of actually improving the state of aboriginal life when exercised. For example, there is a study out of UBC that suggests that in aboriginal communities where concerted efforts have been made to assert their rights (through court cases and the like) rates of suicide are lower (using that as an indicia of improved social welfare).

Similarly, if you visit reserves such as the Cowichan reserves or the Squamish reserves where the communities have gotten organized and taken advantage of their rights you see tremendous social improvement. There are numerous other examples like this across the country for, despite what sometimes is potrayed, not every reserve is a a cesspool of desperation and corruption.

On the school side there is no equivalent problem seeking a solution -- catholics are no longer a persecuted minority in Newfoundland (where the Premier is a graduate of Gonzaga Regional High School) or in Ontario. We do however see a problem where enclaves are being created based on religion where it is hard to answer the objection "well the catholics have so why can't we".

David P. Janes said...

Ontario/Canada was founded with the integral participation of Catholics, which as you know rightfully feared what the protestants could do them without certain [what we would call now] constitutional protections. Because of Catholic protections, Jews and Muslims and Scientologists and Atheists and etc. can all enjoy a reasonably oppression free life.

The argument, as you and they have expressed it, is something to do with fairness: that Catholics don't alone deserve it or "we" as a society have outgrown it, etc..

Great. Let's use this reasoning with _some_ Canadian aboriginals then: should not bands that have landed on their feet get the "Gibson treatment"?

Robert Janes said...

In effect they do.

The 'special rights' of aboriginal people divide into two classes.

First there are those rights that are tied to social disadvantage. These are a range of welfare benefits which effectively terminate on a community level as they are no longer needed although individuals in need can access them on an individual level as non- aboriginals can.

Second there are those rights that are more in the nature of 'property' rights -- for example ownership of the reserves -- which do not terminate anymore than the rights of shareholders to run a company terminate when the company becomes successful.

In the modern treaty context there are fiscal arrangements negotiated that effectively cause the First Nations to offset larger portions of any Federal transfers as the Nation's income grows. The tax exemption is also exempted.

It should also be remebered that many of the 'special' rights -- such as the tax exemption -- have very narrow application. For example, the tax exemption only applies to income earned on-reserve and no in the 'commercial mainstream' so, again, as aboriginal people become successful off-reserve their special rights as individuals are minimized.

My real point about Gibson's article though is that he presents (presumably compelled) integration as a solution to a social problem when there is strong evidence from 257 years of application that it does not work. The flaw in his argument is that 'facts on the ground' fail him. I am not saying that the emerging modern regime will solve the problems of aboriginal people, that very much remains to be seen, but I am firmly convinced that an approach tha has been demonstrated to fail in multiple incarnations is not the way to go.

My point about religious schools is that there is evidence that it is creating a new problem and undermining the concept that as a society we may actually have core values that we want to see passed on. My views would be somewhat different if there was still continued evidence of a deep political split between catholics and protestants in Ontario that threatened Canada's political cohesion, but there is no real evidence of that.

My views are not perfectly compatible but in the real world -- whose are?