Jack D. Forbes, a professor in the Native American Studies Program at the University of California-Davis, is a Powhatan-Delaware. His extensive writings include Columbus and other Cannibals, Africans and Native Americans, and Only Approved Indians, as well as other books and articles. Permission to reprint this commentary from his column, Native Intelligence, is gratefully acknowledged.
The French-speaking Quebec citizens are considering steps to possibly separate from Canada. Tragically their desire to separate and to establish French language and culture as supreme within the province of Quebec, without granting a similar right of separation to indigenous Canadians, is a continuation of the old tradition of Eurocentric colonialism, whether of the old French or the Anglo varieties. The Inuit and Cree peoples living within the current boundaries of Quebec are making it very clear that they do not wish to be part of a separate Quebec and that they will choose to remain in Canada. The French Canadians of Quebec picture themselves as an embattled nationality, oppressed by Anglo-Canada. They are blind, however, to the fact that the Original Canadians have been far more oppressed than have the Quebec's and that French colonialism with its near worship of a European language can be very oppressive to speakers of original North American languages.
Certainly, the Native Peoples of Canada possess every bit as much of a right to self-determination as do the French-speaking people. The boundaries of Quebec are the end result of a process of colonialism and are quite arbitrary. They were created by Anglo-Canada and can be challenged by both the indigenous people and the other provinces of Canada. In any case, any thinking person must admit that an Original Canadian has just as many inherent rights to self-realization as does a speaker of a European tongue.
But there is another way. I have long hoped that Canadians of all cultures would come to see that they can follow a different model, the model of Switzerland, where the German, Swiss Roman (French), Italian, and Romansch-speaking populations all have an equal dignity and right of cultural and linguistic autonomy . Moreover, the various dialects of German, such as Bernese, have thousands of works published therein and are freely spoken. Switzerland is, in fact, the Confederation of Helvetia, and a great deal of local autonomy exists in each province.
Perhaps it is out of place for a Native North American from the United States to speak up about Canada's future. But I believe I have that right because what effects Canada and especially the Original Canadians will directly affect all of us Natives. If a war breaks out over the separation of Quebec and if Quebec attempts to rule the Crees and Inuits by force it will directly affect all of us. On the other hand if Canada is able to develop a new kind of federated society where different ethnic groups and regions can have genuine autonomy, that well may serve as a beacon light of hope for all of us who seek a greater measure of self-realization.
Canada should become so attractive to Native People that perhaps Greenland and even Alaska might eventually wish to unify with a new Canada. Isn't that worth talking about ?
My hope for Canada is that the Euro-Canadians can give up their foolish feelings of cultural superiority and their greed for aboriginal resources long enough to imagine what a truly democratic society might be like. I would suggest that each aboriginal people, however they define themselves, be able to organize a province of their own, a republic if you will. Then each of these republics would belong to a Union of Canada and each would have its own legal language as well as secondary languages. For example, the various Mohawk and other Iroquois people might wish to form their own member republic, even though separated by parts of Ontario and Quebec. Similarly, the Ojibway communities could form a unified republic which might consist in large parts of western Ontario as well as detached areas elsewhere. The Cree peoples might wish to from a very large republic running from northern Alberta to Labrador and including all Cree-speaking Metis groups as well as so-called Status Indians. Needless to say the Inuit people of the north should have a republic, if they wish, including all of their historic territory. The Tinneh peoples should also have a very large republic.
This plan should also accommodate the desires of French Canadians, not only of Quebec, but also of other provinces or republics. I use the term republic because it s an old, respectable term for any kind of an autonomous political unit. It does not imply total independence.
Canada, it seems to me, has a chance to do something truly exciting. It has a chance to abandon European colonialism and to stop imitating the Native policy of the United States . It has a chance to do something which will give hope to all indigenous people and will also be attractive to neighboring areas who are tired of the growing centralism and militarism of the United States. It can serve as a model for all of the multi-ethnic states of the Americas including Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala and many others.
Perhaps in the distant future a Union of Canada of the kind I propose might even be able to allow the Blackfeet, the Salish, the Assiniboine-Stonies, and other Original North Americans to be unified across the existing US-Canadian boundary. Who knows?
What I am asking for is, in brief, nothing more than action based on that little but potent word: RESPECT. Should not all of us respect each other and does that not require that we extend to each other what we want for ourselves ? There can be no exceptions unless hypocrisy is to be our downfall. The lack of mutual respect leads to Bosnias , sooner or later.