Harper tells a fishy tale

Pacheenaht patriarch Charles Queesto Jones was 111 years old when he told me a story that had been handed down to him from the time of his great-grandfather. It was about a terrible mistake some of the Pacheenahts' neighbours made after they'd attacked, burned, and sank an American ship that had put in to trade for sea-otter fur.

Jones's memory was failing, but the lesson of the story remained perfectly clear to him.

The story was almost certainly an account of the 1803 attack on the American ship Boston near Yuquot. Chief Maquinna, who ordered the assault, spared the life of one of the ship's crew, John Jewitt, the ship's armourer. Jewitt lived as Maquinna's favoured slave until he was ransomed to another American ship in 1805. The event and its consequences became known to the outside world because of Jewitt's enormously popular memoir, first published in 1815.

In Chief Jones's telling, the captive was a blacksmith, and the mistake was sparing the man, because of the misfortune that later befell the Nuu-chah-nulth tribes of Vancouver Island's west coast. Had the crewman been killed with all the rest, the world would never have come to know about what had happened to the ship and its crew.

The lesson of the story, in Chief Jones's words, was this: “We should have killed all of them.” 

Almost exactly the same words were famously uttered by Bill Wilson, the controversial Cape Mudge populist who was once one of Canada's most prominent aboriginal leaders, in a 1990 lecture to a law-society gathering. “We should have killed you all,”  Wilson said. He said early tribal leaders were stupid to have welcomed Canada's European settlers, who were “homely, diseased, smelly people in boats” .

On July 12, Manitoba's Phil Fontaine handily defeated Wilson 373 to 117 in elections for the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations. Wilson's failed challenge to Fontaine's leadership was not unrelated to the kind of language he's used. As recently as 2002, Wilson was referring to many of the AFN's voting chiefs as “house niggers” .

Fairly or not, Wilson is irrevocably associated with a language of oppositional stridency that is corrosive to the very purpose of aboriginal rights in Canada, which is the reconciliation of aboriginal interests with everybody else's.

Language is important, and so are the nuances of meaning in words. The week before the AFN vote, Prime Minister Stephen Harper provided a perfect example of how nuances of meaning can result in statements about aboriginal matters that are not only horribly corrosive to public discourse but also border on outright lies.

Harper's letter was a response to allegations that he was turning his back on his traditional supporters in the West Coast's fishing industry by continuing Ottawa's practice of occasionally allowing commercial components in aboriginal fisheries. “In the coming months,”  Harper wrote in a letter to a Calgary newspaper, “we will strike a judicial inquiry into the collapse of the Fraser River salmon fishery and oppose racially divided fisheries programs.''

It is in the words “racially divided fisheries programs”  that Harper came dangerously close to repeating a dirty libel””that mischievous, inflammatory, and deliberately misleading characterization of aboriginal fisheries as having a “racial”  basis. Harper's Reform party compatriots employed that mischief to great vote-getting effect in British Columbia during the 1990s by inciting hysterical animosity against federal fisheries arrangements that allowed aboriginal people, engaged in their traditional fisheries, to sell some of their catch.

Only last month, the proposition that such arrangements have anything at all to do with “race”  was rejected, outright, by the B.C. Court of Appeal. In a decision known as Regina vs. Kapp, five judges unanimously affirmed that race has nothing to do with aboriginal fishing rights, or with aboriginal fisheries, or with the occasional commercial components to those fisheries allowed in arrangements concluded under the federal Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy.

The characterization of the AFS pilot sales program as a policy that creates a fishery that is “racially divided” , which is the precise term Harper used, is exactly the characterization the B.C. Appeals Court judges rejected last month as being groundless and wrong.

It's hard to say what Harper exposes in the language he chose. It may be gross stupidity or a show of election-promise consistency without regard to good sense, the law, or sound policy. It might be a mere pandering to that section of the Conservative party's membership that consists of the hard-right dregs and populist leftovers of the failed Reform Party experiment that Harper once led.

Aboriginal fisheries are an expression of distinct and specific customs, traditions, and practices that are integral to the cultures of distinct and specific aboriginal communities. That's why constitutional rights are usually involved. “Race”  has got absolutely nothing to do with it, and you'd think the prime minister of this country, of all people, would know better than to resort to such oppositional stridency, to the language of the gutter, when he addresses himself to these questions.

Maybe he does know better. Maybe he doesn't. Maybe he doesn't even give a damn.