A role for aboriginal peoples?

by Terence MacNamee

Romeo Saganash is a Canadian parliamentarian and a James Bay Cree Indian whose ancestral lands are situated in what is now northern Quebec. A recent book by journalist  Emmanuelle Walter describes a road trip across this vast area of the Canadian north during which Saganash explained his lifelong political struggle.

Quebec is, of course, very much concerned with the issue of sovereignty, whether inside or outside the federation of Canada. When Quebec politicians talk about “being a nation”, they mean being a French-Canadian nation. Indeed, the Indians don’t seem to have a role in this narrative; although you would think that French-Canadian and Indian movements for self-determination, which started to catch fire around the same time, would somehow complement one another. In turn, the Indians have not been very sympathetic to Quebec sovereignty.

Saganash says: “I spent 20 years convincing the Cree that the Quebeckers too had the right to self-determination.” But he has an interesting take on the issue. “There has never been a country constituted with the participation of native people”, he reflects. “The sovereignty of Quebec could be such an opportunity.”

What he says is true about the countries of the New World. Whether it was the American Revolution, or the Latin-American nations inspired by Bolivar to rebel against Spain, or the more peaceful self-determination of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – new countries were set up by the colonists sometimes with, sometimes without the blessing of the mother country, but either way the native peoples in those places never had any real say in the matter.

The native people could contribute to the constitution of a new Quebec, as Saganash says. But aboriginal peoples could contribute a lot more, wherever they live. This raises a general question: as they continue to arise from the ashes in numerous countries, do the native peoples of the world have a historic mission, and if so, what is it?

It seems to me that they could be the natural mediators in the sweeping changes that are coming to a world where the sun is setting in the West and rising in the East. They could contribute to the intercultural understanding that is needed to make a peaceful transition to the new hegemonies and population shifts that the future has in store.

Why? Because they are the Other within the Western world – those who do not fit into the monolithic structure that dominates them. Once, long ago, they ran their own affairs; then they had to make room for the expanding Western world. Now they can help the Western world learn how to make room for the East.

The native peoples are surely experts on this topic. Because they know what it feels like to wake up one day and find yourself a stranger in your own country.