Photo: CBC

It's an iconic photo—young Patrick Cloutier, of the "Van Doos" and the young Mohawk warrior Brad Larocque standing eyeball to eyeball on the front lines of the Oka crisis during the early 1990s. Along with memories of the birth-marked Mikhael Gorbachev and the fall of the Berlin wall, that image is burned into my memory as part of the tumult of my childhood as a Canadian boy growing up in the '80s and '90s.

Canada has, in one sense, come a long way from that tumultuous time. Our government has apologized for the travesties of residential schools and is working—however awkwardly—to bring the truth of those horrors to light—all in the hope of bringing reconciliation between Aboriginals and the rest of us. The Harper government has also made the symbolic move to change the name of the federal department responsible for interaction with Aboriginals from the perjorative Department of Indian and Northern Development to a more accurate Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.

But, for all of the apparent steps forward, Canada is still standing in the same spot: eyeball to eyeball with Aboriginals.

The reason for this is not, as some are wont to believe, a failure to properly administer or fund programs which will help Aboriginals achieve economic or educational success. We (Canada and its Aboriginal peoples) have been trying this approach for decades, and one is hard pressed to show any real signs of success. In fact, signs of failure are much easier to spot.

This approach has failed because it fails to recognize the chthonic—perhaps even religious—character of the standoff. The disputes between Aboriginals and our government (and by extension, us) aren't really about clean water or education. The dispute is between competing visions of nationhood, community, and authority. The photo taken at Oka is so iconic because it manifests that divide. A state, and yes, a nation too, is defined in part by its monopoly on the lawful means of coercive—even lethal—force. The photo taken at Oka shows not a monopoly, but a duopoly. Two nations, with differing conceptions of the good, at odds with one another. The recent spat about passports near the Cornwall border only shows that this duopoly is still around.

This is not to say that such divides cannot be bridged or that differing conceptions of the good must result in the standoffs we've seen at Oka or, more recently, Caledonia. It is simply to say that chief Atleo is closer to reality than Ottawa when he says that Ottawa and Aboriginals must rewrite their relationship. What is needed is not more funding or better administered programs, but hard conversations about whose conception of the good is better; whose authority is valid and when and where and why. These are, at base, not administrative questions, but philosophical and indeed religious ones. Ottawa and Aboriginals would do well to think in these terms rather than in the mistaken paradigm which currently marks much discussion on the subject.