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Public Reason and the Disempowerment of Aboriginal People in Canada*

  • Matthew Tomm

Aboriginal perspectives are often not viewed as persuasive or reasonable in contemporary political and legal discourses, and Aboriginal people are compelled to articulate their claims in the normative vocabulary of the majority. Many see this as an injustice. Part I of this essay argues that some incarnations of the idea of public justifiability, a cornerstone of political theory, provide a normative justification for that injustice. Part II argues that the idea is at work in the Canadian courts, even as judges attempt to create space for Aboriginal views. The ambivalent stance of the courts is explored through a case study.

Les perspectives autochtones sont souvent considérées comme peu convaincantes ou raisonnables au sein des discours politiques et légaux contemporains, obligeant les Autochtones à articuler leurs revendications à l’aide du vocabulaire normatif de la majorité. Plusieurs individus considèrent ce fait une injustice. En premier lieu, l’auteur soutient que certaines interprétations du concept de « justification publique », pierre angulaire de la théorie politique, viennent essentiellement justifier une telle injustice. En second lieu, l’auteur soutient que ce concept est présent dans les cours canadiennes, même aux moments où les juges essaient de créer un espace pour les points de vue autochtones. L’auteur se penche sur la position ambivalente des cours à l’aide d’une étude de cas.

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1 See, for example, Mikisew Cree First Nation v Canada (Minister of Canadian Heritage), 2005 SCC 69 at para 1; also R v Gladstone, [1996] 2 SCR 723 at para 73. The concept of reconciliation has evolved over time. See Dwight Newman, “Reconciliation: Legal conception(s) and faces of justice,” in Moving Toward Justice, ed. John D. Whyte (Saskatoon: Purich Pub., 2008); and Kent McNeil, “Reconciliation and the Supreme Court: The Opposing Views of Chief Justices Lamer and McLachlin,” Indigenous Law Journal 2, no. 1 (2003).

2 Rachel Ariss and John Cutfeet, “Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation: Mining, Consultation, Reconciliation and Law,” ibid. 10, no. 1 (2011); Dale Turner, This is Not a Peace Pipe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006); John Borrows, Canada’s Indigenous Constitution (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010); Wapshkaa Ma’Iingan (Aaron Mills), “Aki, Anishinaabek, kaye tash Crown,” Indigenous Law Journal 9, no. 1 (2010): 107; Taiaiake Alfred, Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); James Youngblood Henderson, First Nations Jurisprudence and Aboriginal Rights: Defining the Just Society (Saskatoon: Houghton Boston Printers, 2006).

3 Duncan Ivison, Postcolonial Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Anthony Laden, Reasonably Radical: Deliberative Liberalism and the Politics of Identity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001); Turner, This is Not a Peace Pipe; Alfred, Peace, Power, Righteousness; James Tully, Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Gordon Christie, “Law, Theory and Aboriginal Peoples,” Indigenous Law Journal 2, no. 1 (2003): 67.

4 Dale Turner, “Perceiving the World Differently,” in Intercultural Dispute Resolution in Aboriginal Contexts, eds. Catherine Bell and David Kahane (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004), 60.

5 Will Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 154.

6 In This is Not a Peace Pipe, Turner refers to this as “Kymlicka’s constraint” (58).

7 Turner, This is Not a Peace Pipe, 10.

8 Turner, “Perceiving the World Differently,” 66.

9 Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community and Culture, 154.

10 Ibid..

11 Turner, This is Not a Peace Pipe.

12 Ibid., 58.

13 Ibid., 10.

14 Jeremy Waldron, “Theoretical Foundations of Liberalism,” The Philosophical Quarterly 37, no. 147 (1987): 140.

15 John Locke, “Second Treatise of Government,” in Second Treatise of Government, ed. C. B. MacPherson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980), §95. Emphasis in original.

16 Immanuel Kant, “On the Common Saying: ‘This may be True in Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice,’” in Kant: Political Writings, ed. H. S. Reiss (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 79. Emphasis in original.

17 John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 14.

18 John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

19 Ibid., 58.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., 480.

22 Ibid., 446.

23 Ibid., xliv.

24 Ibid., xix, xlvi.

25 Ibid., 453.

26 Duncan Ivison, “The Secret History of Public Reason: Hobbes to Rawls,” History of Political Thought 18, no.1 (1997): 126.

