Domination and Diversity: Galileo's Lesson for Canada

Peter d'Errico

Galileo's telescopic observations converted him to the sun-centered view of the planetary system, and thereby made him a target for the Roman Inquisition. The Church was committed to an earth-centered view of the celestial realms. Galileo's deviance from thought patterns prescribed by the Church set the stage for the historic early 17th century clash of world views.

As Dan Hofstadter puts it in his book, The Earth Moves, the clash between Galileo and the Church turned on "seeing as opposed to the refusal to see" [emphasis in original]. Galileo reported what he saw; the Church refused to see.

What has this to do with Indigenous People's rights?

The recent defeat in the Canadian House of Commons of a bill that would have incorporated the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into the law of Canada demonstrates a similar conflict between "seeing" and "refusal to see."

In the aftermath of the vote, Mark Strahl, a Conservative Party Member of Parliament was quoted as rejecting any obligation for the Canadian government to obtain "free, prior and informed consent [from Indigenous Peoples] before adopting and implementing legislative or administration measures that may affect them."

Strahl stated, "In the strongest terms, our government rejects this notion.... Our government believes that it was elected to serve the interests of all Canadians and that we should develop and pass legislation and initiatives that are in the public interest of and would benefit all Canadians."

In saying this, the MP refused to see that Indigenous Peoples are not actually "Canadians," even though they reside within geographic boundaries claimed by the Canadian state.

The Conservative MP may believe that Aboriginal Peoples have disappeared into the homogenization of Canadian citizenship. He may believe that the Canadian government, created by Christian European colonizers, eliminated the separate, distinctive Aboriginal Peoples and terminated their separate, distinctive histories. These beliefs are the orthodoxy of the Conservative Party in Canada.

The representatives of Aboriginal Peoples challenge those orthodox Canadian beliefs. They see the original and continuously existing Aboriginal Peoples.

Romeo Saganash, the Member of Parliament for Nunavik and the New Democratic Party deputy critic for Intergovernmental Aboriginal Affairs, proposed the bill that was defeated. He described the bill as a means for the Canadian government "to engage in genuine partnership with Indigenous peoples." He stated the bill "could bring reconciliation and equivalent rights to Canada’s Aboriginal peoples."

The word "partnership" defines a view that Aboriginal Peoples are not simply "Canadians," but occupy a different status. "Reconciliation" calls for the repair of the relationship of partnership that has been damaged or broken. "Equivalent" indicates that neither partner is subordinate to the other. These words describe a perspective that the majority of the Canadian government denied in their votes against the bill.

Back to Galileo: Galileo drew well and was friends with a number of artists. His telescope work dovetailed with his interest in painting and pictorial representation of perspective. He was familiar with the use of frescoed domes in churches to display the official view of the cosmos as earth-centered. In particular, he was aware of the problem of distorted perspective caused by the attempt to portray a cosmos inside a dome.

Hofstadter writes that the church used painted domes with the aim of "countering the spread of the Galilean world picture." The dome, painted with images of stars and planets, presented viewers with an image of an earth-centered cosmos, in keeping with Church doctrine.

The domes, however, presented a serious problem with perspective: the pictures only made sense if the viewer stood at the center. For a moving viewer, the images began to look weird, breaking the illusion.

In an effort to prevent the dome illusion from collapsing, churches tried various means of confining viewers. According to Hofstadter, "the binding of viewers to a fixed point under the dome came to serve as a metaphor for [the Church's] refusal to accept Copernican reasoning." Hofstadter calls this "the perfect visual symbol of a gigantic intellectual self-deception."

Church officials threatened Galileo with torture because he saw movement and said the earth is moving, and thereby gave priority to empirical observation over Church doctrine. Three decades earlier, the Inquisition burned Giordano Bruno at the stake for insisting that the universe consists of an infinite number of moving solar systems.

Hofstadter describes Pope Urban VIII, leader of the Catholic Church at the time of Galileo's trial, as a "chief administrator" and "manager." The pope, says Hofstadter, "legitimately worries that doctrinal chaos is erupting on his watch, and he has no clear view of what is happening." The pope decided that only the Inquisition—the "Holy Office"—could bring matters under control.

Hofstadter describes the Inquisition as "unquestionably a form of mind police... a Christian mind police...aimed not only to discover what the accused was thinking but also to reform his thoughts...to return him, fit for salvation, to the body of the church...."

The central issue in the trial of Galileo was insubordination: the challenge to official church doctrine.

This brings us full circle to the Canadian Parliament and the defeat of the bill that would have brought Canada law in accord with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. For the dominant power in the Canadian government, the notion that it must obtain "free and informed consent" from anyone—let alone from Aboriginal Peoples—is heresy. As MP Strahl stated, "In the strongest terms, our government rejects this notion."

The UN Declaration marks a turning point in the history of international relations. After more than 500 years of governments based on the Christian doctrine of "discovery," the world faces a resurgence of Indigenous self-determination. The UN Declaration challenges the sovereignty of "Christian discovery" and threatens the doctrinal stability of governments based on that notion.

This threat, just like Galileo's observations, is rooted in the power of people to see and think for themselves, and especially in the power of Indigenous Peoples to provide different and independent perspectives on the organization of the world's political-economy.

"Free and informed consent" is a heresy from the perspective of governments based on the notion of a single central sovereignty. But from an Indigenous People's perspective, where every homeland is a center and every boundary is a place of fluid and shifting relations with neighbors, "free and informed consent" is a vital part of peaceful resolution of differences among equals.

 Jose Barrerio once wrote, "Indigenous is nearly synonymous with diversity." Aboriginal Peoples represent diversity in a world where dominant powers represent central administration. Indigenous self-determination—free and informed consent—represents a way forward in a world increasingly beset by the chaos of competing central powers.

The power of the Canadian government rests on the doctrine of central domination. The power of Aboriginal Peoples rests on the empirical fact of diversity. Canada missed an opportunity to work with the perspective of diversity. Perhaps it will be ready at the next opportunity.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.

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