Some people would have us believe that Indigenous People need a revolution in individual rights. That we need to be able to enjoy the secular wonders of colonial society; and know deep down that, after 500 years of being kept face down, we 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, 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 each and everyone of us from exercising our so-called “principal rights”. So instead of being able to fill out a human rights complaint or buy a brand new house, we are forced to comply to the whims of “the collective” — which is to say, the Band Council governments 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 “far away few” who provide them with their money and powers to do whatever they want (as long as the far away few approves).
For the record, there is nothing wrong with collective rights. Not even when it comes to the rights of individuals, which simply aren’t “gobbled up” by the monster as Quesnel asserts.
Quite the contrary, individual rights are enshrined by collective rights–perhaps, far more than any system where collective rights are dismissed–simply because individuals in a collective setting are treated equally. True collective rights prevent individuals from exploiting or receiving any kind of special treatment over another. That includes leaders.
The problem is really the “All for None” system of individual rights and the modern colonial framework that enables it. The very same framework that has been disabling, disenfranchising, impoverishing and obliterating Indigenous Nations on this continent since 1492.
And let’s not forget that, individual rights, can be taken away in an instant. There is nothing to protect these rights beyond the limited belief that they’re “a given.” Just look at how easily the Bush administration was able to undermine individual rights in the United States, and how powerless Americans were to stop it.
That could never happen in a community that has collective rights. 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? It’s not some random fantasy pulled out of thin air; but the result of an effective, community-based system of rights maintained by faith, ceremony and healthy relationships.
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 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 an entire spectrum of problems so great that cultural extinction really isn’t so far fetched. It’s certainly too much for any one person to bare.
Quesnel would have us believe that our suffering is 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 principles, polices and guardians of those principles and polices who’ve long forgotten 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 rights complaint?
Or do we need to strengthen our communities, return to our traditional ways, reinforce our collective rights; and confront those who want us to become like any other card-carrying Canadian.
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