39. INDIAN RESERVES: CANADA’S NATIONAL SYSTEM OF GATED COMMUNITIES

The aboriginal orthodoxy encourages aboriginal people to withdraw into themselves, into their own “First Nations”, under their own “self-governments”, on their own “traditional lands”, within their own “aboriginal economies”. Yet this is the wrong direction if the goal is widespread individual independence and prosperity for aboriginal people. Under the policy of withdrawal, the political and professional elites will do well for themselves as they manage the aboriginal enclaves, but the majority will be worse off than ever. In order to become self-supporting and get beyond the social pathologies that are ruining their communities, aboriginal people need to acquire the skills and attitudes that bring success in a liberal society, political democracy and market economy. Call it assimilation, call it integration, call it adaptation, call it whatever you want: it has to happen. -Tom Flanagan, First Nations? Second Thoughts

Studies done at Harvard looked at the results of a Clinton-era program called Moving to Opportunity, which took poor families and moved them to middle class neighborhoods. The results showed that children who were raised in better neighborhoods had remarkable earnings gains. The girls were more likely to marry and raise their own children in two parent homes…It’s likely the children benefitted from being in environments with different norms, with more information about how to thrive, with few traumatic events down the block. The first implication of this research is that neighborhood matters a lot. We have to put the quality of the social fabric at the center of our politics. We’ve got to get integrationist, to integrate different races and classes. -David Brooks1

Disconnected, unhealthy and poor communities have far higher rates of violence. And these are adjectives that all too often describe the northern villages, remote reserves and inner-city neighbourhoods where Canada’s Indigenous population lives. This is an issue of place, not race.-Scott Gilmore2

When Indians leave the reserve they are taking the first step to complete freedom. The reserve was a trap set up in the 19th Century which continues to snap at the heels of the natives… Young people should be encouraged to leave the reserve as early as possible, and they should be helped to fit into the Canadian way of life. They don’t have to give up their culture; if they wish to maintain their culture off the reserve they can probably more easily do so by living in better surroundings. -Aboriginal AFN  Founder, activist, writer, lawyer, William Wuttunee, 1971 3

Anything that constitutes civilizational partitioning is inherently illiberal and thus civically unhealthy.

The typical “gated communities” that we increasingly see in upper income enclaves in North American urban areas, while they have a certain superficial appeal, are actually a symbol of a civic nation in decline. To the extent that these communities represent increased privacy and security for their residents, they also represent a decrease in that shared and collective societal living experience that is essential for the maintenance of a united and engaged citizenry and the stronger and more vital democracy that results from that. It’s unfortunate and civically unhealthy that so many citizens want or feel the need to live in such a socially uniform environment, where ones’ only neighbours are people of the same income bracket and general life experience. It’s unfortunate that so many citizens want to spend half their lives in such a private, withdrawn social and civic environment.

Tony Judt, in his important book, Ill Fares The Land, which should be mandatory reading for all politicians, (there would ideally be a test at the end), discusses the nature and harmful significance of gated communities as follows:

Before the rise of the modern state, such communities were commonplace. If they were not actually fortified in practice, they certainly represented a distinct private space, its boundaries well-marked and secured against outsiders.  As modern cities and nation states grew up, so these fortified enclaves-often owned by a single aristocrat or limited private company-blended into the urban surroundings.  Their inhabitants, confident in the security now offered to them by the public authorities, abandoned their private police forces, dismantled their fences and confined their exclusivity to distinctions of wealth and status.  As recently as the 1960’s their appearance in our midst would have seemed quite bizarre. But today, they are everywhere: a token of “standing”, a shameless acknowledgement of the desire to separate oneself from other members of society, and a formal recognition of the state’s (or city’s) inability or unwillingness to impose its authority across a uniform public space.

Mr. Judt goes on to say:

People who live in (these) private spaces contribute actively to the dilution and corrosion of the public space. In other words, they exacerbate the circumstances which drove them to retreat in the first place.  And by doing so, they pay a price. If public goods- public services, public space, public facilities- are devalued, diminished in the eyes of citizens and replaced by private services available against cash, then we lose the sense that common interests and common needs ought to trump private preferences and individual advantage.

Drawing on his European and American life experiences Mr. Judt describes how this impulse to live in essentially private spaces with people just like oneself is not confined to upper income people. He asserts that it’s the same socially divisive and discomfiting urge “… that drives African-American or Jewish students in colleges today to form separate “houses,” to eat apart and to learn primarily about themselves by enrolling in identity studies” majors.”

And, as stated above, for Canadian Indians attending our colleges and universities to do essentially the same thing.

