Published on April 3, 2009 in: Intercontinental Cry


Some people would have us believe that Indigenous People need a revolution in individual rights. That they need to be able to enjoy the secular wonders of colonial society - and know that, after 500 years of being kept face down as a people, they can finally have a chance to live “the good life”.

Indigenous People just can’t have that sort of life right now, we are told by these same people, because of “collective rights”. A recent article by Joseph Quesnel attempts to explain.

The problem, according to Quesnel, is that “the collective wields power” over individuals, preventing them from exercising their so-called “principal rights”. So instead of being able to fill out a human rights complaint or buy a brand new house, Indigenous People are forced to comply to the whims of “the collective” — which is to say, the Band Council government that control it.

“First Nation governments wield extraordinary power in terms of housing, employment, health and social assistance that can make the people fear government, rather than the other way around. Individuals do not possess their own property, so the collective wields power over their lives,” says Quesnel.

While it’s true that Band Councils have a strong hold on community affairs, a revolution in Individual rights is a poor and diluted way to address it.

After all, the problem is not with “the collective” as if it’s some “tyrannical beast” that we must “cut down to liberate ourselves from its clutches”. The problem is with individual leaders (Chiefs and Councils), who are federal government employees, and those “the far away few” (Canadian politicians) who provide them with their money and power to do with as they see fit…. and of course, the new government policies and accountability measures to which they themselves are not accountable.

For the record, there is absolutely no problem with collective rights. Not even when it comes to the rights of individuals, which are not “gobbled up” by the monster as Quesnel asserts.

Quite the contrasty, individual rights are enshrined, and far more than any system where individual rights take precedent over collective rights, simply because individuals in a collective setting are prevented from holding any kind of special treatment or favor.

The same cannot be said in a place like Canada, especially because individual rights are in effect privileges that encourage competition over equal access.

It is in effect a no-holds-barred, “All for None” social system that individuals to undermine and profit beyond the means others: to buy a house or a thousand houses, destroy an apartment block for the 2010 Olympics; or hire a military force to invade a peaceful indigenous community and then kill them.

And of course, in a place like Canada, these privileges can be taken away at any moment. There is nothing to protect individual rights beyond the narrow-minded assumption that they are “a given.” Just look at how easily the Bush administration undermined individual rights, and how powerless we were to stop it from happening.

That could never happen in a community that has its collective rights intact.

Why else do Elders speak of a time when there was ZERO poverty and homelessness, ZERO crime and disease, ZERO suicide, ZERO rape and abuse of women and children? This memory is not a random coincidence, but the result of an effective, community-based system of rights.

There was also ZERO abuse of power, because leadership was a branch of the community. Not an instrument to exploit it. Leaders simply couldn’t get away with anything unless the community was willing to tolerate it. And if leaders needed to be pulled back into the community to heal, or banished from the community to heal themselves, it was done so without any complications.

Today we laugh at banishment, don’t we? Think to ourselves, “well I’d just move to Toronto.” At the same time, nearly every reserve is faced with a spectrum of problems so great that cultural extinction isn’t so far off. It’s too much for any one person to bare.

Quesnel would have us believe that it’s all the result of a “tyrannical scourge:” a system of rights we developed through practical experience over thousands of years, rather than a very specific set of colonial polices and selected individuals who forget what it’s like to be a part of something greater than their own self-interests.

Do we really lack freedom because we can’t buy our own home? Do we really lack justice because we can’t file a human right complaint?

Or do we need to strengthen our communities, come together and respond to those individuals and those polices that have collectively undermined us for centuries?


© 2009 Intercontinental Cry



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