A Response to Flanagan’s “First Nations? Second Thoughts”

Professor Tom Flanagan, political scientist at the University of Calgary and former advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, caused controversy in 2000 with the publication of “First Nations? Second Thoughts”. In this work, Flanagan outlines a number of “social science misconceptions” about Canada’s historic position on aboriginal peoples. One such ‘misconception’ is the idea that “aboriginal cultures were on the same level as those of the European colonists. The distinction between civilized and uncivilized is a racist instrument of oppression.” Flanagan consequently argues that European civilization was several thousand years more advanced than the aboriginal cultures of North America, both in technology and in social organization, and because of this the European colonization of North America was inevitable and (if we accept the philosophy of John Locke) justifiable (emphasis my own). The following essay will consequently respond to Flanagan’s assertions, using this first ‘misconception’ as a starting point to discuss themes which run throughout his book, with the ultimate aim of deconstructing the problematic and highly ethnocentric assumptions which underlie his arguments. Themes to be discussed include social evolutionary theory, his assumption that agriculture is an indicator of “civilization” and the colonial doctrine of terra nullius.

Flanagan begins by arguing that in order to attain ‘civilization’ a society must possess a number of attributes, including “intensive agriculture” and “advanced technology” (Flanagan 2000: 33). He emphasizes that he does not wish to make a value judgement, stating that ‘savagery’ and ‘civilization’ are simply “stages of social development” (Flanagan 2000: 34). As a starting point, these definitions are practically identical to the theories presented by the evolutionary anthropologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. During this time of ‘discovery’ and settlement, it was believed that the more ‘civilised’ a society, “the more complex its technology, the more complete was thought to be its mastery or control over nature” (Ingold 2000: 312). His reference to such stages of social development echoes the highly problematic theories of social evolution. Theorists such as Edward Burnett Tylor understood differences between humans to be due to the unequal development of common capacities, thus hunter-gatherers were considered to be at a lower developmental stage than Europeans (Stocking 2009: 869). These stages were defined as savagery, barbarism and civilization, a vocabulary also found in Flanagan’s work. Flanagan seems to propose a very similar stage theory, illustrated by his comparison between Europe and the Americas: “It is also true that the Old World was about five thousand years ahead of the New World on the path of civilization” (Flanagan 2000: 46). Such ideas of social evolution were largely discredited by the twentieth century, with Franz Boas as the leading opponent at the time who argued against the evolutionists’ assumption that all humans were governed by universal laws. In his writing, Flanagan offers the definition of “civilization” as if it were a universal truth, and yet I would argue that his arguments reveal more about his political intentions than the actual people he claims to write about.

Furthermore, Flanagan assumes that agriculture is a necessary step towards attaining ‘civilization’, a common argument made by eighteenth and nineteenth century colonizers. The idea that agriculture is a way of mastering nature is fundamental to the society/nature dichotomy which has dominated Western thought (Ingold 2000: 312); however assuming it to be a universal truth as Flanagan does is problematic. ‘Production’ is attached to farming as an example of how humans transform the environment in order to attain a specific end. Friedrich Engels was one of the first to distinguish between ‘production’ and ‘collection’: “The most that the animal can achieve is to collect; man produces, he prepares the means of life…which without him nature would not have produced” (Engels 1934: 308). This, however, left a certain gap in the categorization of hunter-gatherers, and ever since “the humanity of hunter-gatherers has been somehow in question” (Ingold 2000: 78). I do not suggest that Flanagan doubts the humanity of the aboriginal peoples of Canada; however he does follow the same type of logic which saw agriculture as a necessary step to reach a certain higher stage in the ‘development’ process, one which has historically led to the dispossession of aboriginal peoples.

