Tobold Rollo: Idle No More offers Canada the chance to realize promise of democracy

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It is sometimes quipped that democracy is like two wolves and a lamb voting on dinner. This Darwinian image of vulnerable minorities falling prey to a "tyranny of the majority" is why few believe that democracy can be reduced to participation in elections. If democracy has value it is because it allows people to have a meaningful say in the rules that govern them. Anything that precludes or impairs this "voice" is anti-democratic by extension.

The Idle No More indigenous rights movement is a democratic movement par excellence. It seeks to challenge those mechanisms of Canadian governance that preside over the lives of indigenous peoples and in this sense their demand for self-governmentwhat ancient Greek theorists called "autonomy", from auto (self) and nomos (rule)is a genuinely democratic aspiration. Canadians are coming to see this more clearly as the movement articulates its recommendations. (No surprise, then, that "Idle No More" was just voted "Best Democratic Moment of 2012" in a poll conducted by the research group on democracy, Samara.)

What exactly precludes and impairs the autonomy of indigenous peoples? The Indian Act stands out as the most glaringly anti-democratic impediment to self-government. Not simply because it shatters the 60 or so original indigenous nations along with their traditional governments and traditional territories into the 614 arbitrary "bands" now scattered across Canada on tiny "reserves", but also because band leadership has no real say in political and legislative life on those reserves. Although they are elected, chief and council have no democratic authority to govern because they are constrained from above by the Indian Act rather than from below by their people. They are replaceable managers, in essence, not law-makers. Real authority resides in the enforcement of the Indian Act by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. The whole arrangement is insultingly arbitrary from a democratic perspective.

Thus, the Indian Act preserves only the barest semblance of indigenous autonomy. And while no one denies that scrapping it is a necessary step, it is also clear that some substantive allowances for self-government need to be installed in its place if we are to keep the wolves at bay.

Why does the Indian Act need to be replaced rather than simply abandoned? It has to do with the fact that the anti-democratic "tyranny of the majority" problem requires that certain protections be written into our laws and Constitutions. The democratic autonomy of most Canadiansour ability to live freely as Canadians and have a say in the rules that govern usis secured through the recognition of rights outlined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Because indigenous peoples are part of distinct nations, their right to live as indigenous peoples is located not in the charter but in Sec. 35(1) of the Canadian Constitution, which reads, “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.”

It is important that Canada recognize aboriginal and treaty rights because they are needed to guard vulnerable communities and their lands against the obtuse majoritarian logic that motivates both electoral Canadian politics and the free market economy. It doesn’t take a political scientist to recognize that when governments or corporations do nothing more than add up the most prevalent private preferences of citizens the resulting policy is likely to be both blunt and ruthless. This is why scrapping the Indian Act is only a partial measure, one that is necessary for clearing space for democracy but does little to flesh out Sec. 35(1) in ways that secure that new space from circling wolves that are hungry for land and natural resources. (The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, published in 1996 and then shelved, has recommendations for executing this transition.)

A growing number of Canadians are awakening to the realization that the checks and balances entailed by indigenous self-government would benefit Canadians as well, over and above the long overdue boost in democratic legitimacy that Canada would enjoy by finally acknowledging its constitutional commitments. When an aggregate majority of voters or consumers demands that a pit-mine be built on a Native grave-site or that a lake full of fish be drowned in industrial effluent, self-governing indigenous communities whose well-being depends on the sanctity and health of the land provide a crucial last line of defence. In this way, indigenous governance serves the collective good of all Canadians rather than just the private preferences of individuals constituting a crude anti-democratic majority.

In rejecting the Indian Act and demanding a genuine form of democratic self-government protected from the lupine appetites of political and economic majorities, the Idle No More movement presents Canada with an opportunity to realize the promise of democracy enshrined in its own Constitution.

Tobold Rollo is a PhD candidate in the department of political science at the University of Toronto. He specializes in democratic theory and Canadian politics.

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Dave L.

Feb 1, 2013 at 4:55pm

Regardless of all the rhetoric that Mr. Rollo is spouting , we (dare I say ) see literally tons of money being given to the various bands , the band chiefs /Council members apparently taking a huge percentage of it, and the ordinary band members getting Diddly (or is that diddled?)
Clearly no one is "minding the store" the federal govt is at fault for not insisting on accountability , BUT one cant do that because it infringes on their rights , what a load of Tripe ,again clearly they the native peoples are just like everyone else , if it 's offered take the money and run,
Good luck

Nicole

Feb 1, 2013 at 8:37pm

well said, It is time to amend our mistakes and protect democracy Idle No More!!

