Assault on the Reserves: Thomas King and John Ralston Saul in Conversation

By Hazlitt

The authors of The Inconvenient Indian and A Fair Country on the First Nations existence in Canada versus the United States, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, and the (exaggerated, unrealistic) need for Aboriginal consensus.

Authors Thomas King and John Ralston Saul have both written extensively on the ongoing plight of First Nations populations, though from notably different vantage points. In 1998’s Reflections on a Siamese Twin, Saul’s examination of the intricacies and architecture of Canada’s national identity, he suggested the country’s ever-more marginalized aboriginals were an essential third of its makeup alongside its French and English citizens, ideas on which he expanded in 2008’s A Fair Country. King, meanwhile, has been a high-profile and vocal advocate for First Nations peoples for decades as an educator, writer, and politician, and, in 2003, became the first-ever Aboriginal to deliver the Massey Lectures. His most recent book, 2012’s The Inconvenient Indian, is part historical document, part memoir—a sharp and funny look at the last 50 years of life as a Native in North America. The paperback edition is out now.

Earlier this summer, we invited Ralston Saul and King to have a lunch conversation at the Hazlitt office. They talked about current Conservative government’s approach to the First Nations (“they’re doing more than dodging it … they’re taking the tribal state apart”), the Idle No More movement, and just how necessary (never mind possible) unity really is for the country’s Aboriginal communities.

Let’s start with this: since being published last fall The Inconvenient Indian has been treated to a pretty great reception—thanks in part, no doubt, to the attention that Idle No More brought to First Nations issues. Tom, what have you thought of the reaction?

Thomas King: By and large you can’t expect a reception, nor are you entitled to one particularly. It’s just something that happens. Idle No More wasn’t even on the radar when I had finished the final draft of this thing, I was waiting for it to be published. So you have this serendipitous moment when the book comes out the very moment Idle No More takes off, and those two things—the movement itself and the book—sort of help each other along in the public view. I think they both benefitted by the other being there.

But John’s book, A Fair Country—it doesn’t exactly cover the same area as my book, but they sort of do though in very different ways—it didn’t have that kind of shove to work with. It’s a crazy business. You can’t count on anything, and sometimes you just get lucky, and I think with Inconvenient Indian it was just plain luck.

John Ralston Saul: Well, no, actually I don’t agree. I think that zeitgeist cliché is true often, and I was very, very glad that A Fair Country came out in a moment of apparent calm. I think that Inconvenient Indian was exactly the tone for the time. Which doesn’t mean that after the time is over it stops.

TK: [Laughs]

JRS: It was absolutely the time for a very aggressive, hard-hitting, no punches pulled book to come out. Absolutely the right time, and I think that was it, things explode when they come out of nowhere. They’re not planned. And that’s because the zeitgeist, the collective unconscious does exist. People in business schools and political science don’t understand this, which is why they’re wrong most of the time, but it actually does exist.

With A Fair Country, I had felt for a very long time that all my Aboriginal friends were struggling, and struggling, and struggling with how to get their arguments out there. George Erasmus, just being national chief at the Royal Commission [on Aboriginal Peoples], which is one of the greatest documents we’ve ever produced and they tried to kill it—

TK: You mean the one gathering dust on a shelf in Ottawa?

JRS: But you know, he got it out there. Other people use it. I used it endlessly for my book. So they couldn’t kill it because it’s there anyway, but I think George very rightly [felt] burnt.

TK: Really pissed off.

JRS: There was an atmosphere of a vacuum, and into that vacuum I pushed A Fair Country, which took—not a positive approach—but what you might call an “all you non-Aboriginals, this is what you’re not saying. This is what you’re not thinking. This is what all these Aboriginal leaders have been saying for half a century, and you’ve been pretending not to hear, but I’m going to give it to you in a way that you can hear it.”

I do think a lot of Canadians understood that we were in deep trouble and they were ready to start thinking about themselves a little differently. Now, how you get from there to the next stage, when Idle No More starts and your book comes out… I think a lot of people were ready mentally for another step. The officials weren’t ready but the public was ready, and the reaction of the public was very positive, which means there’ll be another step. These are not isolated incidents, this is not going away.