The colonial assumptions regarding agriculture and the binary of civilization/savagery were heavily influenced by John Locke, someone who Flanagan refers to frequently to justify his arguments. In Locke’s labour theory of property he argued that “those who did not labour on the land wandered over […] unassisted nature, land that yielded little and lay in common” (Harris 2004: 171). This was understood to have been the state of America before the arrival of Europeans, and consequently labour justified individual property rights. Indigenous peoples, because they did not practice agriculture, were understood to not labour for future returns, and this justified their dispossession. “Bringing labour” was thus seen as an important part of the colonial process (Harris 2002: xxii). Flanagan also draws on Erner de Vattel, who shared many of Locke’s views:

“Those who occupy this idle mode of life occupy more land than they would have need of under a system of honest labour, and they may not complain if other more industrious Nations, too confined at home, should come and occupy part of their lands.” (Vattel quoted in Flanagan 2000: 41)

Hunting and gathering has been deeply misunderstood in European discourse, and Flanagan continues this misinterpretation. Contrary to Flanagan’s argument, hunting and gathering is anything but idle, and the suggestion that hunter-gatherers are not concerned with the future is completely flawed. Among the Iñupiat for example, “hunting” is understood to include “attracting, killing, butchering, transforming the animal into food and clothing (which attracts), and following the proper rituals, all of which are needed to maintain amicable animal/human relations” (Bodenhorn 1990: 64). Proper treatment of animals is thus necessary to ensure that they return in the future, and they labour continuously in order to maintain the reciprocal relationships between them and the animal-persons which inhabit the same social world as humans. Flanagan’s claim that agriculture is an indicator of a more developed society is based on European understandings of the environment, and such claims have long been used by colonial powers as a justification for removing indigenous peoples from their lands and placing them in small, confined reservations.

Another point which must be considered is Flanagan’s justification of terra nullius as a means to appropriate indigenous lands:

“But if, as I have argued, the distinction between civilized and uncivilized is meaningful, then the doctrine of terra nullius comes into play, because sovereignty in the strict sense exists only in the organized states characteristic of civilized societies” (Flanagan 2000: 59)

According to the definition Flanagan has provided of civilization, he has thus concluded that the aboriginal peoples of Canada were not as civilized as Europeans at that time (Flanagan 2000: 36). He argues that because indigenous people were not organized according to the European concept of the State, they held no right to their lands, and thus, because the colonizers were organized under a State system, they rightfully claimed sovereignty over the territory (Flanagan 2000: 56). This claim is highly problematic because Flanagan assumes that the State is the only way that people should organize themselves, as if it were a universal yardstick of progress. How can he judge people according to categories that are incompatible with their understandings of the world? Flanagan clearly has very little understanding of other perceptions of the environment, and bases his arguments on inherently flawed assumptions which he himself has decided to be universally true.

In his title, Flanagan refers to “second thoughts”, yet his arguments would be more accurately defined as “first thoughts” – they are similar to many of the same assumptions used by the colonizers and settlers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to justify the forced seizure of indigenous lands. In his claim that they did not possess agriculture and thus did not use the land properly, he denies indigenous people a certain presence in the land which ultimately means that according to his logic, the land was unused and free for settlement. In his book, Flanagan has bestowed upon himself the power and right to judge and compare indigenous people according to his own ethnocentric assumptions, based on categories of “civilization” and “savagery”. Belanger (2002), in his review of Flanagan’s book, points out the fact that Flanagan did not even visit any indigenous communities during his research, which is quite apparent from the arguments he makes. As a conservative political scientist, it is clear that his opinion has been greatly influenced by a discourse that encouraged the dispossession of indigenous peoples as spearheaded by thinkers such as Locke, Vattel and Hobbes. Ultimately, he seems to have chosen his sources specifically to prove his own opinion, which has resulted in a very biased, ethnocentric argument. I would agree with Belanger however, when he comments on the importance of Flanagan’s book in making such ideas publically available. His work has illustrated the problematic stereotypes which still haunt indigenous people to this day, and I can only hope that his book has stimulated an even greater effort to disprove such misconceptions.


Belanger, Y. D. (2002). Book Review of Citizen’s Plus and First Nations? Second Thoughts. The Journal of Aboriginal Economic Development , 104-107.

Bodenhorn, B. (1990). I’m not the Great Hunter, My Wife Is: Inupiat and Anthropological Models of Gender. Etudes Inuit Studies , 55-74.

Engels, F. (1934). Dialectics of nature. Moscow: Progress.

Flanagan, T. (2000). First Nations? Second Thoughts. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press .

Harris, C. (2002). Making Native Space. Vancouver: UBC Press.

–          (2004). How Did Colonialism Dispossess? Comments from an Edge of Empire. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 165-182.

Ingold, T. (2000). The Perception of the Environment, Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Oxon: Routledge .

Stocking, G. W. (1966). Franz Boas and the Culture Concept in Historical Perspective. American Anthropologist , 867-882.


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