IN DEPTH: ABORIGINAL CANADIANS|
CBC News Online | July 02, 2004
Back, back in time...
If you fly beyond Old Crow Flats in northern Yukon you can see the remains of ancient logs that form massive, man-made structures once used to catch caribou. Aboriginal Canadians call them "the caribou corrals."
The corrals were designed to capture migrating caribou. The log walls of the corral were higher than the caribou. The animals entered at a place where the corrals were about five kilometres wide. The corrals gradually narrowed until the caribou were trapped, providing a convenient bin of live meat, enough to feed dozens of families over the long Yukon winter.
Finding the caribou corrals excited archeologists, anthropologists and paleontologists. They discovered that some of the logs used for the corral walls had been fashioned by stone axes, which suggested the corrals might have been used in prehistoric times. By carbon-dating fossil bones by the corrals, scientists determined they were 30,000 years old, which proved to be a rare instance of direct evidence of human activity in the Western Hemisphere.
There is more to be learned from aboriginal culture than caribou corrals and stone axes. The federal systems of government in Canada and the United States are modeled on the system of government devised by the Iroquois.
The Iroquois system took care to protect individual liberties and freedoms, including gender equality. Thomas Jefferson, America's third president and one of the drafters of the U.S. Constitution, observed that among the Iroquois "every man, with them, is perfectly free to follow his own inclinations. But if, in doing this, he violates the rights of another, if the case be slight, he is punished by the disesteem of society or, as we say, public opinion; if serious, he is tomahawked as a serious enemy." Jefferson used this to draft his First Amendment, which allows freedom until it violates another person's rights.
In their 1991 book Occupied Canada, authors Robert Hunter and Robert Calihoo devote a chapter to "The Great Gift of the Iroquois," in which they describe some of the workings of the Iroquois Confederacy: "Factionalism with the confederacy was reduced by building in a system of clan kinships that transcended the borders of different tribes. Thus, the clans of the Hawk, Turtle, Wild Potatoes, Great Bear or Deer Pigeon would have had members among the Mohawks, Seneca, Onondagas, Oneidas, and Cayuga alike, and these individuals would view each other as members of the same family."
Benjamin Franklin was so impressed by the Iroquois Confederacy that he championed it as a model to unite the new colonies, urging that each colony become a state with control over internal affairs, with a federal council responsible for external matters. This became the basis of the Articles of Confederation.
The story is rich, vast, complex.
What's in a name?
Consider, for a start, the nomenclature. Is it "aboriginal Canadians" or "first peoples" or "natives" or "Indians" or "First Nations People" or "indigenous people"? They're all correct, with some mild fretting over politically-correct hemlines, which at least has eliminated such clunkers as the English "redskins" and the French sauvages. We still call it "the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs." Aboriginals find demeaning the use of possessives such as "Canada's aboriginals" and "Canada's natives," though "native" is acceptable if used to modify "people" and "leaders" and "communities."
Consider the languages. The largest aboriginal language group is Algonquian, spoken by some 100,000 people. The Algonquian language group actually contains nine aboriginal languages: Abenaki, Blackfoot, Delaware, Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, Montagnais-Naskapi, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, and Cree. The Crees are spread across Canada in various groupings, each with their own dialects: Plains, Swampy, Northern, Woods, Moose, and East.
On the matter of the Mi'kmaq, the word comes from "nikmaq," which aboriginals gave to the French and Basque fishermen and explorers in the 17th century. Essentially it means "my kin-friends." The Mi'kmaq, when referring to themselves, use the term "L'nu'k," which means "the people" or "humans." Mi'kmaq is pronounced Mig-mow(as in "owl").
The complexity cries out for perspective, which I found one afternoon in May, 1975, in Inuvik where the Mackenzie River empties into the Beaufort Sea. I was talking to an Eskimo named Abe Okpik. Abe and I were both on assignment with the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, popularly known as the Berger Inquiry after the chairman, Mr. Justice Thomas Berger.
"Three times this morning I heard someone say Inuit," Okpik told me. Then, with exquisite timing over his mug of coffee, he added, "The anthropologists must be early this summer."
Okpik died early in 1998, by which time he had comfortably embraced the use of "Inuit" to describe "Eskimos," a southern aboriginal expression for "eaters of raw meat." And why not? "Inuit" means "the people," as in "people everywhere." It is also plural; one Inuit is an "Inuk." Abe told me an Inuk can denote two Inuit by somehow saying Inuuk.
