Political mobilization occurs in different sites. Canada’s Indigenous populations both resist within Canadian state structures and outside or against state laws and institutions. They may also do both. The choice of where to mobilize, and the implications and limits of those choices, persists as a central challenge for members of Indigenous communities.
The noted Indigenous theorist and Bear Clan Mohawk member, Taiaiake Alfred, argues that “the most important and immediate imperative” of the Canadian settler project “is to assimilate indigenous peoples culturally” (2005, 56). The only effective response is an anti-imperial struggle grounded in indigenous cultural resilience.
He argues that practices of resistance must “transcend colonial culture and institutions” (2005, 23). The first target should not be the Canadian state. Indigenous politics need to locate political practice outside and against colonial institutions. The initial goal should be the creation of a distinctly indigenous political base that builds resilience. This may include working within communities to revitalize language and cultural practices through “language nests” or actively building connections between generations through cultural education. Such strategies are essential for future vitality and resilience.
Alfred’s focus on centering political practices within Indigenous communities stems from his conclusion that “how you fight determines who you will become when the battle is over” (2005, 23). From this perspective using Canadian institutions will not result in practices that honour indigenous politics; politics will instead will be defined, determined and practiced according to the law of the colonial state. Leading Indigenous intellectual Andrea Smith has further argued that indigenous political action must include the creation of “organizations, movements and communities that model the world we are trying to create” (2007, 106). Alfred and Smith’s perspectives invoke the message of Audre Lord that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984).
However, Alfred’s is not the only position taken by Aboriginal scholars and activists. Others argue that because Canadian state institutions and laws are never going to disappear, it is important to engage effectively with state institutions. One indigenous advocate of this strategy is Dartmouth university professor and Teme-Augama Anishnabai, Dale Turner. Turner says that indigenous traditional forms of knowledge must be understood “in relation to the legal and political discourses of the dominant culture” (2006, 98).He argues that if Aboriginal peoples want to argue that “differences ought to matter in the political relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian state, they will have to engage the Canadian state’s legal and political discourses in more effective ways” (2006, 5).
According to Turner and others, while the Canadian state may be limited, the institutions and legal framework carry a great deal of power for good or bad. It may be possible to use the ‘master’s tools’ to gain particular political rights and move towards equality. Thus, state institutions and law should be employed to forward the interests of Indigenous peoples.
One example of working within the Canadian institutions is employing the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to challenge gender discrimination in the Indian Act. Prior to 1985 the Indian Act, rooted in traditions of European patriarchy, assigned First Nations women the same status as their father or husband. In other words, the Indian Act imposed a model of European legal patriarchy (Irving). When they married, non-status men they lost legal Indian status and rights. In equivalent situations, men did not. The 1982 adoption of the Charter gave a legal foundation within the Canadian court system to challenge this clear gender discrimination. Challenges produced useful, if modest, gains. Joyce Green, professor of Political Science at the University of Regina and of English and of Ktunaxa and Cree-Scot Metis descent, argues that while changes to the Canadian Constitution have not “erased the consequences of state-sponsored sex and race discrimination and colonialism, constitutional changes have gone some distance to identifying these matters and creating legally enforceable rights” (141). For example, scholars Bonita Lawrence and Andrea Smith both argue that gendered oppression is fundamental to colonial dispossession and marginalization. Although the gains made by Indigenous women are significant, there are the limits to the legal route of political transformation. Thus, resistance to oppression has often advanced on multiple levels.
There are three key critiques of working within the state institutions. First, Canadian state institutions are by their nature not Indigenous and therefore, cannot fully consider or include the complexity and diversity of Indigenous political and legal thought. Second, working within Canadian state institutions may ‘infect’, mutate or otherwise influence the Indigenous thinking and acting to conform to the values of the state. The third argument is that working within the Canadian state institutions will not transform the political relationship between Indigenous peoples and Settlers.
This debate about working within and without existing state governance shows no sign of resolution. Indigenous scholars, activists, and others are engaged in a longstanding and familiar struggle about how to engineer equality that while honouring the potential and the reality of difference.
Alfred, T. (2005). Wasase. Ontario: Broadview Press, Ltd.
Green, J. (2007). Balancing Strategies: Aboriginal Women and Constitutional Rights in Canada. In J. Green (Ed.), Making Space for Indigenous Feminism (pp. 140–159). Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.
Irving, Helen. (2012). “When Women Were Aliens: The Neglected History of Derivative Marital Citizenship,” Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 12/47, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2110546
Lawrence, B. (2003). Gender , Race , and the Regulation Native Identity in Canada and the United States : An Overview. Hypatia, 18(2), 3–31.
Lorde, Audre. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. California: Crossing Press.
Smith, A. (2007). Native American Feminism, Sovereignty and Social Change. In J. Green (Ed.), Making Space for Indigenous Feminism (pp. 93–107). Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.
Turner, D. (2006). This is not a peace pipe. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Alfred, T., & Corntassel, J. (2005). Being Indigenous: Resurgences against Contemporary Colonialism. Government and Opposition, 40(4), 597–602.
Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. University of Otago Press.