On the Usage of Language

Lubicon Lake Indian Nation
Little Buffalo Lake, AB
FAX: 403-629-3939

Mailing address:
3536 - 106 Street
Edmonton, AB T6J 1A4
FAX: 403-437-0719

November 3, 1991

Enclosed for your information is a commentary on the use of language by John Goddard. If a greater number of popular Canadian writers worked as hard at communicating the true and essential nature of these things -- rather than simply repeating the words and phrases so carefully chosen by professional "spin artists" to deliberately deceive and/or obfuscate -- both the issues and solutions would be far more readily available.

Canadians would likely also soon replace the thereby exposed Mulroney Government.

The Montreal Gazette, Saturday, October 26, 1991



John Goddard

As a reporter in the Northwest Territories years ago, I was careful not to write the word Indian. I would write of native and indigenous and aboriginal peoples, but I considered the term Indian somehow pejorative. If the Inuit were asking not to be called Eskimos, why perpetuate another misnomer? The only problem was that there seemed to be no other general term for a non-Inuit native.

After working for three years on a book about the Lubicon Cree of northern Alberta, I've learned that there are more important distinctions to worry about. At council meetings and annual assemblies, I've heard Indian people refer to themselves unabashedly as Indians. Attitude is all. People uncomfortable with Jewishness tend to say "the Jewish people" instead of "the Jews". And people frightened of disabilities are beginning to say "physical challenges." My uneasiness with Indian, I've come to realize, had something to do with feeling awkward around people whose culture and way of life I couldn't immediately understand or appreciate. Using a polite term like "aboriginal people" seemed a way to display a respect I didn't at first feel. I now use Indian freely.

During the course of writing the book, other terms I had never questioned presented themselves for scrutiny. One of the first was "land claims."

The constitution provides that "existing aboriginal and treaty rights...are hereby recognized and affirmed." In a strict dictionary sense, a legal claim and a legal right can be synonymous, but the word "claim" conveys a subtle spuriousness. In the same way that "Bourassa claimed today" casts doubt on the veracity of what the premier said, the term "land claim" tends to challenge the legitimacy of an Indian group's position, serving vested interests.

Indian Affairs people almost always say "land claims". Occasionally they say "land entitlements." Virtually never do they say "land rights", but I came to realize that the Lubicon case was about rights. The nature and extent of those rights were up for discussion, but not even the government questioned whether the band had outstanding land rights.

Once distinctions between rights and claims are clear, reporters need never repeat the offense committed in Montreal throughout the summer of 1990, when a confrontation was said to be taking place "on land the Mohawks claim as theirs". Occasionally, a reporter would say "disputed land" on second reference, but nobody ever said "on land the Oka municipality claims as theirs," signalling a bias about which most reporters seemed unaware.

Sometimes efforts to report neutrally can be awkward. I once wrote that certain bands "didn't end up with" as much reserve land as they were entitled to under treaty. Indian Affairs people often say they are "giving" native people reserve land, a verb derived form the colonial idea that the Crown acquires territory, then gives a reserve and other benefits in exchange. Indian groups see themselves as "retaining" part of their territory as a reserve, while giving up the rest in exchange for certain benefits. Struggling for compromise, I settled on "didn't end up with".

One term I still wrestle with is "nation".

In the fall of 1988, the Lubicon people pulled out of the Canadian courts in frustration and declared themselves a sovereign nation, with dominion over thousands of square kilometres of unceded Lubicon territory. They enacted their own laws and regulations, and insisted that the hundreds of oil workers in the territory abide by them. Rather than do so, the workers left, precipitating a six-day confrontation with provincial authorities.

Conceptually, the stand was helpful to a public unfamiliar with the issues. Asserting nationhood got the message across that the Lubicon people had never signed a treaty and that in significant ways the land had never belonged to Canada. I asked myself whether I should drop further references to "Lubicon band" and substitute "Lubicon nation".

The word "nation" can have different connotations for different people, however, and so far I've been skirting the issue. I write about the Lubicon people, the Lubicon community and the Lubicon society. I am careful not to write the word "nation" the way I once avoided "Indian" but motivated this time by a search for clarity, not mere politeness.