Nunavut and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples
The Berger Commission was a watershed event in the history of aboriginal Canadians, examining the lives and living conditions of the people of the Mackenzie Valley and further north to Sachs Harbour and Holman Island. Judge Berger held formal hearings in Yellowknife, and community hearings in scattered villages and encampments across the western Arctic. He ended up taking his commission across southern Canada, all the way to the Maritimes.
Chief Jim Antoine when he was 26, talking to Judge Thomas Berger in 1975. Antoine became Premier of the Northwest Territories.
"We possess a terrible self-centredness, even arrogance, as a people," Berger said, referring to non-aboriginal Canadians. "History is what happened to us. We dismiss as a curiosity what has gone before. The culture, values and traditions of native people amount to more than crafts and carvings. Their respect for the wisdom of their elders, their concept of family responsibilities extending beyond the nuclear family to embrace a whole village, their respect for the environment, their willingness to share - all of these values persist within their own culture even though they have been under unremitting pressure to abandon them."
On April 1, 1999 the eastern portion of the Northwest Territories became Nunavut. It was the first time the map of Canada was changed since Newfoundland joined confederation in 1949.
Nunavut means "our land" in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit. The territory of Nunavut is fives times larger than Alberta, with a population of 24,000, of whom 85 per cent are Inuit. Ottawa agreed to pay Nunavut $1.2 billion over 14 years, ending in 2007.
I heard it often during my time in the Mackenzie Valley working on a book on the Berger Inquiry, which was titled The Past and Future Land. I finally found a way to reply when we were in Fort Liard and I met Chief Harry Deneron, who testified at the inquiry that the local nurse had posted a sign on the door of the Hudson's Bay store that warned: DO NOT DRINK THE WATER.
"Well, it's okay for us - like a doctor can tell us this because we're humans," Chief Deneron told Judge Berger. "Most of us will probably know what they're talking about, but what we can't get at is, how can we get the message across to the animals that are depending on this water, the fish and that?"
In the book I wrote:
"It is a good question, one that confounds those white people who like to put a priority on things, with humans and their things definitely at the top and all the rest, the beasts and fishes, definitely lower down. The whole of the Northwest Territories, they say, could easily fit into Toronto's CNE Stadium, and it's true if by 'whole' you mean only the humans. For sure you won't get the land in, not the land that is one third of Canada, or the animals, not the herds of caribou that thunder by in numbers exceeding 100,000. But just the humans, yes. It is like measuring a Caesar salad by counting the croutons."
At the start of 1998, the Canadian government formally apologized to the aboriginal Canadians for they way they have been mistreated.
This was in response to the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, a massive document that recommended a new era of partnership.
A section of the report titled "Looking Forward, Looking Back," begins: "After some 500 years of a relationship that has swung from partnership to domination, from mutual respect and cooperation to paternalism and attempted assimilation, Canada must now work out fair and lasting terms for coexistence with Aboriginal people."
As a starting point, the royal commission listed four reasons why this must be done:
1. Canada's claim to be a fair and enlightened society depends on it.
2. The life chances of Aboriginal people, which are still shamefully low, must be improved.
3. Negotiation, as conducted under the current rules, has proved unequal to the task of settling grievances.
4. Continued failure may well lead to violence.
1. The creation of what would essentially be a third order of government: an aboriginal parliament.
The report cites the Royal Proclamation of 1763 as a defining document in the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in North America. The document, signed by King George III, says:
2. An independent tribunal to decide on land claims.
3. More money to be spent to improve housing, health, education and employment.
4. Establishment of a native university.
5. An "immediate and major infusion of money" that would see $2 billion added to the present government spending of $6 billion a year on aboriginal Canadians.
"It is just and reasonable and essential to our interest and security of our colonies that the several nations or tribes of Indians with whom we are connected and who live under our protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the possession of such parts of our dominions and territories which, not having been ceded to or purchased by us, are reserved to them or any of them as their hunting grounds."
Total population of Canada: 31,414,000|
Total people of aboriginal origin: 1,319,890
North American Indian:
More than one aboriginal origin:
People of aboriginal origin living on reserve: 285,625
People of aboriginal origin living off reserve: 1,034,260
People of non-aboriginal origin living on reserve: 36,230
(Source: 2001 Census, Statistics Canada)
*includes people of a single aboriginal origin and those of a mix of one aboriginal origin with non-aboriginal origins