Opinion-Policy Nexus

Morito book cover

Dr. Bruce Morito, Professor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Athabasca University, has written a new book called An Ethic of Mutual Respect: The Covenant Chain and Aboriginal-Crown Relations, which is available for purchase from UBC Press here. This book “offers a philosophical interrogation of the predominant current reading of the historical record regarding the Covenant Chain. Through this fresh perspective, he overturns assumptions about early First Nations--Crown relationships and demonstrates the relevance of the Covenant Chain to the current relationship. By examining the forms of expression contained in colonial documents, the Record of Indian Affairs, and related materials, Morito locates the values and moral commitments that underpinned the parties’ strategies for negotiation and reconciliation …. Real change is possible if the focus can be shifted from piecemeal legal and political disputes to the development of an intercultural ethic based on trust, respect, and solidarity. .”

Below is an interview I conducted with Dr. Morito about his book via email in 2013.

Alcantara: Why did you decide to write a book on this topic?

Morito: Thank you for this question. I had to delete the explanation from my preface to keep within word limits, although a few indications of why the book was researched and written remain on it.

My work with First Nations began with an invitation to co-write (with Stephen Crawford) a response to an article on conservation ethics, written by representatives of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The article length draft was received with considerable suspicion by reviewers, since it appeared to them to be too politically charged for a science journal to publish. The editor, however, wanted some version of the response to be published and requested that we shorten it, so that it could be presented more as a letter to the editor. This was my first lesson in the politics of framing issues outside academia, which was, at the same time, a lesson about applying my philosophical training to real-world issues.

As my work with First Nations proceeded, I began to find and admit that my philosophical training, however valuable it had been in helping me articulate the underlying issues pertaining to the Crown/First Nation relationship, was insufficient. My training somehow failed to provide me with a complete picture of the issues, especially as they were understood by Aboriginal people. The first indicator of the inadequacy of my way of framing issues came from my Aboriginal colleagues and certain elders who would tell me that my way of speaking may be useful for talking to the government, but it distorted their way of understanding the issues. My focus on rights, for instance, attracted the response, “Our language has no word for ‘rights’.” Others told me, “When I speak in Ojibway, I see and think differently, than when I speak in English. But I can’t make you see and think the way I do.” Over time, I began to identify the problem as belonging to a set of problems I connect under the term ‘worldview.’ As fuzzy as this term is, it helped me understand that I would have to shift how I thought as much as what I thought.

Further, interactions with Aboriginal colleagues, such as Darlene Johnston and elders, informed me that I needed to understand the history of the Crown/First Nation relationship from contact, if I was to understand their way of thinking about treaties and the relationship with non-Aboriginal people. This led me to recognize that simply doing the analysis of these relationships from a contemporary moral and legal perspective would be as insufficient as relying on my philosophical training for capturing what was at issue for Aboriginal people in asserting their treaty and Aboriginal rights. Moreover, Eric Johnston told me, on more than one occasion, that “we” needed to go back to the wampum. I was familiar with the Six Nations wampum reclamation project and so was vaguely familiar with the idea. All I understood, however, was that ‘wampum’ and ‘treaty’ were closely related ideas from the Aboriginal perspective.

For these reasons, I decided to begin the historical research and applied to the Social Sciences and Humanities Council and the Alberta Law Foundation for funding to do the archival research. I did so with some trepidation, both because I had never done historical research (and would not like sitting in archives) and because it would require a major shift in my research focus. After successfully applying, I committed to immerse myself in the records, because I realized that the records were of a very different sort than I expected (as I explain in the book). After beginning my research, I realized that I would have to examine more records than I initially anticipated. Once exposed to the Canadian and American records I further realized that the body of evidence I was researching both told me a very different story of the Crown/First Nation relationship than I had learned about in school and the media, and perturbed me, because I could not give a proper account of the relationship by mining the records for evidence of my hypothesis.

It was for this reason that I decided to write a very different book from what I had initially envisioned. I initially planned to apply a moral theory to analyze the relationship and to use the historical record to support my claims. This plan changed radically after about a year of archival research, because of what the peculiarity of the records. I decided then to take a chance and re-work the topic. I would shift the emphasis from prescribing what the relationship ought to be to one of understanding what the relationship actually is.

This has been a rather long answer, but I feel it necessary to give a proper explanation of why this particular boom was written.

Alcantara: So what did you find? Was the relationship that you examined substantively different from what is portrayed in the media or by policymakers?

Morito:  Indeed. The difference between media portrayals, especially, and the way the record portrays Aboriginal people was astounding. In the book, I try to capture the difference by employing the Western European conception of the Indian as the noble/ignoble savage, who was uncivilized and incapable of higher-order thought. But more fundamentally, I attempt to capture the relationship as a problem for Canada and the United States, not just in the crude sense of standing in the way of expansion and colonization, but in the sense of understanding how to bring Indians into the modern economic and technological world. Everything I examined, while moving backward to the early records (to about the early 1800s), presented the relationship in terms of the Indian problem, which in Canada we know resulted in the variety of assimilation programs. From this point in history onward, governments and settlers for the most part conceived of the Aboriginal person as savage and in need of aid from Christian Canada to become fully civilized. Treaties had become surrenders (of territory and autonomy), which in turn reinforced the fiduciary model of the relationship, which persists today.

