FIRST NATIONS RESERVES: CANADA’S NATIONAL SYSTEM OF HARMFUL, ILLIBERAL GATED COMMUNITIES

 When Indians leave the reserve, they are taking the first step to complete freedom. The reserve was a trap set up in the 19th Century which continues to snap at the heels of the natives… Young people should be encouraged to leave the reserve as early as possible, and they should be helped to fit into the Canadian way of life. They don’t have to give up their culture; if they wish to maintain their culture off the reserve, they can probably more easily do so by living in better surroundings. -Indigenous AFN Founder, activist, writer, lawyer, William Wuttunee, 1971 [i]


First Nations reserves represent civilizational partitioning and are thus inherently illiberal and civically unhealthy.

The typical “gated communities” that we increasingly see in upper income enclaves in North American urban areas, while they have a certain superficial appeal, are actually a symbol of a civic nation in decline. To the extent that these communities represent increased privacy and security for their residents, they also represent a decrease in that shared and collective social living experience that is essential for the maintenance of a united and engaged citizenry and the stronger and more vital democracy that results from that.

In Indigenous writer Bob Joseph’s 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act[ii]the author recounts Prime Minister Trudeau’s comments after he was forced to withdraw his 1969 White Paper recommending the repeal of the Indian Act and the eventual abolition of Indian reserves:

“We’ll keep them in the ghetto as long as they want.”

A Canadian First Nation reserve is Canada’s poor-man’s gated community- a form of voluntary ghetto – where the pervading spirit is one of inertia and dependency, and the essential qualification for belonging, and the essential reason why “outsiders” i.e. the rest of Canadians, are implicitly told, “you don’t belong here,” is race, rather than wealth.

To merely write this undeniably true statement and then read it makes one recoil in embarrassment and gloom from the sheer backwardness and illiberality represented by it. One gets a brief hint of what it must have been like seventy-five years ago for Jews to have been banned from membership in certain clubs- for American blacks to have been refused entry into so many places- for Canadian Indigenous people themselves to have been discriminated against.

First Nations reserve residents live an illiberal and constrained existence.

They’re constrained mentally and in spirit by what the reserve represents: a dispiriting recent past, social and economic stagnation and isolation, third world living conditions, a form of legal segregation, rates of violence far higher than in non-Indigenous communities, intra-reserve sexual abuse, passivity and discouragement caused by constant dependency- lives lived “too much at large, unmolded by the pressure of obligation.”[iii] 

They’re constrained by the diminishment of their sense of individual agency and autonomy caused by an essentially undemocratic governance system and by a lack of traditional legal and property rights- (“Give a man land and legal rights: only then will he be a man!”)[iv].

They’re constrained by a suffocating ethos of backward-looking, race-obsessed, “blood and soil” collectivism, possessing, like nationalism, no universal values, aesthetic or ethical, where the individual’s sense of identity becomes too subsumed with that of the collective; an ethos that even excludes from the reserves the application of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This imposes a deadly, suppressing uniformity on talent and initiative.

They’re constrained by their “oppressor/oppressed” past and present existence story in which the current Indigenous and non-Indigenous elites’ mandatory orthodoxy has trapped them. Their so-called oppressors- white “settlors/colonialists”- having been clearly and unquestionably defined, their “oppression” secures their inherent and permanent blamelessness and virtue: blameless virtue which, as only children are truly innocent, infantilizes them and eschews any social or political obligations on their part to Canadian society as a whole.

Writer/moralist David Brooks describes this debilitating phenomenon[v] as follows:

What is the moral order today? Not so much the reign of right-thinking people as that of the right-suffering, the cult of everyday despair. I suffer therefore I am worthy. Suffering is analogous to baptism, a dubbing that inducts us into the order of a higher humanity, hoisting us above our peers.

The crooked timber school of humanity says the line between good and evil runs through each person and we fight injustice on the basis of our common humanity. The oppressor/oppressed morality says the line runs between tribes. 

They’re constrained by being psychologically kneecapped by their leaders who constantly tell them: “You’re an Indigenous person first, and, maybe, a Canadian second.”

There’s a terrible psychological and social price to be paid for all these “pathologies of exclusion”[vi]– this oppressive narrowness- this Indigenous elites-willed, unnatural divorce from the life of mainstream Canadian society. 

With their leaders’ disgraceful inability to transcend this distorted and unhealthy physical and psychological reality- or even to try in any realistic way to lead their peoples out of it- they suffer the general consequence of feeling “different” from the rest of Canadians- of feeling unable to contribute meaningfully to the life of modern Canada except, by relying on false historical-racial tropes and bad laws, in parasitical fashion, hitching onto non-Indigenous, commercial wagons. This can never be healthy or confidence-building.

With their old pre-contact culture gone, and their present one based mainly on appropriations and imitations of all aspects of modern Euro-Canadian culture, they will remain, as peoples, confused and static- perpetual stepchildren unsure of their place in the Canadian family- condemned by their leaders to be wallflowers at the dance that is modern Canada- with little sense of a vital, maturing, free-agency growth process of their own happening.

