How can First Nations believe Canada is a force for good in the world?

The power of foreign policy nationalism is immense. Even the primary victims of the Canadian state have been drawn into this country’s mythology.

Dispossessed of 99% of their land, Indigenous people have been made wards of the state, had their movement restricted and religious/cultural ceremonies banned. Notwithstanding their antagonistic relationship to the Canadian state, indigenous leaders have often backed Ottawa’s international policies.

At a National Aboriginal Veterans Day ceremony last week Grand Chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Stewart Phillip said Indigenous soldiers were “fighting for the common good” and were “on the right side of history.” But, Canadian soldiers have only fought in one morally justifiable war: World War II. Ignored in the Remembrance Day style commemoration are the Afghans or Libyans killed by Canadians in recent years or the Serbians and Iraqis killed two decades ago or the Koreans killed in the 1950s or the Russians, South Africans, Sudanese and others killed before that.

While Phillip’s comments reinforces the sense that Canada’s cause is righteous, he’s not a sycophant of power on most issues. Phillip refused to attend a “reconciliation” event with Prince William, called for “acts of civil disobedience” against pipelines and said “the State of Canada and the Church committed acts of genocide as defined by the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”

Philip was but one of many indigenous voices applauding Canadian militarism during National Aboriginal Veterans Day/Remembrance Day activities. CBC Indigenous reported on a reading in Mi’kmaq of the pro-World War I poem “In Flanders Fields” and quoted the editor of Courageous Warriors of Kahkewistahaw First Nation, Ted Whitecalf, saying: “It’s all for freedom that the people served willingly and voluntarily.”

Outside of war commemorations, Indigenous representatives occasionally echo broader foreign policy myths. Alongside Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde was a keynote speaker at the Canadian Council for International Co-operation’s “Come Celebrate Canada’s International Contributions!!” event in May. Part of Canada’s 150th anniversary the Global Impact Soirée included a Global Affairs Canada exhibit titled “25 Years of Excellence in International Development Photography” and “Recognize Canada’s 15 international contributions”.

At the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, former AFN leader Matthew Coon Come denounced Canada’s “marginalization and dispossession of indigenous peoples.” In what was widely described as a forceful speech, Coon Come labeled Canada “an international advocate of respect for human rights” and said: “Canadians, and the government of Canada, present themselves around the world as upholders and protectors of human rights. In many ways, this reputation is well-deserved. In South Africa, the government of Canada played a prominent role in isolating the apartheid regime. In many other countries, Canada provides impressive international development assistance.” (While repeated regularly, Coon Come’s characterization of Canada’s role in opposing apartheid is incorrect and aid was largely conceived as a geopolitical tool to blunt radical decolonization.)

Indigenous opinion is, of course, not homogenous. Some chiefs have actively supported indigenous communities resisting Canadian mining projects in Latin America while former chief of Manitoba’s Roseau River First Nation Terrance Nelson called on first nations to forge their own international ties. Author of 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance, Gord Hill criticized First Nations collaboration with the Canadian Forces. From Kwakwaka’wakw nation, Hill denounced indigenous leaders supporting recruitment for a force “who continue to loot and plunder not only Indigenous lands here, but also those of tribal peoples in Afghanistan and Haiti.”

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the Native Alliance of Red Power opposed“efforts to co-opt native leadership into Canadian imperialism.” The Coast Salish (Vancouver) based group protested local residential schools, police brutality, racism, sexism, as well as the war in Vietnam and colonialism in southern Africa.

Indigenous leaders have various ties to the foreign policy establishment. They are part of a slew of initiatives set up by the Canadian International Development Agency, Global Affairs Canada and Department of National Defence. Historically, Canadian military experience significantly shaped indigenous politics. After returning from the Western front Frederick Ogilvie Loft formed the League of Indians of Canada in 1919, the first pan-Canadian indigenous political organization. Backed by a significant share of the 4000 indigenous WWI veterans, the League led directly to today’s Indian Association of Alberta and Saskatchewan’s Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations. “The League was also the forerunner of the National Indian Brotherhood, now known as the Assembly of First Nations”, explains a history of The League of Indians of Canada.

Rather than echo nationalist myth, Indigenous leaders and activists should be part of a movement for a just foreign policy. First Nation experiences with Canadian colonialism, including so-called aid, missionaries and government financing of indigenous organizations, can offer insight into this country’s foreign policy. Over the longer term an expansion of First Nations autonomy could redefine the Canadian state in a way that helps reset this country’s place in the world.

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