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The words that were weapons

Ottawa Citizen by Jodi Brunh 8 December 2014

We need to talk. We’ve heard it from First Nations leaders and former prime ministers, from academics, novelists and public intellectuals. If we’re finally to move from conflict to cooperation, non-Aboriginal Canadians need to enter into a deep, difficult dialogue with Aboriginal peoples.

But when we talk, will our words foster understanding? Or will they only reinforce the barricades? The language we use to describe our relationship is polarized, vague, sometimes brutally abstract.

Take any word of significance to the Aboriginal/settler relationship. Start a dialogue between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. Observe the rift that opens up.

Treaties. What are the treaties? The courts have defined their place in Canadian law. But it’s far from clear that our settler society or governments — or treaty First Nations for that matter — have accepted their interpretation. Did the treaties amount to land transfers alienating Aboriginal ownership in exchange for defined rights? Or are they renewable covenants among sovereign nations? The fronts dig in. Yet treaties are defining elements of our relationship. How can we talk about honouring them without a shared sense of what they are?

Partnerships. Governments like this word. It connotes mutual respect and benefit. But Aboriginal people and communities are often wary, with good reason. Can we call it a partnership if one “partner” reserves to itself all jurisdiction, all authority over expenditures, all discretion to dispense or withhold funds at levels it alone sets?

Status Indian. Ask a status Indian about the material and political significance of those two words. Ask a non-status Indian — maybe a Métis too. The words lie at the core of the Indian Act’s legal and policy regime. They still divide Aboriginal families and communities. These two words brought into existence a single, ostensibly uniform population to count and administer.

Too often, we fall into the kind of language George Orwell described in his 1946essay Politics and the English Language. It obscures rather than expresses, obstructs clear thought, and threatens to leave us stranded in politicized terrain. If our talking is to improve things, we’ll need to revisit our words. I’ll speak here to the settler side.

First, non-Aboriginal Canadians need to realize that some of our words — seemingly innocent ones like join the mainstream or integrate — trace back in a direct historical line to older, deadlier ones that lay at the core of Indian policy.Assimilate. Enfranchise. Civilize. Extinguish. Words like these were conceived as weapons for a war we say we no longer wish to fight. They provoke and inflame. We need simply to check them at the door, including their more polite iterations.

Second, we — especially our governments — need to begin using language honestly. It’s tempting to invoke words like reconciliation or partnership in describing proposals involving Aboriginal people, especially those that defy our everyday understanding of the terms. But this habit undermines trust and clarity. It squanders any prospect of building up a store of shared language.

But third: is this not a crucial purpose of dialogue in the first place? To reach a shared understanding of the language we use to define our relationship? Learning that First Nations people view the treaties differently from the settler society is a start — but only a start. Think of the progress we could make on implementing the treaties if we could ultimately, if slowly, achieve a rapprochement on what they are.

It will be hard to revisit our words. It requires us to expose, even abandon, old positions without fully knowing what lies on the other side. But if we really want to make progress, we’ll need to make the effort.

Jodi Bruhn is a former federal public servant with Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. She is director of Stratéjuste Canada, a consulting firm specializing in indigenous/Crown relations.