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What’s in a name?

March 22nd,2023 | Opinion

The recent name change of the federal riding from Pontiac to Pontiac-Kitigan Zibi is all about symbolism. Not that that’s a bad thing. Recognizing the presence of the Kitigan Zibi reservation, home to descendants of the original inhabitants of what we today call the Pontiac, is a good thing. Anything that reminds us of the history and the continued presence of Indigenous peoples is worthwhile.

At the same time, it’s just a name change. Like many other moves taken by the Government of Canada in the name of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, it falls short of doing anything substantive. It does nothing to alleviate the economic disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Nor does it empower the Indigenous population politically. In fact, it papers over their continuing disempowerment. In 2021, the population of Kitigan-Zibi was 1,204 of a total riding population of 111,138. Of course, many people in the riding who identify as Indigenous live outside Kitigan Zibi, but even so, the votes of Indigenous people are unlikely to have a significant effect on electoral outcomes in the riding due to their lack of relative demographic weight.

Ironically, the name change comes at the same time that Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), a federal Crown corporation, has made it explicit that their consultations with the Anishinabeg nations over CNL’s proposed Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF) for radioactive waste at Chalk River does not include giving them a veto. Effectively, the government, through AECL, is asking Indigenous people for consent to the project, while telling them they can’t say no.

This is just one example of how the relationship between the Government of Canada and Indigenous Nations is still defined by paternalism and hypocrisy, regardless of the rhetorical shift towards “reconciliation”.

Change beyond symbolism would mean doing things that give real power to Indigenous communities to exert agency in meaningful ways, as they see fit. For example, it would mean actually abiding by their wishes on a project like the NSDF, instead of engaging in the political theatre of consulting with them while simultaneously denying them the ability to change anything.

Back on the topic of electoral ridings — reconciliation could also mean giving Indigenous people genuine and consistent representation in parliament. New Zealand, a country with both institutions and a settler colonial past similar to Canada’s, has guaranteed representation for its Indigenous Māori population. This takes the form of geographically-defined Māori electorates, which overlap with other conventional ridings. These electorates give Māori peoples guaranteed representation in New Zealand’s parliament by giving Māori voters the option to vote in ridings where they are the demographic majority.

Whether a similar arrangement here would be to the liking of Indigenous people living in Canada, that’s their call. But the concept of Māori electorates does at least serve to show that there is more that governments could do, if they were really interested in meaningful reconciliation.

Coming to grips with the dark side of Canada’s past and present demands more than just a name change, especially in an area already named after the historical Chief Pontiac, an Indigenous figure who resisted colonialism more than 250 years ago.

Brett Thoms is the Editor of The Equity in Pontiac. Reprinted with permission.

I am writing as a co-op mem

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