The Multiple Sites of Indigenous Resistance

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.

Idle No More Rally, Vancouver, Dec 21 2012

Idle No More Rally, Vancouver, Dec 21 2012

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.


Work Cited:

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,

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.

Further Reading:

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.

First Nation’s Enfranchisement in Canada

First Nations peoples in Canada have a complex historic, legal, and symbolic relationship to enfranchisement. The vast majority could not vote in federal elections until a 1960 change in the Indian act legally reclassified ‘Indians’ as no longer “wards of the state.” Despite this long-delayed inclusion of Aboriginal people within the democratic electoral process, enfranchisement has never been a straightforward benefit. The vote and participation in the Canadian electoral system, have sometimes proved a straightforward  attempt at  the assimilation Indigenous peoples by the Canadian State. Participation in the Canadian electoral system  may threaten distinctly Indigenous rights and practices. Thus, the 1960 enfranchisement of Indigenous peoples stands at the centre of the debate over whether it is possible to be both First Nations and to participate in the Canadian political system.

Photo via the_amanda on Flickr.

Photo via the_amanda on Flickr.

The history of gradual enfranchisement helps explain such concerns. Prior to 1960 particular Indigenous groups or individuals were enfranchised federally.  This, however, required the sacrifice of Indian status with its accompanying rights or recognition. In 1857 the “Gradual Civilization Act” forced the enfranchisement of any Indian male over the age of 21 “able to speak, read and write either English or the French language readily and well, and is sufficiently advanced in the elementary branches of education and is of good moral character and free from debt” (3rd Session, 1857). With the right to vote for male Indians came the status of a “regular British Subject,” and land and other treaty rights were revoked. Only one man was voluntarily enfranchised in this act.

In 1880 an amendment to the Indian Act offered automatic enfranchisement to  men who obtained a university degree. That evidence of ‘civilization’ was deemed sufficient to remove them from the status of a ward of the Canadian state. In 1933,  another amendment allowed the government to impose enfranchisement on any male Indian who met the qualifications. His permission was not required. Indigenous servicemen in World Wars One and Two could seek enfranchisement but only if they surrendered rights and community membership. Only 250 agreed.

Until 1960, participation in the Canadian electoral system explicitly required relinquishing Indigenous rights and community membership in exchange for electoral participation. Thus, enfranchisement on the conditions set by the colonial settler state has required the disappearance of the Indigenous other. The meaning and the necessity of that sacrifice remain at the centre of debates about the proper relations of Indigenous and Settler Canada, and the method and purpose of participation in the Canadian democratic electoral process. While First Nations people can now vote without relinquishing their membership to their Nations, the history of enfranchisement raises questions as to whether participation in the Canadian democratic process threatens distinctly Indigenous political practices. That possibility troubles all Indigenous activists and complicates their relations with other equality-seeking groups who have a different history of engagement within the Canadian Settler state.


Work Cited:

3rd Session, 5th P. of C. (1857). An Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of Indian Tribes in this Province, and to Amend the Laws Relating to Indians. Toronto: S. Derbishire & G Desbarats. Retrieved from

Diefenbaker Canada Centre. (2012). The Enfranchisement of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples. Retrieved October 10, 2012, from

Diefenbaker, J. G. (n.d.). Letter from John G. Diefenbaker to Mrs. Hurley. University of Saskatchewan. Retrieved from

Further Readings:

Indigenous Foundations at UBC. (2009). Indigenous Foundations- The Indian Act. First Nations Studies.

Milloy, J. (2008). Indian Act Colonialism: A century of Dishonour, 1869-1969. National Centre for First Nations Governance.

Lawrence, B. (2003). Gender , Race , and the Regulation Native Identity in Canada and the United States : An Overview. Hypatia, 18(2), 3–31.

Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. (1999). Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 5 volumes. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services.


Two Row Wampum Treaty

Relationships between Settler and Indigenous peoples in Canada have long been negotiated and organized by treaties. One of the oldest and most important in North America is the “Two-Row Wampum” treaty between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and the Dutch. This treaty remains critical in understanding historic and contemporary relationships between settler and Indigenous peoples and the evolution and construction of political opportunity for both.

The Two-Row Wampum Treaty was negotiated by representatives of the Five (Six as of 1722) Nations of the Iroquois and representatives of the Dutch government in 1613. The belt consists of two bands of purple quahog beads separated with three bands of white welk beads. It constituted a peace agreement between the two parties as the imperialist Dutch moved into Haudenosaunee territory, the region of the south-eastern Great Lakes.

