Shiny New Beads and Trinkets: Old Assimilation Policies Repackaged

There has been a great deal of publicity lately related to all the great work the Conservatives are doing in relation to Aboriginal peoples. Some media outlets have called this a “historic shift” and even gone so far as to characterize the plan as a “sweeping overhaul of reserve life”. While there may be some useful tidbits in the plan, to call it historic or sweeping is misrepresenting what is actually taking place. One must keep in mind that this announcement coincided with the Auditor General’s damning report about Canada’s gross failure to address conditions of extreme poverty on reserve. In fact, according to Fraser, conditions have even become much worse. INAC has knowingly failed to address “inequities” in funding for post-secondary education, child and family services, housing and many other programs. Yet, all of this was overshadowed by a strategically-timed joint action plan – anything to take the public’s focus off of the stark reality. The fact that the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) took part in this duck and avoid maneuver leaves me questioning the AFN”s ability to effectively advocate on behalf of First Nations. Some have even questioned whether the AFN had any REAL input into the plan given how quickly it came out. Even if National Chief of AFN Shawn Atleo did have input, that begs the question as to why he would give his blessing to a plan that would leave out critical issues around funding, consultation, First Nation jurisdiction, treaty rights and land claims. All of these issues are significant to the grass roots people, yet nothing has been mentioned about any of them. Similarly, the planned First Nation – Crown Summit also excludes these critical issues – all with Atleo’s stamp of approval. Does any of this signal a significant shift by the Conservatives from their right-wing, pro-assimilation agenda? I would argue that all we are seeing are the same old deal – the exchange of shiny beads and trinkets for our acquiescence or agreement to forgo what makes us strong, independent Nations – our sovereignty, our land and our identity. What follows are some of the reasons why I believe this to be true: Early Indian Policy: Early Indian policy included various measures to control, divide and assimilate Indians to finally rid Canada of the “Indian problem”.  These included: (1) Residential schools to remove culture, language and family and community ties from Indian children; (2) Indian Act provisions which removed Indian rights from Indian women; (3) Indian Act provisions which incorporated non-Indian women into communities; (4) Enfranchisement provisions which encouraged Indian men to give up their identities in exchange for education, employment and individual title to reserve lands; and (5) Indian Act provisions which prohibited lawyers from advocating for Indians in relation to their lands and treaties. (See: The Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996) [RCAP] White Paper 1969: The plan argued that “Indian people must be persuaded” that this was the path to a better life: (1) Abolish the Indian Act; (2) End special recognition for First Nations; (3) Give them individual title to their lands (fee simple); (4) Funds for economic development; (5) Full integration into the cultural, social, political and economic life of Canada; and (6) Removal of constitutional responsibility of federal government for Indians. We all know how First Nations across the country reacted to this policy – they forcefully rejected it and re-asserted their special status in Canada and their land and treaty rights. Harold Cardinal wrote what came to be known as the Red Paper outlining the special rights of Indians in Canada. While Canada backed off of this policy, very little changed in regards to addressing First Nation poverty and the resolution of their Aboriginal and treaty rights, land claims and self-government. RCAP provides a detailed history of the development of Indian policy over time and the rights held by First Nations. Their overall recommendation was to move forward with the resolution of land claims, recognition and implementation of treaties and the negotiation of self-government agreements. Canada’s delayed, non-committal response “Gathering Strength” came to be known as “Gathering Dust” for the lack of action on Canada’s part. Then along comes Tom Flanagan, who, in his book “First Nations? Second Thoughts” argued that since First Nations were “primitive”, “wasteful” and “destructive” that they should not be entitled to self-governing rights, special tax exemptions or federal funding. In his view, First Nations need to “evolve” and become more like other Canadians. This was pretty much the same message that he provided in his second book: “Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights”. His plan involved the following: (1) “abandon” “primitive” “communist fantasies” about communal land; (2) implement a system of individual property rights (i.e., mortgage or sell to non-Indians); (2) repeal the Indian Act; (4) shut down the reserves; (3) encourage education and workforce participation; and (4) assimilate into the larger Canadian population. This assimilation plan of Flanagan’s raised a great deal of controversy, but was not unique. Others, like Alan Cairns had also advocated for assimilation, albeit less overtly. Since then, many right-wingers have joined the call for the assimilation of First Nations including people like Frances Widdowson and Dale Gibson, to name a few. In fact, Gibson wrote a report entitled “A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy: Respect the Collective, Promote the Individual” which focuses on individual success and material wealth over communal interests. Not surprising then, that Tom Flanagan became an advisor to Stephen Harper or that the Conservatives are now putting