The Indigenous Peoples and Governance (IPG) working group organized a four-day conference titled “How to Break Out of Colonialism?” at the Grande Bibliothèque in Montreal April 17-20.

IPG is an academic research project that has gathered 40 Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers studying constitutional law, economy, anthropology, philosophy and political science. The goal is to provide insight into the many problems caused by colonization as well as presenting solutions.

On April 18, the “Sovereignty, Nationhood and The Canadian Constitution” workshop was chaired by Martin Papillon from the University of Ottawa.

Members of the panel included Kent McNeil from York University, Shalene Jobin from the University of Alberta, Avigail Eisenberg from the University of Victoria, Larry Chartrand from University of Ottawa, and Benjamin Authers from the Australian National University.

On the issue of sovereignty, McNeil’s presentation, “The Meaning of Sovereignty”, shone a light on the concept of what it means and how the differences between the Eurocentric view and the optimal Universal view shaped where we are today in Canada.

The main pitfall is that when discussing sovereignty using the lingo of the British imperial system it sidelines Indigenous laws and culture. The situation becomes clear why the British when signing Treaty 4 in 1874 establishing British sovereignty over the region of southern Saskatchewan was inherently biased because it didn’t consider the First Nations system of laws and authority.

In his paper, McNeil emphasizes that Indigenous peoples in the area were sovereign prior to the signing of the Treaty 4 because what matters for sovereignty is the existence and not the form of the legal system in place by the Indigenous people.

Part of the process in de-colonialization is to change the conception of sovereignty from its current ethnocentric model to one that is as universal and inclusive as humanly possible. With this concept change, the signing of Treaty 4 would be viewed as not an internal issue but as an international agreement between Nations.

McNeil goes on to say that even after signing the treaty, the British did not have complete sovereignty over the North until the early 20th century. Because of the main factor in deciding who has sovereignty over a region or population is by the ability to make and enforce laws which was impossible for the Crown over the massive north.

Another factor in sovereignty is being identified as a single entity with its own laws, language, culture, history and traditions. Eisenberg presented a paper, entitled “International and Domestic Norms for Assessing Indigenous Identity Claims”, which focused on the problems that mar the Canadian system for protection of Aboriginal culture.

Eisenberg states that there are two issues when talking about cultural rights. The first being essentialism which only gives a backwards looking view on cultural identity and causes distortions. The Canadian cultural assessment test suffers from this problem because of the requirement that only proven practices from pre-contact times are given protective status.

The other problem that arises when talking about cultural rights is that the end goal is ultimately assimilationist swallowing up smaller satellite groups as it grows and preventing the development of local customs.

The criteria of the assessment tests in the end limit the breadth and scope of the culture it is intended to protect. In the end the results lead to elitism with the voice of non-experts being quashed and the failure of public institutions from reaching out.

The differences between the Canadian and international cultural assessment tests are striking as experts agree that the international system reflects a norm of cultural integrity and promotes the self-determinism of Indigenous groups. The obvious solution would be for Canada to overhaul the current system to allow for a broader and forward-thinking assessment of cultural practices worth protecting.

Jobin’s presentation, “The Plains Cree: Peoplehood, International Trade and Foreign Affairs”, showed how through the study of the trading system of the First Nations on America establishes proof that they were trading on a nation-to-nation basis with a defined culture and laws over a vast area.

The merchandise being traded shows just how vast the system was with material coming from as far away as the Gulf coast and words such as jaguar and monkey in the northern communities showcasing the exchange of knowledge.

The conference laid out five well-detailed proposals on many of the issues facing the First Nations, Inuit and Métis in Canada.

For more info on the conference and the research being done: