Green Web Bulletin #67B

Unfashionable Ideas
A Left Biocentric Critique of the Report of the
Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (B)

                                                                                                             By David Orton

"Purification of the spirit comes through struggle."

"Let us face it, we are all here to stay."

Note: The arguments and analysis in the following bulletin were first given publicly in the form of a talk to a graduate seminar on "Indigenous Peoples and Resource Issues", at the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University, on March 22, 1999. This is Part B of the two-part Bulletin.

    While we know that industrial capitalist society has an unlimited appetite for consuming the natural world, it is difficult to definitely assess the topic "Ecology, Wilderness, Wildlife and World Views" in the RC Report, because there are many judgements to be made based on incomplete information. There is much to be talked through. While the text may, in places, talk about ecology and nature, the discussion is overwhelmingly about the human concerns of aboriginals. Assessment of the actual situation in terms of wilderness, wildlife and parks, if the changes which the RC advocates are implemented, is difficult:

    - Partly, this is because of past aboriginal history. Judgement is dependent on an assessment of the past history of how aboriginals interacted with their environment and with wildlife, about which there is much divergence of opinions, which is not reflected in the RC or in the positive images projected by aboriginal advocates.

    - Partly this is because in the past, wilderness without people did not exist in the Americas, as long as aboriginals have occupied this land mass. Before contact with European societies, it is clear that aboriginals co-evolved with wildlife, and habitat manipulations/modifications were commonplace. There was no "wilderness" without people. Undoubtedly some non-human animal and plant species were favoured by this co-evolution, at the expense of other species. Today deep ecology-influenced thinkers see the necessity to put aside in North America, large land areas (about 50%) to represent and protect biodiversity, including animal species which need large-ranging habitats. This is a "giving back" and represents new thinking. The RC Report seems to have no awareness of this. It continues to advocate for aboriginals, forms of Nature exploitation, including access to parks and wildlife areas, which belong to a bygone era - an era when there were relatively few humans and an abundant and diverse wildlife, and industrial society was non-existent. (Pre-contact aboriginal populations in the area now called Canada is estimated at about 500,000. [Vol. 3, pp. 112-113]) So one fear is that a contemporary human-centered dispute between aboriginals and non-aboriginals can become resolved at Nature's expense by government bodies.

    - Partly this is about "ownership." The RC never openly confronts the contradiction that "ownership" was not in keeping with traditional aboriginal teachings, which the Report acknowledges. Yet ownership over the natural world is asserted by aboriginals in this Report.

    - Partly this is about traditionalism and human-centeredness. The RC never thoroughly confronts the relationship between progressive and moving traditionalist ideas such as "all my relations", expressed in a number of places in the RC and the prevailing human-centered "resourcism" in the Report, e.g. trees as "wood fibre" and wildlife as "resource". There is a basic human-centeredness to this Report - although there is a denial that the aboriginal view of history is human-centered. Also, there is a "wanting to engage" with the existing industrial economic model, a model which is destroying the natural world here in Canada and globally.

    - Partly it is about the situation in southern Canada, where most of the population is concentrated and urbanized society has its greatest impact. There seem to be different consequences for the ecology and wildlife in southern Canada, where wildlife and wilderness are under greater pressure, as opposed to the mid or far northern Canada, if the recommendations of the RC are implemented. As the Report points out, "In most regions of northern Canada, Aboriginal people form the majority or a large plurality of residents." (Vol. 2, Part 2, p. 818) Left biocentrists, who have a basic bioregional orientation, believe that political arrangements in the North must reflect aboriginal demographics.

    - Partly it is about the real clash between social justice, wanting to provide increased economic opportunities for aboriginal Canadians, and ecological/habitat and wildlife worries about what this could mean, for the quite dramatic land use changes which the RC advocates.

    Given what has been said above, I believe that the policy proposals in the RC can have negative consequences for the future of wildlife, parks and wilderness in Canada. This would be particularly true for southern Canada - although in the far North, sustaining an industrial lifestyle dependent on transfusions from the South, will mean an intensification of exploitation of the natural world. It is important to grasp that whether in the South or the North, the RC always advocates an "aboriginals first" exploitation policy towards wildlife and the natural world. Where land claims have been settled, as in northern Quebec or in the new territory of Nunavut, part of the deal was first priority to Inuit in wildlife "harvesting."