Ted

Feb 1, 2013 at 9:48pm

I think the Idle No More movement will achieve much more than they bargained for. I have a sense most of the people marching and beating drums were hoping for a larger piece of the pie - more entitlement - so to speak. I havent spoken to a non-aboriginal who is happy with the lot of our fellow Canadians but every one of them is fed up with the endless writing of cheques without accountability. The Prime Minister is currently touted as being the source of the problem. He didn't cause this mess but Stephen Harper is no ones fool. He's the person who will clean it up. Chief Spence is in for a huge surprise. The gravy train is almost out of steam. It will take time to get things on track but the end is coming and will be the best thing that happened to the Canadian Natives.

Ryan

Feb 2, 2013 at 4:10am

for dave average band chiefs salary is $36,000 average Canadian salary is $42,000 and some don't get paid at all educate yourself before you go and spread false comments. Oh and on cbc news yesterday a audit found the mayor of Toronto overspent on his 2010 campaign you care about that?

alyne

Feb 2, 2013 at 7:37am

idle no more isn't about money. it's about indigenous recognition. can you honestly say you are proud to be from a country that has situated itself on stolen land, made promises to the former inhabitants and instead of honouring them, systematically tried to rid them of the culture and humanity? idle no more is forcing to the publics attention this dark history of settlers and colonization. i am a settler, and i stand with idle no more because i have a moral obligation to do so.

devils advocate

Feb 2, 2013 at 10:08am

if the Indian Act is the cause of all their problems why did FN's fight against any changes??

the second last paragraph is just plain goofy...imo

true democracy can be had for FN's by voting...just like the rest of us...

CEO

Feb 2, 2013 at 10:22am

Soon, "Idle No More" will be no more.

GO

Feb 2, 2013 at 10:45am

Our current government is doing a good job of focusing the attention of the Canadian public on the $'s issue. As Ryan points out the public needs to be educated on the real issues. The $'s at times have been poorly spent but at times this is following the example of the "Indian Agents" who really had control of the bands ability to earn and spend money. I wonder how much the Indian agents (federal employees)earn. They used to dictate how band members could do things like sell their cattle or they're crops(assuming the band was on land fit to farm). This was true as recently as 1975, I'm not sure if any of this has changed since I no longer live at Fisher River.

ger

Feb 2, 2013 at 8:25pm

Ryan, can you tell me if the average salaries you listed take into account different taxation rates, benefits (such as medical and education) and housing allowances? I have a feeling that the chiefs' real salary is higher than the Canadian average. I'm not saying it's not deserved, I would just hate to see someone "spread false comments".

As for the mayor of Toronto, he was tried before and I'm sure he'll be charged again for his overspending. That's what accountability is all about. I think everyone should be accountable.

True Patriot Love

Feb 3, 2013 at 10:34am

Thank you Mr. Rollo for thinking differently. It is not hard to see the tactics at play here and for generations. The Indian Act is a national embarrassment. It is legislation that governs a group of people by none other than - race. Aboriginal people in this country have a different set of civil rights than all other Canadians, based solely on race. Too many Canadians denigrate FNMI like a national sport and it's no wonder because Government legalizes it in official policy. Systematic racism is an issue today as it ever was. And this pattern is well known, from it's oppressive wards of the state among others to learned oppression from within. We see this in the media with FN people denouncing their status and ridiculing their own. We see leaked audits, where accountability was never provided by government to begin with. We see attempts to quite a movement that also is giving government it's only readying challenge. How can we possibly hate more these people for our own botched meddling and meaner for the second skimmings we truly are? Read about the Indian Act, the reservation system and the Indian Residential School system. The rest of us are complacent, ignorant, and we too, like to complain of something we know very little about. Bill C45 affects everyone. FNMI Spokespeople have tried for years to create change and it is prevented. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal People is all but an obsolete report that is both credible and with strategies for change. Canada does not care about it's FNMI, and like you have wisely stated, they know it. FNMI people pay taxes, treaties have never been honored, health care is eroded, there are more FNMI children in care today than in the horrific Residential Schools that destroyed parenting and culture. For a moment ask why. Today, FNMI groups must take to court and to Human Rights and prove with our governments own stats and figures what many live with daily. The government blocks these legal attempts by technicality. Canada, you have a history as alive today as ever of hating your indigenous and you should face it.

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