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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The language of empowerment : symbolic politics and Indian political discourse in Canada Jhappan, Carol R. (Carol Radha)


The question of how subordinated groups in democratic states set about shifting their political relationship with their encompassing societies has received little attention among political scientists in Canada. Groups which lack significant political, legal, and economic resources, and which are stigmatized by an inferior status (reinforced by law and policy) do not enjoy the level playing field predicted by pluralist interest group theory. Yet they are sometimes able to overcome these obstacles and to renegotiate their political and legal status. The question is how some groups are able to do this, and what strategies are available to or obligatory for groups wishing to initiate political bargaining. According to the theory of symbolic politics developed here, disadvantaged minorities seeking political benefits from the state will typically conduct politics at the symbolic level. That is, they tend to invoke a range of political symbols and myths: first, to build in-group solidarity by presenting an analysis of a common past and present, as well as a vision of the future society, and thereby legitimate their political aspirations. In the first stage of minority politicization, such groups must: (a) build a sense of community of interests and goals which can be said to represent the reference group as a whole; (b) reverse the stigmatic identity ascribed to them by the dominant society; and (c) find ways of competing with the dominant society, not on the latter's terms, but on alternative ideological grounds. In the second stage of politicization, minorities must: (a) create appropriate demands; (b) learn to use the mechanisms, methods and institutions of the mainstream political process; and (c) eventually routinize conflict by negotiating stable norms to guide on-going relations with government. Subordinated groups do not normally seek purely material benefits. They usually seek symbolic benefits in the form of rights, and a redefined status within society. Thus, much of their politicking is conducted in public, and is largely devoted to capturing public sympathy which can be used as a resource against government. The political myths and symbols employed are characteristically emotive and imprecise. Political goals are presented in symbolic terms, and are advanced at the level of principle rather than substance. When applied to the case of Native Indian politics in the Canadian context, the evidence confirms the accuracy of these hypotheses. Indians have pursued the symbolic strategies predicted by the model: the essence of their political aspirations has been captured in the symbols of aboriginal title/aboriginal rights, land claims, and ultimately, self-government; at the macro level, they have sought predominantly symbolic benefits, as represented by legislative and constitutional recognition of certain rights and privileges; and they have attempted to win public support to use as a bargaining chip vis-a-vis government. However, they have not been entirely successful in their use of the symbolic strategies outlined, and the evidence suggests that they have reached a public opinion impasse. Despite their efforts, public opinion on native and native issues has remained remarkably stable over the last twenty years, so that further effort in this area is likely to bring diminishing returns. In the end, symbolic politics, while necessary for subordinated groups in their fledgling stages of politicization, must eventually give way to more conventional political methodologies as groups become institutionalized in the mainstream political process.

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