    In the Report, distinctions are made between three categories of aboriginal land use, ranging from primary and paramount legislative authority to limited negotiated authority, but all categories take hunting, fishing and trapping as automatic rights for aboriginals.

    Parks are declared as not to be included in "Category 1" land (where aboriginal nations have full right of 'ownership'), "except in exceptional cases." However, the exceptional cases are defined in a very open-ended manner, to show that the status of park lands can be changed for an aboriginal nation's interest. For example, if "a park occupies a substantial portion of a nation's territory." (Vol. 5, p. 180) Also, the RC asks the federal government to "amend the National Parks Act to permit traditional Aboriginal activity in national parks." (Vol. 5, p. 194) I believe these policies to be potentially ecologically destructive and foolish.

    Much of the current public discussion in Canada regarding treaties, land claims and aboriginal "rights", seems to  turn around interpretations and rulings by the Supreme Court of Canada, e.g. Sparrow, Delgamuukw, etc. Thus for example, the 1997 Delgamuukw Supreme Court Decision says, "Aboriginal title is a burden on the Crown's underlying title. However, the Crown did not gain this title until it asserted sovereignty over the land in question." (Decision, p. 92)

    Deep ecology tries to ask deeper questions and does not just accept the latest court interpretation. More important are the "of course" value assumptions within which aboriginal debates take place in Canada. Left biocentrists are not supporters of cultural relativism, which can make it impossible to say what is best overall for the Earth and for social justice. It is important to be able to step outside one's own culture and to look at it critically. All cultures need to evolve and come to terms with contemporary ecological and social realities and the ongoing destructiveness of industrial capitalist society.

    There are some fundamental assumptions which enter into legal decisions. All judges in Canada owe their status in society to a Euro-Canadian legal system, which was brought to this country and imposed upon aboriginals and non-aboriginals alike. The RC also accepts European-rooted legal assumptions which, if one goes back far enough, rest on the theft of lands and claims to "ownership" of the portion of this Earth which now constitutes Canada. For the RC, one can either explicitly confront this and put forward some new thinking on how to deal with imposed human anthropocentrism over the natural world, or one can work within, and essentially help perpetuate the basic assumptions of the existing legal system.

    The RC chose to work within, as the following quotation shows:

For purposes of this discussion, the viewpoint is that of Canada's formal European-rooted legal structure. This approach is not intended to deny the existence of an Aboriginal legal order independent of the European-based order or to suggest that one is superior to the other. It is simply a recognition of the fact that 'legality' is an empty notion outside the context of a specific legal system and an indication that the European-rooted legal context has been chosen as the basis for this particular analysis. That choice was dictated by the fact that the  Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was created under and is subject to the governmental structure of Canada (which has European origins), of which legal systems are but a part. The Commission's recommendations will also be implemented in the setting of that governmental and legal system. (Vol. 4, pp. 271-272)

    Yet for left biocentrists, no one can "own" the Earth, whether from a state, individual or collective point of view. Asserted ownership is ultimately a convenient social fiction deriving from human society, enforcing a claim of control over other creatures and the Earth itself. When we look at claims to ownership in a society, we need to look at how such claims protect the natural world and how they ensure social justice for the humans within the particular social world. If there are claims to ownership, then there needs to be acknowledged responsibilities and accountability to Nature and society.

    For example, from a left biocentrist perspective, a small woodlot owner in Nova Scotia would not have the right, as it currently exists, to destroy his or her woodlot for economic gains. (The term "woodlot" itself is human-centered and implies the forest is there mainly to provide wood for humans.) If responsibility to the Earth and to future human generations enter into "ownership " criteria, then the woodlot owner is socially accountable for his or her behaviour - that is, accountable to hand on the woodlot in a better condition, bearing in mind the interests of all the plant and animal species living in the woodlot. Aldo Leopold's "Land Ethic" would then be put into practice. If this was not done, definite social sanctions should be applied, including confiscation of the woodlot. Ownership rights then will be seen as a privilege attached to a definite set of obligations. Ecology, with its understanding of the interrelationships in the natural world, and the growing world ecological crisis, are forcing discussion of what human ownership of the Earth really means.

