Despite its name, the “General Principles of Indigenous/Non-Indigenous Interactions” workshop was anything but general: it was specific, complex, varied and it provided attendees a wealth of information to consider.
Academics who study Aboriginal affairs at some of Canada’s most prestigious universities gathered at the Indigenous Peoples and Governance (IPG) conference to present and exchange ideas on the current state of affairs for Aboriginal communities in Canada.
“It’s the culmination of an ongoing project that brings together 35 researchers, not to mention the countless grad students and informal members, in an effort to have non-Indigenous viewpoints come into interaction with traditional and Indigenous views,” explained Jeremy Webber, who holds the Canadian Research Chair in Law and Society and is a professor at the University of Victoria.
Webber’s presentation, entitled “Strategies of Justice”, discussed the problems that arise in what he calls “tragic conflicts of justice” – where two sets of justified claims exist and one cannot address one without seriously infringing on the other. This conflict, common in situations where a society has been established on land another people were dispossessed of, is usually dealt with by officials in a purely forward-looking manner that ignores retrospective justice. Webber rejects this approach.
“Any good carpenter will tell you that, when making a crown moulding, following a drawn line and following the line of the ceiling are equally bad; you have to find a middle ground between the two approaches,” he said. “That’s exactly what we need to be searching for: a relationship of co-deliberation and co-decision.”
Glenn Coulthard sat two seats away from Webber – fitting since he is a professor at the University of British Columbia, just a stone’s throw from UVic. Coulthard, who comes from the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, teaches in the Political Science department at UBC where he specializes in Indigenous political theory.
He argued that, in certain cases, “critically embracing our individual and collective resentment (as opposed to a… neo-colonial framework of ‘forgiveness, recognition and reconciliation’…) can play a cathartic, critically transformative role in the rehabilitation of colonized subjects and in the radical reconstruction of decolonized Indigenous ways of life.”
In addition to the opportunity to present his work and discuss issues of importance with his peers, the conference held particular significance for Coulthard.
“I’ve been with the conference since I first started as a grad student,” he said, his tall frame and tanned vest standing out as he slowly made his way through the crowded, post-workshop hallway. “The conference was really supportive of me then, so I’m honoured to be invited back as a professor.”
He, too, stressed the optimism such a large conference with varied perspectives brings out in its attendees.
“I’m hoping for a lot of constructive dialogue, and honest dialogue, too: for questions to be addressed as they deserve to be addressed.”
Honesty was in full effect during this particular workshop, as the quote that garnered the biggest reaction from the audience came just before Coulthard’s speech. Victoria Freeman, who teaches at the University of Toronto, cited Thomas Jefferson in her presentation defending reconciliation: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
For attendee Larry George, who came from Duncan, BC, the conference was an adjunct to one he helped organized with the Cowichan Tribes of Duncan, of which he is a member. He believes polyvalent conferences like the Indigenous Peoples and Governance conference are integral to pushing towards proper self-determination, because they give thinkers chance to show how things could be different.
“Our law and our systems need to be recognized,” he said, his soft voice contrasting with the strength of his eyes, and his words. “We need to make sure it’s clear that our current situation doesn’t have to be what it is. There are other ways. There are other ways that work.”