New Generation Of Aboriginal Activists
May Mean Better Future For All Canadians
By Randall White
The most interesting thing about the election of Perry Bellegarde as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) last week may be a discussion on whether the institution itself is still relevant.
A striking analysis was offered by a 30-something, Ontario-born Winnipeg resident, Wabanakwut (Wab) Kinew, (also currently acting as guest host of CBC Radio One's program "Q.")
Wab Kinew is originally from the Onigaming First Nation, just east of the Lake of the Woods and south of Kenora, in Northwestern Ontario. He currently holds a position with the University of Winnipeg.
The traditional aboriginal leadership, represented by the 52-year-old Mr. Bellegarde, is still rhetorically attached to a kind of extreme sovereigntist fantasy that divides Canada’s various aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities.
Mr. Bellegarde spoke in this voice after his election as National Chief, when he somewhat ominously declared “Canada is Indian land.”
What was so refreshing about Mr. Kinew’s remarks was how they pointed to a more constructively realistic, collaborative vision.
The AFN, in Mr. Kinew’s view, is just an aboriginal lobby group that has not been very successful.
Aboriginal Canada today may not need this kind of group, he says.
Instead, “We should be everywhere in this country ... Asserting our cultures, asserting our identities” said Mr. Kinew.
Today all Canadians are “finally at the precipice of what Canada’s original vision was all about ... people coming together partially infused by indigenous knowledge and indigenous culture and making a really, really beautiful lifestyle together,” he said.
Ontario is home to more aboriginal Canadians than any other province, in absolute numbers.
The 2011 census reported 301,425 First Nations, Metis or Inuit in the province. Yet aboriginals account for only 2.4% of Ontario’s total population.
Contrast that with Manitoba, whose smaller aboriginal population - 195,900 - accounts for as much as 16.7% of that province's population. Or with Saskatchewan, where indigenous people make up 15.6% of the population.
Winnipeg itself is still effectively the main metropolis for much of North Western Ontario. It was home to 46,000 Metis as of 2011.
In Ontario, almost two-thirds of the 2011 aboriginal populations - 201,100 - were First Nations. More than 125,000 of them are registered status Indians, entitled to the various alleged benefits of this status nowadays.
Only a little more than a third of aboriginals in Ontario live on reserves, however, versus the 50-50 split in Canada at large.
This amounts to what the Globe and Mail has called an aboriginal “baby boom that is creating a burgeoning and increasingly activist generation of young First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.”
All this is reminiscent of a provocative sentence in the conclusion to Harold Innis’ classic (and still in-print) great Canadian history book of 1930, on The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History.
“We have not yet realized,” Innis wrote just as the Great Depression was setting in, “that the Indian and his culture were fundamental to the growth of Canadian institutions.”
Or, as the Osgoode Hall law professor Brian Slattery was also urging in the 1990s, aboriginal nations were "active participants in the lengthy processes that eventually gave rise to the federation of Canada ... (As such) aboriginal peoples should be viewed as active participants in generating the basic norms that govern us ... as contributors to the evolution of our Constitution and most fundamental laws.”
Young aboriginal leaders like Wab Kinew seem to be reaching out for this kind of aboriginal/non-aboriginal collaboration in the future of Canada.
We non-aboriginal Canadians should be reaching back.