    The RC points out that,
     By and large, therefore, Aboriginal people see more advantages than disadvantages  in the treaty process... (Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 3)

    There is generally a positive view of treaties in the RC, as agreements negotiated in good faith between two sovereign entities. The RC sees treaties, if "creatively" interpreted, as valid today. I do not believe that in the past there was good faith on the non-native side. (This includes the numbered treaties in the early part of this century, e.g. the 1921 Treaty No. 11.) One can more realistically testify to the so-called "good faith" of the British colonizers in the 18th century for example, when considering the expulsion of the Acadians in 1755, and the fight in 1776 by the British against the American Declaration of Independence.

    I essentially hold the view, also briefly expressed as a minor comment in the RC, that "To continue to respect the treaties is to perpetuate a cruel hoax." (Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 15) The treaties were designed to remove aboriginals from their land base. They were not treaties between two equal parties negotiated in good faith. Overwhelmingly the power, which included back-up military power, was on the non-aboriginal side of the treaty negotiating process.

    Generally the discussion of treaty interpretation seems to be a very subjective process. For the RC, if the terms of a particular treaty are favourable to aboriginals, then there is an insistence on their adherence. But there is of course the oral history to be considered on the aboriginal side and the necessity to interpret the particular treaty from a contemporary perspective. On top of all this, if the treaties talk of the full or partial "extinguishment" of aboriginal rights, then this treaty language should be disregarded. According to the RC, this is because it is "completely incompatible with the relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the land." (Vol. 2, Part 2, p. 543)

    In my opinion, the treaties should be set aside. To look at a treaty such as that of 1752 for guidance today for land use activities of Mi'kmaqs on the East Coast in 1999, when everything has changed for the worse, seems a highly irrational activity frozen in the past. Yet there are court cases extrapolating from this old treaty and seriously discussing its application today in Nova Scotia.

    However, if one accepts treaty literalism, and the language of the treaties is taken as a guide to behaviour today, then personal and commercial fishing, hunting and trapping without state regulation, follows - in addition to social obligations like housing and higher education. Such "rights", to be consistent, would have to apply to all the aboriginal peoples in Canada, as is the position of the RC. But this of course makes two sets of ecological and social rights for Canadians, depending on which cultural/ethnic group a person is assigned to or chooses to belong to.

    The rights of aboriginal peoples were included in the Constitution Act of 1982. Therefore it is only by constitutional amendment or by surrender through treaty  negotiations (as was done through the Nunavut negotiations) that aboriginal rights, according to bourgeois legality, can be extinguished. Sorting out treaty and aboriginal rights questions is quite difficult, once they have become constitutionally entrenched.

    The "Ethical Guidelines for Research" (Appendix E, Vol. 5, p. 327), which all researchers doing commissioned projects for the RC were required to follow, make it clear that the research results must be seen as positive and not negative to the aboriginal communities, organizations, or individuals  being researched. This obviously would come to affect the questions asked and what was to be revealed by the RC. The quotations below illustrate this advocacy research requirement:

Research reports or parts thereof shall not be published where there are reasonable grounds for thinking that publication will violate the privacy of individuals or cause significant harm to participating Aboriginal communities or organizations.
In setting research priorities and objectives for community-based research, the Commission and the researchers it engages shall give serious and due consideration to the benefit of the community concerned.
    The "Advocacy Research" role of the RC was accepted by those scholars and other researchers who carried out the more than 350 research studies listed in Vol. 5 of the Report, in Appendix D "Research Studies Prepared For The Commission."

    The Ethical Guidelines developed by the RC, had to "be followed by researchers under contract with the Commission." These guidelines were developed in order to represent "Aboriginal reality authentically." The two quotations  from these Guidelines show the research results had to be seen as positive and not negative.

    There was a "Research Advisory Committee" with representatives from a number of universities, as well as non-academics, to see, among other duties, that researchers followed the ethical guidelines. I myself would not have agreed to such guidelines as a condition for carrying out research. Although one can sympathize with the intent, essentially there is an imposed "guidance" on the researchers. This amounts to a form of cultural relativism - aboriginal societies as interpreted through the RC, define the realities to be presented in the Report.

    After reading and thinking about the RC Report, I believe the following consequences flow from the adoption of advocacy ethical guidelines for research studies, which will not, as the RC says, "cause significant harm to participating Aboriginal communities or organizations."

