Recently I was invited to attend an informal gathering in the beautiful back garden of an influential Toronto couple. The conversation about the future of Canada that followed our meal was fulsome, wide ranging and richly informed by many perspectives and life experiences. One of the threads weaving its way through a tapestry of ideas was the diversity of cultures including our founding Aboriginal culture. If we are deliberate and astute, this multiplicity of cultures may prove the seedbed for new ideas and alternative approaches to our future.

In response to that dinner and conversation, Ted Chamberlin, one of the esteemed fellows at the table with me, wrote a letter to the hosts, and has graciously allowed Ecotrust Canada to reprint a portion of it here.

Ted is an author and a longstanding professor at U of T (with a focus on Aboriginal and Caribbean literature and storytelling). He has been an invaluable figure in public policy development for over two decades. Beginning in the 1970s, he has served in a series of advisory roles to senior government officials, and has frequently been called upon to testify at land rights and self-government hearings by provincial and federal governments, as well as Aboriginal organizations.

As one of our younger staff members put it to me, “as we face the overwhelming social and environmental challenges of the present day, it is easy to feel heavily burdened and to lose historical perspective”. In Ted’s letter is some of that perspective and also inspiration to “stand together today for the children of tomorrow”.  –BK

First of all, I think we need to remind ourselves that the kind of government belligerence that we are now experiencing is not new, nor is it the excusive domain of the Conservative party. And although it is seldom welcome, it sometimes produces surprising results. Following the Liberal government’s 1969 White Paper, which proposed (without any serious consultation) the abolition of the Indian Act––to give Aboriginal peoples the “opportunity” to become like the rest of us, which was to say middle class and mostly urban––divergent Aboriginal interests came together in protest, creating new alliances among themselves and a renewed awareness in the wider community both of Aboriginal rights (which would eventually be confirmed in our new constitution) and of our inconsistent history of acknowledging these rights across the country (especially in the territories and British Columbia, where there were few treaties.) The Prime Minister at the time, Pierre Trudeau, had taken the position––unequivocally, as was his wont––that there was no such thing as Aboriginal rights, and that we could not shape the country around nostalgic notions of what might have been. It was a breathtakingly belligerent insult to the identity and history of all Aboriginal peoples in Canada, and the dislocation and dispossession many of them had experienced. I like to call it the Aunt Sally response. In Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck was asked by Aunt Sally whether anybody had been hurt by the explosion on the Mississippi river boat. He replied, “No. Killed a nigger.” “Well, it’s lucky,” said Aunt Sally, “because sometimes people do get hurt.”

But Trudeau was about to be surprised. Early in 1973, in the Northwest Territories––a long way from Ottawa––Justice Morrow granted an injunction in favour of the Dene, who had asserted their Aboriginal rights to the territory through which the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline would pass; and although the injunction was temporary, it put a cloud on the title to the land that made the financial backers of the project (mostly American) very nervous. About the same time, Emmet Hall wrote a Supreme Court dissent in the Calder case (brought on behalf of the Nisga’a people of the west coast) in which he argued convincingly that Aboriginal rights did indeed exist, and the only question in any particular jurisdiction was whether they had been dealt with––I have never liked the word “extinguished”––in free and fair negotiations. And shortly afterwards, the Council of Yukon Indians submitted a land claim, eloquently titled Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow, to the federal government, which Mr. Trudeau (having uncharacteristically changed his position) and his Minister of Indian Affairs, Jean Chretien, formally received. I was working in deputy minister’s office at Indian Affairs at the time, and we were directed to begin drafting a comprehensive land claims policy so that negotiations could begin. As a policy document it was by no means everything it could be, and would become, but it was a start. And so was the decision of the Deputy Minister, Basil Robinson, to bring in a senior civil servant from External Affairs, Geoff Murray, who had worked with the United Nations and had just completed the foreign policy review for the Canadian government. With remarkable insight and foresight, Robinson felt it was time to deal with Aboriginal peoples on a nation-to-nation basis, a decade before the National Indian Brotherhood changed its name to the Assembly of First Nations. And this good thinking and acting was generated by a government whose belligerence, cloaked in a we-know-what’s-best-for-you certainty and accompanied by a paranoid distrust of the native American activism that was becoming widespread, more than matched our current government’s.