TK: Well, we also have that whole other movement, We Are All Treaty People. That seems to have disappeared from public view right now, but I suspect it is hanging around, maybe even doing some interesting things we don’t hear about. That seemed to be, to me at least, more an offshoot from your book that anything I had much to do with. I don’t know that for a fact, but I’m always fascinated by books that come out and public perception, public reaction.

I remember when Vine Deloria, Jr.’s book came out in 1969, Custer Died For Your Sins—it was the first book of that kind that was hard-hitting, punchy, but it came at a perfect time. Sixty-nine was just before Wounded Knee, when Native people around North America are getting organized and flexing some real political muscle, and militant muscle as a matter of fact. So it really became, not a bible, but something we carried around with us and we read sections from it every time we had a chance to get in front of a TV camera. So those serendipitous moments are really important because whatever is burning underground for a long time, that’s when that sort of conflagration becomes visible for those moments, and then you hope it keeps going.

JRS: When you look at what is possible politically here versus the United States, I think it’s very different. If you actually trace where Aboriginals [in Canada] were in 1910, say, and remember the population had plummeted from 2 million to 150,000 in less than a century. And in imperial certitude that they were the Darwinian losers, and it was just a way of helping them out of existence as the land was taken. And that all continued on as if those 150,000 were going to just disappear.

You can actually track the comeback from around 1900, which is starting to get organized, starting to put political things in place, and then that gets thrown to the side, and then they make that illegal, and then they stop the lawyers. Very sophisticated stuff on the Aboriginal side, very blunt-headed hammer stuff on the governmental side.

TK: Reserves were hospices.

JRS: Really?

TK: They were places where Native people were supposed to die, and the land was supposed to be reabsorbed into the body politic, picked up by private enterprise and away we go. It didn’t happen.

JRS: It didn’t happen, because now you’ve gone from 150,000 back to two million or something, maybe three. And [Aboriginals] haven’t lost a court case in the Supreme Court for 30 years. But the Supreme Court of Canada lays out a body of principles that government is ordered to follow, without telling the government how to follow them because that’s not their job. So you’ve had the government of Canada and the provinces simply ignoring [these decisions] for 30 years. Though at a certain point, they can’t anymore. It’s like the governments are being surrounded by the law.

TK: Well, I’m going to disagree with you there, because historically that’s exactly what happens in the 1840s, when John Marshall in the States makes a Supreme Court decision and Andrew Jackson, either he says it or he doesn’t, says “Marshall has made his decision, let him enforce it.” The government ignored that and ignored that right on through.

JRS: I agree with that, but the difference here is the regularity of the decisions. So it’s not one decision, it’s now a whole body of law which is becoming harder and harder for the governments to dodge. They’re still dodging it…

TK: They’re doing more than dodging it. I mean, Harper’s omnibus bills are taking the tribal state apart. This, in the last year, has been the most serious assault on Native reserves and that tribal estate that I’ve seen in my lifetime, outside of the Indian Termination Act in the 1950s in the U.S.

JRS: I don’t want to disagree with that, and I don’t want to be the relentless optimist either…

TK: [LaughsThe Optimistic Indian, that’s my next book.

JRS: I think the complexity of the law that has been put in place, and the change in education situation, the population situation… Forty years ago there were how many Aboriginal lawyers in Canada, and today there are over 2,000. The weapons are different.

TK: My great concern is that in spite of the Supreme Court decisions, if the government is able to break up the tribal estate, if it is sold off in pieces either to private individuals or private enterprise, if they’re able to force status Indians off that land base, and even if they come back four, or five, or six, or seven, or eight years later and say, “That was wrong”—the damage will have been done and you will not be able to repair it. In the States you were looking at removal, termination, then the Indian Claims Commission was set up to adjudicate those kind of wrongs, the claims commission was allowed to give anything back to the tribe that had been abused in that way except land, and land is the key. You lose that land you might as well pack up your tents and go home. Harper knows that.

