© 1992 Karen Selick
 The Inherent Questions in Self-Government
An edited version of this article first appeared in the May, 1992 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


 The Inherent Questions in Self-Government

 "An inherent right to self-government"--what a sizzling expression Canada's native leaders have hit upon.  It raises in my mind several philosophical questions of vital importance.  Unfortunately, nobody else ever seems to discuss them.

One involves the argument that neither our present-day natives nor their ancestors ever surrendered their sovereignty.  This historical justification seems to have satisfied many politicians as grounds for supporting native self-rule.  I wonder: could this reasoning be applied to non-natives?

Frankly, I don't recall ever surrendering my sovereignty either.  I was never asked whether I accepted the rule of federal, provincial or municipal governments over me.  I was simply born here, like a Mohawk or an Inuit, and successive groups of people calling themselves the government have taken it upon themselves to claim that they rule me.  The legitimacy of that claim has long been a rather sore spot with me.

Can the surrender of my sovereignty be inferred from the fact that I have voted in elections?  In two decades of enfranchisement, my record has remained unblemished:  I have never voted for the winning candidate or party in any election--federal, provincial or municipal.  Most of the time, I've spoiled my ballot.  That can hardly be construed as an endorsement of the rules that the winners have imposed upon me.  In any event, voting apparently isn't seen by native leaders as disqualifying them from claiming sovereignty.

Did my ancestors give up their sovereignty--and mine--by coming to this country?  The most they can reasonably be said to have consented to were the laws in effect at the time they arrived.  That was before World War I, when Canada was a very different place from what it is today.  There was no income tax, no deficit and no welfare state.

Besides, even if my ancestors did consent to be governed, am I necessarily stuck with their decision?  It sounds sort of like selling your descendants into slavery.  If the right to self-government is truly inherent, as opposed to inherited, then each of us should get a fresh allotment of it at birth.  It shouldn't matter what your grandfather did with his.

So I wonder--if the natives succeed in implementing self-government, could I assemble a coalition of non-native malcontents who, like me, had never surrendered their sovereignty, and demand the right to self-government too?

This question leads straight into a second vital but much neglected issue.  What is the basic unit of "self" in the expression "self-government?"  How large does your group have to be before it can be a government unto itself?  In fact, do you have to be part of a group at all? 

In everything I've read about native self-government, the term has always been used to denote the intended subjugation of individual aboriginals to some new form of group control. 

This may seem like a very attractive proposition to native politicians, who will transmute from small fish in a big pond into big fish in a small one.  However, for the unpretentious, apolitical native who just minds his own business, this so-called sovereignty doesn't sound very different from what he's got now.  He'll still be piranha food whichever way things go. 

Native women's groups have certainly made it clear that this is one of their fears.
 If natives want to opt out of the Canadian system of education, health care, old age security, culture and so on (a very understandable sentiment), why do they necessarily have to opt in to the native version of these collectivist programs?  Why can't each individual be given the option to forego the alleged benefits of these various programs, in exchange for being relieved of the corresponding burdens?

This is a particularly important issue in view of the recent lawsuit brought by a Coast Salish Indian against seven other members of that tribe.  The plaintiff David Thomas charged that he had been forcibly confined and repeatedly assaulted for 4 days as part of an ancient "spirit-dancing" ritual.  He said he had not been interested in learning about his people's culture and had never consented to participating in the ceremony.

The lawyer for six of the defendants argued that the natives had a "collective right" to engage in the ceremony, apparently without regard to Mr. Thomas' views.  When the court ruled otherwise, awarding the plaintiff $12,000 in damages plus costs, the press reported that some native leaders were angered.  They felt that the collective rights of the native community should have prevailed over the individual rights of that one particular native. 

I find it astonishing that people who protest--quite rightly--against genocide or brutality committed against them nevertheless feel entitled to commit acts of brutality against one of their own number; that people who complain that their views are ignored because they are a minority nevertheless feel perfectly free to override the views of that tiniest minority, the individual.

This is a perfect opportunity for all of us, natives and non-natives alike, to explore that most crucial of issues: the limits of government, regardless of who or how many are governed.


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