Review: That Was A Wow Question

It is an Ottawa ritual now that every cabinet minister must open public remarks with the phrase, “I acknowledge I am speaking to you today from the unceded territory of the Algonquin people.”

There is no context. The Minister of Small Engine Repair could be testifying on budget appropriations, but only after paying homage to the Algonquin.

What do those words even mean? Does Parliament Hill really belong to the Algonquin? If so, shouldn’t they just pay them for it?

If a cabinet minister “acknowledges” this is stolen land, does that carry any legal weight? Or is it a manipulative and self-serving deflection of anticipated criticism, like saying: “Some of my best friends are Jewish”?

Professor Peter Russell, acclaimed political scientist with the University of Toronto for more than a half-century, examines a similar question in Sovereignty: The Biography Of A Claim. Russell devotes a whole book to the meaning of the word “sovereignty.” It works. It is wry, fast-moving and instructive.

Russell recalls a 1974 meeting with the Dene Nation in Yellowknife. They opposed a federal pipeline and needed good advice. “What is sovereignty?” they asked. “How did the Queen get it over us?”

Sovereignty is an emptier word than people think – it is not mentioned in the Constitution, writes Russell – and the second question? “When I returned to Toronto I scurried over to the law school to ask my colleagues learned in the law for their answer to the second question. Wow, they said, that sure is a big question but we really don’t have a clue how the Queen established sovereignty over the Dene or any other Indigenous nation.”

“Like so many people the Dene were thinking of sovereignty as a thing that was just there and that they just had to live with,” writes Russell. “But sovereignty is not a fixed part of nature. It is a claim made by humans. The effectiveness of the claim depends on how well it is supported by coercive force.”

In the case of First Nations it was obtained by plain trickery, writes Russell. “And that is a polite way of answering the question,” he says. “Fraud is closer to what actually occurred.” Cabinet’s 19th century treaties with First Nations had “killer language.”

“In return for some upfront money and small annual payments of a few dollars to every man, woman and child, flags, medals, suits for the chiefs, sometimes fishnets and farming equipment plus some small parcels of their former homeland to be assigned to them by the queen or king as ‘reserves,’ the Native owners are purported to ‘cede, release, surrender and yield up’ all rights and privileges to all of their territory,” writes Russell.

The English in the age of empire absorbed the Algonquin just as they absorbed the Welsh, Irish and Scottish. “I discovered that sovereignty wasn’t a thing or a law but a claim,” writes Russell. “That discovery makes a world of difference because a claim can be resisted, a claim is only as good as its acceptance by others. In that sense it is a relational term.”

This last point is key. Sovereignty has no meaning unless it is backed by force and ethical judgment, and recognized by others as legitimate, writes Russell. “The claim to be effective must be recognized,” he says.

Sovereignty casts a bright light on platitudes that dominate official discourse on First Nations. The result is absorbing.

By Holly Doan

Sovereignty: The Biography of a Claim, by Peter H. Russell; University of Toronto Press; 192 pages; ISBN 9781-4875-09095; $19.47

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