And then came the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, a response by a government that had run out of ideology on the issue of land claims and out of patience with those who were advocating for it, and who thought it could finesse the situation by merging Aboriginal rights with environmental regulations in the service of their economic agenda. I had the privilege of working closely with Tom Berger during those years in the mid 1970s––he felt that the stories and songs which constituted land claims were close cousins to those I taught in national literatures at the university––and among the many things I remember, all of them secondary to his extraordinary gifts as a listener, was the discussions we had about the title of the report, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland. It was Tom’s inspiration, and I thought about it again this past Wednesday evening.

For the reasons why, I’ll flash forward a few years to 1983 where an Environmental Assessment Review Panel was holding hearings in Inuvik to assess the impact of proposed drilling in the Beaufort Sea. The panel was chaired by John Tener, clearly under instructions from the (still Liberal) government to keep land claims out of the discussion. I had prepared a formal brief and was appearing at the hearings for the Beaufort Sea Alliance, a consortium of the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee and the Yukon Conservation Society, working with the Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit of the region (who were also scheduled to appear on their own behalf.) As I began my testimony, I was instructed by the Chair to refrain from mentioning land claims. So of course I began with them. He interrupted me immediately, and repeated his instructions. I went right on, warming to the task. Once again, he stopped me. Once again I carried on. Then he shut off my microphone, and ordered those recording the panel presentations to scrub my comments. I wish I could say I feigned outrage . . . but I was outraged. And insulted, personally insulted. I hadn’t come all this way to be shut up and shut down by a government functionary presiding over a supposedly independent panel. (This was perhaps unfair to John Tener, but I wasn’t in any mood to be fair . . . and besides, the environmental scientists, caught up in their categories, were sometimes as antagonistic to Aboriginal science as the government was to Aboriginal rights.)

And then I got a lesson in perspective. Almost immediately after he shut off my microphone, all the Inuvialuit and Metis and Dene in the room got up and left. And I realized that while mine might be the righteous indignation of someone giving evidence on a frontier that he deeply cared about, theirs was the indignation of people whose homeland was being trespassed upon, indeed invaded, and whose way of life and whose very lives were in jeopardy. Of the dozen Mackenzie Delta Aboriginal leaders who were scheduled to speak, every single one had had at least one suicide in their immediate family within the past year. They were open-heartedly grateful to me for setting up the issue in the way I had, and affirming the importance of their land rights. But it was their home, and my frontier.

Over the years since then, I have spent a lot of time in courts and in communities, here and elsewhere, trying to persuade people to recognize common cause and find common ground in their understanding of homelands and frontiers. It’s the story of our country. In 1882, my grandfather went west from Ontario to Fort Macleod, south of Calgary. He started a bank (with little capital but in a community where your word had to be as good as gold) and then he bought some cattle and horses, eventually turning to ranching as the railway opened up eastern markets. He had close friends among the Blackfoot and Piegan, though in many ways he represented the changes that were devastating the first peoples of the plains. But in 1885 he went back to Regina to support Louis Riel at his trial for treason. Riel’s provisional homeland government, out there on the frontier, was a government my grandfather believed in too; and he was trying, however awkwardly, to show respect for both the particular interests and the universal principles of homeland and frontier in the face of a new level of belligerence from the government in Ottawa.

I think the dichotomy of homeland and frontier is with us still, and maybe it always must be. But I also think that we might be at the beginning of the end of its pernicious influences, which are often deadly to the environment as well as to the people. And I think this for a number of reasons, first among them the work that is being done by Ecotrust and Canopy, and many, many other organizations and individuals, some of them at your dinner and all of them dedicated to protecting the frontier environment which––certainly in British Columbia––is also Aboriginal homeland.

Lloyd Barber, sometime President of the University of Regina and longtime champion of Aboriginal rights, used to say that we had some unfinished business at the heart of this country. I believe we may be about that business right now, in what may seem the most unlikely circumstances. But if we are able to bring environmental concerns and Aboriginal rights into conversation with the constitution of the civil society we all aspire to, and the stewardship this ambition vests in all of us, we may be able to stand together today for the children of tomorrow.  I do believe this is possible. We all have to believe it. And damn the torpedoes.


J. Edward Chamberlin
University Professor Emeritus
English and Comparative Literature
University of Toronto