27 Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, 6.

28 Rawls, Political Liberalism, l-li. Rawls suggests his own theory of “Justice as Fairness” as one possibility.

29 Ibid., xlviii.

30 Ibid., 450.

31 Ibid., xlvii.

32 Ibid., 243. In Rawls’s view, public reason only constrains citizens discussing “constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice” (ibid. 228–30). Other theorists maintain that public reason applies to the justifications for all laws. The distinction does not affect my argument here, as Aboriginal law is part of Canada’s constitutional law per s 35 of the Constitution Act (Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11).

33 Natalie Oman, “Paths to Intercultural Understanding: Feasting, Shared Horizons, and Unforced Consensus,” in Intercultural Dispute Resolution in Aboriginal Contexts, eds. Catherine Bell and David Kahane (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004), 72.

34 Alan Cairns, Citizens Plus: Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian State (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000), 50.

35 Rawls, Political Liberalism, 247.

36 Laden, Reasonably Radical: Deliberative Liberalism and the Politics of Identity, 8.

37 Rawls, Political Liberalism, 453.

38 Turner, This is Not a Peace Pipe; Alfred, Peace, Power, Righteousness; Tully, Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity.

39 Turner, This is Not a Peace Pipe, 73.

40 In earlier articulations of his theory, Rawls was unequivocal that we are not to appeal to comprehensive doctrines at any time when debating fundamental political matters (Rawls, Political Liberalism, 224-5). He later revised his position, adopting the “wide view” of public reason, according to which nonpublic reasons can be introduced into public discourse at any time, provided that in due course sufficient public reasons are offered to justify the same conclusions. This is an important revision, but I do not believe that it answers the present challenge. Rawls says, “[the proviso] does not change the nature of justification itself in public reason” (ibid., 463).

41 Turner, “Perceiving the World Differently,” 62.

42 Sharon Krause, “Partial Justice,” Political Theory 29, no. 3 (2001): 327–28.

43 Alfred, Peace, Power, Righteousness, 86.

44 Tully, Strange Multiplicity; Turner, This is Not a Peace Pipe; Krause, “Partial Justice”; Bryan Garsten, Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

45 Turner, This is Not a Peace Pipe, 7.

46 For one interesting proposal in this regard, see Laden, Reasonably Radical.

47 Delgamuukw v British Columbia, [1997] 3 SCR 1010 at para 81 [Delgamuukw].

48 Ibid.

49 Calder et al. v Attorney-General of British Columbia, [1973] SCR 313, 1973 CanLII 4.

50 R v Van Der Peet, [1996] 2 SCR 507 at paras. 46, 49 [Van der Peet].

51 For a critique of the integral to the distinctive culture test see Russel L. Barsh and James Youngblood Henderson, “The Supreme Court’s Van der Peet Trilogy: Naïve Imperialism and Ropes of Sand,” McGill Law Journal 42 (1996-1997): 993; John Borrows, “Frozen Rights in Canada: Constitutional Interpretation and the Trickster,” American Indian Law Review 22, no. 1 (1998): 37. For the sake of argument, and to give credit where credit is due, I have included the Van der Peet test as an example of the inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives in the jurisprudence. But these issues are by no means simple or settled; the test might also be charged with excluding, or distorting, Aboriginal perspectives, in the way it attempts to include indigenous views.

52 For a critique see John Borrows, “Listening for a Change: The Courts and Oral Tradition,” Osgoode Hall Law Journal 39, no. 1 (2001).

53 Delgamuukw v British Columbia at para 128.

54 R v Sparrow, [1990] 1 SCR 1075.

55 R v Gladstone at para 75.

56 Delgamuukw v British Columbia at para 202.

57 Borrows, “Listening for a Change,” 26–27.

58 Ibid., 27–28. Internal quotes from Delgamuukw v British Columbia at para 268.

59 Ibid., 28.

60 R v Marshall; R v Bernard, [2005] 2 SCR 220 at 130 [Marshall; Bernard].

61 Ibid. Internal quotes from John Borrows, “Creating an Indigenous Legal Community,” McGill Law Journal 50 (2005): 173.

62 Platinex Inc v Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, [2006] OJ No 3140, 2006 CanLII 26171 [Platinex 2006].

