Indigenous Communities

The Equality Principle: A barrier to understanding Aboriginal peoples

Q&A with Bob Joseph, educational trainer on consulting with Aboriginal communities, Part 2

Editor’s Note: This is the second part in a series on working effectively with Aboriginal peoples, a workshop led by Bob Joseph. For part 1, click here.

Urban Systems: What challenges have you had to overcome in dealing with some of the perceptions that pervade this work?

Bob-Joseph_newSiteThumbBob Joseph: In Canada we really struggle with the equality principle — aren’t we all equal? Shouldn’t we all be treated the same? Why aren’t Aboriginal peoples like everybody else?

But as a country, constitutionally and legally, we have treated Aboriginal peoples differently. And we’re okay with that as a country because we’ve set it out in Section 35 of the Constitution Act. That’s the big challenge, the average, everyday person just doesn’t know a lot about the history and context. But once you get into it, it really starts to make sense about why the courts are weighing in.

Aboriginal peoples have legal interests unlike anyone else. They have legal rights to access fishery resources whereas the average Canadian maybe has a privilege to access fishery resources. There are some pretty fundamental differences that a lot of Canadians struggle with.

Can you explore some of those differences?

There is a cross-cultural communication aspect to this: Different people hear the same word differently. The best example is the Columbus story. It’s a cross-cultural communications classic. If you look at the U.S., they celebrate Columbus Day. It’s a huge celebration. On occasion, the American Indians will be protesting on Columbus Day. Just for the record, I don’t think they have anything against parades and celebrations, but they have issues with the language we’re using around Columbus Day. The language often used is that Christopher Columbus discovered the new world.

Some of the estimates we’ve seen based on random asset resources say that probably one fifth of the world’s population in 1492 was living in North and South America. That would be somewhere in the range of a hundred million people living in North and South America at the time that Columbus arrived. So if we change some of the language a little bit, we can change the whole conversation. Saying that Columbus discovered the new world obviously wouldn’t sit well if you’re one of the hundred million people who were already here. To them it’s not a new world. It’s new to Columbus but it’s not new to the people who were here. It’s as old as time itself and goes back to creation for Aboriginal peoples.

I always tell people to try and think about the impact their words will have and to see them from other people’s perspectives. It’s actually pretty high value personal growth work that way, that really puts people into a whole different headspace.

How can we put rights into perspective?

If you ask Canadians a general question like what do you think about human rights? They’d likely say, “That’s really important.” A disconnect happens when you ask them about special fishing rights in B.C.

These aren’t different questions, they’re just phrased differently. Aboriginal rights translate into human rights. The reason they’ve gone to all the trouble to get constitutionally protected Aboriginal rights is because they’re trying to hold onto cultural identity.

Consider an Italian person who came to Canada. They knew they were going to have to sign the Canadian contract and accept the responsibilities of being a good Canadian person. But they didn’t have to worry about the Italian land base. They didn’t have to worry about religion. They didn’t have to worry about the political institutions. All of those things still existed and still exist in other parts of the world for people of Italian descent.

The big difference between those people and the Nisga’a Nation is that for the Nisga’a, it happens in the Nass Valley or it doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. They have to figure out how they can be Nisga’a for as long as possible. There is no other cultural diaspora. If they lose it there, they’ve lost it everywhere. That’s what makes Aboriginal rights a fundamentally human rights issue.

Read part 3 in this series, Fielding uncomfortable questions in Aboriginal relations.

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