In the chapter of Ruffled Feathers (see note above) aptly titled Reservation Exiles William Wuttunee, confirming the immediately above, writes of the destructive nature of reserves:

Designed to take Indians away from their natural habitat and to segregate them on small parcels of land so that the surrounding areas would be safe for settlers, they have caused nothing but hardship to their inhabitants, and the reserves have become cemeteries of once-brave tribes…. While the rest of the country progressed into the 20th century, the Indians remained behind… The Indians suffered quietly from malnutrition and disease in primeval silence and turned the reservations into permanent havens away from the white man…The exile which was imposed on Indians by treaty has turned itself into a voluntary exile. Reservations are now completely out of date. We no longer need reservations; their function has changed, and it is time to change them.

(Mr.  Wuttunee recommended that they be turned into forms of municipalities.)

Professor Tom Flanagan wisely and compassionately wrote in his seminal book First Nations? Second Thoughts[vii]:

The aboriginal orthodoxy encourages aboriginal people to withdraw into themselves, into their own “First Nations”, under their own “self-governments”, on their own “traditional lands”, within their own “aboriginal economies”. Yet this is the wrong direction if the goal is widespread individual independence and prosperity for aboriginal people. Under the policy of withdrawal, the political and professional elites will do well for themselves as they manage the aboriginal enclaves, but the majority will be worse off than ever. In order to become self-supporting and get beyond the social pathologies that are ruining their communities, aboriginal people need to acquire the skills and attitudes that bring success in a liberal society, political democracy and market economy. Call it assimilation, call it integration, call it adaptation, call it whatever you want: it has to happen.

The Supreme Court of Canada has worsened this already terrible situation with its invention of the state-fracturing concept of “Aboriginal title”. Now, based on this, First Nations bands in non-treaty areas of Canada are claiming “mini” nation state status for themselves, involving their laws taking priority over Canadian law. This, along with the Trudeau government’s equally state-fracturing and racially divisive UNDRIP, is bringing about the creation of even more harmful, race-based, essentially private, mentally very gated, quasi-independent physical spaces – more and larger race-based, exclusionary, Indigenous-controlled fiefdoms, (all, of course, backstopped by the beleaguered Canadian taxpayer.)

These additional, harmful legal realities are only causing the terrible social problems and unconscionable psychological damage besetting reserve-based Indigenous Canadians to increase.

Physical separation exerts an alienating influence. When people are artificially separated, their sense of imagined differences grows.

On the other hand, personal contact- living together under the same set of laws- fosters belief, understanding and trust in one another.

New York Times writer/moralist David Brooks[viii]:

By reducing inequalities, by integrating daily life, we can eventually make our common humanity more salient and our racial difference less so…It is everyone’s responsibility to make racial diversity a creative spark and not a source of permanent hostility. 

If Canadians of all races and ethnic backgrounds are encouraged by how we are structurally and socially organized to go to school and live and work in proximity to one another, then this knocks down walls of fear, ignorance and incomprehension that otherwise exist – that otherwise divide us and weaken our social and political fabric.

Public spaces – whether physical, like towns and cities – whether more a combination of the physical and the abstract, like public transit, passenger trains, public schools or a public health care system – or whether more purely abstract, like our national public television and radio network, are all essential for the maintenance of the higher, more civilized and humane civil society Canada has always aspired to be.

To the extent that we reduce those public spaces we all share – to the extent that we relentlessly privatize them, or, in the case of First Nations reserves and Aboriginal title creations, to the extent that we fail to encourage these already essentially private, exclusionary, race-based spaces to eventually cease to be so – we weaken our democracy, the vibrancy of our culture, and the strength of our civil society.

And we fail to offer to their physically and mentally “gated” inhabitants the full opportunities and benefits that result from them sharing with all the rest of Canadians, as true equals, the rich entirety of the rainbow-colored, universalist, 21st century space we are privileged to call Canada.

Peter Best

December 31, 2023


[i] From his book, Ruffled Feathers, Bell Book Ltd. Calgary, 1971 (out of print)

[ii] Indigenous Relations Press, 2018

[iii] A phrase from George Eliot’s brilliant novel about antisemitism and the beginnings of the Zionist movement in England, Daniel Deronda.

[iv] From The Discovery of Chance- The Life and thought of Alexander Herzen, by Aileen M. Kelly, Harvard University Press, 2016.The statement is Herzen’s cry of support for the abolition of Russian feudalism and the hoped-for, resulting transformation of the trampled psyche of the Russian peasant class.

[v] From his article, The Retreat to Tribalism, The New York Times, January 1st, 2018

[vi] From Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America, Vintage International, 2005, this brilliant writer referring to Jewish ghettoes.

[vii] McGill-Queens University Press, 2005

[viii] From his article, Democrats Go For the Jugular (Their Own), The New York Times, January 22, 2018

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