Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent speech to the United Nations brought Canada’s genocidal story to the world stage.
It gave historical context to an enduring colonialism.
The impact is widespread, but neatly summarized in a life expectancy differential between Indigenous and other Canadians of five to 15 years for men and 10 to 15 years for women. In New Zealand, by way of contrast, the differential between Maori and non-Maori is 7.3 years for men and 6.8 years for women.
These figures summarise the story of the power gap between Indigenous peoples and the settler state in both countries. Policy solutions lie beyond the liberal welfare state, beyond egalitarian justice. The origins of the persistent power gaps in each country are different, however, and reflect different understandings of relationships among sovereignty, citizenship, nationhood and self-determination.
The Indigenous peoples of Canada and New Zealand share similar experiences as subjects of British colonialism.
Yet there are profound differences both in the situation for Indigenous peoples in both countries and in the opportunities for resistance they’ve been able to pursue.
Maori have always held a greater share of the New Zealand national population than the Indigenous in Canada. Maori share a common language, and New Zealand’s smaller land mass makes resistance simpler to organize. Yet their place in the body politic is always contested, as state and public strategies of exclusion compete with the claim to self-determination.
‘Lead the lad to be a good farmer’
Historically, the greater Maori capacity for resistance did not dampen colonial resolve. But it did mean that assimilation, rather than genocide, was the intent of government policy. The purpose of New Zealand’s non-residential native schools, for example, was to “lead the lad to be a good farmer and the girl to be a good farmer’s wife,” as the director-general of education put it in 1931.
Following the Canadian Supreme Court ruling in 1997, Canada’s concern for “the reconciliation of the pre-existence of Aboriginal societies with the sovereignty of the Crown” was minimized by the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper but rhetorically aligned with the “new beginning” that Trudeau spoke of at the United Nations.
Trudeau proposed that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples would now be Canada’s policy guide. It would rationalize stronger nation-to-nation, or government-to-government, relationships. Yet at the same time, the 2016 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s ruling, handed down a year after Trudeau’s election and urging the government to address discrimination against Indigenous children on reserves, has yet to be heeded.
Trudeau expressed concern at the UN about the self-determination of First Nations in Canada, but he didn’t speak of the individual Indigenous citizen’s self-determination.
He did not speak to the child on the reserve whose poverty is a direct result of lesser access to services that others in Canada take for granted as rights of citizenship.
Similar circumstances do exist in New Zealand where racism in schooling, health, the labour market and criminal justice compromise citizenship. However, Maori in New Zealand can demand better with reference to the Treaty of Waitangi and the “rights and privileges of British subjects” that it confers.
Maori protected under treaty
That treaty gave the British Crown the right to establish government. In return, Britain offered protection of Maori authority over their own affairs and natural resources.
The promise has not been consistently kept, but the treaty does give moral and increasingly political and jurisprudential authority to the Maori claim to self-determination. The treaty means that Maori do not contest the post-settler presence, but they do contest the Crown exercising a unilateral sovereign authority.
In 2015, the Waitangi Tribunal, which hears claims against the Crown for breaches of the treaty, found that the agreement was not a cession of sovereignty as the Crown had always claimed. While the government does not accept the finding, and it’s not legally binding, it affirms the Maori position on self-determination.
It also affirms a Maori way of thinking about contemporary politics. It raises possibilities for deeper introspection about Maori as nations, and Maori as citizens, in ways that are not apparent in Trudeau’s interpretation of the UN’s Indigenous declaration as it pertains to Canada.
There is an argument that nation to nation relationships respect the fact that sovereignty was never ceded. Perhaps an argument that indigenous Canadians claiming the full rights and capacities of state citizenship requires accepting the moral legitimacy of Crown sovereignty. However, if sovereignty means the capacity to function as a self-determining people one needs to think about the relative and relational character of political authority, and the sources of political possibility. These exist both inside and outside the state. They exist simultaneously. Neither is a site of political possibility for self-determination that can reach its potential without the support of the other.
Sharing sovereignty does not mean assimilation
Political authority and self-determination can’t reach their full potential without the support of each other. They exist both inside and outside the state. They exist simultaneously.
If the Crown is sovereign, it exercises that sovereignty only as the people’s agent. The UN declaration is insistent that, if they wish, Indigenous peoples have a right to share that sovereignty.
Sharing sovereignty is not dependent on the Indigenous person’s assimilation into an homogenous body politic, but on the capacity to contribute to society as an Indigenous person.
That could include the ability to receive public education in one’s own language, to be elected to Parliament by one’s own people (as is the situation in New Zealand) or to receive health care in ways that are responsive to cultural preferences.
In these ways, state sovereignty is not an authority that exists over and above Indigenous citizens. Nor does state citizenship exist at the expense of the Indigenous nation. It complements and supports self-determination.
In the only book-length comparative study of Indigenous politics in Canada and New Zealand, Roger Maaka and Augie Fleras imagine Indigenous peoples as “sovereign in their own right yet sharing sovereignty with society at large.”
New Zealand continues to work out the terms of this kind of system.
Canada does not give it substantive thought, and that’s a serious constraint on the goal of self-determination for First Nations.