One the recurrent themes of Idle No More protesters is the rhetoric of a ‘nation-to-nation' relationship between Canada and First Nations. This rhetoric grossly oversimplifies the complexities of the relationship that is in reality a complex interaction between one state and many nations within its borders. Indeed, Aboriginal Affairs note that there are 614 First Nations communities across Canada, encompassing every province and territory. This is possibly a conservative estimate.
The second aspect most typically espoused is idea of the two-row wampum, a ceremonial belt that conveys a story and a relationship. The belt is, in essence, a treaty and a constitutional document in representative form. Its parallel lines represent two streams along which two separate-but-equal peoples navigate separate vessels. The idea is that they exit in tandem but without crossing their clearly delineated boundaries.
The problem with insisting on the wampum to explain contemporary First Nations relationships with the rest of Canada is that it was largely fiction centuries ago. Its value rests in its symbolism, not in its practicality. The times in which settlers and First Nations were truly traveling along separate streams was brief. Indeed, regular contact and exchange was the norm, not the exception. Moreover, this was mutually beneficial exchange, both materially and ideationally.
The expansion of British settlement, particularly in the early nineteenth century further undermined the possibility of distinction, particularly as First Nations came more deeply integrated into the machinery of the Canadian state. This was completed in 1876 with the introduction of the Indian Act. By the 20th century Canadian dominion – indeed, the Dominion of Canada – encompassed its present day extent – with the exclusion of the still independent colony of Newfoundland.
In the present context, First Nations are fully enmeshed inescapably within the Canadian state. These communities are bound up within its constitutional structures – in s91 of the British North America Act and s35 of the Constitution Act, as well the Royal Proclamation – its bureaucratic structures and its legal apparatus. Within these structures, there is, however, considerable room for maneuver and latitude for various institutional arrangements, which simultaneously acknowledge the reality of the Canadian state while respecting Aboriginal rights, particularly title and a right to self-government. Nunavut is perhaps the clearest example of the confluence of title and self-government. It speaks to what is possible within a ‘racist, colonial’ set of institutions.
Two-row wampum and self-government are not identical concepts. Indeed, for progress to be made they need to be decoupled. Successful self-government is entirely possible. There are numerous examples of either autonomy or devolution. The Åland Islands and South Tyrol represent examples of autonomy within Europe, while the devolution of local control in the United Kingdom represents another means of recognizing national claims. Indeed, Canada itself is such an example, not only in the aforementioned case of Nunavut, but also in its federal structure.
Complex arrangements, however, such as establishing a recognized ‘third order’ of government in which First Nations communities are recognized alongside the federal government and the provinces, will take decades to work out - if such an idea receives the traction needed to get it on the table. These are fundamental changes to the federation and require substantial, if not unanimous, consent to constitutionally entrench. In this regard, imposed or not, the existing constitution cannot simply be ignored. The interests of the provinces and non-Aboriginal Canadians deserve due consideration.
Constitutional relativism – in which the Constitution can be silenced or applied in an ad hoc fashion or simply ignored by entire segments of the population - rests on a shaky intellectual slope. Moreover, it is inherently contradictory given that so many Aboriginal claims rest precisely on the existing constitutional order to provide legal and moral affirmation of claims. To simply insert another order of government, to alter unilaterally the balance of the federation and ignore the constitution simply because it was ‘imposed’, is idiotic. When expanded non-Aboriginal Canadians generally and Francophone Canadians specifically could make claims of exemption based on a lack of popular consent. To simply deny the reality of the existing order is precisely that: a denial of reality.
Finally, on a practical level the two-row wampum is predicated on a nation-to-nation relationship that, in turn, is predicated on the assumption of mutual recognition. Relationships require two partners with mutual recognition of the other’s status. Indeed, internationally, we know sovereign states because they are recognized by other sovereign states. It is not enough for one side to assert a relationship; there must be reciprocation.
Two things are relevant to the issue at hand. While the Canadian government may recognize the existing right to self-government and title of Aboriginal Peoples and acknowledge their status as nations, nationhood and sovereignty do not always overlap. Canada – and the Crown – does not recognize Aboriginal sovereignty. Canadian sovereignty is all encompassing. Indeed, this Royal Proclamation makes this abundantly clear. Whether or not this was the understanding of sovereignty First Nations were conceptualizing three hundred years ago is, for contemporary purposes, entirely beside the point. First Nations self-government may be internationally recognized – particularly in UN declarations – but Canada alone has recognized sovereignty. Moreover, the fact that this is the Eurocentric understanding of sovereignty - one among many - does not weaken its hold or lessen its impact on outcomes. It must be reconciled, not ignored.
Second, whether recognized or not, much as with the motion on Quebecois nationhood delivered in the House of Commons, the Canadian state recognizes First Nations within a united Canada, not alongside, not parallel and certainly not outside it. So, while First Nations may see the two-row wampum as emblematic of their relationship with Canada, Canada does not see it so. As with tango, it takes two for mutual recognition.
As with a demand for the presence of the Governor General at a political meeting, there is a conflation of the actual with the symbolic. As long as First Nations insist on the two-row wampum as anything more than symbolic, they will be met with resistance. Canada will never accept this. Moreover, contemporary reality affirms this. As Alan Cairn’s writes, “the dilemma of Aboriginal peoples is that although the Canadian state may lack legitimacy, they, unlike Quebec, cannot opt out of it”. Moreover, “they will remain entangled with the surrounding society. They will exist in the midst of their former colonizers”. The possibility of existing without contact with Canada and entirely outside its structures is impossible.
Denying Canada as it is and instead insisting upon an historic or idealized understanding is entirely unhelpful. Ignoring structures cannot free First Nations from them. Nor will insisting on one version of events facilitate change. The cold reality is this: despite the energy of the Idle No More movement the cards are heavily stacked in favour of the Canadian state. The power imbalance may be unfair, it may be entirely unjust, but it is reality. The applicability of the two-row wampum to the relationship between nations is no longer capable of reflecting reality. It is time to weave a new belt made of common interest, mutual respect and collective purpose. Our paths have crossed irreversibly. Our treaties and institutions, indeed our interactions, should reflect this.