In stark contrast, the early records presented the relationship as a partnership where sometimes it was the case that the British and even French were seen as the dependants. But even where the British Crown was recognized by First Nations as father, the fundamental problem was not the Indian, but the enemy European nation. The main problem with respect to Aboriginal people was to keep them on side against (for the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois), or to win them over from the French (the Anishnaabe). This is to say that Indian Affairs policy was focused on maintaining the treaty alliance (the peace and friendship treaty relationship).

This economic and military relationship developed into one that depended on a very different kind of what I call a moral economy than the current one. Accordingly, the exchange of trust, loyalty, honour among other values, formed a relationship of mutual respect, in which the various modes of interaction and communication were focused on maintaining the relationship, over and above the relationship’s legal terms of reference. That is, it focused on keeping the relationship robust, even when principles and agreements were broken by one or the other side. This is the deeper significance of the Covenant Chain. Both sides seemed to recognize that even though the terms of the treaty had been broken (the above ground chain was broken), the underground chain could not be broken.

Alcantara: So why did this relationship change over time? Was it an inevitable product of radically different worldviews? Or was it something else?

Morito: I’ve thought much about this question and have no certain or clear answers, because the history of the relationship is quite complex. There are obvious contributing factors, such as the shift in military and economic power, the decline in Aboriginal people’s population and increase in European populations, superior European military and production technology, among other factors. As material changes took place, so too did European conceptual frameworks develop to support the growing assumptions of superiority and the right to colonization. Not only did the Enlightenment serve to buttress the idea of the superiority of rational beings – where rationality was increasingly being denied as belonging to Aboriginal people – the idea of evolution helped characterize Aboriginal people as yet-to-evolve savages. Coupled with Europe’s voracious appetite for resources, it seems all too easy to describe the change in relationship as inevitable and brought on by irresistible economic, religious, philosophical, cultural and military forces.

But none of these factors alone or even collectively fully explains the shift in the relationship. That’s part of what makes it possible for me to argue that the ethic of the Covenant Chain is relevant today. The difference between worldviews was certainly radical and seemingly impossible to overcome at times. But, as I argue, the central feature that enabled the relationship to flourish on the basis of mutual understanding in the early years of the relationship was the presence of proper people, or proper persons. These were the go-betweens who could communicate effectively and had developed reputations for trustworthiness and honour. But they had also developed relationships where these aspects of what I call the moral economy were central features. Through the exchange of trust and respect, for instance, they developed community identities with Aboriginal partners. I think the crucial point here is that the relationship turned on maintaining the moral economy, such that the relationship came first, over and above the terms of the agreement or any codified laws.

The more obvious factors mentioned above made it more and more difficult to enable the moral economy to work, so that external forces came to form the terms of the relationship. Was this inevitable? Certainly many a historian has described the fate of Aboriginal people as inevitable and efforts to resist futile. My reading of history and observations of massive shifts in economic and military relationships suggests to me that these historians were right. However much we might want to appeal to human moral agency as a determinative factor, the inability of moral agents to effect significant change in fossil fuel consumption, in the redistribution of wealth and in the cruelty toward vulnerable populations supports the inevitability thesis.  Having said this, however, I do not think the current situation is incontrovertibly entrenched or that a return to a mutually recognized respectful relationship is impossible.

Moral agents have had an impact on the course of history. Without the constant intervention and actions of supporters of equality for women and ethnic minorities, the world would look very different today. Insofar as people are struggling to maintain or to regain the elements of the moral economy in the face of impersonal economic and political forces, hoping for a re-constituting of the moral economy of the Covenant Chain is not futile. Critics of my position have argued that the only reason the European powers showed any respect toward First Nations was owing to necessity. They needed First Nation military power and access to resources to survive and then to dominate on the continent. While this is correct, that necessity also exposed the potential for developing a robust moral economy. Today, I believe that the many problems we are facing today, from ecological to economic, are exposing the same potential for refocusing on the moral economy as a basis for ordering social relations.

Alcantara: So what is the way forward for establishing, or re-establishing, a more just and equitable relationship?  What kinds of “proper persons” do we need to see emerge today? Do you mean someone akin to the “word warriors” as put forward by Dale Turner?

Morito: I actually criticize Dale Turner’s appeal to (not the idea of) word warriors, because it does not take certain conditions into account.  In the epilogue, while sympathizing with Turner’s purpose, I mention a number of problems with word warriors bringing traditions into the discursive arenas of scholarship and possibly negotiation. He wants their contributions to be intelligible within the existing legal and political practices of the dominant society. I would call his a direct approach. Historically what has happened after the period of the Covenant Chain – and certainly attempts were made to do the same during the tenure of the Covenant Chain – Aboriginal traditions were conceived and treated in accordance with categories that were cognizant to the dominant society, but in that process of categorization, the meaning of those traditions became quite different for those belonging to Aboriginal communities from those belonging to non-aboriginal communities. The dominant society could and did misrepresent the presentation of wampum and other traditions as curiosities and eventually as anthropologically interesting artifacts. This can be viewed as a misappropriation of their work, especially when they are physically appropriated for display in museums. What I have in mind can be related to my own appropriations of Aboriginal people’s concerns. When starting out to address these concerns, I used the language of rights in conference papers talks and publications, only to have Aboriginal people tell me that they have no word for ‘right’ in their language. The message was that I was distorting their concerns. My approach, in their eyes, could be viewed as a form of appropriation of their concerns, because I could be seen as distorting their concerns for my own purposes.

