In the following assignment, I will discuss the issue of native sovereignty in Canada, and address the question; “Can native sovereignty coexist with Canadian sovereignty?” To answer this question I will summarize two articles that discuss the issue. The first by John A. Olthius and Roger Townshend entitled “The Case for Native Sovereignty”, and the second, by Thomas Flanagan, entitled “Native Sovereignty: Does Anyone Really want an Aboriginal Archipelago?” I will be taking the position against the coexistence of native sovereignty with Canadian sovereignty. These two articles will help me support my position on the issue.
Olthius and Townshend are in favour of native sovereignty within Canada based on historical and moral grounds. These authors believe there is a difference in perceptions between native and non-native Canadians regarding the jurisdiction over Canadian territory. In their essay, they write that Aboriginal people believe the Canadian state is oppressive and usurps the powers of Aboriginal people, while most non-aboriginals would be unlikely to question the status of the Canadian state. The essay contends that before European settlement, First Nations people had stability in their economic and political structures. Although their style was different than that of European nations, there was recognition of sovereignty of aboriginal lands. Acquisition of land in Canada did not come from conquest; rather it came primarily in the form of land transaction treaties. However, the treaties did little to support the claim of Canadian sovereignty since they are mostly unclear about issues of jurisdiction. A secondary way of claiming land for European settlement was through discovery of vacant land, but in doing so, aboriginal people on these lands, were to be considered non-persons to make the claims valid.
Olthius and Townshend point out that once European’s were firmly settled in Canada, the policy towards aboriginals was that of assimilation into the rest of Canadian society. Attempts at assimilation were done primarily on an individual level. Examples of the Canadian government’s efforts are creation of the residential school system, where aboriginal children were taken away from their families and forbidden to speak in their native tongue, and the attempt to make Aboriginal religious practices criminal. Attempts to terminate Indian status peaked in 1969 with the introduction the White Paper, which was overwhelmingly struck down. The resistance of aboriginals towards assimilation increased after this time and sparked the creation of First Nations political organizations.
Olthius and Townshend state that the less than ideal conditions that aboriginals live in today, is a result of failed assimilation attempts. They believe that First Nations jurisdiction must be established in order for Aboriginals to grow as a people, and coexist in the Canadian state. One that “goes well beyond a municipal-government type of jurisdiction” .
Thomas Flanagan’s essay concerning aboriginal sovereignty begins by defining the word sovereignty, as “a bundle of powers associated with the highest authority of government.” Flanagan associates sovereignty with, among other things, being able to enforce rules and make laws, something, he claims, aboriginal people did not have before European came. Although there was a process in which aboriginals dealt with political affairs, according to Flanagan, they could not claim statehood and sovereignty.
After reviewing the two essays, I have decided to support the arguments against native sovereignty coexisting with Canadian sovereignty. Olthius and Townshend’s position based on historical and moral grounds seems weak in comparison to Flanagan’s definitions of sovereignty and arguments against implementing sovereignty for aboriginal people.
Flanagan describes three meanings attached to sovereignty and provides arguments why each one of them is not viable. The first is a group of powers such as making laws and raising revenue. The second is land ownership and the third is relations with other sovereign countries. Aboriginal people are spread out across all ten provinces, with 600 bands being represented on over 2200 reserves. These small clusters of people living on remote pieces of land have little in terms of employment opportunity or economic prospects. Thousands more, Metis and non-status aboriginals live outside of these reserves. The fact that native land is spread out in many pieces all over Canada makes it unrealistic to think they would ever be unified. Flanagan states, they are simply not viable as sovereign states” . According to Flanagan, aboriginal leaders claim sovereignty in many areas, but since native bands are scattered around the country, both on and off reserves, these pieces could never constitute sovereign states. Native leaders “adopted the classical language of statehood” to describe their people. Aboriginal bands are now, more commonly referred to as “nations”, many of whom who have differences in their languages and customs. Given this awkward demographic and native culture situation, it is difficult to see how aboriginal people could have a separate currency, trade with other nations, and make laws without causing chaos throughout the rest of Canada. Aboriginal people “have a distinctive and tangible collective nature” , whereas involvement in bigger societies is generally done on an individual level. This creates a conflict in accommodating such a different point of view.
The Charlottetown Accord provided for aboriginal self-government as one of the three orders of government, but Flanagan points out that the Accord made no mention of sovereignty. Flanagan debates the necessity of a third order of government in Canada. He supports two levels of government for the following reasons. Canada is made of so many people of different countries and ethnic groups that it is necessary to have a territorial imperative so that all people can participate cooperatively as Canadians. The Ottoman Empire had many religious denominations that controlled their own customs and private law, within their own separate communities. However, this model was in no way democratic; there were no elections and no representative government, making it one Canada would not want to imitate. Political rights should hinge on residence within that territory, not because of ethnic origin. If the provisions of aboriginal self-government, detailed in the Charlottetown Accord had been realized, it would not have made aboriginal people part of our current system of liberal democracy. Instead, they would be plunged into a world of dependence on government hand- outs, and not take advantage of Canadian society and economy. It is likely that if special provisions were granted, then other groups would soon follow, demanding special political powers for themselves and resulting in an end of equality.
In conclusion, Olthius and Townshend’s case for native sovereignty made good ethical points for the necessity in suggesting ideas on how to achieve a better status for aboriginal people. However, Flanagan’s arguments were more convincing in pointing out the difficulty and impracticality of establishing native sovereignty. The Charlottetown Accord contained certain amendments within it that might have begun to set acceptable conditions for aboriginals in Canada, but it seemed to offer too little of what they were hoping to obtain. I empathize with the situation of native people in Canada. Creating a new level of government, and giving such potential political power to a relatively small percentage of Canada’s population doesn’t seem like a very wise idea, especially since the distance and many differences between the many nations of aboriginal people is so great. It remains to be seen whether native and non-native Canadians can come to an agreement on the definition of sovereignty.
Olthius, John A. and Townshend, Roger. “The case for Native sovereignty”. In Crosscurrents: Contemporary Political Issues, 3rd ed. ed. Mark Charlton and Paul Barker, 5-8. Toronto: Nelson, 1998.
Flanagan, Thomas. “Native sovereignty: Does Anyone Really want an Aboriginal Archipelago?”. In Crosscurrents: Contemporary Political Issues, 3rd ed. ed. Mark Charlton and Paul Barker, 9-15. Toronto: Nelson, 1998.