The huge price they and society as a whole pays for this is described by Mr. Judt, echoing Reappraisals, as follows:

But in universities, like society at large, such self-protective undertakings not only starve their beneficiaries of access to a broader range of intellectual or public goods, they fragment and diminish the experience of everyone.

Much of what Mr. Judt so aptly says about gated communities, and what they and the mentality underlying them represent, applies to Indian reserves in Canada, and will in future apply even more forcefully to Tsilhcot’in-created aboriginal title lands.

A Canadian Indian reserve is Canada’s poor-man’s gated community- a form of voluntary ghetto-4where the pervading spirit is one of inertia and dependency, and the essential qualification for belonging and the essential reason why “outsiders” i.e. the rest of Canadians, are implicitly told, “you don’t belong here,” is race, rather than wealth.

This is an undeniably true statement, which to merely put down on paper and then read it there makes one recoil in embarrassment and gloom from the sheer backwardness and illiberality represented by it. One gets a brief hint of what it must have been like seventy five years ago for Jews to have been banned from membership in certain clubs- for American blacks to have been refused entry into so many places- for Canadian Indians themselves to have been discriminated against.

Now, reserve Indians (and a great many non-reserve Indians as well) live a constrained and self-conscious existence.

They’re constrained physically  and legally by the boundaries of the reserve, and constrained mentally and in spirit by what the reserve represents: an enervating recent past, stagnation and isolation, segregation, passivity and discouragement caused by constant dependency- by living lives “too much at large, unmoulded by the pressure of obligation.” 5

They’re constrained by their sense of free-agency and individual autonomy being diminished by an essentially undemocratic governance system and a lack of traditional legal and property rights-(“Give him land and legal rights: only then will he be a man!” 6).

They’re constrained by a suffocating ethos of excessive, backward-looking, race-obsessed, “blood and soil”collectivism, 7possessing, like nationalism, “no universal values, aesthetic or ethical”, 8 where the individual’s sense of identity becomes too subsumed with that of the collective, “which imposes a deadly uniformity on talent and initiative”.9

They’re constrained by their “oppressor/oppressed” story in which the current orthodoxy has trapped them. Their oppressors- white “settlors/colonialists”- having been clearly and unquestionably defined, their blamelessness and virtue is secure. “Virtue without obligation.”

What is the moral order today? Not so much the reign of right-thinking people as that of the right-suffering, the cult of everyday despair. I suffer therefore I am worthy. Suffering is analogous to baptism, a dubbing that inducts us into the order of a higher humanity, hoisting us above our peers.

The crooked timber school of humanity says the line between good and evil runs through each person and we fight injustice on the basis of our common humanity. The oppressor/oppressed morality says the line runs between tribes. 10

They’re constrained by being psychologically kneecapped by their leaders who constantly tell them: “You’re an Indian first, and, maybe, a Canadian second.”

There’s a terrible, unconscionable,  psychological and social price to be paid for all these “pathologies of exclusion”-11this oppressive narrowness-this Indian elite-willed “unnatural divorce from the life of their society.” 12

With their leaders unable to transcend this distorted and unhealthy psychological reality- or even try in any realistic way to lead their peoples out of it- they suffer the general consequence of feeling “different” from the rest of Canadians- of not being able to contribute meaningfully to the life of modern Canada except by, relying on false and tiresome historical-racial tropes and bad laws, hitching onto others’ wagons. This can never be healthy or confidence-building.

With their old culture gone, and their present one based mainly on borrowings from and imitations of modern Canadian culture, (yes, “cultural appropriations”), they will remain, as peoples, confused and static- perpetual stepchildren unsure of their place in the family-self-imposed (by their leaders) wallflowers at the dance that is modern Canada- with little sense of a vital, maturing, free-agency growth process happening.

In the chapter of Ruffled Feathers aptly titled Reservation Exiles William Wuttunee, confirming the immediately above, writes of reserves as follows:

Designed to take Indians away from their natural habitat and to segregate them on small parcels of land so that the surrounding areas would be safe for settlers, they have caused nothing but hardship to their inhabitants, and the reserves have become cemetaries of once-brave tribes…. While the rest of the country progressed into the 20th century, the Indians remained behind… The Indians suffered quietly from malnutrition  and disease in primeval silence, and turned the reservations into permanent havens away from the white man…The exile which was imposed on Indians by treaty has turned itself into a voluntary exile. Reservations are now completely out of date. We no longer need reservations; their function has changed and it is time to change them.

Mr.  Wuttunee recommended that they be turned into forms of municipalities.