JRS: I agree with all of that. Your analysis is absolutely right. What I believe is that the balance of power has shifted so that I don’t think it can be successfully done. In other words, even if laws are passed, they won’t stand long enough to be effective. Now, I could be wrong…

TK: I hope you’re right.

JRS: So do I, obviously. The tools for fighting back are completely different now. Because of the 2,000 lawyers, because of the 30,000 kids in universities, because of a very different group of people who can fight back and call on people. And I think that in the general population, if the argument is made right, it will be a big loser politically to try to undermine Aboriginals at this stage, which was not true in the past.

TK: But that just brings us back to one of the biggest problems that I see, and that is that we live our lives in court.

JRS: Oh, of course.

TK: We don’t have the energy for economic development, we don’t have the energy to look after our home communities, to do the very things that have to be done in order to make those places habitable and to make them economically viable. We spend all of our time with lawyers, with consultants. We spend all of our time in court fighting these battles that just keep coming at us again and again and again. Those things are wearing. John, you know the history of some of the land claims that go on for 60, 70, 80 years. Through generation after generation. It’s just exhausting and wasteful.

JRSI always use the example of the Nisga’a and Joe Gosnell, who was a very great man. He could have been foreign minister, he could’ve been Governor General, he could’ve been anything. He is still alive, his entire career is devoted to a case which could’ve been settled within a year. Nothing was accomplished.

TK: Lawyers got wealthy.

JRS: Lawyers got wealthy, public money was wasted.

TK: These are good things, John! [Laughs]

JRS: The government keeps saying we’re saving public money by fighting these cases, but of course they’re wasting public money, and they’re wasting lives. The Canadian people don’t understand that, because nobody has actually gone out and made that argument that public money is actually being wasted—not by Aboriginals but by the Department of Indian Affairs, and the political parties fighting fights which are not to anybody’s advantage.

TK: Well the media has not helped at all in that regard. I mean, they spend time doing the most asinine things like publishing the salary of a band chief in order to discredit Theresa Spence when she was on the hunger strike. They decided to publish her salary. Well, that’s got nothing to do with what was happening at the time. It would be like publishing Stephen Harper’s salary. It’s got nothing to do with it. But they did it in order to demonstrate that she wasn’t who she said she was, that she wasn’t fighting the battle she said she was, or at least to call that into question.

JRS: Are you sort of surprised at how quiet things have gone since January?

TKYou mean with Idle No More?

JRS: The whole thing.

TK: Harper is smart enough to know that that kind of thing cannot be sustained unless it finds a number of topics to devolve to, that just as a single item you can keep it going for six months maybe, but that’s all. I’m not surprised. I was hoping that something else would take its place or that it would move into, not a different realm so much but maybe diversify. But it hasn’t so far as I can tell. The other problem is the media tires of these stories very quickly. It’s sort of the CNN syndrome, where you flood the airwaves for a week or so with whatever is happening and then it disappears even if it is still going on.

If I may interject on the subject of how the media covered Idle No More and Spence’s hunger protest… What was notable after Harper finally agreed to meet with the chiefs, and the meetings began, the media story quickly shifted to “Oh, these chiefs disagree with each other.”

TK: Yeah, exactly.

As if the chiefs must be completely unified and agree on every issue. As if the Quebecois’ feelings about Canada are all the same and could be truly represented by just one person.

TK: There is that sense that if Native people can’t agree, then how can we talk to them? If they can’t agree, how can we get anything done? It’s almost a joke because I look at Canada as a whole and look at the political system and I would say, “Guys, you probably disagree more than Native people do for crying out loud.”

JRS: But actually, there’s something wrong with disagreement?

TK: No, there’s not.

JRS: It’s a characteristic, I believe, of democracy. Countries where you don’t have disagreement are not democracies, so why would you expect that of Aboriginal people? It just makes no sense at all.

