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Too many first nations people live in a dream palace

Large elements of aboriginal Canada live intellectually in a dream palace, a more comfortable place than where they actually reside.

Inside the dream palace, there are self-reliant, self-sustaining communities – "nations," indeed – with the full panoply of sovereign capacities and the "rights" that go with sovereignty. These "nations" are the descendants of proud ancestors who, centuries ago, spread across certain territories before and, for some period, after the "settlers" arrived.

Today's reality, however, is so far removed in actual day-to-day terms from the memories inside the dream palace as to be almost unbearable. The obvious conflict between reality and dream pulls some aboriginals to warrior societies; others to a rejection of dealing with the "Crown" at all; others to fights for the restoration of "rights" that, even if defined, would make little tangible difference in the lives of aboriginal people; and still others, such as Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, to go on a hunger strike.

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Chief Spence, leading a group or "nation" of about 1,500 people on the shores of James Bay, demanded at the beginning of her strike a series of meetings with the Governor-General and the Prime Minister. This demand reflected a very old and very wrong idea (part of dream-palace thinking) that the "Crown" is somehow an independent agency with which aboriginal "nations" have a direct relationship, whereas the "Crown" is nothing of the sort.

The "Crown" is the Government of Canada, a matter of clearly established constitutional law, which is why Chief Spence made her demand to meet the Prime Minister, too. Stephen Harper was correct in refusing a face-to-face meeting, since a prime minister should not be blackmailed into doing what any group or individual wants. On Friday, however, he did agree to meet soon with a group of aboriginal leaders that could include Chief Spence.

Chief Spence has attracted various predictable public adherents to her cause. Something that calls itself the Idle No More movement has sprung up here and there – a rather unfortunate name if one thinks that it might suggest previous idleness. Some chiefs have welcomed the movement; others have distanced themselves from it, either because they prefer to control aboriginal politics themselves or because they understand that scattered incidents of protest that inconvenience others are a surefire way of dissipating support for the aboriginal cause.

Much of the rhetoric surrounding Chief Spence is of the usual dreamy, flamboyant variety, a mixture of anti-capitalism and anti-colonialism, blended with the mythology (blasted by the reality of what one actually sees on too many reserves) about environmental protection and the aboriginals' sacred link to their lands.

To this is then added a desire to protect "traditional" ways, which in some cases means hunting, fishing and trapping, noble ventures that can lead economically to something only slightly better than subsistence. Without a wage economy beyond these "traditional" ways, the path lies clear to dependence on money from somewhere else, namely government, which, in turn, leads to the lassitude and pathologies that plague too many aboriginal communities.

Of course, there are some communities that offer the antithesis of dependency. They benefit from participating directly in the exploitation of natural resources near their communities, which should be the driving thrust of all public policy.

These communities have decided collectively to integrate to varying degrees with the majority cultures, to form business arrangements (where possible) in a vital attempt to create own-source revenues that will dilute or end the spirals of dependency.

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But too many communities remain within the dream palace, hungering for a return to a more separate existence, even if the lands on which they sit are – and likely always will be – of marginal economic value. Attawapiskat, Chief Spence's community, is subject to severe flooding, given its location on the James Bay plain, but it refused to consider moving farther upriver or near Timmins, where there might be employment opportunities.

To imagine that isolated communities of a thousand or so people can be vibrant and self-sustaining, capable of discharging the panoply of responsibilities of "sovereignty," is to live within the dream palace of memory.

Have you joined the Idle No More movement? Tell us how and why and you are participating.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail's national affairs columnist, has won all three of Canada's leading literary prizes -- the Governor-General's award for non-fiction book writing, the National Magazine Award for political writing, and the National Newspaper Award for column writing (twice). He has also won the Hyman Solomon Award for excellence in public policy journalism. More

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