June 11, 2004, The Halifax Herald Limited

Catch-all phrase 'aboriginal' harmful

ABORIGINAL. If you read newspapers, watch TV, listen to radio, you're eventually going to be treated to a news story about the activities of "aboriginals."

It's a term coined by the federal government to lump First Nations and Inuit peoples into one melting pot. On the south side of the border, the favourite nondescriptive melting pot terms used by the news media and government for First Nations peoples are American Indians and Tribes.

This creeping movement to undermine, and eventually erase, the national identities of North America's First Nations by the dominant Euro societies in Canada and the U.S. is many decades old.

In Canada, it has been earnestly pursued since 1969. That year, the Trudeau government tabled a bill in the House of Commons dubbed the "1969 White Paper." After receiving an almost unanimous thumbs down from First Nations citizens, who were objecting strongly to its assimilation intents, it was withdrawn. The following is a quote from an Aug. 23, 1996 column I wrote about it:

"If the legislation had been enacted, it would have been a clear-cut disaster for Canada's First Nations. These distinct cultures, already threatened by the values of the alien culture which surrounded them, would have been forced into full assimilation without the shield of constitutional protection.

"Before continuing, it must be mentioned that rarely, if ever, did Pierre Trudeau drop a goal he had set for his government; if something presented a barrier to achieving his ends, he found a way to overcome. Therefore, in 1981, when repatriating the Constitution, his government inserted the word 'aboriginal' into Section 35. For a lay person, the word probably seems harmless enough; but Trudeau, being a very intelligent person and a lawyer, must have foreseen that this ambiguous language would spell immense legal problems for First Nations and pave the way for their eventual assimilation.

"This is how Section 35 defines an 'aboriginal' person: (2) In this Act, 'aboriginal peoples of Canada' includes the Indian, Inuit and Metis peoples . . .' The negative fallout from the vague wording of the definition is that by the inclusion of the word 'aboriginal' the Section has created a new race of indigenous peoples called 'aboriginals.' These people . . . are being unilaterally granted aboriginal and treaty rights by federal and provincial governments (and courts).

"In contrast to First Nation and Inuit communities, where membership is clearly defined, and lineage into antiquity is acknowledged, there is no clear definition of who is an aboriginal person. A testament to how loosely the federal government defines an 'aboriginal' person is this definition issued by Employment and Immigration Canada: '. . . refers to a person who perceives himself/herself to be a Status Indian, Non-Status Indian, Metis or Inuit and who is accepted as such by the local Native community.' " One key question, among others, is: what local native community?

"Resulting from the unclear wording of Section 35, close to two million Canadians, most of whom have no established ties with First Nations, are claiming to be 'aboriginal.' One of the major negative fallouts stemming from the influx into the system of these 'aboriginals' is that it is playing hell with the funds which traditionally have been set aside for the people who are in dire need - First Nation and Inuit peoples. Funds are now being siphoned off for the use of the constitutionally created 'aboriginal.'

"Added to the funding concerns, the loose interpretation of the word 'aboriginal' has also triggered negative court decisions which infringe upon and negate the aboriginal rights of the First Nations and Inuit . . . (T)hese decisions spell bad news for the (long term) retention of aboriginal rights by First Nation and Inuit peoples."

Presently, many "aboriginal" people, who have absolutely no ties with First Nation and Inuit communities, are still being permitted by federal and provincial governments, and courts, to exercise aboriginal hunting and fishing rights.

On the identity issue, since my 1996 column was published, things have got worse - individual First Nation identities have been almost excluded from publication. Examples: I recently read two stories about Bouctouche and Membertou, both Mi'kmaq First Nation communities. In them, the term Mi'kmaq was not used once. Instead, the term "aboriginal" was used exclusively - aboriginal community, aboriginal chief, aboriginal achievement, etc. If a reader didn't know better, there was no way of telling that they were Mi'kmaq.

Adding strength to this assertion, there is, among many other similar news stories, the story of Neil Stonechild, a boy allegedly left on the outskirts of Saskatoon by police to freeze to death - which was part of our daily news for quite some time. Yet, how many of you know that he was a member of the great Cree Nation? Not many, because it was reported almost exclusively that he and his family were "aboriginal."

There is no such thing as a First Nation called "aboriginal," with an aboriginal language, aboriginal culture, etc. The First Nations of North America constitute very distinct indigenous cultures, with very distinct languages, customs, etc. Is it so hard, when describing the activities of one of our First Nations, to use the term Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, Mohawk, Sioux, etc.? Please use them. A Mi'kmaq cannot understand the Sioux language, or vice versa, we are not the same.

National Chief Phil Fontaine, and First Nation leaders in the U.S. should get interested and take steps to reverse this melting pot slide.

Daniel N. Paul


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