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2004 Conference:
Consent as the Foundation for Political Community

Inaugural Conference of the Consortium on Democratic Constitutionalism
University of Victoria, 1-3 October 2004

This conference – Demcon’s inaugural conference – will explore the role of consent in the foundation, maintenance and reconfiguration of political communities. It will do so specifically in the context of indigenous communities and indigenous/non-indigenous relations.

Analyzing Theories of Consent

Many political theories employ consent as the foundational element in their explanations of social cohesion, their justification for political authority, and their judgements as to the legitimacy of change and reconstitution. This is true of social-contract theories, in which the very constitution of political society is grounded in agreement. But it is also true of theories founded upon tradition, culture, communitarian solidarity, or an organic conception of the nation, in which political structures are often said to express the will of the people, or where custom is said to instantiate the consent of the community.

Many of these notions of consent look decidedly odd. In the case of social-contract theories, the “agreement” is almost always entirely notional. There is no moment at which people actually manifest their consent. Similar problems afflict the consent invoked in more communitarian theories, where the will of the community is said to be inherent in its traditions, culture, or nationhood.

Political Communities
In what way is a community’s existence a matter of will or decision? What does the notion of consent add to the simple assertion that a community exists?

Theories of consent have also been vulnerable to critical examination of the impact of power and inequality, the existence of a pre-determined structure of options, and implicit presumptions as to the characteristics of the agent who is giving their “consent”.

This workshop will consider consent as the foundation for political community, examining the theories’ shortcomings. But it will also explore reasons for the widespread reliance on consent. What accounts for this reliance? Is it all a charade, or does the invocation of consent speak to important aspects of human agency in community? Are there more adequate ways of expressing this role for human agency?

Indigenous Communities and Indigenous/Non-indigenous Relations
The conference examines these issues in the specific context of treaty-making, indigenous governance, and relations across the indigenous/non-indigenous divide.

Those relations occur in contexts where the language of consent bulks large. They generate disputes about the mechanisms for collective consent both within indigenous and non-indigenous societies and in relations across the divide. They are marked by examples of interaction and acculturation without explicit acts of will. And they concern nations in which concepts other than consent – culture, tradition, inherent nationhood, etc – have explicitly competed with or displaced consensual union as the foundation of political community.

It is an especially fruitful context in which the challenges of consent can be explored. This theoretical reflection should in turn help to clarify how one conceives of and constructs processes of indigenous/non-indigenous interaction.