Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Negotiating with Metaphors: the Chief and the King

There is a rich legacy of Aboriginal story telling, the use of narrative to inscribe important events in thought rather than in text. These range from creation myths to accounts of settlement and contact. They allow for the transmission of histories across generations and establish a link to the past. Indeed, oral histories have been affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada as having a status comparable to the written text. In the context of agreements between First Nations and settler societies, these oral submissions become important points of verification considering the spoken agreement and the written text often varied substantially. We cannot dismiss narrative and, as John Borrows has reminded us through his own work, such approaches have important contemporary resonance and explanatory power.[1]

These narratives often rely heavily on metaphor as explanations for events. Certainly common sense dictates that the world does not float on a turtle’s back while scientific evidence clearly indicates that continued habitation of North America by First Nations is both untrue and, in light of geologic evidence, patently impossible. First Nations were here first, that is undeniable, but ‘from time immemorial’ is a falsifiable claim just as we would rightly reject land claims on the basis of the will of a creator god (although, to be fair, this is essentially the argument made by Europeans to capture the land in the first place). These metaphors have to be interpreted and, like any narrative, they are malleable and open to revision. They can also be exploited for political purposes.

Given this history of utilizing metaphor and narrative as an explanatory tool, it is somewhat ironic that First Nations have looked at colonial metaphors and interpreted them literally. The most fundamental example is the interpretation of the British Crown and its relationship with First Nations in Canada. This has been particularly evident given the demands by Chief Teresa Spence and her insistence that the Governor General of Canada be at the meeting table along with the Prime Minister and others in the Aboriginal leadership.
In 1763 King George III issued the Royal Proclamation. This document is primarily a placeholder, an assertion of newly won – but ultimately short-lived - British hegemony over the North American content. It enunciated the sovereign will until such time as a more formal structure could be put in place (by the Quebec Act, for instance). That is its first aim and, indeed, its first paragraphs are devoted to enunciating this newfound dominion by the establishment of borders – a very typical European display of sovereignty. Toward the end of the document there are important, but somewhat ambiguous and contradictory statements, relating to First Nations communities allied with the Crown.

From the very beginning this document works in metaphor. Indeed, while it is issued in the King’s name and enunciated in his voice, it is ultimately mediated through the Privy Council – that is, Cabinet – and a metaphor for the government of Great Britain. There is no personal relationship between First Nations and the person of the monarch. The Sovereign was – and remains – the chief metaphor for political power, exercised in the name of the monarch but not by the monarch.

Moreover, if that relationship did exist, it has since been terminated. The British Crown has long since relinquished its claim to territory in North America. Existing obligations have been ceded to the Canadian Crown and the Government of Canada. While both Crowns continue to be occupied by the same individual, they are exercising discrete reservoirs of power entirely. As the British monarch, the reigning sovereign has no relationship with First Nations. As the Canadian monarch she does, but this is pure metaphor. These powers have been delegated and are ultimately exercised – with few exceptions – by the Prime Minister and Cabinet (“on advice” being another metaphor with little contemporary force).

Much of the Canadian constitution, as with Aboriginal narratives, works through metaphor. We know that the reality of practice stipulates otherwise, but we continue to cling to them. The Crown is our foundational myth, the chief metaphor that underpins government. Criminals are formally brought to trial against the Queen (the ubiquitous R.) but this justice is not meted out by personally but exercised metaphorically through the government. Civil servants needing the use of a rental car literally rent the car in the name of the sovereign.

The point of all of this is that First Nations are unhelpfully clinging to a metaphor as if it had power. Chief Theresa Spence is demanding a meeting with a ghost, with a Crown that by 1763 had already ceded much of its discretionary powers to Parliament. Moreover, while the Proclamation still has contemporary relevance – it has not been repealed or revoked – First Nations are reading the same document two different ways at once – affirming a metaphor as fact and denying fact as fiction – while ignoring the unambiguously colonial tone of the document.

First, the document it utilized to affirm their sovereignty over territory and, more specifically, as evidence of a unique relationship between Crown – read literally as the person of the monarch – and as a source of continued claim to Title (which is accurate). Second, First Nations tend to ignore – or deny – what are clear claims to sovereignty over the entire territory – occupied by Indians or not. The document states in no uncertain terms that the Proclamation extends to First Nations “under our Protection” and that Britain reserves “under Our Sovereignty, Protection, and Dominion” certain lands. This also must be coupled with the transitory nature of the document which states throughout that this is not a definitive statement locking Britain in but rather reflecting existing interests. Clearly the subsequent behaviour of the Crown in the following years bears this out.

These are all issues, often the minutia of legal arguments, which are only further complicated by contemporary narratives. Current demands are couched in outdated understandings of contemporary Canada, its political structures and centuries of democratization. It is as impossible to claim a relationship directly with the British Crown today as it is to demand that the Vatican produce a Roman emperor. Times have changed, relationships have evolved and power changes hands. The power of the British Crown has since ceded to Canada. Responsible government means that that power is exercised democratically by the Prime Minister. These are the contemporary realities. More to the point, Spence shows a cavalier disregard for democracy by insisting that an unelected figurehead be brought to the table based on a two-hundred and fifty year old misinterpretation. The relationship between First Nations and the Crown cannot be improved by insisting a dead man[2] is at the table. Neither will be progress be made by holding a dated metaphor to be true while rebuking reality as fiction.

[1] See John Borrows, Drawing Out Law: A Spirit Guide
[2] By this I mean George III, not David Johnston

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