The symbolism of the exchange as well as the imagery of the wampum belt have been variously understood.  Indigenous law and custom interpreted wampum belts as a deep and binding commitment by both parties. According to Haudenosaunee oral history, the most common interpretation holds that the two purple bands symbolize two boats and the white bands are a shared river. These boats represent the two parties of the Two Row Wampum Treaty, travelling in the same river but each steering their own boat. The future involves a cooperative relationship between self-governing groups, neither of which was to be assimilated or subordinated. Thus, the Two Row Wampum belt invokes relations of peace, cooperation, and self-government.




While negotiated prior to the era of Canadian democratic suffrage and negotiated between the Dutch empire and one particular Indigenous nation, the Two Row Wampum Treaty has provided a basis for subsequent arguments that members of Indigenous nations, as allies not subjects of the British Crown, should not seek political enfranchisement within the borders of what became Canada. Their enfranchisement should occur within their own nations.  Not surprisingly, this argument has proved especially powerful for Indigenous nations with Haudenosaunee ancestry. Quebec’s Kahnawake Mohawk Nation asserts its right to self-government with specific reference to that historic contract (Kahnawake Mohawk Nation, 1996). Today some Mohawk citizens choose to carry passports issued by the Mohawk Nation, and initiate distinct laws on reserve. Many Mohawk women and men focus their political efforts at the level of their Indigenous nation.

The Two Row Wampum belt also has significance for Canadian legal theory. Indigenous legal scholar and member of Ontario’s Chippewa Nawash First Nation, John Borrows, has argued that the Two-Row Wampum should continue to provide the foundation for negotiating relationships between First Nations and the Canadian government, thus maintaining the right to self-governance and independent nationhood (1997). In Canada’s Indigenous Constitution (2010), Borrows argues that indigenous law should be seen as equal to common and civil law, and that incorporation of Indigenous legal systems in Treaty agreements exemplifies the multi-juridical system.

Though signed centuries ago, Two-Row Wampum Treaty continues to inspire and to challenge. Calls to revisit the importance of the Treaty as the legal, political and moral foundations of the Canadian state lie at the heart of the 2012 Idle No More Indigenous resurgence. Recognition of the nation-to-nation relationship embodied in treaties supplied  the focal point of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike in December 2012 and January 2013.  The ideal of the ‘double wampum’ nevertheless poses significant challenges in capturing Indigenous diversity.  How can it address the circumstances of peoples who have never taken treaty (such as many First Nations in B.C.) or those who reside, sometimes for generations, off-reserve or in multicultural communities in which they are a minority (Anderson 2013)? How can a 17th century document address the emergence of significant diverse, multicultural and multi-ethnic populations? How does the large number and diversity of Treaty agreements, in addition to Two Row Wampum, shape the relationships between Canada and Indigenous peoples? The Treaty’s meaning for women’s rights is also far from clear. Where should women work to guarantee equality and what does equality mean? Such questions ensure that Indigenous political choices remain complicated.


Work Cited

Anderson, Bonita (2013). Fractured Homeland: Federal Recognition and Algonquin Identity in Ontario. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Borrows, J. (1997). Wampum at Niagara: The Royal Proclamation, Canadian Legal History, and Self-Government. In M. Asch (Ed.), Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada: Essays on Law, Equality and Respect for Difference. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Borrows, J. (2002). Recovering Canada The Resurgence of Indigenous Law. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Borrows, John. (2010) Canada’s Indigenous Constitution. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kahnawake Mohawk Nation. (1999). STATEMENT CONCERNING THE REPORT OF THE ROYAL COMMISSION ON ABORIGINAL PEOPLES. Mohawk Nation Office- Kahnawake Branch. Retrieved from

Muller, K. V. (2007). The Two “ Mystery ” Belts of Grand River. American Indian Quarterly, 31(1), 129–164.


Further Readings

Anaya, S James. Indigenous Peoples in International Law. New York: Oxford University Press , 2004.

Asch, Michael. “From Terra Nullius to Affirmation: Reconciling Aboriginal Rights with the Canadian Constitution.” Canadian Journal of Law and Society 17, no. 2 (2002): 23-39.

Asch, Michael, and Catherine Bell. “Challenging Assumptions: The Impact of Precedent in Aboriginal rights Litigation.” In Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada: Essays on Law, Equality and Respect for Difference, by Michael ed. Asch. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997.

Berger, Thomas. A Long and Terrible Shadow: White Values, Native Rights in the Americas, 1492-1992. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1991.

Borrows, John. “Frozen Rights in Canada: Constitutional Interpretation and the Trickster.” American Indian Law Review, 1997: 37-64.

Williams Jr., Robert A. Linking Arms Together. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Woolford, Andrew. Between Justice and Certainty. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005.