Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Producing Legitimacy: Reconciliation and the Negotiation of Aboriginal Rights in Canada./Produire Une Legitimite: Reconciliation et Negociation Des Droits Des Aborigenes Au Canada

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Producing Legitimacy: Reconciliation and the Negotiation of Aboriginal Rights in Canada./Produire Une Legitimite: Reconciliation et Negociation Des Droits Des Aborigenes Au Canada

Article excerpt

  This treaty is about reconciliation and renewal ... It demonstrates
  the maturity of our nation as we move forward with respect for, and in
  harmony with, the aboriginal people who preceded us in this great
  land.
  Robert Nault, Minister of Indian Affairs, Senate Committee on
  Aboriginal Affairs, 2000

Anthropologists are among a growing number of scholars who have remarked on the heightened attention to historical wrongdoing that characterizes our present moment (Barkan 2000; Sundar 2004; Trouillot 2000: 173; Wilson 2001). Truth and reconciliation commissions, trials, state apologies, and various forms of commemoration, restitution, and reparation are both increasingly common and increasingly the focus of academic analysis. In Canada, governments and courts are faced with compelling claims by aboriginal people of historical wrongdoing in the forms of stolen lands, unrecognized rights, and forced assimilation. While Canada has not undergone a reconciliation process with the aboriginal people who inhabit its borders, reconciliation is now part of the conversation about aboriginal issues in a number of significant ways. In 1998 the Canadian government issued a Statement of Reconciliation in which it expressed regret for past policies that harmed aboriginal people, including suppressing aboriginal languages and cultures, placing aboriginal children in residential schools where they were often physically abused, and dispossessing aboriginal peoples of their lands. (1) Reconciliation is also appearing in the language of land claims settlements, in Supreme Court cases on aboriginal rights, and in policy initiatives addressing the legacy of colonial dispossession and discrimination that shapes life in aboriginal communities today.

In this article I address the meanings and possibilities of reconciliation in Canada in relation to the Nisga'a treaty. The Nisga'a treaty is a land claims and self-government agreement that settles the extent of the Nisga'a Nation's territory and jurisdiction in the Nass River Valley. The Nisga'a, the provincial government of British Columbia, and the federal government of Canada negotiated this treaty over the course of two decades, finally agreeing to its terms and conditions in 1998. Before the treaty the Nisga'a were classified as a series of Indian bands. They were entitled to a handful of small reserves held in trust by the federal government and lived under the regulatory apparatus of the federal Indian Act. The treaty means the Nisga'a Nation now owns 2,000 square kilometres of land; they also have much greater decision-making powers and governing jurisdiction because the treaty removes them from the Indian Act's legal purview. (2) While most people who worked on the treaty did not initially frame it as a form of reconciliation, by the late 1990s politicians and treaty-negotiators increasingly used reconciliation to characterize the treaty and its effects. During my research I heard federal, provincial, and Nisga'a spokespersons call the treaty a symbol of 'hope and reconciliation', (3) a'historic reconciliation', (4) an 'important step toward reconciliation and the dream of true equality', (5) an attempt 'to correct the wrongdoings' of the past, (6) and a 'balanced and sensible reconciliation of issues that have frustrated and divided British Columbians for more than a century'. (7)

There are two primary senses of reconciliation that characterize discussion about the Nisga'a treaty. One is a broad sense of reconciliation linked with correcting the mistakes of the past and producing a new, more harmonious relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people. Building on scholarly work that theorizes reconciliation talk as a form of political legitimation and a condition of late modernity, I argue that in Canada, reconciliation talk in this broad sense produces political legitimation by emphasizing modernist themes and a modern temporality, involving the progressive movement away from the past into an improved future built upon enlightenment values (Huyssen 2000; Povinelli 1998; Wilson 2001). …

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