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August 12, 2010



Very good idea. The ceremonies/dances/ect involving these 1st nation presidents would also be way more impressive than an old English lady with an expensive hat shaking hands.

From what I hear, another nation where they take their 1st nations seriously is NZ.


This is brilliant -- let's start a campaign, as a country we should be debating how to severe how ties with the monarchy, as the inevitable passing of Queen Elizabeth will be upon us sooner rather than later. While she reluctantly oversaw the independence of colonies during her reign, there is absolutely no tie between former colonies and Prince Charles or ...Prince Williams. And sentimentality does not bring social change. THANK YOU -- I hope to see this article reprinted widely.


Excuse my European ignorance. I've always been confused about whether Canada's First Nations consider themselves Canadian citizens, or members of independent sovereign nations with certain Canadian rights by treaty. If the former, given that citizenship implies equality, what makes them special? If the latter, what makes them suitable political symbols of Canada?

Sorry for the crude analogy, but this argument from guilt seems about as reasonable as making an Israeli chief rabbi president of Germany.


The fundamental difference lies in the continuity of polities, Tom. Hitler-Germany, on the one hand, is an episode of Germany's past. It has been recognised by Germany as a time when its people committed atrocities and mass murder of an unseen extent. Germany today has eradicated all remains and rudiments of the Nazi-time, and the entire polity is created with the purpose to prevent historical repetition.

In Canada, on the other hand, the same polity from the 'original sin' is essentially still in place. The political system is that of the Coloniser with relatively little consideration of the pre-colonial social structures. Increasingly, there are signs of good will from governments to integrate (not to assimilate) the First Nations. But, for them, this remains integration into a foreign and imposed system of government. Hence, granting them greater political power is not primarily a remedy for the past. It would also mitigate some discriminatory effects of the current Canadian polity.


I had the exact same impressions upon moving from the US to Canada in 2007: first, the contrast between America's recognition of slavery and Canada's of Aboriginal issues; and second, of the absurdity of the remaining ties to the monarchy. The second issue, of course, was made all the more urgent during the coalition/proroguement episode last year, when the GG's position was revealed to be, after all, more than purely symbolic. On the other hand, my antipathy toward the monarchy is tempered somewhat by the fact that "democratic" regimes like the US now have heads of state who claim powers that no monarch has dared to exercise in the last 500 years.

Your solution strikes as an extremely elegant way of killing two birds with one stone.


An important question would end up being whether or not the First Nations would want this. Historically, and some some might say ironically given the little actual power of a constitutional monarch, most First Nations have considered their relationship with the Crown to be above their relationship to any particular Canadian government. Treaties were made between each Nation and the monarch, and much still relies on the terms of these treaties. (This all depends on the history which I have learned, though, and history is always questionable.)

But there is another question: would such a set-up as this blog post proposes do all that much to help First Nations? Other than conveniently making them mascots for a Canadian government to parade about before an international audience--"Look at how much we esteem our Native Peoples and their cultures!"--while members of First Nations remain with the highest rates of incarceration in Canadian prisons, the lowest health rates by most standards, and among the poorest groups in what the world knows as Canada?


Without deviating too much, from a New Zealand-perspective, your point appears legitimate, Mark. The one fundamental Treaty here (the Treaty of Waitangi) was signed by Maori and the Crown; and today, this relationship poses a fundamental hurdle in New Zealand's considerations of becoming and independent republic.

As far as your second point: perhaps symbolic powers are not to be underestimated. Many scholars argue that they are a first, visible step towards accumulating legitimacy and, as a consequence, more tangible power and influence.

Nick Maley

Australia and New Zealand closely parallel Canada. Similar consitutions, similar concerns about coming to terms with a legacy of aboriginal dispossession, similar disconnection with British royalty. Few Aussies or Kiwis would think a proposal like Justin's is the right way to deal with it though. It would deepen the divisions rather than heal them. Tribal/ethnic identity is not a basis for leadership in a immigrant societies like Canada Australia and NZ. Symbolic leaders such as the Governor General should be chosen primarily for their accomplishments and contribution to the wider society rather than their ethnic background. So much the better if they have a minority background, but it should never be the primary qualification.