The negative effects Indian reserves have on  Canadian society as a whole, (and on their individual reserve residents as stated immediately above), in terms of diminishing and fragmenting our public spaces, are no less harmful than those caused by their usually white, upper-income, gated community-living counterparts. And now, with the Tsilhcot’in decision, there will be claimed and sometimes declared, even more harmfully, larger purely race-based, essentially private, mentally very gated, quasi-independent physical spaces – race-based, Indians only fiefdoms. The unconscionable psychological damage to aboriginal Canadians will only increase.

Physical separation exerts an alienating influence. When people are artificially separated, the “power of differences” grows. Personal contact fosters belief, understanding and trust in one another.13

David Brooks:

By reducing inequalities, by integrating daily life, we can eventually make our common humanity more salient and our racial difference less so…It is everyone’s responsibility to make racial diversity a creative spark and not a source of permanent hostility. 14

If Canadians of all races and ethnic backgrounds – of all income brackets – are encouraged by how we are structurally and socially organized to go to school and live and work in proximity to one another, then this knocks down walls of fear, ignorance and incomprehension that otherwise exist – that otherwise divide us and weaken our social and political fabric.

Public spaces – whether physical, like towns and cities – whether more a combination of the physical and the abstract, like public transit, passenger trains, public schools or a public health care system – or whether more purely abstract, like our national public television and radio network, are all essential for the maintenance of the higher, more civilized and humane civil society Canada has always aspired to be.

(Ironically, the CBC, which owes both its very existence and its ongoing funding to the hard-pressed Canadian taxpayer, and to our federal government having a stable and sufficient revenue stream, is one of Canada’s  greatest, mindlessly sentimental cheerleaders and promoters of the quasi-segregationist, separate but equal status quo. Like the rest of the media,”they would seemingly prefer to invent the modern Indian rather than observe him.” 15 Like the rest of the media they are driven on this subject matter by little more than a general, overarching moral indignation, where facts mean little.

Nothing is as visionary and blinding as moral indignation. 16

The status quo they all want to preserve and enhance presages a smaller and smaller revenue stream flowing to our governments, and more and more foregone revenue going directly to First Nations (who will definitely not be giving any of it to the CBC).   The CBC is actually cheering and promoting something that could very easily turn out to be a threat to its survival.)

To the extent that we reduce those public spaces we all share – to the extent that we relentlessly privatize them, or, in the case of Indian reserves and Tsilhcot’in creations, to the extent that we fail to encourage these already essentially private, race-based spaces to eventually cease to be so – we weaken our democracy, the vibrancy of our culture, and the strength of our civil society.

And we fail to offer to their physically and mentally “gated” inhabitants the full opportunities and benefits that result from sharing with them the entirety of our Canadian space as true equals.

  1. David Brooks, A Sensible Version of Donald Trump,The New York Times, October 27th, 2015
  2. Canada’s Unspoken Crisis, Maclean’s Magazine, December 19, 2016
  3. Ruffled Feathers, above
  4. In indigenous writer Bob Joseph’s 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, (noted above) Mr. Joseph recounts Prime Minister Trudeau’s reported comment after he was forced to withdraw his 1969 White Paper recommending the repeal of the Indian Act and the eventual abolition of Indian reserves:

“We’ll keep them in the ghetto as long as they want.”

  1. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  2. From The Discovery of Chance, above, Alexander Herzen’s cry in support of the abolition of Russian feudalism and the transformation of the trampled psyche of the Russian peasant class.
  3. The most instructive and infamous example of where this delusional mindset can lead, being the blut and bodenvision of a racially pure, psychologically rural-oriented society extant in Germany in the 1930’s.
  4. From Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny-Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century, Tim Duggan Books, New York, 2017
  5. From The Discovery of Chance, above, which again, draws telling comparisons between peasants suffering under feudalism and Canada’s Indians suffering under the reserve system.
  6. David Brooks, quoting French intellectual Pascal Bruckner in The Retreat to Tribalism, The New York Times, January 1,2018
  7. From Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America, Vintage International, 2005, New York, this brilliant writer referring to Jewish ghettoes
  8. From The Discovery of Chance, above, referring to the somnolent and repressed intellectual and civic life extant in Czarist Russia in the 1840’s. More of the apt quote:

This unnatural divorce from the life of their society inclined them to an egotistic idleness, Romantic fantasies, and every sort of self-indulgent eccentricity…Unable to realize their potential and test the limits of their abilities through action, they tormented themselves with dreams, “that surrogate for real passions”…inventing sorrows and nursing them.

  1. Rudiger Safranksi, Goethe-Life as a Work of Art, above
  2. Democrats Go for the Jugular! (Their Own), The New York Times, January 22, 2018, italics added
  3. From, (as adapted), The Discovery of Chance, above, Alexander Herzen’s sardonic observation of his intellectual contemporaries’ romanticization of the “worker”.
  4. Arthur Miller, Timebends- A Life, above

By: Peter Best