    1. An important ethical question concerning scholarly independence is smothered over in the research guidelines, and it is nowhere thoroughly discussed in the RC Report. If independent research results conflict with the advancement of social justice for aboriginals, then ethics can lose out. So research scholars see themselves as aboriginal advocates, if they worked for the RC.

    2. There is a bias against looking critically at aboriginal societies in the past or present. The focus becomes more on blaming non-aboriginal society, and while there is a lot to blame, this encourages a romantization of the past and present. Some previously raised examples of this, which the RC did not look at, are the overkill hypothesis, and examining whether today there is really a spiritual basis for a land ethic given the advent of Christianity. As additional examples, in the RC there is no examination of the systematic corruption and nepotism in many band councils. The discussion of sexism in aboriginal organizations and the lack of interest in issues important to women comes up because of aboriginal women testifying at public meetings, not because of commissioned research studies. The same goes for the negative side of traditionalism both historically and today. Olive Dickason's Canada's First Nations shows a  traditional past which included class systems, slavery,  endemic warfare, and human sacrifice. Other negative sides of traditionalism, in a more contemporary sense, were brought up to some extent by women speaking out at public meetings organized by the RC.

    3. The 'scholar as aboriginal advocate' encourages, I believe, the promotion of social justice at the expense of wildlife and the ecology. (This has been previously discussed within the environmental movement, in Green Web Bulletin #50, "Social Environmentalism and Native Relations", June 1996.) The conflicts between social justice considerations and ecological considerations are downplayed or ignored in the RC, because the real social dysfunctionality of aboriginal peoples and how to resolve this, are prioritized. Left biocentrists say that social justice issues must be resolved within an ecological context of justice for all species and the Earth itself. Once again it is women speaking at the public meetings of the RC, who put the ecology ahead of human
interests and opposed the overall "development" thrust of this Report. Thus Marilyn Fontaine, of the Aboriginal Women's Unity Coalition stated:

We believe that there needs to be the inclusion of environmental protection to ensure a future for all children. It must identify the rights of the earth and our responsibilities to protect the earth. Continued unrestrained development threatens us all. Aboriginal people and all Canadians need constitutional protection from more mega-project dams, clear-cut logging, mining and environmentally dangerous industries. Rather than holding out the individual or the collective to be sacred, the basic premise must be that the earth should be held sacred. (Vol. 4, pp. 61-62)
    4. The final impact of advocacy research seems to be portrayed in an ambivalence and an opportunism towards the Canadian state. The state is on one hand seen as the source of many problems faced by aboriginals, and yet the "special" (fiduciary) relationship of the federal government towards aboriginals is continually emphasized. Criticism towards the contemporary state is muted. Strengthening the relationship
between aboriginals and the Canadian state is frequently on the agenda. There are paradoxes, like the federal government funding a Royal Commission (and numerous aboriginal organizations) which is advocating the creation of a large number of independent aboriginal nations, yet still within the Canadian federation. The RC advocates working within the existing legislative frameworks, federal and provincial. It wants to establish an "Aboriginal Parliament" as an advice-giving body to the House of Commons and the Senate, on matters pertaining to aboriginal peoples. (Vol. 5, p. 173) It supports that the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms apply to aboriginal governments. (Vol. 5, p. 120) But the RC will not call for a repeal of the Indian Act (Vol. 2, Part 1, p. 319), perhaps because of contemporary benefits conveyed to reserve-based aboriginals, along with all the repugnant features of this Act.

    This critique and evaluation of the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, has been written from a  left biocentric perspective. Yet ultimately I myself am responsible for the position and the (for some) unfashionable ideas that are outlined.

    What this philosophical perspective involves, is conveyed to an extent by the "Left Biocentric Primer" and the "Deep Ecology Platform", attached as Appendices to this Bulletin. One must keep in mind that left biocentrism is an evolving philosophical tendency within the deep ecology movement. Also, applying this tendency to such a contentious issue, means that there may be some differences of views among left biocentrists themselves. (This critique was circulated in draft form to other left biocentrists for critical comment and review.)

    One significance of this bulletin is that it is an attempt to look at the work of the RC from a biocentric or ecocentric, nonhuman-centered view, while also paying attention to social justice concerns, both for aboriginal and non-aboriginal society, from a perspective of putting the Earth first.