I disagree, Nick. The situations in the three mentioned countries are significantly different. Particularly Australia merits no mention in the list, and the constitutions today are not that similar; specifically not, in questions of the political participation of the respective countries' Indigenous peoples.

New Zealand has no written constitution, but the Treaty of Waitangi is considered the fundamental document; a Treaty between Maori tribes and the Crown.

Canada has similar treaties and a written constitution that recognises Indigenous rights. In addition, the courts are leaning towards common law and constitutional interpretation that strengthens Indigenous self-determination in local contexts.

Australia, to my knowledge, still struggles to incorporate Indigenous human rights into its Constitution, and has not proceeded much further than a recent symbolic apology.


Moreover, it is problematic to consider Indigenous peoples one of many 'generic' minorities. Likewise the term 'immigrant societies' drops the fact that there were people before the waves of colonial immigration; and that these people had political systems in place that were eradicated without their consent.

The strive of these peoples for justice and self-determination is of a different quality than that of, say, first generation immigrants who who chose to move to Alberta in full knowledge of (and often even because of) the political system in place. Clearly, among the latter, no group has a legitimate claim for her minority to be treated differently than other immigrated minorities.

Measuring Indigenous minorities merely by their democratic clout (number=power), however, reproduces exactly those discriminatory pressures that all governments are currently apologising for. The result is that the Indigenous minorities are permanently overruled by the national majority, even on issues that are of fundamental concern to them, and of marginal importance to "the wider society".

Hence, I support the call for a parallel institution to judge whether an issue is of fundamental importance to the Indigenous peoples and, if so, not to overrule their position. If we genuinely agree that colonisation was wrong, that's the least we can do.

I apologise for the length.


"The way Canada can dare to call itself a democracy even as its highest political figure remains unelected is by confining her duties to the symbolic realm"

Is it really only symbolic? As you may know our governor general in Australia, on behalf of the queen in the mid 1970s sacked the elected government. Now, it seems to me that was a good thing. We had another election to choose something that would function. If the electorate so chose it could reaffirm its faith in the previously elected government....The whole thing worked well and I would never willingly give up the relationship between the Australian democratic system and the Queen.

Of course, as you say, there is the problem that she has a son....


I have a few quick corrections to offer:

Justin, First Nations people are not the only Native / Aboriginal people in Canada. They are a semi-autonomous group that does not include Metis or Inuit people. Whether this alters your scheme, I'm not sure.

Tom, the answer is `both'. Native Canadian peoples are `citizens' of semi-autonomous groups on reservations, and certified as `Indians' by the Federal Ministry of Indian Affairs. Unlike in Germany, Canadian citizenship is given by lineage and birthplace. So, Native Canadians are Canadian citizens, simpliciter. How they individually identify themselves, I won't attempt to answer.


And Justin, why not start a campaign for a Native Canadian GG? Seems a lot simpler / might actually happen.


I'm very late to the conversation, but having lived most of my life in Manitoba, a Canadian province in which over 15% of the population is aboriginal (a figure that will only grow), I really want to agree with Mark's second concern above. What is achieved by turning First Nations peoples into Canadian mascots? This sort of thing is already done. Europeans definitely embrace the image of the North American aboriginal without knowing any of the current difficulties. Winnipeg (Manitoba's capital) itself has many visible reminders of the art and culture of our native peoples, and many visible reminders of their poverty at the same time. I'm not sure what symbolic power can do in this situation. We're talking about butting up against a global capitalist system that demands, at minimum, economic assimilation.

Justin, it's interesting to hear you suggest that it's not too late to right the wrongs (or at least make some sort of amends). As a lifelong Canadian, I am not nearly as optimistic. I was certainly trained well enough growing up to prefer the notion of integration to assimilation, but I just cannot imagine how aboriginal lifestyles can be successfully integrated into contemporary society. A culture is not only its art and its leadership. It is an economic model.

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