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Citizens Plus: Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian State

by Alan C. Cairns

Alan C. Cairns, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo and a scholar of federalism, the Constitution, and the Charter, has completed a remarkable and well-researched study that adds a measure of sanity to the often histrionic debate over aboriginal rights and redresses in Canada.

The author reviews major research, academic analyses, and key documents (including the 1969 White Paper and the 1996 report from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples) to offer a thorough discussion of the current and historical relationship between government and aboriginal peoples. He also discusses the main ideological platforms that compose government policy and aboriginal self-government strategy. Cairns argues that these paradigms – assimilation (on the government side) and parallelism (on the aboriginal side) – will not heal the fractious relationship between Canadians and aboriginal people.

The author dismisses the government’s attempts to assimilate aboriginal people into the dominant Canadian society by arguing that a society can be made up of smaller communities invested in a larger common purpose characterized by universal values such as human rights and equity. But Cairns says the aboriginal insistence on special recognition and powers that amount to a third order of government are not the way to achieve that society. Parallelism, he says, stresses a “permanence of difference” that does not foster a common civic identity, but instead pushes aboriginal peoples to the extreme on-reserve margins of society – thus Canadians do not recognize them as fellow citizens.

Cairns notes that 50% of the aboriginal population is urban-based and fully integrated into municipal, provincial, and federal systems. Yet the urban refugees (from paternalistic government policy and on-reserve dysfunction) are the people who force, by their very presence, real change within dominant structures and institutions.

Cairns makes a cogent and compelling argument for integration as the middle road between assimilation and parallelism. The aboriginal political elite may deride his views as imperialistic. But in this case, they shouldn’t be believed.