David Adams Richards,
Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul

Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2011
304 pages

When the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network unveiled Blackstone in 2011, it drew support but also controversy. The show portrays realities on a fictional First Nation, warts and all, including corrupt governance. For many indigenous observers, the depiction struck close to home.

Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul is similar: it shows the good and the bad among both First Nation and white communities in the Miramichi Valley, a corner of northern New Brunswick.

Incidents is an artful retelling of a story that takes place in the summer of 1985, when a young Micmac named Hector Penniac dies in the hold of a ship which is loading pulpwood. A load slips and crushes him. The ship is called the Lutheran, a name implying the virtues and sins of Protestant theology. At one level this is a detective story. Roger Savage, a white man, a loner living on contested reserve land, was at the dock and becomes the main suspect. In due course, he too is killed. Chief Amos Paul develops a hunch that Savage was innocent. The story follows Paul’s “private investigation” into the murder as conflict envelops the small reserve community. Throughout the book, the story shifts from 1985 to the present, as Markus Paul, Chief Amos Paul’s young grandson, now an RCMP officer, deciphers the detective work of his grandfather.

An oft-repeated admonition to aspiring writers is to write about what you know. David Adams Richards took this advice to heart. For Richards, home is the Miramichi River valley. His novels are known for realism, a keen sense of place and the weight of family histories. He can lay claim to being Canada’s Thomas Hardy. In Incidents, he applies all this to First Nation peoples.

A central tension in the story is how up-and-coming band leader Isaac Snow and recently returned from jail Joel Ginnish – half-brother to Hector Penniac – use Hector’s death to undermine the leadership of Chief Paul and assume control of the community for their own ends.

How innocent individuals get caught up within agendas much larger than themselves defines Incidents as a tragedy, a tragedy wrapped up within a compelling murder mystery. It is also a moral tale directed to the naive who romanticize Aboriginal peoples. Just as Lutherans can conspire in Machiavellian politics, so too can First Nation leaders. Finally, the novel is a detailed study in the unfolding of crises, how they are manipulated and how they escalate.

Richards is not insensitive to First Nation peoples and their struggles. Quite the opposite. But in literary terms he is screaming to the bright-eyed idealists to give their heads a shake and realize that Aboriginals are human beings, flawed and prone to bad conduct like everyone else. Supporting indigenous struggles does not mean that Aboriginal peoples are never the “bad guys” who manipulate their own.

In death Hector Penniac quickly becomes the “poster child” in political causes that he was never part of, nor would have supported if he were alive. Penniac’s death becomes “racialized” and is successfully used by others to advance their agenda. While alive, Hector was not a “poster child” Aboriginal. He was teased for being different; perhaps he was gay. Now dead, he is a symbol.

If Hector is a victim, so too is Roger Savage, who brings to mind the Caledonia standoff/occupation in Ontario where innocent bystanders – non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal – were caught in a seemingly unstoppable “picking sides” mentality. Like Savage, Sam Gualtieri was a white man. He built houses, four of them in a subdivision on contested reserve lands. In a confrontation with Natives occupying his building site, Richard Smoke, an Aboriginal, beat Gualtieri with a two-by-four, inflicting permanent brain damage and nearly killing him. The Six Nations land claim may or may not be vindicated. But as Ontario Superior Court Judge Alan Whitten said in his ruling, “There was no necessity for this crime … it didn’t advance any ideology or idea.”

A central theme in the book that rings true is how machinations and agendas on all sides produce unintended and often tragic consequences. The book is a not-so-subtle indictment of non-Aboriginal activists who often become “useful idiots” in a struggle. As a non–First Nation individual who has worked in Aboriginal media (I was lead journalist at the Drum/First Perspective, an Aboriginal newspaper based in Winnipeg, for more than three years), I have personal experience of all this. Richards has accurately nailed the complexities within First Nation communities, particularly those arising at times of political conflict.

Too often a naive “progressive” reporter (like Max Doran who turns up to report on the fallout from Hector’s murder) misreads the conflict and fails to speak to relevant actors who could provide nuance. A nuance that Richards misses – and here my personal experience comes into play – is a failure to allow for the plight of reporters, especially those writing for community papers, who are asked to do too much in too little time. Most such journalists have little understanding of Aboriginal politics, so they talk only to vocal leaders, the logical sources.

As the crisis over Hector’s death evolves, the demand for “action” and “moral clarity” leaves no room for complexity or nuance. Many within the reserve gravitate away from Chief Amos Paul toward Isaac Snow and Joel Ginnish. They want easy answers, not the wisdom of Amos Paul: “Before Amos sounded wise and reasonable; now he only sounded old. So Joel Ginnish turned away and went over to Isaac’s house.”

