“The game is stacked against them,” said Gordon Christie, when referring to First Nations Peoples wanting the right to make decisions over their traditional territories.
Christie, a professor of law from the University of British Columbia, was one of five academics presenting their papers on April 20 at the “How to Break Out of Colonialism” conference. Christie discussed the issue of Aboriginal rights and settler obligations.
“Within a system, obligations tend to arise as correlates to rights,” he said. “If we think of that structure, then we imagine this claim that is at the heart of the understandings of various First Nations. They would like to make a claim to be able to make decisions over their territory. The obligations that correspond to that would be on the Crown, to accord the right kind of respect to those claims.”
The problem with this ideal, Christie argues, is that the Canadian legal structure makes this an extremely difficult path for any First Nation to tread down. Citing the current battle between First Nations Peoples battling the proposed pipeline in B.C., he argues that the current legal system is designed in such a way that it serves the Crown.
“If we begin [by accepting the system as it is,] it’s impossible… for First Nations to establish the kinds of rights they would like to establish,” he said. “The system is the problem.”
Christie points to the judiciary as an example of how the structure of the current system is one that doesn’t lend itself to helping First Nations achieve what they want to achieve.
“There’s a certain place within the system that the judiciary occupies, and given that place, it has certain obligations on it,” he said. “Unfortunately, those obligations… are tied to their place within the Canadian political structure, and those are not obligations that you think would be helpful to First Nations.”
Fortunately, Christie does see a way for First Nations Peoples to break out of this system, a system, he argues, that is designed and controlled by Canadian society.
“I think it’s hopeless for First Nations along the pipeline route to try and use the system as it exists,” he said. “The only possible [move] is to step back from the system and see it as something that ….has been built, and can be rebuilt.”
When asked how this system can undergo such a fundamental change in its design, Christie necessitated a change in the mindset of the people that it was designed to serve. He focused on the need to change the general Canadian understanding of the constitution, to one which accepts that it’s flawed.
“The only way to get out of colonialism, is for Canadians to understand the nature of it,” he said.
While Christie held one of the more ambitious ideas for breaking free of colonialism, he was not alone in proposing ways to reshape the current system.
Daniel Salée, a Political Science professor from Concordia University, stressed the need for engagement with settlers in order to enable change within the Canadian system.
“It’s not a question of blaming settler Canadians for colonialism,” he said. “[It’s about] shedding light on the system that produces it.”
A main focus of his argument centered around the use of language when referring to settler Canadians.
“We are not helping when we call settler Canadians racist,” he says. “Things are really more complex. I want to suggest a different way of engaging with settler Canadians to take a more critical view of their [dominant] status.”
Salée argued that focusing on the racist elements of settler Canadian treatment of Natives, in many ways takes the focus away from the system that produces the imbalances of power within our society.
Changing the position of Natives within the system, in essence, necessitates the reshaping of that very system.