Du sens, de la mémoire, s.v.p.! / Make sense, remember, please!

Nonsense, amnesia and other conventional wisdom are the targets here:
A critical look at media-political discourse in Canadian federal politics, notably but not only regarding the Quebec-Canada relationship. Also of interest: the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canada, and Canada's place in the world. In early days, this blog will be tiny. We'll see if it may grow.

La sottise, l'amnésie et autre sens commun sont mes cibles: un regard critique sur le discours politico-médiatique en politique fédérale canadienne, notamment en ce qui concerne la relation Québec-Canada. Aussi: la relation entre les peuples autochtones et le Canada, et la place du Canada dans le monde. Ce blog commence tout petit. On verra s'il peut bien grandir.

mercredi 16 janvier 2013

The Hunger Chief and the GG: Why it makes sense

It's tempting to get annoyed at the insistence of Chief Teresa Spence, now in her second month of fasting on Victoria Island, that the Governor General be a full participant in top-level meetings with Canada's Indigenous leaders. Commentators of all stripes have duly noted that the GG can't get involved in political discussions, because his role is strictly ceremonial. If Indigenous leaders want meetings that will bring actual progress, therefore, David Johnston - Canada's current Governor General - needs to be absent. Insisting on his presence seems somehow perverse, naive, self-defeating; one might even say childish in its wrong-headed stubbornness - but that would be an awkward reminder of the ideological underpinnings of Indians' on-going subordinated legal status in Canada.

And it is easy to criticize Theresa Spence; pundits have certainly not been shy about it. But she is actually putting her health and her very life on the line. When have we ever seen such a thing in Canada? And the thing is, Chief Spence has got it exactly right with the Governor General. It is indeed a fact that in the ordinary course of Canadian politics, the GG is and needs to be an apolitical figurehead. And here's the rub: in the ordinary course of Canadian politics, nothing ever changes for the better for Indigenous peoples (judicial decisions don't count, being exactly that, judicial, rather than a part of the small-p political process). So, what's needed is to step outside of the ordinary course. How better to do that than to return to first principles - in this case, the Canadian state's existence within the British Crown's sovereignty?

With regard to the Crown and its Number One representative in Canada (the GG), Prime Minister Stephen Harper has sown the seeds of his own current troubles, and not just once. First, in the so-called "coalition crisis" back in 2008, he showed all Canadians that the Governor General actually matters, politically and legally. Harper obtained from then-GG Michaelle Jean that she prorogue Parliament in the face of his loss of the House of Commons' confidence, and that is how he got to remain Prime Minister. On this occasion, the Crown's sovereignty set itself squarely against the will of majority of the Canadian people's elected representatives. According to at least one of his former advisors, Harper was ready to appeal directly to Queen Elizabeth II if Jean was to turn him down.[1] So much for Crown's and the GG's apolitical role, especially in light of all that the Harper government has done since 2008. 

Second, the Prime Minister's Office pointedly corrected Jean on a later occasion after she had said that she was Canada's head of state: Harper's people made it clear that Canada's head of state is in fact Queen Elizabeth, and that the Governor General is merely her representative. Technically, the PMO was correct, but this was largely a distinction without a difference; the only reason for the rebuke was to humiliate Jean. Still, this was another way for the government to affirm the Crown's importance.

Third, it has become clear through numerous initiatives that this government is peculiarly infatuated with the monarchy. This extended, a year ago, to the unprecedented and inaccurate branding of a high-profile meeting between top federal officials and Indigenous representatives as a "Crown-First Nations Gathering" (see my blog post about this on January 29th of last year).

So, the Harper government likes to remind Canadians that we are all under the Crown's authority. And it likes to wrap itself in the Crown's gravitas. Let's bring in the Crown, then. But the constitutional fact remains that "the Crown," in Canada, is first and last the Queen, represented federally by the Governor General.

It has now been thirty years since the federal government stepped away, in rhetoric if nothing else, from its long-standing attempt at assimilating Indigenous peoples. But the old policy has not actually been replaced, as politicians (backed by the great majority of the population) can't be bothered to deal seriously with Indigenous claims. That is why the only way forward, sort-of, has been the courts. But this can only go so far: if there is to be reconciliation, a new deal between Indigenous people and Canada, it can only happen through political discussion. Given the general uselessness of politicians in dealing with Indigenous claims, then, why shouldn't Indigenous people turn to the Crown itself? Isn't this, in particular, a way to show that the PM has no clothes?

Such a strategy is inedeed especially relevant in the age of Harper. It has been more than a little distressing to watch the Idle No More movement develop, and Chief Spence's hunger strike add day upon day, and week upon week, knowing that they are facing the government most hostile to their aspirations in decades. The simple fact is that the Harper government is not going to change its stripes: there is just no way that Indigenous claims to sovereignty, to control over their territory and development are going to get any traction with this government. The Prime Minister did eventually agree to last Friday's meeting with Indigenous leaders, but he did so in such a way as to deepen divisions among them, and to make it impossible for Chief Spence to claim victory. As for the substance of the meeting, there was never going to be any.

Calling on the Governor General, which is to say "the Crown," to become directly involved amounts to calling all politicians' 30-year old bluff. It also says that talking to this Prime Minister, in particular, is not going to get Indigenous people anywhere.

[1] I have written about this crisis in the 2010 and 2011 editions of The USA and Canada. Europa Regional Surveys of the World (London, Routledge / Taylor & Francis). Lawrence Martin  has written about the claim by Harper's former aide in his book, Harperland. The Politics of Control (Toronto, Penguin, 2010).

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