Complexity is the reality in so many areas, including politics and public policy. Slick advertising and sound bite rhetoric gloss over nuance. Things get dangerous when the pursuit of the truth is sacrificed on the altar of agendas and interests. Both Snow, the wannabe chief, and drug-dealing Ginnish had motives for keeping the focus on Roger’s alleged guilt. If Roger was guilty of a racially inspired crime, all the more reason that three small fishing pools that had been in Roger’s family for three generations should become reserve property.

The union representing dock workers and the Lutheran’s foreign owners had their own motive for accepting Roger’s guilt: “Testifying would mean an unending delay in a court none were familiar with … The shipping company too feared a lawsuit and had instructed the captain not to speak and not let his men speak.” Not everyone on the reserve subscribes to groupthink, but those who harbour doubts remain silent: “Mrs. Francis was old-fashioned – that is, she secretly distrusted the young men now saying they were working valiantly on her behalf, and so did two dozen families who never once had any say about the blockade but were now obliged to say they approved it.”

The moral message in Incidents is that life is much more complex than we realize. All human beings are flawed. Why romanticize one group over another? In modern Canada, one group that is romanticized and overdefended is indigenous people. “White guilt” due to sins of the majority in centuries past requires overlooking Aboriginal humanity for the sake of supporting particular high-profile struggles. First Nations have been treated very badly historically, but that does not require their “white supporters” to deny Aboriginal agency and humanity, to pretend that historical sins explain all present-day Aboriginal politics and individual behaviour.

Viewing things in binary terms is a problem. Throughout Incidents Richards inverts the expected. In a complex world there are some Aboriginals doing well and some whites facing problems at least as severe as life on reserve: “Roger’s house wasn’t half as nice as Isaac’s.” Richards writes about Savage, “Roger’s father was dead, his mother had deserted him; he was alone in a house he had a deed to that his own mother had tried to take from him because she had had an offer from the band to buy it for twice what it was worth. That is, she had tried to cheat her own child.”

Richards writes with the conservative conviction that human beings are fallible and we should entertain a healthy distrust of grandiose schemes to change or improve the state of things. The conservative tradition is not only about the free market and individual rights. Historically what divides it from the contemporary liberals is a theory of humanity. Liberals view human beings as “perfectible” and view institutions as making people “bad.” The character in the novel closest to Richards’s view of the world is Amos Paul:

All of this made Amos feel uncomfortable. Especially how this man said the word progress. For Amos was one of those old-fashioned men seen in every race, who do not believe in progress when it concerns the hearts of men. He saw that every generation believed they would be the generation to set things straight, and no generation did.

First Nations, like any human group, use crises to their advantage. Isaac Snow uses the uncertainty surrounding the death of Hector Penniac as leverage with federal officials in obtaining commercial lobster licences – “if he would assure the government there would be no problems that summer.” More destructive are the actions of Joel Ginnish – whom many on the reserve did not actually want in their community because of his past criminal acts. Ginnish turns “inaction” over solving Hector’s murder into a blockade that serves as a cover for his own activities:

Joel stored his marijuana bales in the old cement store on the other side of the reserve, and sold it to boats coming in off P.E.I. He made thousands a year from this and complained he was poor. He sold fish to the Monk brothers, who constantly demanded more fish. The RCMP were well aware of this, and had planned a raid. Joel knew this, and Isaac knew that Joel would press for a barricade to claim sovereignty. This is what he had been trying to promote since the first band meeting about the crisis. If they put up roadblocks, the roadblocks themselves would protect the marijuana until he could get it moved away.

This is an obvious allusion to the controversy surrounding contraband tobacco produced on some Mohawk reserves and shipped to reserves across Canada. Arguments about self-government and sovereignty and Native rights become instruments to hide profits. Richards’s message is to be careful not to mistake rogues for folk heroes. I have witnessed this dynamic, particularly among academics. During the Caledonia standoff, respected constitutional scholar Peter Russell, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto, was invited to speak by an indigenous scholar at the University of Manitoba. He simply refused to condemn any of the law-breaking by Mohawk protesters. The only relevant issue for him was the honouring of outstanding land claims.

Where I part company with Richards is his particularly harsh criticism of the media in Incidents. Near the beginning, Chief Paul worries about the situation getting out of hand as soon as the media get hold of it. The baleful role of the media is a strong current throughout the book. Richards is right that journalists rely on conflict and controversy. It’s true that simplistic narratives – like Roger’s guilt – can be sustained by compliant journalists. However, Richards conflates all media too easily. He is guilty of the charge he levels against others, inasmuch as he ignores nuance within media coverage itself.

Incidents is highly readable. The unfolding of what actually happened in the fourth hold of the Lutheran is riveting. Chief Amos unravels the “case” of Penniac’s death, leading to some key confessions in the end. A less capable writer wanting to convey the themes of Machiavellian politics, universal human frailties or a complex moral universe would have thrown together a far less interesting novel. There are times when Richards’s themes become too obvious, but they are by and large hidden in a good story.

To sum up, Incidents is an excellent novel. It is a good read both for those interested in murder mysteries and the joy of discovering “who did it” and for those interested in the human condition. It should be read by journalists covering Aboriginal communities. Lastly, academics should get over Richards’s attacks on their naiveté, and make this required reading for their introduction to Aboriginal politics courses.

When Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), called for the end of the Indian Act and the dismantling of the Aboriginal Affairs1 bureaucracy last summer, he was seen as making a bold move. His plan was short on details, but Atleo deserves credit for appealing for radical reform of First Nation governance. Most people who seriously study Aboriginal affairs agree that the paternalism inherent in the Act is both wrong and undesirable. Research from organizations such as the First Nations Tax Commission demonstrates a clear connection between the regulatory hurdles and delays imposed by the Indian Act and the sorry state of many First Nation economies.2

The assumption that Aboriginal self-government is both necessary and desirable is widely held in academia and especially in indigenous activist circles. I share the assumption that some form of autonomy for First Nations is desirable. The end goal, however, is not self-government for its own sake, but to advance First Nations both as individuals and as a group in concrete terms.

We know there is some sort of relationship between autonomy and economic improvement. The highly regarded U.S.-based Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development has shown a positive connection between reservations being in possession of jurisdiction and their successful economic development.3 In Canada, a study by the independent accounting firm KPMG looked at the economic situation of 17 First Nations that have opted into the First Nation Land Management Act (FNLMA), a legislative scheme that allows bands to opt out of the land use and resource provisions of the Indian Act. The study found that the program has generated $101 million in investment and 2,000 jobs in those communities.4 The degree to which there was preexisting wealth in these communities, and the extent to which the FNLMA was part of the success, are matters for debate, but the strong correlation is worthy of notice.

So, is Aboriginal self-government a “silver bullet” in and of itself? Does it lead to general socioeconomic improvement for First Nations, or only selective improvements? Does anything get worse? What are the effects on governance and services? These are not just theoretical issues. The federal government’s comprehensive claims policy allows communities without a historic treaty to negotiate and sign deals involving some degree of freedom from the Indian Act.

One such community is the Nisga’a Nation of northwest British Columbia, whose comprehensive land claims agreement with Ottawa and British Columbia was signed in 1998 and took legal effect in 2000. When it comes to land ownership and resources, the treaty granted self-government to the Nisga’a. Nisga’a lands are no longer reserve lands, governed by the Indian Act.

Although there are some concurrent powers and the treaty did not grant substantial international powers of sovereign states (such as foreign affairs and defence), it granted the Nisga’a government substantial autonomy in areas integral to the Nisga’a culture (language, citizenship, education, etc.). Inasmuch as the Nisga’a can make their own laws and these laws take precedence over the laws of other levels of government, this is true self-government and not mere self-administration or self-management.5

In 14 legislative areas, where Nisga’a laws conflict with federal or provincial legislation, Nisga’a law prevails. Although in some areas Nisga’a authorities are obligated to meet or exceed provincial standards, the Nisga’a treaty gives us an indication of the effects of a First Nation obtaining some degree of self-government.

In 2010, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, an independent think tank based in western Canada, decided to undertake a major study of the Nisga’a treaty experiment. I was lead researcher on the project. I was accompanied by Barb McLeod, a Cree researcher from La Ronge Indian Band in Saskatchewan.

In addition, we decided to study a control Native community that was similarly situated to the Nisga’a, but missing the key feature of independence from the Indian Act. We chose the Tsimshian Nation of northwest B.C. A culturally and linguistically similar community, it was also chosen because of its geographic closeness and similar economic situation. COMPAS, a polling firm based in Toronto, was commissioned to conduct professional telephone surveys of Nisga’a members, as well as members of the control Tsimshian population.

COMPAS purposely oversampled the Nisga’a in this project, achieving a total of 121 completions (see table 1).6 COMPAS also elected to interview Nisga’a from four different villages – New Aiyansh, Laxgalts’ap, Gingolx, and Gitwinksihlkw – to gain multiple perspectives and reduce the potential for bias. The Tsimshian sample was much smaller, with 26 respondents. The Tsimshian data can be interpreted as qualitative and suggestive, while the Nisga’a data can be treated with statistical confidence.

