Book Review: Citizens Plus


Cairns, Alan C. Citizens Plus: Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian State. Vancouver and Toronto: University of British Columbia Press, 2000. viii + 280 pages.

Colonialism has left a world ripe with challenges. In many locations, these concerns involve the relationship between aboriginal peoples and the nation-state. In his book, Citizens Plus: Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian State, Alan C. Cairns addresses Canada’s confrontation with its aboriginal population. Cairns summarizes the two solutions to the aboriginal issue that have dominated Canadian dialogues, then proceeds to argue that a middle road would ultimately avoid many of the pitfalls that have plagued previous "solutions." In undertaking this exercise, Cairns deals with issues that are found beyond the borders of Canada. In addition, he makes two points that should be of interest to scholars of nationalism more broadly. First he makes a powerful argument for considering global developments when writing about otherwise parochial topics. Second, he points out that all of us define ourselves in a variety of ways. Multiple identities are ubiquitous, but this does not diminish the importance or potency of nationalism. While this book will likely be of the greatest interest to scholars concerned with Canadian history and politics, it is easily accessible to lay readers, and offers useful ideas for scholars interested in other regions of the world.

From the arrival of Europeans in Canada until the 1960s, the dominant belief was that either Aboriginal peoples "would die out or they would merge into and disappear in the majority of the population" (40). By the 1960s, this view had lost credibility. The native population had not disappeared—it had grown rapidly. As numbers increased, so did Aboriginal self-consciousness, the assertion of cultural pride, and the desire for political power to revitalize native communities. Cairns suggests that there was an additional, and equally important, casual factor involved, however—the international environment. After the Second World War, the imperialism of the previous two centuries quickly eroded. In Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, colonial regimes collapsed leaving native people to govern themselves. Meanwhile, closer to home, nationalist rumblings in Quebec provided a model by which to demand increased power and additional rights. These international lessons were not lost on Canada's first nations.

The assimilation paradigm was quickly replaced by parallelism, or "two row wampum." According to this view, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities should operate along parallel tracks. Where difference was previously ignored, now it was seen as the defining principle of relations between the two communities. If taken to its logical extreme, this would lead to native self-government—an end that the author flatly notes is impossible.

While assimilation completely ignored the vibrancy of native culture, Cairns argues that two row wampum ignores commonalties and political realities. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike still require social assistance, need to function in the international community, and they share economic interests. Ironically, there is less difference between the two communities now than at any time in the past. For example, Canada is increasingly an urban society. Natives have flocked to the cities and urban culture has come to predominate. This is not to question the uniqueness of native culture, but rather points out that each party shares similarities, as well as differences. As Cairns writes, "To proclaim only one identity is to cease to be a social being" (107).

Cairns steps into the gap between these two paradigms and suggests a compromise—"Citizens plus." He argues that differences should be acknowledged, but not at the expense of common identity and common interests. The author "applaud(s) legal scholarship supportive of a better future for Aboriginal peoples by self-government, recognition of Aboriginal title, etcetera" (177). But at the same time, Cairns claims that these things should not be addressed without giving equal weight to what is shared. He suggests that what is required are "bonds of empathy so that our togetherness is moral as well as geographical" (211).

"Citizens Plus" certainly seems like a wonderful idea. Who could deny the appeal of living together in harmony and of growing through discussion of both similarities and differences? I wonder how realistic it is, however? Unfortunately, the more entrenched humans become in a given nationalist debate, the more they foster "hot nationalism," and, as a result, the more scarce compromise and understanding becomes. That said, Cairns gives those involved in the Canadian debate, to say nothing of similar conflicts worldwide, something to think about.

Scholars of nationalism should also be informed by the argument in this book. As I have suggested above, Cairns positions the Canadian case firmly within an international context. Regardless of whether one is concerned with nationalism in Scotland, Ireland, Spain, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, or anyplace else for that matter, no discussion of nationalism can safely ignore the international setting in which it takes place. Cairns offers a model suggesting how this might be done without losing the regional specificity of one’s work.

Finally, the author’s thesis also provides a useful reminder of the complexity inherent in discussions of identity. "Banal nationalism" is difficult to study precisely because it is not always readily visible to the observer’s gaze. At the same time, "hot nationalism" just as easily can blind us to the plethora of identities and influences bubbling below the surface.

Although readers might conclude that Cairns offers a rose-colored solution to an infinitely complex question, Citizens Plus remains a highly readable and informative introduction to the Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relationship in Canada.