Returning to Harper and the Conservatives’ attentions and priorities, and the implications for First Nations. For years Harper has been speaking about his ambition to make Canada an energy superpower, which is in large measure contingent on things happening on aboriginal lands—whether it’s the pipeline routes or where some of the resources are actually located. It’s been suggested that this should give aboriginals greater leverage with Harper, that Harper should see some value in completing an agreement, if only to finally clarify things for business and investors. Do you see any merit in this reading?

TK: He sees Native reserves, particularly those that are in the path of oil and gas development, or in the path of pipelines, as an impediment. My belief is that he will do anything to get them out of the way or to move them. It’s not a matter of compromising with the tribes particularly. I think he’d like to see them gone. If he has to compromise with the various reserves, he probably will in the end but you have to understand that status reserves in Canada are one of the few legal impediments to those developments. Because it’s Native land, because it has a relationship with the Crown, with parliament.

It can’t be done away with as quickly as private land title can be. So, if you’ve got to run a pipeline through a Native reserve, you’ve got a lot more problems with that than trying to run a pipeline through downtown Lethbridge. Part of the omnibus bills that Harper’s government has passed already allows for the breakup of that tribal estate. Now, I don’t know how that’s going to play out, as John says those cases are going to go to the Supreme Court I’m sure. If they’re not already on their way there.

What other measures in the omnibus bill do you think are the greatest threat?

TK: There are a number of those that allow for private ownership of treaty land, where you can actually go in and allocate the land and say, “Okay, we’ve got a reserve of, say, 1,000 acres and 100 people”—what’s that, 100 acres per person?

JRS: Each person is essentially the owner of…

TK: Each person is owner of fee simple land. This is what they did during the allotment period in the U.S., and it was specifically legislation set up to break up the tribal estate. Because what happens is… say John and I are Indians, and you have two other Indians… Each of us has a piece of land, that’s four pieces of land. One guy decides to sell his piece of land, John and I decide to keep ours, this other guys sell his two. The first guy’s piece is in between my piece and John’s piece. You begin to checkerboard that reserve until it looks like a piece of Swiss cheese, and the viability of that tribal estate is lost. Once you have that sell-off begin…

I mean native people are not particularly wealthy, and there’s always the temptation to take the money in the short term and forget about the long term. What part of the omnibus bill does is provide that opportunity. As a matter of fact it provides that encouragement.

JRS: You can only see it as a political fight. People have to understand what’s involved. They also have to understand the implications of omnibus bills in a parliamentary democracy. This has to be publically fought out. And in some ways you could almost say it’s a new version of the Script business in Manitoba in the 1870s and 80s, which again the court has just ruled on, saying the federal government broke the law in it’s application of the Script. Now, the land is gone, but the fact is that the government’s case was lost.

TK: I just want to make sure people understand the history.

JRS: And how big the fight is. People used to quote Santayana to me, or any number of other people saying the same thing. That those who don’t understand the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. My response over the last twenty years has been that those who do understand the lessons of history are happy to repeat them. That seems to be the late 20th century and early 21st century axiom by which politicians operate.

TK: You’re not trying to get me to run for office again?

JRS: Yes, I was actually.

TK: We’ll talk about that after.

TK: You’re one of the few in the intellectual leadership…

TK: That lost as badly as I did.

JRS: Well, if they hadn’t called a general election I think you would have won the by-election.

TK: I don’t think I would’ve, but…

JRS: I think you’d come very close.

TK: I did beat the Marijuana Party.

JRS: I think one of the lessons is it has to be a big group of people. In other words, if 10 of you had run. There is a phenomenon in parliamentary democracy where it needs to be a group. And a group in the house can make a difference, funnily enough.

TK: You have to be optimistic enough to be willing to spend your life on something that may never happen.

JRS: Absolutely.

TK: That is one of the hardest things that I can see, is to ask somebody to do something for which they may not be successful, but they may spend their entire life being unsuccessful at.

JRS: Looking at a Native population down to only 150,000 in 1900, and with almost none of the [legal, activist, or political] tools… Here we are 100 years later with a number of those tools in place. That doesn’t make the fight easier, but maybe possible.

TK: We’ll see. Send me a postcard.


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