From ‘Hinterland to Homeland’

By Joe Desjarlais

It is astounding how significantly a dominant idea can shape a country. Generations of British Columbians have bought into the cultural positioning that recognizing Métis land rights and self government in a partnership with Métis people in their own homeland will be too costly for Canada.

This dominant falsehood has been built on false divisions that Métis people and histories and their ways of knowing that are imbedded in their communities are irrelevant or marginal at best to Canada, in the way of the national interest. Take the cultural positioning of economic development as example. Métis people like other British Columbians are faced with dozens of pending mega projects. Most discussions have assumed the superiority of non-indigenous ideas of economic development. Within this economic framework, the dominant imagery of Canada as a ‘hinterland,’ to extract resources, is an article of faith for many Canadians that has shaped the economic landscape for generations.

Discussions are conveniently reduced down to ideas of an economic balance of ‘risk and reward’ instead of ‘what is right/best’ for a specific community. Stakeholder language has ignored historic modes of Indigenous economic activity that might have included meaningful partnership and valuable contributions between Métis communities with First Nations and Canada.

According to this development logic, Métis become problems to be solved and people look for piecemeal solutions. We see consultants function as justifiers.’ Consultants are most often employed to solve a technical or administrative problem in isolation from historical or community context.

In the process, Métis are isolated from community and reduced to a commodity, or individual cogs in a business transaction or recruitment strategy brokered by other people, usually non-indigenous. Often it’s more subtle, like “we need to acknowledge or assist these Métis people who enter into our institution, our education systems, our political preferences, our economic plans.” Historical justice and the nation to nation relationship, economic sufficiency, and the historical fiduciary obligation of governments are subverted.

If anything, the highest courts of the land have not agreed with this prevailing ideology. As academic Lynn Gehl reminds us, the 2003 SCC Powley case determined that the purpose of section 35 of the Constitution is to protect Aboriginal culture for future generations. John Ralston Saul recently noted that the Honour of the Crown is an important aboriginal contribution to justice for all Canadians. More Aboriginals are using it in cases against the government. The MMF v. Canada Supreme court ruling recently spoke to this point. In the MMF v. Canada case in Manitoba if you recall, the lawyer Tom Berger argued on these very points of the trust like relationship.

Just as for First nations, the courts are slowly moving toward affirmation of the trust relationship for Métis because courts are duty bound to protect the honor of the crown and the integrity of Canadian law. As Ralston Saul recently explains, this is about an ethical relationship based on obligations. The obligation of the state to act with respect and ethically in its dealings with citizens, including Métis, not just administratively, legally, or efficiently.

Simply put, governments have a legal and constitutional fiduciary responsibility to Métis people. Their physical presence and constitutional and legal rights in their own ‘homeland’ cannot be simply swept aside, distorted, forgotten, a footnote in the ‘midst of history’.

There has been very little awareness and acknowledgement of the past or present political or social aspects of Métis in history even though their footprint has been undeniable. There is a disconnect and outsiders set the terms for the encounter. It is more like, “just deal with them as individuals with deficiencies to rectify their learning gaps.”

To be sure, the historical record is powerful in what it can obscure or conceal. British Columbians simply do not know their own history in this place and will be challenged to remember going forward. Nor can governments any longer deny evidence of a physical Métis presence in BC history, or simply subordinate their rights in their homeland to that of Euro-Canadian people or interests. We know that the use of the term “Métis” in the 19th century was a common fact across western Canada, including British Columbia.

In spite of its racist language, consider a newspaper in Victoria in the 19th century as it refers to the presence and status of Métis in their own homeland:

“In 1837 the British possessions on this continent consisted of four provinces in the East. The remainder of the Mainland was terra incognita to all but the savages, the Métis and the Hudson’s Bay company officers.” (British Colonist, June 20, 1897).

Métis and First Nations have a homeland mentality. Industry officials represented outside interests who were doing what they always do. Extract profit and bring the rewards back to their companies. Yet they found ways to coexist, at least in earlier years. In 1885, Louis Riel demonstrated this Métis perspective where they saw themselves culturally reflected in the land, far beyond narrow business, financial or managerial considerations:

“We did not rebel. This is not a rebellion…. We do not belong to the Hudson’s Bay company…The halfbreeds of the Territories are the owners of the soil they occupy. They have an interest in the country for which they have never parted. They desired to have an equitable arrangement made for their interest; they defend themselves; they stand on the rights made before the transfer.”

Louis Riel – Interview, May 19, 1885 (Source : the Pursuit of Louis Riel, edited by Barry J. Begenstein)

The Federal government is in a longstanding conflict of interest. Because they exist within a historic trustee relationship with indigenous people, protecting Métis culture in its historic sense means settling Mètis land rights and issues around self government. Most often knowledge companies or regulatory bodies instead do “scientific” assessments but leave out the most important elements that deal with cultural and societal connections to the land and resources. These elements are often the most problematic when it comes to the possibility of partnerships in industry and development.

Governments have been poor managers with respect to assisting Métis in democratic and fiscal matters and as we have seen lately, they also stood by in denial while Métis governance faltered, not willing to get involved and bring the real issues to the surface – issues like sovereignty (land rights) and self government, self sufficiency and nation to nation relationships.

If we believe what we read on the social media and blogs, or prevailing media talking points, indigenous economies and capitalism cannot coexist. Yet, I wonder if one of the big ecological ‘differences’ between liberal capitalism and indigenous economies isn’t so much the issue of exploitation (all societies use the land to suit their own advantage and will do so to its ‘carrying capacity’) but, as Thomas Berger pointed out, it is in the perception of the place as either ‘homeland’ or ‘hinterland’.

Berger was commissioned to do a study on whether a pipeline should proceed in the Mackenzie in the Yukon in the 1970s. He came at the pressure for pipelines differently. He thought there should be a 10 year moratorium on pipeline development in the Mackenzie valley to ensure that governments deal with First Nations and Métis self government and land claims. Then if pipelines are built, there should be partnerships to support this. This cultural positioning would, in this viewpoint, be best for the region.

If there is always another ‘hinterland’ to exploit you won’t ‘conserve’ the resources because it isn’t in your best interests to do so. On the other hand, if you have a ‘location’ that is considered a home you treat it as if you are never going to leave and you get to know it as you would a friend.

Homes take on spiritual significance; frontier/hinterlands are a means to an end (usually wealth).

Homelands are still ‘exploited’ because you have to live, but the cultural positioning of that is very different. So while hinterlands (like the kind Enbridge is creating in the North) reduce and homogenize in order to construct a landscape designed for a specific function (to carry oil), those that call the area ‘home’ (an increasingly larger number of Canadians who see themselves reflected in the land itself) understand the region in a much more nuances, and specific, way. Understanding place from a ‘homeland’ perspective (and unlike First Nations and Mètis, Canadians are just now becoming ‘self-aware’ enough to realize the value of ‘home’) transforms issues from ‘an economic balance of risk and reward’ to ‘what is right/best for our specific community’.

I am arguing that all these mega-projects as flashpoints really illustrate whether Métis and others will co-shape how Canada will define itself for successive generations. Instead of competing agendas and ideologies, we need to change the dominant image of exchange to accommodate notions of shared homeland.

At our best, capital and Indigenous economies can find common ground and determine what is right for this country. We can settle land claims and it will improve the country if we shift our cultural positioning from ‘hinterland to homeland’.

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