Similarly, the notion of treaty is formulated in the legal and political contexts, which define treaties as documents that codify certain obligations on the part of the signatory parties. If the laws and expectations agreed to in those documents are violated certain legal consequences ought to follow. Again, Aboriginal people have consistently told me – and their message has been affirmed by the record itself – that this is not the primary meaning of ‘treaty’ from their perspective. ‘Treaty’ refers more to the relationship of solidarity, than to a set of codified rules and agreements. It has far more to do with maintaining a healthy relationship based on mutual understanding, trust and respect. So, to continue treating the idea of treaty as a codification is to distort not only the meaning of treaty, from an Aboriginal perspective, but to distort the historical nature of the treaty relationship. To articulate traditional concerns in terms that are intelligible to the dominant society, then, runs a high risk of having the concern distorted. I would argue that even if the dominant society was well-intentioned, similar distortions would occur.

There are other indicators that the time is not ripe for word warriors, especially if word warriors commit to bringing the traditions forward to the negotiation arenas. One indicator in particular comes from some of my interviews with bilingual Aboriginal people who have told me that they think and perceive differently when speaking in the native tongue than when speaking and communicating in English. They relate differently to people as well. These people are expressing the problem of integrating differing worldviews -- the background set of beliefs, concepts, sensibilities and the like that determine what words mean and how they represent their understanding and experience of the world – in their communications with others. As has been the case for some time, bringing Aboriginal traditions to negotiation contexts for debate will continue to result in warriors having to use unsuitable language, which will distort their meanings, until, that is, we find a framework by which a genuine mutual understanding is possible and can be expected.

A better way forward has, I think, already begun in the work of revisionist historians. But I think the general principle for guiding this way forward is perhaps paradoxical. We certainly must start with the expectations of the dominant sectors in terms of the ideas to be used and the criteria of legitimacy to employ. In a way, this is how the book starts out. The approach I propose begins with the assumption that both sides need to agree to evidentiary rules. For instance, a principle of rigorous interpretation, where each side is to pay close attention to the details of the historical record as it is presented and not simply mine it for evidence in support of some pre-established thesis. Another rule to which I believe both sides agree is that explanations of the Crown/First Nation relationship must proceed on the assumption that the relationship is a historical one. Hence, a study of the historical relationship is necessary for understanding the current relationship.

In the book, I go as far as to accede to the dominant side recognition of its own official historical documents as the evidentiary base. But from this accession, problems arise when one applies the evidentiary rules. We find that not only the once dominant historical narrative fails to find support in the evidence, but that even revisionist accounts remain incomplete and some continue to distort the nature of the relationship. Among others, what a careful reading of the documents discloses is this: if we are to understand the nature of the historical relationship, we need to acknowledge its complexity and such factors as the operation of a moral economy. Over time, we see this factor changing and many of its components disappearing and/or transforming. Largely what we see is the transformation of the underlying moral sensibilities on the side of the dominant societies (British and American), which in turn distorts the original meaning that Aboriginal traditions had in the relationship. The first step in moving forward in re-establishing a more just relationship, then, is to establish an understanding of what the nature of that relationship has been and then how it has changed over time.

If we proceed this way, we begin to realize how current and standard explanatory frameworks (economic, political, military, and even evolutionary) are insufficient and perpetuate the distorting of Aboriginal traditions. It is to problematize the current explanatory and justificatory frameworks. I think that until we can recognize that our frameworks are themselves problems for a just society, we cannot expect a genuinely just solution to our legal and political issues as they pertain to Aboriginal people.

Alcantara: Thanks very much for sharing your ideas from you book with us.  What’s your next project?

Morito: My hope is to take the theoretical problems I have encountered in this book and my first (Thinking Ecologically) as an impetus to develop a theory of ethics. In writing both books, I came across a number of issues pertaining to the inadequacy of contemporary ethical theory in describing some of the ethical concerns that these books raised. Certain theories addressed some of the concerns I had, but remained silent on others. Either that, or applying these theories would distort the nature of the problem as presented. In An Ethic of Mutual Respect, the closest I could come to finding a suitable theory to describe the issues was Habermas’s discourse ethics. No ethical theory, however, was adequate to solve the issues raised in either book.

My hope now is to develop a theory or perhaps just an approach that begins with an understanding of what moral life is, how it is initiated, and how such things as moral principles arise. My work at present seems scattered, but all of it has to do with making certain connections, e.g., between ethics and economics, ethics and music, ethics and wilderness experience.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - 20:19