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  • Reconsiderations of Reconciliation and Recognition
  • Michael McCrossan (bio)

INDIGENOUS AND NON-INDIGENOUS SCHOLARS HAVE LONG RECOGNIZED the steadfast existence of structural and ideological barriers undermining the recognition of Indigenous rights – especially pre-existing rights to land and governance. Indigenous legal scholars, for instance, have regularly drawn attention to the intricate connection between Canadian law and colonialism, particularly the manner in which violence continues to be deployed through the Canadian legal system in relation to Indigenous women and alternate relationships to land.1 More recently, in this current era of rights "recognition" and "reconciliation" with Indigenous populations, scholars in such disparate fields as anthropology and political theory have offered incisive accounts of how liberal discourses of recognition and reconciliation have served to undercut Indigenous claims and sustain structures of domination by reconfiguring and reproducing settler-colonial assemblages of power – ultimately drawing Indigenous peoples further into the ambit of the state.2 Given the presumed efficacy and prominence of discourses of reconciliation in Canada today, such concerns continue to resonate.

Indeed, the four texts reviewed in this essay not only continue to "unsettle" prominent national mythologies and conventional legal conceptions but also trace strategies of resistance and possibilities for establishing decolonial relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples: Arthur [End Page 159] Manuel's Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-Up Call, Manuel's The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering the Land and Rebuilding the Economy, John Borrows's Freedom and Indigenous Constitutionalism, and John Borrows and Michael Coyle's The Right Relationship: Reimagining the Implementation of Historical Treaties.3 While these texts are similarly critical of Canadian institutional structures and the discourses of reconciliation prevalent in both the legal and political realms, they are not necessarily so quick to discount the significance of constitutional recognition for Indigenous peoples. In this regard, by canvasing strategies of resistance, critiquing predominant legal falsehoods and mythologies, and highlighting constitutional mechanisms for renewing relationships grounded within Indigenous legal traditions, these works not only offer significant insights for activists, academics, and policy practitioners, but also for general readers and students who may wish to enrich their understanding of the history of colonial relations shaping the development of the Canadian state.

Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-Up Call, written by the late Arthur Manuel, is a powerful condemnation of governmental policy and legal doctrines (such as the doctrine of discovery) that have regularly been utilized to dispossess Indigenous peoples of their lands. Manuel, who for years was a leading figure and activist within Indigenous movements at both the international and domestic levels, situates his own early protest activities within a broader history of Indigenous resistance to Canadian settler colonialism. In this regard, the book stands as a potent reminder that Indigenous peoples have never been "idle" but have continually resisted the dispossession of their lands and rights to governance.

While Manuel's book briefly charts some early forms of Indigenous resistance and petitions to government by members of Manuel's nation (the [End Page 160] Secwepemc Nation) that condemn the territorial encroachments of settlers in the early 20th century, the bulk of the book concerns a variety of instances of resistance stretching from the late 1960s to the present. This book, to a large extent, is a chronicle of how, in the face of successful resistance against Pierre Trudeau's White Paper, the overarching goals of assimilation and elimination of Indigenous rights have instead stubbornly persisted and continued to manifest within governmental policy. It is ultimately, however, the "mass mobilization of the people … outside the narrow bounds of parliamentary procedure and official negotiating tables" that will lead to increased governmental recognition of Indigenous rights.4 The grassroots mobilization of Indigenous peoples against Pierre Trudeau's efforts at constitutional patriation in the 1980s is used to demonstrate this point.

Drawing upon the history of the "Constitution Express," whereby more than 1,000 Indigenous grassroots activists and supporters chartered trains from Vancouver to Ottawa to increase support for protecting and entrenching Indigenous rights (as well as mobilization efforts throughout Europe), Manuel argues that it was largely due to the grassroots mobilization of people that Aboriginal rights were "recognized and affirmed" in Section 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982. In particular, he argues...


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pp. 159-169
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