    This is a very different perspective from that of the right wing Reform Party or that of authors like Melvin Smith, with his 1995 book Our Home Or Native Land? What governments'  aboriginal policy is doing to Canada. Both Reform (see "Aboriginal Policy Synopsis", Reform Party of Canada, November 1995) and Smith have identified some of the real problems with the "bizarre aboriginal policy direction of the  federal government" which separate Canadians. But both support, unlike left biocentrists, an expansionary industrial capitalist society; have no concern for ecology or the health of plant and animal beings; see land claims as interfering with business investment; accept ultimate crown title or "ownership" of Canada, traced back to initial occupation by the English crown; accept honouring existing treaties in keeping with court interpretation; and want the transfer of land now collectively "owned" on reserves to individual aboriginal ownership.

    It is unfortunate that a combination of ideas and attitudes among normally progressive people, who often see themselves as part of the Left - like an overwhelming sense of historical guilt about the past treatment of aboriginal peoples and their present social inequities; a romantic attitude towards aboriginal peoples; closed- mindedness to new ideas; a fixation on human social justice to the exclusion of all non-human concerns; an unwillingness to look at the actual impact of industrial capitalist society in Canada both on aboriginals and to the deterioration caused to the ecology and wildlife of this country; etc. have all allowed the Right to emerge as the main critical voice on aboriginal issues. For advocates of social change, this is dangerous. This Green Web Bulletin, through its critique of the RC, situated with its analysis within the social justice tendency within the deep ecology movement, has attempted to help redress this situation. There has to be intellectual space for needed friendly criticism. As human beings, we also have to dare to allow ourselves to evolve in consciousness, to enter new territory and to re-examine old beliefs.

    I have argued and given reasons in this Bulletin, as to why we cannot look to the past to redress grievances. In my view, orienting to the past perpetrates a "victim" mentality. I have discussed:

    - Why among aboriginals and non-aboriginals living in Canada, there is more unity than disunity, and why this should be strengthened not undermined.

    - Why treaties should not be considered as contemporary signposts for social and ecological change. Why it is basic assumptions, not supreme court rulings, that we need to examine.

    - Why the problems facing aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians will ultimately not be redressed within a continually expanding industrial capitalist economy that accepts no limits to growth and ecological destruction.

    - Why there cannot be two sets of rights for Canadians, depending on whether one is socially categorized as an aboriginal or as a non-aboriginal.

    - Why a spiritually-based land ethic must guide human interactions with the natural world, for aboriginals and non-aboriginals alike, if creatures other than humans, with their own habitat needs, are to survive.

    - Why "ownership" of land needs to be socially redefined, to stress that is a privilege not a right, with a definite set of binding Earth-centered obligations - and sanctions for non-compliance.

    Left biocentrists support bioregionalism as a general orientation, as well as the redistribution of society's economic wealth. There is much to learn from the struggles of aboriginals against the industrial corporate forces in Canada, which are destroying any land base which now exists. Left biocentrists, like aboriginal societies, basically support communal, not individual, forms of land use. (We oppose any corporate control of crown (public) lands in Canada.) Yet "resource" exploitation is a common threat to aboriginal and non- aboriginal communities alike. Taking back some ecocentric control by communities of the extensive crown lands and inshore marine waters by an accountable leasing system, is a movement where aboriginals and non-aboriginals can work together. There are various initiatives in Canada going in this direction.

    As one left biocentrist said, the RC made "absolutely no effort... to align Native injustice with any earth thinking philosophy and they have been irresponsible in this respect... The failure of the commission to recommend that aboriginal land transference be dependent on any form of eco-preservation is a missed opportunity,"

    There are natural laws, not capable of being altered by human actions. Our "freedom" is learning to adapt to such laws. Or as Hegel correctly put it long ago: "Freedom is the recognition of necessity." This is a basic ecological truth which, ultimately, all Canadians will have to face or take the consequences. 

April 1999

I would like to thank the following people who critically read this document in draft form, contributed their ideas, and share the basic analysis: Helga Hoffmann, Billy MacDonald, Ian Whyte, John James, Bernadette Romanowsky and Sharon Labchuk.


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