The burden of the aboriginal (May 11, 2000)

Chief Phil Fontaine released a quiverful of poisoned arrows in is fierce reaction

to the National Post's recent editorial advocating native assimilation was the

century's most heavily charged phrase, "final solution." It is

interesting that Mr. Fontaine introduced the Holocaust as a subtext

to his diatribe. Perhaps he sees in the Jews a small but ancient

people like his own, deracinated and oppressed, struggling to

maintain its cultural identity against a sea of hostile Others. If

so, this is a false and misleading parallel. And, in fact, the

contrasts between the two cultures are instructive.

The Jews certainly began as a nomadic tribe, like many First

Nations, and attached themselves spiritually to a specific piece of

land. But unlike most of their primitive peer tribes who remained

tied to nature's cycles and to shamanistic rituals preserved by oral

traditions alone, the early Hebrews' identity was soon bound up in a

written document, the Torah. The importance of the transformation

from their pre-literate tribal state to a society with a written

constitution can hardly be overstated. And herein is the great

divide between a tribe equipped to meet the challenges of an

ever-changing world and one that is not.

With the Torah and the Jews' (then and for centuries thereafter)

unique insistence on collective literacy, they created a "portable"

culture, or rather a civilization in itself, that allowed them to

roam the world through time and space, surviving and flourishing,

whether assimilated or not, in the diaspora.

There can be no diaspora for native peoples. All aboriginal

cultures, in Canada and elsewhere, share a spiritual commitment to

The Land that is not only fixed in a preliterate template, but

resists in the name of authenticity all attempts to impose upon it

the "white man's tools": In native culture, intuitive, pantheistic

knowledge trumps book knowledge; wilderness will always be

privileged over cities, crafts from natural materials over commerce,

collectivism over individualism and modern democracy. This is not to

say that native people do not and can not learn white practices. It

is just that in doing so they are axiomatically in partial flight

from their own culture. In fact, "civilized" achievements by

successful natives can send them scrambling back to the trapping

lines or the whale hunt to recover from their feelings of

alienation. Take, for example, Douglas Cardinal, a Canadian

architect of Blackfoot ancestry. While living in Washington, D.C.,

where he supervised construction of the National Museum of the

American Indian, he would retreat to a traditional sweat lodge of

his own construction to perform a traditional purification ceremony.

Chief Fontaine is right to resent those National Post editorials

that have lumped natives in with other immigrants to Canada. Natives

who "come in from the cold," so to speak, carry a special burden no

immigrant ever thinks about. An Italian may stay identifiably

Italian or slide comfortably into Canadianness and even neglect to

teach his children Italian without worrying about Italy's continued

existence. It is an individual choice. But if critical masses of

natives leave the reserves, they must feel complicit in their own

"cleansing," both personally and collectively. Their culture is not

portable, and they know it. Would the Jews consider burning their

Torahs as the price of assimilation? Chief Fontaine is right about

the "cultural genocide" that will occur if the reserves are


But Chief Fontaine is of course wrong about the National Post's

editorials being "hate speech." Not only journalists, but many very

liberal and compassionate Canadians are becoming increasingly

frustrated at the various entitlements claimed by First Peoples, and

they are disturbed by a reserve-fostered moral atrophy that is their

perduring condition. No thinking Canadian hates the First Nations.

Equally, nobody likes reverse discrimination and emotional

blackmail. What is to be done? For my part I cannot advocate the

forced disintegration of a people, however dysfunctional it has

become through artificial life support. But at some point, a choice

must be made, and it would be better if it came from those whose

lives will change the most. A first step would be for leaders, like

Chief Fontaine, to distinguish between real and imagined enemies.

Conrad Black is too easy a whipping boy. And no one is planning a

holocaust for natives. First Nations leaders will have to sweat this

one out with the stoic courage of their forefathers.

© National Post 2000