Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canada's third solitude

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Someone will have to write a new defining Canadian novel, but this time it will be called Three Solitudes. The new story would add a third "old race" that lives its "separate legend" side by side with the other two.

Weeks of rising tension between aboriginal groups and the federal government forced a shotgun meeting on Friday, but there were no realistic expectations a magic solution would be signed, sealed and delivered following the four-hour sit-down with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Except, that is, on the part of many aboriginals whose anger and frustration is so deep, they won't take no for an answer.

The problem is it's not clear to what they will say yes, unless it involves immediate, fundamental change on their terms.

If only it were that simple.

Even when they were granted a meeting with the prime minister, some aboriginals decided it wasn't enough, either because the Governor General wasn't there or because it wasn't held in a location of their choosing.

Chief Theresa Spence refused to end her liquids-only diet, while the Idle No More movement spread out across Canada, blocking streets and rail lines to protest their continuing unhappiness. They didn't even wait for Friday's meeting to end before ramping up their threat to bring the Canadian economy to a halt.

Manitoba Justice Murray Sinclair, meanwhile, emerged as a voice of moderation, urging Chief Spence and the other fasters to start eating again and rejoin the debate. She risks looking foolish if she keeps fasting, particularly after accepting an invitation to visit Gov.-Gen. David Johnston Friday night.

Justice Sinclair, who is also head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said he's been moved by the Idle No More movement, and so have thousands of ordinary Canadians.

Many people understand and empathize with aboriginal suffering and their feeling of historic humiliation, but unlike dictatorships, there are limits to the ability of a democracy to reverse a problem that has been festering for 400 years.

The Governor General, for example, is only a symbolic figure as the Queen's representative in Canada, and it would be a violation of the country's democratic tradition if he were expected to intervene in the dispute in a meaningful way.

When aboriginals met with the prime minister in Ottawa, they were in the right place with the right person.

Chief Spence and the Idle movement say they want change, but some aboriginals and their chiefs actually support different positions, including the government's plans to make it easier for reserves to lease land for economic development. The fact is aboriginals are not a homogenous group with a single strain of thought.

As in the rest of society, there are differences of opinion, and these also need to be accommodated and considered.

Other bands have successfully negotiated new land arrangements with the federal government under Mr. Harper, who has actually supported the aboriginal drive for economic and political independence.

His only condition is that it must be incremental and gradual because sweeping changes are too complex and impractical, and laced with minefields.

The Indian Act, for example, which governs large swaths of aboriginal life and which just about everyone agrees is loathsome, cannot be wiped away in one fell swoop and without more consultation.

It has taken too long for Canada to come to grips with the injustice suffered by aboriginal people. Canadian governments only began seriously considering the idea of aboriginal reform some 50 years ago, and the ideas, including a proposal that amounted to assimilation, have sometimes been poorly conceived.

The level of understanding, today, however, is more informed. It may be painfully slow, but it is real.

As a character in Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes said: "Everything is blooming most recklessly."

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 12, 2013 A14

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