While Nisga’a and Tsimshian respondents were asked questions related to the quality of governance and services, we also conducted 15 “key informant” interviews among the Nisga’a. These were anonymous and confidential in-person interviews with influential members of the Nisga’a community from all four Nisga’a villages. Frontier staff conducted the key informant interviews on a face-to-face basis with sampling carried out by snowball or referral methods.

We approached the research with two hypotheses to explain why self-government may have a positive effect on the well-being of Nisga’a citizens.

On the one hand, the degree of self-determination provided by the Treaty opened up new possibilities for self-reliance, accountability and excellent governance. Devolution of authority to local Nisga’a Lisims may have enabled Nisga’a citizens to readily identify, hold accountable and reward local officials on the basis of the quality of their performance. Effective control over land and resources may also have reduced transaction costs associated with generating economic wealth and yielded better results over the long run.

On the other hand, among the Nisga’a, clan, kinship and hereditary chiefs have been central features of life. Historians have long concluded that individualism and the decline of clan and extended family have been key to accountability and the other essential ingredients of good government. Maybe self-government enabled Nisga’a to transform devolution into good governance by weakening these traditional ties. If so, it would be potent testimony to the benefits provided by the Nisga’a Treaty.

Persistent problems, hope for the future

Table 2 demonstrates that the First Nation–led local Nisga’a government enjoys more trust than any other level of government and more trust than the Tsimshian feel for their local government. The 4.3 mean among the Nisga’a respondents is the highest score for any level and for both Native communities. Table 3 shows similar results with respect to honesty in hiring and spending. This is an interesting result given that perceived problems with nepotism and a lack of transparency on financial data are common complaints levelled against Indian Act band governments.

However, according to table 4 the Nisga’a believe that their government consults people less than it did a decade ago. This result flies in the face of conventional thinking that a government closer to the people and more accountable would consult more.

Again according to table 4, a majority among the Nisga’a believe that health services have improved; they are divided equally as to whether schooling has improved or worsened. With respect to both, the Nisga’a are on average more positive than the Tsimshian. Where things get interesting is with respect to the financial situation. Most of the Nisga’a believe it has worsened since the Nisga’a Treaty came into effect. This needs to be seen in light of the serious economic strain that downturns in the forest industry and commercial fishing have caused not just in the Nass Valley but in the entire region of northwest B.C. The Tsimshian results are even more pessimistic. As with many First Nations, the reality of the Nisga’a situation is an isolated and remote location, separated from mainstream markets.

Our 15 individual interviews revealed more nuanced answers (see table 5). We spoke with influential members of the Nisga’a community across many backgrounds, including both supporters and opponents of the Treaty. When it came to governance, many respondents were still concerned about problems of perceived “politicized voting,” nepotism and a lack of separation between politics on the one hand and administration and service delivery on the other. Some felt there were real reprisals for speaking out against “corruption.” The interviewees also spoke to a lack of consultation between the Nisga’a government and its citizens. When it came to creating a cohesive identity, some key informants said that the Nisga’a Lisims government was acting in competition with the four villages instead of working with them, so they felt the old Nisga’a Tribal Council system was still alive.

When it came to economic development, some well-connected key informants identified problems with “politicized economic ventures” and bad investments. They also felt that a business mentality was not being cultivated within the communities. This could potentially explain why economic improvement does not seem to be taking place.

Many key informants were convinced that old Indian Act dependencies on public services remain, and they felt that it would take some time to overcome these old habits.

One thing that was apparent was a sense of hope for the future. Some informants demonstrated a certain “glow” in that the Nisga’a had achieved something dignifying and that the buck now stopped with them. They felt the future was now more fully in their hands, whether for good or ill.

Nisga’a individual property rights

The Nisga’a Nation made history by passing the Nisga’a Landholding Transition Act in October 2009. The legislation will allow Nisga’a residents to take up small residential lots in complete fee simple, meaning that they can transfer the land to anyone they wish and they can use the land as collateral to access credit. The move is consistent with the self-governing powers of the treaty, as the land was transferred from the Crown to the Nisga’a government in a form of “collective fee simple.” The Nisga’a government could choose to grant title to members if they wished.

The move came after three years of study and community consultation where it was determined that individual ownership and fee simple rights would be the most effective way to kickstart economic development. The issue of land ownership came up in our survey as many residents are concerned about the impacts of the change on residents. Some feel that the level of poverty makes property ownership undesirable: they fear some would gamble away their land entitlement for a “quick buck.”

Necessary or sufficient condition?

