Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Review: Circles of Time

[David T. McNab. Circles of Time: Aborginal Land Rights and Resistance in Ontario. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1999.]

I have heard it said that God is in the details. I have also heard the same quote with the Devil in the starring role. In its methodical description of the details of dealings between representatives of the Crown and specific indigenous groups in Ontario around issues of land between the late 18th and late 20th centuries, this book seems to support the latter assertion -- colonialism is not just some massive impersonal force, but a devilish practice residing in the details of everyday decisions big and small, carried out by settler institutions with disgusting consistency of dishonesty and disrespect from the distant past to the present day.

David McNab is a white man who worked for the Native Affairs Secretariat of the province of Ontario in the '80s and early '90s. The NAS, as far as I could gather from the book, was largely responsible for answering the mail and for doing a bit of research. The actual important interactions between the province and indigenous peoples were handled by the Ministry of Natural Resources or one of the other powerful ministries, at least when they weren't handled by the Ontario Provincial Police. Then, in the Liberal governments of the late '80s, the NAS got drafted into engaging in a few negotiations around land disputes, for which it had no mandate or expertise. Some of it, according to McNab, went fairly well, only to have the province (and the feds, when they were a party to the agreement in question) completely renege on everything afterward. Most of it was unmitigated disaster. McNab left in disgust and became, again as far as I can tell from the book, a freelance historian and a paid consultant or researcher for the Aboriginal side of negotiations and litigation. This book seems to be a moderately reworked collection of some of the research papers that McNab has prepared over the years.

First let me explain the as-far-as-I-could-tells in the above. This book is a useful resource for what it is, but unfortunately the marketing geniuses at WLU Press decided it would sell better if folks thought maybe it pretended to be something else. The information and graphics on the cover go out of their way to maximize the ambiguity about whether McNab himself might be an Aboriginal person. I can think of no other reason why the blurb about him on the back cover and the information in the frontmatter of the book don't mention that he worked on these issues for the Ontario provincial government for many years. The text also works very hard to tie the book to the Oka crisis of 1990. Indeed, it is quite possible that this event was influental in the development of the writer's politics, but it has little to do with the actual book -- it does not talk about any land issues relating to the Mohawk Nation or the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, so I think that is just an attempt to tie into something that potential buyers might have heard of.

So. Despite not being these things that it kind of pretends to be, it is still quite a useful book. What you have here is an insider who came to realize how awfully the settler state treats Aboriginal peoples, so he got out, lent his skills to struggles against the settler state, and in this book puts some of his historical findings and contemporary experiences to paper. Isn't that enough without trying to appropriate authenticity to which you aren't entitled?

The book begins with a look at a particular Aboriginal conception of history, from which the title of the book is derived. It has, apparently, been expounded most fully by the Mayan Nation, whose territories are in Central America, but the ideas of history held by many First Nations in Ontaro are similar. Unfortunately, I didn't understand the explanation, and I read it twice, carefully. This should perhaps not be surprising, since complex philosophical ideas that have to do with the basic elements of a worldview not your own are notoriously difficult to convey in a few pages of text. However, it may also have to do with the unfortunate fact that the book's writing is not particularly good -- competent, but largely technical in its style, and better with bald facts than complex ideas or rich description.

The bulk of the book examines the histories of a number of groupings within indigenous nations in Ontario, particularly with respect to the land and to the treaty processes with the Crown -- i.e. the settler state's efforts to alienate them from their land. As I said, it does not talk about the Haudenosaunee at all, so there is nothing of direct relevance to the current reclamation efforts in Caledonia. One chapter is about the Walpole Island First Nation near Windsor, and most of the rest have to do with different peoples and territories of the Ojibwe Nation, mostly in Ontario's Near North.

The real value of this book is that it covers such a large span of time -- usually from before the first treaty in a given area, which might be the late 18th century or the late 19th century, until the present. The picture that it paints is absolutely and completely disgusting. The consistency of the behaviour of the Canadian state, through different eras and different governments, is striking. Fundamental differences in understandings of how human beings can and should relate to the land helped create situations where First Nations thought they were agreeing to one thing, while the Crown intended all along to interpret the agreements as if they meant something quite different and had the guns to make its interpretation stick. Even within the shoddy framework of the Crown's interpretation of the original and subsequent treaties, it seems like every territory of every First Nation has stories of land being taken without due process, rights denied, decisions made without consultation, on up to the present. For example, in the '80s, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources was denying the rights of First Nations people to harvest resources in the territories where their ancestors had been doing so for thousands of years, and then giving commercial fishing permits to the white relatives of MNR staff. Even land claims which were very clear even based solely on government documents, without the need to call upon oral history input from First Nations Elders, have gotten delayed and blocked for decades. Often enough in this period (late '80s, early '90s) when agreements were reached through negotiations -- usually against the advice of much of the provincial bureaucracy -- they were abandoned by the settler governments before being implemented. It should be noted for progressive readers that there was no noticeable change under the NDP government of 1990 to 1995. The list goes on and on.

I think that any one of these incidents on its own might be the sort of thing that most ordinary folks in their dealings with government would shake their heads at and understand as being one of those stupid things that bureaucracies sometimes do, and we should really make amends for that one mistake and go on our way. But the way in which this sort of thing seems to permeate every dealing between First Nations and the settler state, in the 1980s as much as the 1880s, is clear evidence that it is no accident, no bureaucratic error.

At one point McNab refers to a conference between the federal government and the provincial governments in 1913 which had the aim of clearing up all of the jurisdictional conflict that had surrounded First Nations issues to that point. Indeed, such conflict has been a frequent excuse by both levels of government for why issues are not getting dealt with. McNab then points out that most of the issues on the agenda for that conference remain unresolved as of the late 1990s when he was writing.

Politically, I have mixed feelings about the basis for the book. It is focused on looking at the treaty process. While from the point of view of learning the history, I think this is very useful, I am less sure about the author's view of a return to the treaty process being a basis for future progress. I mean, from the word go, at least as far as settler institutions have understood things, the treaty process has always been about taking, taking, taking. How is going back to that going to be an improvement?

But part of why I hesitate in dismissing this view outright is that, from what I understand, there are First Nations that share this view, or something similar to it, and it's not for me to disapprove of how other peoples choose to struggle. But I think I have a sense of where my confusion is based. I think a simple, technical return to negotations on its own is just a recipe for more colonialism (though I think holding the settler state responsible for meeting its own minimal standards of due process would be a good place to start). But I think what some calls for a return to the treaty process mean -- and I'm particularly thinking back to a much more sophisticated book I read a couple of years ago -- is a return to the Aboriginal understanding of the kind of relationship being negotiated, particularly in the pre-1812 treaties organized around the Covenant Chain. This, I think, could provide a basis for the peoples of northern North America living together in ways that manage to address and transcend colonialism. The big question, of course, is how settler institutions with centuries of built-in settler assumptions can be made to change those assumptions, those ways of being -- including basic assumptions about things like sovereignty and power in the nation state -- when said institutions have accountability mostly to other elite-controlled institutions first, to a white-dominated settler population whose majority consistently demonstrates opposition to anti-colonial struggle that challenges its own complicity second, and hardly at all (as this book demonstrates) to indigenous peoples, except when they take steps like setting up barricades and roadblocks.

So while this book leave somethng to be desired in terms of its writing and its politics, it is still extremely useful in showing the devilish details of how colonialism in Canada has functioned, in particular with respect to the land, and how present-day settler institutions behave in ways quite consistent with how they have always behaved.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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