Atleo-Harper summit: another two solitudes?

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The Governor-General of Canada did not attend yesterday’s meeting between Harper and a few cabinet ministers and AFN President Shawn Atleo and a few chiefs. His absence was resented, and a number of invitees didn’t attend the meeting for that very reason—including Chief Theresa Spence. But the absence of David Johnston is entirely as it should be, according to political scientist Emmett Macfarlane (and an anonymous official from Rideau Hall).

It’s not that they are wrong, exactly. Quoting chapter and verse of Constitutional law and convention, they are being entirely reasonable. But that is precisely the problem.

Let me propose an analogy, which is perhaps more than an analogy, as it happens. Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is the embodied knowledge of indigenous people about the world, their place in it, and their relation to it. As it turns out, much of TEK can be reassuringly translated into “good science.” But the critique here, notably from anthropologist Paul Nadasdy, is that TEK is not science in feathers and masks: it is an incommensurable mode of knowledge, lived rather than reduced to dry, rational abstraction: it’s a different way of knowing, and of organizing that knowledge.

An example of such thinking is the manner by which Inuit find their way in apparently featureless swathes of tundra:

In November of 2000 I was traveling with a hunter while he searched and found seven fox traps hidden under a thick layer of snow that his uncle had set across twenty square kilometres of what seemed to me a flat and indistinctive territory. The traps had been set 25 years before and he (the hunter I traveled with) had not seen them since then. Yet, he was able to find each of them in about two hours of searching. Questions arise: How is it that precise locations can be identified, remembered, and communicated without the use of maps? How does a hunter manage to find and keep his bearings in such an environment as the Arctic?

Good questions, based upon the undeniable fact that these Inuit landsmen are indeed capable of such things. The kind of knowledge contained in grids, guides and written, records, however, is not what they are using to orient themselves.

Now, try to apply this notion of a radically different way of being-in-the-world to the current imbroglio. Unless we are prepared simply to dismiss every First Nations member and leader as a civic illiterate, we might do well to consider in what context having the Governor-General present with the Prime Minister at a meeting makes sense. But political scientists and government officials seem unlikely to entertain or even comprehend such a question.

From the perspective of those calling for such a meeting, I suggest, it is not a case of simply misunderstanding the Constitutional powers of the Queen and her Canadian viceroy. A meeting with both the Governor-General and Stephen Harper completes the sense of entering into the discussion as an equal treaty partner with the Crown. It is a sign of being taken seriously, defining the meeting as a nation-to-nation encounter rather than the usual supplication before the leader of the hostile government of the day. The Governor-General needn’t utter a word: his presence is what matters.

No one should underestimate the weight of the symbolism involved here. When “the honour of the Crown” is invoked by First Nations, that conveys more than its dry juridical meaning. There is a living, felt relationship between First Nations and the Crown, as there has been since the Royal Proclamation two and a half centuries ago.

Macfarlane gets this, but at the same time he doesn’t:

The significance of the Crown and its symbolic meaning for First Nations should not be understated. For many aboriginals the Crown, as embodied by the Queen and her representative the governor general, is viewed as distinct from state institutions and the government. And indeed it is: the Crown is where Canada’s sovereignty resides, it is the source of the power to govern.

But the Crown has evolved considerably from its pre-Confederation incarnation, and this is where the role of the governor general in all of this becomes problematic. The power to govern might be vested in the Crown but it is entrusted to the government to exercise on behalf of the people.

And then the nub:

While it is true that formally the relationship is with “the Crown,” the Crown cannot be separated from the state or the constitution in the manner the chiefs’ demands imply. The relationship is very much with the Canadian state. This is confirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada’s jurisprudence on section 35 rights: it is the government that holds a fiduciary responsibility to aboriginals.

Oddly enough, however, it is the chiefs who wanted to join the “Canadian state” and the Crown in one meeting, whereas Macfarlane is defending what must appear to First Nations as an artificial and unwarranted separation. That division—between the other “ceremonial” meeting at Rideau Hall and a “working” meeting—simply doesn’t make sense from the point of view of many First Nations people, whose notion of ceremony is not so easily distinguishable from the practical work of governance. Both are aspects of one lived process: ceremony for its own sake simply has no meaning.

It is that which underlies, I think, the immense frustration expressed by some chiefs and #IdleNoMore when that meeting was denied them. They were offered something incomplete, something less than the full nation-to-nation treatment, which they felt to be demeaning. They wanted an occasion, for once, in which their status as equal treaty-making and treaty-keeping bodies was implicitly recognized and valorized.

Against this notion of recognition, the other side offers dry Constitutional arguments about where the actual power of the Crown resides under a system of responsible government (itself, they might have added, left somewhat in tatters by the present regime). That is almost laughably beside the point: do they seriously imagine (yet Macfarlane certainly appears to) that every one of the First Nations leaders who boycotted the meeting and of the #IdleNoMore protesters in the streets, is unaware of all that?

How to bring the two sides together when such a major epistemic gap exists? Perhaps listen much harder to what First Nations people are actually trying to get across. And to assist with that difficult learning process, maybe dispense with political scientists and send in a team of anthropologists instead.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr.Dawg published on January 12, 2013 4:17 PM.

Chief Spence: the CBC lies was the previous entry in this blog.

First Nations and "the Honour of the Crown" is the next entry in this blog.

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