It is always wrong to call people by names they don’t appreciate.
If it’s done in a schoolyard it’s called bullying.
If it’s done in a workplace it’s called harassment.
But apparently if it’s done by governments, it’s called policy.
One of the first official acts of the newly-elected Conservative government of Stephen Harper, sworn in May 18th, was to change the name of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, the federal department whose vision is “a future in which First Nations, Inuit, Metis and northern communities are healthy, safe, self-sufficient and prosperous – a Canada where people make their own decisions....”
Well, not ALL people, it seems.
Nobody asked First Nations, Inuit, or Metis people to make our own decision about re-naming INAC the “Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development”. Returning Minister John Duncan didn’t bother to consult his department’s 5,000 bureaucrats about the name change. They learned about it like First Nations, Inuit and Metis people – on the news.
I can’t speak for Inuit or Metis people – even if John Duncan and Stephen Harper are not shy about doing so.
What I can say is that the majority of Treaty or “status” Indians and First Nations citizens – about 800,000 of us across what’s now called Canada – do not think of ourselves as “aboriginal” people. We think of ourselves as Anishinabek, Mushkegowuk, Haudenosaunee, Haida, etc. but understand that would be asking a bit too much to have a government department named “The Ministry of Anishinabek, Mushkegowuk, Haudenosaunee, Haida, Dakota, Mi’Kmaq, ....(plus 40 other Nations) ....Affairs.” Imagine the size of John Duncan’s business card – he would have to carry it on a rack on top of his limo.
We’ve been willing to compromise. Since 1860 – before there was a Canada – the colonial government realized we were so important that there should be an Indian department or branch. We were happy to be called Indians; it sure beat “heathens”, “savages”, or “half-breeds”, terminology that crept into parliamentary debates. The Indian Act came into being in 1876, there are references to Indians in Canada’s Constitution....heck, the organization I work for is called the Union of Ontario Indians.
No, we’ve been called a lot of things – in 1857 the 5th Parliament of the Province of Canada even dealt with “An Act to encourage the Gradual Civilization of Indian Tribes.”.
But whatever the accepted politically-correct terminology– Indians, First Nations – at least it’s been unique to us. But “aboriginal” – that’s a melting pot of identities, the very anti-multiculturalism for which we look down on our American cousins.
There is no similarity between Inuit and First Nation traditions. The one-time Eskimos do not smudge, their language bears no resemblance to any of our dozen or so different ones. Metis people, on the other hand, because they enjoy First Nation parentage, do share many of our cultural practices. But they were so excited to have their distinct identity recognized by the 2003 Supreme Court Powley decision, why on earth would the Metis want to now take a step backward and be lumped in with us and the Inuit as “aboriginals”?
What Mr. Harper has done is disrespectful. It is inappropriate to create the impression that Indigenous peoples who have treaties with Canada and lands reserved for their use are basically the same as those who don’t.
He could have started his third term in office by creating goodwill through the simple act of creating a “Department of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Peoples.” That terminology is being used by many progressive educators, but now that Conservative politicians in Canada are no longer Progressive, I guess we shouldn’t expect as much from them.
What more would you expect from the Prime Minister of Panamerica?
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He is director of Communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.