Tom Flanagan, First Nations? Second Thoughts Essay

For certain sectors, Tom Flanagan’s work distorts and amplifies the echoes of the past in Canada.  At the very least, one can say that his First Nations, Second Thoughts reverberates with meanings — controversial ones.  These meanings are the clearly laid out key propositions in the book as will be presented herein.

Flanagan spends much time in the book discussing concepts for he believes in the power of these concepts or words. He suggests that the political dynamics in the policy arena of indigenous peoples in Canada, just like other policy matters, is one that is anchored on the very crucial use of words and concepts.

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  Let us take, for example, “civilization.”  He particularly posits that civilization “is an objectively definable way of life, and societies that adopt it obtain a demonstrable increase in power over nature and over uncivilized societies.”

Of course the controversial meanings that he proffers are not captured as mere single-word ideas, as it were.  He offers us sets of words — complete, controversial propositions!  One glaring assertion that he proposes is that “none of the aboriginal societies of Canada were civilized” in the sense that the term is used in the book (Arihwakehte and Hussain, 2003).

To be more direct, the key ideas that Flanagan elaborates on in his work may be summarized by, if we may put it, the phrase “a critique of Canadian orthodoxy.”   This orthodoxy may be appreciated as constituted by these eight propositions as noted by Johns (2001):

  1. Aboriginals differ from other Canadians because they were there first. As first nations, they have unique rights, including the inherent right of self-government.
  2. Aboriginal cultures were on the same level as those of European colonists. The distinction between civilised and uncivilised is a racist instrument of oppression.
  3. Aboriginal peoples possessed sovereignty. They still do, even if they choose to call it ‘the inherent right of self-government’.
  4. Aboriginal peoples were and are nations in both the cultural and political senses of this term. Their nationhood is concomitant with their sovereignty.
  5. Aboriginal people can successfully exercise their inherent rights of self-government on Indian reserves.
  6. Aboriginal property rights should be recognised as full ownership rights in Canadian law and entrenched, not extinguished, through land-claims agreements.
  7. The land-surrender treaties in Ontario and the Prairie Provinces mean something other than the words indicate. Their wording needs to be modernised—reinterpreted or renegotiated—to recognise an ongoing relationship between nations.
  8. Aboriginal people, living and working on their own land base, will become prosperous and self-sufficient by combining transfer payments, resource revenues and local employment.

The book’s chapters have been essayed out to attempt to debunk each of these propositions and has thereby created the waves, which it has made in Canada’s socio-political landscape.  Moreover, the book concludes by criticizing what the author refers to as the “business and band council elites” among the peoples of the First Nations.  Flanagan argues that these elites are the only ones who are really benefiting from the current governance structures in the country.  He specifically recommends that the First Nations’ governments must be made accountable through changes in the economic and political arrangements especially in taxation and the provision of social welfare.  (Jerch, n.d.)

Flanagan’s critics argue however that his theses are not well founded and that the book is “extremely selective in its discourse on historical facts” about the First Nations.  [see Arihwakehte and Hussain, 2003]  We tend to agree with this basic observation and we especially affirm the related point that Flanagan’s assertions are not helping create better relations between the different peoples in Canada.

Sharon Venne’s review of this work, as cited by Jerch (n.d.), describes the feeling of reading it as “like watching a traffic accident” — “horrific but strangely fascinating.”  She reportedly points out that Flanagan “supports a view of history that has been widely refuted by both archaeology and many indigenous historians and academics,” and  “that he wrongly sees indigenous peoples as uncivilized unless they have adopted Western ways.”  These we cannot but affirm too.

However, there could of course be things worth listening to in the varied messages that Flanagan’s work carries.  To reiterate, he suggests that the so-called Canadian “aboriginal orthodoxy” could be unduly privileging a peculiar set of elites — activists, politicians, local leaders, administrators, middlemen, and well-connected entrepreneurs   (  In other words, to echo a classic caveat from political philosophy: who are guarding the guardians?  In other words, in the case of the First Nations, can’t their leaderships be made more accountable by their own peoples?  This is no mere sowing of distrust.  This is hard social reality.  We need not always romanticize aboriginal life-ways even as we acknowledge their rightful claims as “Nations” or independent peoples.  History reminds us to do so.

Recent history and current realities indicate that many of the recommendations that Flanagan proposes are already in place or are being worked out (Jerch, n.d.)  However, on the matter of leadership accountability and capability, one can never fully let one’s guard down, as it were.  We expect of the leaders of the First Nations the same integrity or excellence, if we may use these highly value-laden terms that we demand of the “mainstream” leaders of Canada.  But then again, what does this accountability require?

This question leads us to reflect on the kind of values that these first peoples aspire for or the kind of development that they envision as different peoples.  And here is perhaps where Flanagan fully falters — on the appreciation of the potentially  fundamental differences between the cultures that he proposed to, in effect, compare.  This relates directly to our next observations at a more philosophical plane.

            It is worth underscoring (as we already mentioned this at the beginning paragraphs of this review) how the author takes time to suggest the importance of concepts as one deals with social realities, especially with a policy orientation.  It should be noted that the eight propositions noted earlier constitute or reflect a particular philosophical perspective regarding social reality.  The concept of civilization, as a case in point, must indeed be clarified if one is to fully make sense of the complexities of the issues of aborigines or indigenous peoples.  On his definition of this concept alone Flanagan does indeed suggest a view that looks at development as if it were a linear process of change and not an iterative dynamic of progress.  And then there is the central notion of “nation” — as in the term First Nations.

            Political sociologist Benedict Anderson (1991) offers an interesting definition of the nation as an “imagined community.”  Allow us to quote from his insightful arguments (Anderson, 1991, p.5-7):

“The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind. The most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation in the way that it was possible, in certain epochs, for, say, Christians to dream of a wholly Christian planet.

“It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. Coming to maturity at a stage of human history when even the most devout adherents of any universal religion were inescapably confronted with the living pluralism of such religions, and the allomorphism between each faith’s ontological claims and territorial stretch, nations dream of being free, and, if under God, directly so. The gage and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state.

“Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.

Hence, even after reading his work, one question that we still have for Flanagan is: Who is, pray tell, a “Canadian”?  What is a “Nation,” Mr. Flanagan?  In light of these, it seems it would be best to go beyond Flanagan indeed for his notion of nation may be limited and limiting.  If Flanagan sincerely aspires to see the “development” of the quality of life of the various peoples (or simply “persons,” as he prefers) that constitute Canada, then one needs a more honest and critical assessment of Canadian history and current “national” situation.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised Edition ed. London and New York: Verso, 1991.

Arihwakehte, Clifton and Samir Hussain, “Controversy: a euphemism for racist doctrines,” February 26, 2003.

Frontier Center for Public Policy, Conversations with Tom Flanagan,

Jerch, Michael, “Sovereignty Corner: My view of Tom Flanagan’s “new” book First Nations? Second Thoughts.”

Johns, Gary.  Quadrant, Tuesday, May 01, 2001 Review of First Nations? Second Thoughts,]

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