In logic, a necessary condition for a particular state of affairs is a condition that must be satisfied for that state of affairs to obtain. A sufficient condition is a condition that, if satisfied, guarantees that the state of affairs obtains. So, is self-government a necessary or sufficient condition for overall indigenous success? The results are mixed, but jurisdiction is definitely part of the puzzle.

According to Stephen Cornell of the Harvard Project, jurisdiction or authority is essential for successful Aboriginal economic development. However, self-government is not sufficient. It requires other factors to work successfully: rules and institutions, and efficacy of implementation. In other words, good governance relies on consistent application of fair rules and the ability to carry them out. One consistent conclusion of the Harvard Project studies has been that Native American tribes that possess jurisdiction are more likely to be economically successful than not.7 Thus, some form of self-government could be seen as a necessary condition for optimal success, but not a sufficient one.

However, there are First Nation bands and Native American tribes doing well without freedom from federal oversight. Some Canadian examples are the Osoyoos Indian Band in British Columbia and the Membertou First Nation in Nova Scotia. Both have carefully cultivated contact with the outside business world and concentrated on job and wealth creation. Their leaders are focused on promoting economic self-sufficiency, and Osoyoos has achieved it.8 Favourable geographical location plays a role in assuring business opportunities for Osoyoos, but geography cannot explain why the community was nearly bankrupt before, and is now a net employer in the region. Geography and resources alone cannot assure economic success. Institutions and leadership play a role.

The Frontier Centre’s Nisga’a study demonstrated that there are governance benefits to inking a self-government deal.9 There is more confidence in the government and the perception that core public services have improved.

However, economic development is another issue. The free market, and the private sector–led economic growth it generates, are the most essential factors in elevating populations out of poverty.The Economic Freedom of the World Index and the International Property Rights Index (IPRI) show the strong positive correlation between economic freedom and socioeconomic well-being. The IPRI also shows the positive correlation between strong physical and intellectual property rights and higher GDP per capita and foreign direct investment inflows.

Thus, the extent to which a First Nation community promotes private entrepreneurship, allows private ownership of property and provides for a free market will ultimately play an important role in determining whether the community experiences economic development. Economic consulting firms like Fiscal Realities Economists have repeatedly shown that the market is not permitted to function at its optimum on reserve lands, and their results are echoed by the federal government. Greater wealth could be achieved for First Nations if only a fraction of their reserve lands were converted to fee simple ownership.10

Some community development proponents argue that government-led community development is a solution for isolated bands, but there is no evidence yet to show that tribal enterprises and community development corporations are the sole solution. In fact, there is growing evidence that they are problematic. However, recent data confirm that economic development corporations are leading in economic growth on Canadian First Nations. Then again, any type of band economic venture, even if collectively owned, is better than none at all. If band-owned initiatives are effectively managed, separately from elected politicians, they are more likely to be successful.11

Can you take the Indian Act out of the “Indian”?

The main implication of these findings for First Nations seeking self-government and for policymakers is that self-government alone is not a panacea. The Nisga’a study provides evidence that governance problems continue to plague self-governing communities, although it also points to improvements in governance and services.

The study provides some support for both of our initial hypotheses. It is evident that devolution to the Nisga’a Lisims has had a definite impact on the perception of good governance and services. It is also evident that the treaty may have affected the influence of traditional governance and extended families, and created a form of authority more in line with modern governance. However, it is clear that traditions and traditional clan identities and loyalties play a continuing role in Nisga’a society and are encouraged by the Nisga’a Lisim government. So, although the Nisga’a have modern governance, it did not come completely at the expense of cultural ties, which remain strong.

Freedom from the Indian Act does not provide easy freedom from the entrenched behaviour of that regime. To paraphrase an old expression, you can take the “Indian” out of the Indian Act, but you cannot easily take the Indian Act out of the “Indian.” Building good institutions, strong leadership and goal-directed policies must proceed together once a First Nation has jurisdiction or even before a deal is signed.

At this point, we cannot conclude that self-government is either a necessary or a sufficient condition for indigenous success. We do not have enough data over time to properly assess self-governing communities. It is also worth noting that some First Nations do well without self-government. What we can say at this point is there is very compelling evidence for improvements in various areas under self-government, but these take place when self-government acts in concert with other factors. The Nisga’a study revealed this pattern in terms of governance and services.

Economic development will continue to be a significant and contentious issue. Problems of isolation and the difficulty of building a business culture continue to stymie programs intended to end First Nation poverty. This is so even in self-governing communities. The key question is whether bands use their self-government powers to unlock private entrepreneurial talent on First Nations and enable institutions like private property. The Nisga’a Nation experiment in fee simple ownership must be studied over time.



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