Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: who is a nation?

Perspectives and Realities, the fourth volume of the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, covers a number of different topics. However, there is no unifying theme beyond the notion that the authors want to “give voice to the diversity of Aboriginal peoples and the diversity of the Aboriginal experience in Canada” (pg. 2). The fourth volume is like a collection of essay-length end notes that provide more context to topics that have been discussed in the previous volumes.

The topics covered in this fourth volume are: 

  • Women’s Perspectives
  • Elders’ Perspectives
  • Métis Perspectives
  • Northern Perspectives
  • Urban Perspectives

Of these, I found the section on Métis perspectives to be one of the most useful. It covers a lot of historical ground that was previously unknown to me. Additionally, because the authors discuss this history with an eye to making the case that the Métis should be considered Indians under section 91(24) of the Constitution, it also provides a lot of the background information I needed to better understand the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in 2016 that reached the same conclusion. 

Additionally, because the authors tackle the question of who can rightfully claim to be Métis, the section on Métis perspectives is also a useful starting point for anyone with Indigenous heritage who is trying to make sense of their identify and role in the territories we now call Canada. 

The authors write: 

Individual identity is a matter of personal choice. One can identify with any people or nation, whether or not there is an objective reason for doing so and whether or not that people or nation agrees. For acceptance of that identification, however, it is necessary to win the approval of the people or nation with which one identifies. It would be inappropriate for anyone outside that nation to intervene. Therefore, when a government wishes to know a nation’s membership for the purpose of engaging in nation-to-nation negotiations, it can legitimately consider only two criteria: self-identification and acceptance by the nation. […] [T]he composition of an Aboriginal nation should be the business of no one other than that nation and its members (pg. 189).

In other words, a person can identify with a particular Indigenous nation, if they want, but it is the nation itself that determines whether or not a particular person is a part of the nation. Needless to say, this should be obvious. If someone adopts an English accent, drinks a lot of tea, and wears a bowler hat, their feelings about their identity are irrelevant to whether or not they are a citizen of the United Kingdom. Only the legitimate political representatives of the United Kingdom have the right to determine if a person is a member of their nation. Easy peasy, right? Unfortunately, it isn’t so easy in the context of Canada’s colonialism. To understand why, it is also important to read the section focused on women’s perspectives.

To put it very briefly, the Canadian government has for a very long time treated women and their offspring differently than they treat men and their offspring when it comes to determining who is a “real Indian” according to the law it imposed on Indigenous nations to control and assimilate them. For a very long time, if a woman married a non-Indigenous man, she and her offspring ceased to be “real Indians” in the eyes of the law. She was forced to leave her community because the lands reserved for Indigenous peoples by the government can only be occupied by people deemed to be “real Indians” by the government. In contrast, if a man married a non-Indigenous woman, his status in the eyes of the government was unaffected, his wife and children, whatever their background, were judged to be “real Indians” and she and her children were entitled to stay in the community.

Unfortunately, this discriminatory and exclusionary practice shaped the identity of Indigenous communities, families and individuals for multiple generations. In this context, it becomes much more difficult to treat the endorsement of any particular community as the definitive measure of a person’s identify because many women and their children were forced from those communities against their will. To further complicate matters, because the colonial state also imposed governance structures on Indigenous peoples to suit its own needs, it is very reasonable to wonder if the people who occupy those governance structures today legitimately represent their nation. It is also reasonable to wonder if the specific parcels of land they manage on behalf of the government are the appropriate locus for the identity of the nation they claim to represent. Nevertheless, it also seems entirely reasonable for the tight-knit communities who live on those lands not to welcome into their communities people who are strangers and outsiders, especially when resources are scarce. 

So, on the one hand, it doesn’t seem fair to tell people they can’t identify with a particular Indigenous nation because they are estranged from it only because of the discrimination of the state and the complicity of some Indigenous communities. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem fair to ask Indigenous communities to accept strangers as one of their own or to take their views and/or needs into consideration simply because the latest colonial process has decided these strangers are now “real Indians” in the eyes of the government.  

Needless to say, it is a big, messy and complex problem which will likely only get messier and more complex in the next few years because the government has been forced by yet another court decision to allow even more people to register as “real Indians” because the government’s “solution” to the discrimination I described earlier was itself ruled to be discriminatory. If you want to understand why it was eventually ruled to be discriminatory, the section on women’s perspectives in Perspectives and Realities is a very good place to start.