The Indigenous Voice in Canadian Politics: Franke Wilmer and the ‘Rule of Law’

Review Notes #3
Mathew Nelson (
PECO 5502; Other Worlds, Other Globalizations
Carleton University
April 22, 2007

In all his wit and wisdom, Eduardo Galeano (see 2000) has always tried to reveal rather than legislate - to expose the truth through the ironic subversion of taken-for-granted concepts like ‘globalization,’ ‘market economy,’ ‘flexibility,’ and ‘development’. Showing them to be mere fashionable ‘stage names’ for both colonial conquest and capitalist exploitation, he reveals the power dynamics of language, representation and the very process of naming, in and through the relationship of imperialism to discourse. Uncritical perspectives on globalization, on the other hand, often tout it as an inevitable modernizing process, endemic to the long slow march of progress in human advancement, knowledge, and technology. With no concern for questions of power and political economy, globalization is perceived to have desirable effects in constructing a rosy ‘global village.’ The benefits of increased competition in the new ‘global’ economy, coupled with new telecommunication technologies such as the Internet, are seen to link distant people through evolving, overlapping networks. Despite some inevitable and necessary bumps along the linear path of human reason and progress, for the most, the world-history is perceived to be, albeit slowly, realizing its ideal of a ‘universal humanity.’

What is obvious in such accounts, is that the ‘civilizing missions’ of Western imperialism, deemed necessary for the universality of human reason and progress, are not something of a long distant past. While it is often assumed that the horrors of imperialism belong to a by-gone era, the legacy and effects of colonialism remain highly relevant to indigenous people in contemporary global politics. Franke Wilmer’s (1993) The Indigenous Voice in World Politics sets out to make visible the “normative consensus” (27) in today’s international politics, that continues to spread Western influence through “global economic incorporation,” cultural imperialism and ethnocide, the “homogenization of global culture” (1). The continued exclusion and/or assimilation of indigenous peoples continues to thrive to the favour of an international system based on Eurocentric models of sovereignty, the norm of the ‘nation-state,’ and economic growth, industrialization and ‘development.’

While less explicit in its racist overtones, today’s globalizing imperative is, in many ways, continuous with the cultural imperialism of the nineteenth century. There persists, implicit in Octavio Paz’s notion of the “cult of progress,” basic assumptions that help organize the world, founded on a Euro-Western? legacy of casting the indigenous way of life as “morally inferior” (6), backwards, incompetent, uncivilized, and fundamentally, as “obstacles to progress” (21). The history of colonial-indigenous relations, as should be well known, is plagued by military violence, genocidal assimilation, residential schools, forced relocation, the subsequent placement of indigenous groups onto ‘reserves,’ and the designation of Native groups as child-like dependents or ‘wards’ entrusted to the colonial state. Today, the processes of globalization take on a less explicitly, “civilizing” tone, but the implications remain. The “civilizing mission” of economic globalization praises ‘development,’ free-markets, economic expansion, global capital, and resource exploitation at the hands of multi-national corporations (128). Native groups, around the entire world, continue to be forcefully removed in the name of economic development. In Canada specifically, one need only recall the James Bay agreements of the 1970s, where the local Cree population were expected to relocate, further fueling indigenous activism in both the national and international context.

Controlling and exploiting resources is endemic to the globalizing process, insofar as it is implicitly seen as necessary to the advancement of a modern, globalized ‘civilization.’ Forced development, simply put, is damaging to local indigenous communities who may have a particular, sustainable, “economic resource base.” (123). Encroachment disrupts pre-existing eco-systems, and destroys traditional ways of life, both culturally, and with respect to socio-economic relationships. Because indigenous groups face negative consequences to this type of land appropriation, their failure to adjust to externally imposed standards, is quite often used as further evidence of their ‘backwardness,’ incivility, and moral inferiority. The implications for indigenous populations around the world are numerous: loss of economic well-being, destroyed cultural traditions, quality of life, loss of meaning and context, assimilation and/or marginalization/exclusion, the internalization of negative stereotypes, and frequently around the world, the violent use of state militaries.

Although the era of decolonization did much to help the growth of the “indigenous voice in world politics,” however the effects of centuries of European control remain largely intact (8). The rise of global-indigenous consciousness, UN and human rights discourse, land-treaty court victories, and widespread claims for “self-determination,” have helped accomplish many of the goals set forth by Aboriginal communities in their drive to decolonize, and self-govern. Oftentimes, however, a “modernizing elite” of a variety of members of the local indigenous sector are themselves employed to carry out administrative-state duties, under a guise of supposed legitimacy (99). Despite these and other drawbacks, however, in their global fight for self-determination, indigenous groups continue to form organizations, alliances, NGOs, and other varieties of resistance to modern-day colonial conquest.

A paradigm case for contemporary outlets of resistance to land-encroachment in the Canadian context is undoubtedly the Native protest in Caledonia, Ontario which began to receive widespread media attention in late February of this past year. The situation at Caledonia is typical of the type of economic imperialism that is occurring today under globalization, with many parallels to examples taken from Wilmer’s The Indigenous Voice in World Politics. Claimed by local Six Nations as properly native land, protestors near Caledonia at the Grand River Territory reserve, resisted land-development efforts of Henco Industries in their plan to develop a subdivision, Douglas Creek Estates.1 Despite attempting to use all available mainstream avenues of resistance, including the courts - to no avail - protestors began occupying the site, peacefully, by erecting tents, barricades, and other buildings.2 Local Caledonia residents - and the public consciousness of uncritical Canadians more generally - became increasingly hostile towards the efforts of the Six Nations, culminating in a tense standoff dominated by non-native residents demanding an end to the occupation.

