"Calgary School" Political Pseudo-Science on Indigenous Nationhood
‘Calgary School’ Political pseudo-Science on Indigenous Nationhood
By Tobold Rollo; January 27, 2013 - Tobold Rollo Blog
Every field has its embarrassing deranged cousin who lives in the proverbial attic. In medicine there are doctors who deny the existence of AIDS. There are biologists who deny evolution. There are architects who say 9/11 was a controlled demolition. There are climate scientists who deny climate change. And yes, in the field of political science, there are those who deny Indigenous rights. Most of these quacks are on the internet and some of them even have books. All of them have devoted audiences with brains made of pink play-doh.
When it comes to Political pseudo-Science approaches to Indigenous rights, the University of Calgary is home to the majority of our academic embarrassments. Chief among them are Tom Flanagan and Barry Cooper.
These days, Flanagan and Cooper publish on Indigenous topics almost exclusively in reputable academic journals such as the Vancouver Sun and the Globe and Mail. They have contributed to the public discussion in a manner not unlike a lonely conspiracy theorist. Allow me to illustrate.
According to Cooper, Indigenous rights claims amount to so many “complaints, assumptions and assertions that have no basis in reality” – they are simply “projections of the imagination” or what Flanagan calls “word magic”. Cooper compares this imaginative whimsy to the “self-evident structure of the common sense world” to which Cooper and his pinky-swear besty Flanagan have gained access. You see, most of us slobs remain enslaved in the Matrix. We live in a dream-castle, if you will – a lurid fantasy that has captured “aboriginals, bureaucrats and lawyers, both on the bench and at the bar, as well as by numerous academics, journalists and intellectuals” – in other words, anyone with relevant education or experience. But not the Neo and Morpheus of southern Alberta. Oh no.
See, unlike you or I, Cooper and Flanagan took the Red Pill and have been down the rabbit-hole training in politi-kung-fu at a Calgary dojo. They love to spoil your illusions. Do you think that’s air you’re breathing? Cause it’s not.
To evidence this grand deception for the lay public, Cooper cites an immense body of scholarly literature that has withstood the most demanding levels of interdisciplinary academic scrutiny. Just kidding, he cites “a classic study [sic] published in 2000 by my longtime colleague and even longer-time friend, Tom Flanagan, called First Nations? Second Thoughts.” Cooper deploys Flanagan’s ‘classic study’ to debunk some heavy myths: The myth that Indigenous peoples have certain rights because they were here first. The myth that European and Indigenous civilizations were equal and therefore engaged one another as sovereign nations. The myth that they forged nation-to-nation treaties that affirmed Indigenous jurisdiction. For Cooper, this is all just a bunch of malarkey. Yep. He said ‘malarkey’.
“In reality,” Cooper informs us as he descends from the mountain top, “every human in the New World came here, or their forebears came here, from the Old World.” You may recognize this as the stale ‘We’re all immigrants so you don’t have special rights’ argument. That kind of equality is comforting, don’t you think? I imagine it was especially comforting to Polish people in 1939 as Germany went forward with its “immigration” into Eastern Europe. Presumably the Poles came from somewhere else, too, right? So why should they get special treatment? Perhaps this was what inspired the Germans to name the section of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp used for looting the belongings of new prisoners ‘Canada’. Like many European colonial states, the Germans romanticized Canada as a land of unclaimed bounty.
One reason people get stuck on Indigenous rights is the myth that Indigenous and European civilizations were equals. It is obvious that they were not equals because of the “technological, military and political advantages that the Europeans developed, including the legal concepts of sovereignty and the state.” There is nothing self-serving or circular about this position. Nope. As everyone knows, civilizational equality is a function of western technologies and legal concepts. If Indigenous peoples had thought to be European instead of not-European, their bargaining position would have been improved. Maybe they should have thought of that before they developed their 35,000 year old civilization on an entirely different continent. Duh!
In any event, the notion that Indigenous peoples would also possess of form of sovereignty by virtue of having a civilization is a non-starter for Cooper because sovereignty is something that only states possess. A shrewd historian, Cooper informs us that “sovereignty is a 16th-century term developed after the wars of religion to describe the new post-medieval regime. The two go together: no sovereignty without states, no states without sovereignty.” Once again, Cooper is trying to help us to see the truth that is staring us in the face. The truth is that we always use terms in exactly the same way as they were used in the 16th century. For instance, if I were to mention my love of Black Jack you would know immediately that I am referring to a leather drinking vessel sealed with tar. Obviously. We also practice things in exactly the same way as we did in the 16th century, too. I rode a horse to work today. I work as a cobbler for the King.
Cooper’s lesson is that despite what so-called ‘legal theorists’ or ‘historians’ or ‘Indigenous people’ may tell you, he and Flanagan have discovered that the word ‘sovereignty’ has been used by all peoples at all times in history to mean exactly the same thing. In the event that you find a Supreme Court, Government, or Royal Commission document that mentions Indigenous forms of sovereignty, it was planted by the machines. The same goes for the term ‘nation’.
Speaking of nations, Cooper also thinks the term ‘First Nations’ is racist because it implies that prior occupancy (being here first) gives Indigenous people some kind of special legal and moral standing. Let’s leave aside the fact that the racialized blood-quantum vision of nationhood is one of those amazing European developments that make theirs such a superior civilization. Let’s also leave aside the fact that when Indigenous peoples speak about ‘nations’ and ‘sovereignty’ they are not referring to the 600 First Nations bands or their reserve lands under the Indian Act – they are referring to the 600 nations and traditional territories. They are also not talking about western visions of state sovereignty. Let’s also ignore that recognizing ‘prior occupancy’ is one of the more fundamental principles of European common law traditions – our own laws are based in respect for prior occupancy. No, let’s leave all of that aside and meditate for a moment on how awesome it must be to have “prior occupancy is meaningless and racist” within one’s “self-evident structure of the common sense world.” There, now don’t you feel like you just bent a spoon with your mind? Well guess what: There is no spoon.
And there is no real debate about the existence [of] Indigenous rights either. Still, during lulls in dinner conversation you can hear the deranged cousin in the attic, pacing over yellowed copies of the Vancouver Sun and wrestling with his confusions regarding treaties that clearly “extinguish rather than affirm any loose notion of the sovereignty of so-called First Nations” even though no such nationhood or sovereignty could possibly have existed. Their confusion remains obscured by their certainty that the world is confused. Such is the embarrassment that is the so-called ‘Calgary School’ of Political pseudo-Science.
(My apologies if you were hoping for an academic critique, but the Calgary School’s errors aren’t simply a matter of scholarship – they are ideological.)