63 Platinex Inc v Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, [2007] OJ No 1841, 29 CELR (3d) 116 [Platinex 2007].

64 Platinex Inc v Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, [2008] OJ No 1014, [2008] 2 CNLR 301 [Platinex 2008]. This sentence was reduced on appeal to 10 weeks: Platinex Inc v Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, 2008 ONCA 533 (CanLII).

65 Platinex 2006 at para 1.

66 Ibid. at para 80.

67 Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug et al., “Factum of the Moving Party, on Motion for Injunction” (19 June 2006), Thunder Bay 06-0271,

68 Ibid., 5.

69 Ibid.

70 Ibid., 9.

71 Platinex 2006 at para 80.

72 Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug et al., “Factum of the Moving Party,” at 11–12.

73 Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug et al., “Factum of the Moving Party,” at 23–24; Marshall; Bernard at 130; Borrows, “Creating an Indigenous Legal Community,” 173. The addition in brackets is from the KI factum.

74 Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug et al., “Factum of the Moving Party,” at 24.

75 Ariss and Cutfeet make a similar point: “…Justice Smith separated KI’s cultural and spiritual perspective from legal rights as narrowly defined in Euro-Canadian terms” (“Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation,” 37). Ariss and Cutfeet’s paper, which came to the author’s attention only after this article had been written, offers an insightful discussion of the KI cases.

76 KI’s Land Claim Entitlement Claim was rejected while the case was being heard in 2007, raising concerns of sharp practice on the part of the Crown (Ariss and Cutfeet, “Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation,” 30).

77 Platinex 2007 at para 76.

78 Ibid. at para 77.

79 Ibid. at para 119.

80 Mills, “Aki, Anishinaabek, kaye tash Crown,” 115.

81 Ibid., 116.

82 Paul Driben et al., “No Killing Ground: Aboriginal Law Governing the Killing of Wildlife among the Cree and Ojibwa of Northern Ontario,” Ayaangwaamizin: The International Journal of Indigenous Philosophy 1, no. 1 (1997): 101 (citations omitted).

83 Borrows, Canada’s Indigenous Constitution, 242.

84 Platinex 2007 at para 158.

85 para 171. To be clear, my claim is not that Smith J. was either right or wrong in his determination of the law of interlocutory injunctions, or in the disposition of the case. This discussion is simply meant to illustrate the way the court made use of reasons and normative argument grounded in the KI worldview. See Mills (“Aki, Anishinaabek, kaye tash Crown”) and Ariss and Cutfeet (“Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation”) for more in-depth commentary on the KI cases. See Henderson (First Nations Jurisprudence and Aboriginal Rights) for the proposition that traditional Aboriginal jurisprudence is even now authoritative within the Canadian legal system.

86 Mills, “Aki, Anishinaabek, kaye tash Crown,” 158.

87 Ibid., 159.

88 Platinex 2008 at para 44.

89 Mills, “Aki, Anishinaabek, kaye tash Crown,” 118.

90 Borrows, “Creating an Indigenous Legal Community,” 174. Pioneering work is being done in this regard at the University of Victoria with the development of its Juris Indigenarum Doctor program, intended, in part, to promote the study and development of Aboriginal legal traditions. I am grateful to Val Napoleon for discussion on this point.

91 Though it is tangential to my thesis I feel I must say that the question of the place of Aboriginal laws in Canada must be, in large measure, a question of treaty—where does a given treaty leave the laws and jurisdiction of the Aboriginal group? And if a treaty does not directly address that question, then it remains a fundamentally constitutional issue to be settled by the courts, or politically through further treaty negotiations.

92 Ivison, Postcolonial Liberalism; Laden, Reasonably Radical; Krause, “Partial Justice”; Angela Means, “Narrative Argumentation: Arguing with Natives” (2002) 9:2 Constellations 221.

* I would like to thank Val Napoleon, Andrew Lister, and Will Kymlicka, as well as two anonymous reviewers at this journal, for their helpful comments on previous versions of this essay.

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Canadian Journal of Law and Society / La Revue Canadienne Droit et Société
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  • EISSN: 1911-0227
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