Uninformed Canadians would rather continuously nullify subjected histories, to the favour of a vague ‘majority rules’ understanding of democracy, while Native groups themselves are told to ‘move on’ or ‘get over it.’ At the same time, court orders continue to be issued by Ontario judges, legally requiring Six Nations’ protestors to abandon their efforts. The use of legal means and ‘rule of law’ rhetoric is ironic in this respect, given the blatant disregard for both the content of the law that is constantly reinterpreted in favour of the state, and its unjust and negative effects on First Nations’ communities. Consequently, the Six Nations’ of Caledonia had no other alternative, then to peacefully occupy land that is rightfully theirs. Ironically, their resistance is taken, in Canadian popular consciousness, to be ‘un-Canadian,’ un-democratic, and illegal – despite the fact that native protestors and their allies are themselves, victims of an illegal violation of pre-colonial treaty agreements.3 As if First Nations are simply ‘special interest’ minorities, the social, economic, and political power imbalance is systematically ignored, creating what Hill calls “a world turned upside down,” where “the last become first and the first are last” (Hill in Smith 2002: 14). For Native activists to ‘work within the system’ makes no sense, when they are systemically disadvantaged in Canadian society.

The Six Nations occupation is seen to be uncivil, or alien to the democratic processes that unfold within ‘civil society.’ In this case, we should understand civil society to be, itself, a politically-charged concept that is internal to the project of ‘civilizing the world’ via implicit normative claims to civility, moral superiority, and progress. And the market, of course, is seen to be the liberal instrument of civilization. Those Canadians who insist on abstract principles of freedom and equality, it seems, do so only for themselves, with virtually no regard for the historical realities that have lead us to the present. There is a lengthy history in Canada of contrasting the progressiveness of the West against “the historyless character of indigenous cultures,” as groups that lack historical agency (Sahlins 1999: 2). Anthropological stereotypes aside, “victims of imperial capitalism neither become all alike nor just like us,” as Sahlins points out, because “surviving indigenous peoples aim to take cultural responsibility for what has been done to them” (1). If we dispel ourselves of the idea that indigenous cultures are gradually dying, so to it is necessary to account for the ways that aboriginal people have actively redefined their cultures amidst violent imperialist practices. Amidst global narratives and visions of Western domination, Sahlins (1999) critiques grand theories of global imperialist hegemony to the extent that he acknowledges that it is “not that there is no such domination, only that there is also other people’s lives” (6; my emphasis). Certainly, such global hegemony exists, but like Caledonia, so do the everyday struggles of millions of aboriginal people worldwide.

Unfortunately however, the tradition/change dichotomy still exists, especially in the context of Canadian courts, who have consistently defined the parameters of what constitutes aboriginal ‘culture,’ or ‘tradition.’ Ethnocentric judges search for evidence of an authentically pure, ‘pristine’ identity, or supposedly traditional way of life (as re-defined by the courts). In having to establish evidence of the existence of an ‘authentic’ pre-colonial practice, custom, or land occupancy, there is no room, in legal terms, for addressing aboriginal change and modernity. Further, modern economic practices of “late capitalism” are seen to be antithetical to the modes of life of “traditional” cultures. The reality of the intermingling of these two realms is neglected, for example, in cases such as R. v. Van der Peet, where the court used a “frozen rights” approach, placing aboriginal practices in “an historical time vault” (Berry 1997: 176; see also Murphy 2001; Asch and Bell 1994; and Thom 2001). Consequently, in denying the aboriginal rights to fish for the purposes of commercial exchange, a “food/commercial dichotomy” (1997: 175) is reinforced, and culture comes to be seen authentically ‘traditional’ and static, rather than necessarily dynamic.

As recent as 1991 in Delgamuukw v. B.C., Chief Justice McEachern?, utilizing a narrow legal positivist approach, reinstated Eurocentric assumptions concerning the dominance, neutrality, and universality of Western forms of positivism by refusing to admit both valuable anthropological evidence, and specific testimony from aboriginal oral histories. In existing prior to contact with supposedly ‘civilized’ Europeans, nomadic lifestyles where characterized as “primitive,” because they lacked various characteristics of modern, urban industrial “civilization” such as permanent land-based property, writing, the wheel, and the horse (Cruikshank 1992: 29). Through the lens of this evolutionary paradigm, it comes as little surprise that, in Part 2 of his summary judgment, McEachern? concluded, “there is no doubt, to quote Hobbs sic, that aboriginal life in the territory was, at best, ‘nasty, brutish and short’ …” (in 1992: 28). It is quite obvious in this case, that the ‘rule of law’ is an instrument of state-sponsored oppression, a form of legal colonialism aimed at assimilating First Nations’ resistance into Eurocentric norms and values. McEachern’s? deployment of the political theory of Hobbes in Delgamuukw, it seems to me, says more about the dark side of liberalism, than it does anything true about Native culture prior to European contact.


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[1] See (external link), “October 26, 2005.”

[2] See (external link), “February 28, 2006.”

[3] See (external link)