Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: pragmatic optimism or hopeless naivety?

I don’t recall being particularly frustrated when I first read Gathering Strength, the third volume of the final report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. I was, however, very frustrated when I went over the notes I took while reading it. Writing these reflections helped me figure out the source of my frustration. 

It boils down to this: the very existence of the third volume seems to contradict the conclusion of the first two volumes, a conclusion which is succinctly expressed by the authors themselves on the second page of Gathering Strength. In short, given the very difficult situation that many Indigenous peoples now find themselves in, thanks to the actions of settlers and the settler state, the authors write,  

the solution is redistribution of power and resources so that Aboriginal people can pursue their social and economic goals and regain their health and equilibrium through means they choose freely. 

Exactly. Done and done. Say no more. Gathering Strength, which aims to “investigate social and cultural issues, and to propose solutions to problems that compromise the quality of life of Aboriginal people” (pg.1) should have ended then and there. There really is nothing more to discuss, analyze or write.

For example, after an extended and detailed discussion of how to better serve the health needs of Indigenous peoples, the authors write, 

Whole health, in the full sense of the term, does not depend primarily on the mode of operation of health and healing services — as important as they are. Whole health depends as much or more on the design of the political and economic systems that organize relations of power and productivity in Canadian society. For Aboriginal people, those systems have been working badly; before whole health can be achieved, they must begin to work well (pg. 289).

Exactly. And those systems have been working badly precisely because settlers continue to interfere with the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples and continue to act as if settlers have a right to the land and wealth they stole.

In other words, from an ethical and legal perspective and from the perspective of the first two volumes of the report, the only path forward that will truly remediate the well being of Indigenous peoples is for settlers to stop interfering with the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples and to cough up the trillions of dollars of wealth that was stolen from them. That’s it. No further analysis is required, especially when it is well understood that different nations and peoples will adopt very different approaches to address their own well being once they have the political and material means to do so. There is no “one-size fits all solution” to be found, nor should the authors even try to look for one.   

Anticipating this kind of objection, in the concluding pages of Gathering Strength, the authors write, 

Political change is essential to progress toward resolving social problems. However, progress should also be seen as an immediate priority and a powerful means of mobilizing the commitment of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to support fundamental structural change. We have set out proposals for movement on social concerns in order to break down the paralyzing sense that problems are so entrenched and pervasive that nothing can be done. We amplify the voice of Aboriginal people, particularly women, who urge their leaders and Canadian governments to recognize that social concerns deserve priority and to pursue action on social policy in concert with political change (pg. 624).

Essentially, the authors reconfirm their commitment to the notion that the only lasting solution to the social problems faced by Indigenous peoples will involve a significant redistribution of power and resources. They claim, however, that immediate steps can also be taken in the here and now to address those social problems while progress is being made towards the more lasting political solution. Moreover, they also claim that directly addressing the social problems in the here and now will help bring about a lasting political solution. For the authors, both goals — an immediate improvement in the well being of Indigenous peoples and a lasting political solution — can be pursued concurrently.  

On first impression, the proposed approach seems prudent and pragmatic. It’s as if the authors are saying, “let’s treat the symptoms while we work towards a cure for the disease; treating the symptoms will even help to cure the disease.” Unfortunately, that analogy doesn’t really align with the historical and present-day realities of colonialism, which is more like an abusive relationship than a disease. In terms of an analogy , the authors’ proposed approach is much more like, “let’s ask our abuser to help us heal, while we remain in an relationship which empowers them to continue to abuse us.” Clearly, that’s not going to work. 

Setting aside analogies, it’s important to emphasize that the settler state didn’t create and perpetuate social problems for Indigenous peoples because the state didn’t do a good job of interfering in the lives of Indigenous peoples. It is the interference itself that is the problem. There is no amount of well-intentioned consultation or redesigned funding mechanisms that will suddenly improve the situation or make bureaucrats less paternalistic. “Improved” interference in the lives of Indigenous peoples — if it is even possible — will not, in fact, improve the situation because it is the interference itself that is the problem.

Moreover, by attempting to address specific social problems within the confines of the existing relationship, there is an ever-present risk that the proposed solutions will perpetuate and entrench the very relationship that is the root cause of the social problems being addressed. Instead, the settler state should simply stop interfering with the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples and immediately return the resources that have been stolen from them. Once settlers stop meddling in the communities of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous peoples have sufficient resources to advance their own aims, I’m willing to bet many Indigenous peoples will be happy to sort things out on their own, for better and for worse. For those peoples who want to exercise their sovereignty within Canada, they will be in a much better position to negotiate favorable terms.

With the benefit of hindsight and these remarks in mind, it is not surprising to me that the Federal government’s official response to the final report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples is called, Gathering Strength: Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan, and not, say, Restructuring the Relationship: Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan, because the notion of “gathering strength” is an excellent rhetorical device to justify not taking immediate action to redistribute power and resources.

Despite some high-flying rhetoric, the “action” plan  seems to commit the government to little more than recognizing, supporting, considering, planning and indefinitely preparing to renew a relationship that will likely never be renewed. The settler state, I’m willing to predict, will always be happy to commit to “renewing” the relationship and funding a few social programs which they ultimately control because it is a tried and true means to distracting everyone from the core concern: the redistribution of power and resources.

From this perspective, Gathering Strength, the third volume of the final report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, seems to play into the hands of the federal government. By devoting so much attention to here and now fixes that take the status quo as given, it seems to inadvertently help the federal government sidestep the report’s primary and powerful conclusion that a redistribution of power and resources is the only path forward.

Needless to say, the authors should not be blamed for the federal government’s inaction — that outcome was probably inevitable. I nevertheless wonder if the authors today might agree that the optimism they expressed in volume three wasn’t warranted, given the very long history of colonialism they documented in the first volume of their report. I also wonder, given what they know now, if they would omit Gathering Strength and simply replace it with the recommendation that the settler state should respect Indigenous sovereignty, return Indigenous lands and resources, and stop interfering with Indigenous communities because that is the right thing to do and the only lasting solution to the social problems Indigenous peoples continue to face today. 

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