into place the gradual, assimilatory plan which focuses on individual wealth which has been advocated by folks like Flanagan and Gibson. Has anything changed since the early years of Indian policy-making? Does what the Conservatives propose now amount to a significant departure from the assimilatory agenda of the 1969 White Paper? I would argue that it does not. The following overview of the Conservative agenda seems only to confirm my original assessment: 2011 Conservative Election Platform: (1) Expand adult education in the north (no funding for k-12 or university); (2) Increase accountability of First Nations through legislation (no funding or recognition of jurisdiction); (3) Avoided dealing with reserve infrastructure like water and housing (but agreed to fix fuel tanks); (4) Avoided dealing with Aboriginal and treaty rights (but First Nations can sit on hunting advisory panel); (5) Avoided dealing with land claims (but will promote development of reserve lands through legislation). Conservative – AFN Joint Action Plan: (1) Education = Joint Process on k-12 education (expert panel that still has not produced any reports); (2) Focus on “success of individuals” through education; (2) Increase First Nation accountability and transparency; (3) Task force to promote economic development to benefit “all Canadians”; (4) Improve relations. You will notice there are no funding commitments, measurables or key action words that commit to any specific action. It is important to note here that the AFN has publicly come out in support of this action plan. First Nation – Crown Summit: Then there is the promise of a First Nations-Crown Summit meeting that is supposed to take place this fall. I won’t hold my breath given that Harper has promised such a meeting with First Nation leaders twice in his five years as Prime Minister to no avail. What is being promised at this summit reads eerily like the election platform, joint action plan and other assimilatory policies of the past: (1) The agenda is “deliberately narrow” and will not revisit the substantive commitments in Kelowna; (2) The agenda includes education; (3) governance and (4) economic development. There is to be no discussion about treaties, land claims, self-government or the funding inequities in essential social services. So, if you go back and look at the fundamental aspects of assimilation – being educated, economic development and turning reserves into individual parcels of land, you will see that not much has changed from the 1800’s to the 1969 White Paper, to what is now being advanced. The fact that the Conservatives have a majority in the House and Senate means that will be able to rush through any law or policy they choose. Having the AFN on side only helps the Conservatives legitimize the process. All of this brings me back to my original concern that the AFN is now so far away from what it was originally intended to be when it was the National Indian Brotherhood, that I am left wondering whether it has the capacity to think beyond the organization’s own priorities related to funding and staffing, and advocate on behalf of First Nations and their citizens. It seems to me that far too many people are worrying about their own jobs and making deals than they are about taking the risks inherent in standing up for that which our ancestors died to protect – our sovereignty, lands and identities. It’s about time we called the Conservatives on their deplorable record and highlight the facts brought forward by their own auditor general – that chronic and inequitable funding has made conditions on First Nations worse. We need to stand behind our treaties, protect our territories from further encroachment and go back to focusing on the needs of our future generations instead of focusing on ourselves. Any future “joint” plans MUST engage First Nations as a third order of government and as true partners and reflect the fundamentals of the treaty relationship, First Nations jurisdiction and the integrity of our territories. Don’t be fooled by shiny new beads and trinkets – it is really the same old assimilation policy of control and division repackaged with new titles like “Joint Action Plans”, “Expert Panels” and “Joint Processes” – other words for “we are buying into our assimilation”.


  1. Regarding communal land rights vs individual: Opponents of cummnal property have ZERO logic. They claim that NO community can succeed under communal land concepts – counter example to this is Hutterite colonies that have proven economic success time and again across North America. I use Hutterites as an example, because our opponents never recognize First Nation successes.

    Regarding AFN… I think they have ballooned past their time long ago. As a rallying point for collective action, they were good. But now they are too focused on projects and program delivery that they have forgotten their roots.

    We need the real decisions and actions to come from the grassroots, with AFN acting as a communication hub between us all so that we may move to collective actions in support of one another in our struggles. Imagine if we have to repeat Oka one day, but instead of just one community facing the colonial marauders, we have 300,000 or even all 1,000,000 of us there to help on the front lines. And I am not talking being armed…. even taking a Ghandi approach would shame Canada forever.

  2. Great post, just one minor correction: you write, "many right-wingers have joined the call for the assimilation of First Nations including people like Frances Widdowson and Dale Gibson, to name a few. In fact, Gibson wrote a report entitled "A New Look at Canadian Indian Policy: Respect the Collective, Promote the Individual" which focuses on individual success and material wealth over communal interests." The author of that report is Gordon Gibson, not Dale Gibson.

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