Colonial past, colonial present
The closing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was marked in Ottawa by thousands of First Nations participating in a march and three-day gathering. Photo by Ben Powless.
“The more Things change, the more they stay the same.” The aphorism may be overused, but it aptly captures the current state of relations between Stephen Harper and Indigenous peoples: our current government is perpetuating the legacy of its predecessors while moving into decidedly dangerous territory.
As more and more mining operations come online, as tar sands operators look to more than double current production, as energy companies seek to lay nearly 10,000 km of new pipelines across the continent, a few things are clear.
We’re headed for trouble — and not just because climate change will soon make life here (and everywhere) increasingly inhospitable. The aggressive expansion plans of the resource industry in particular, championed by our fearless leader, are on a collision course with the current legal regime surrounding Indigenous land rights.
We’ve already seen some warning signs that things are heating up, such as the recent militarized efforts by the RCMP to shut down an anti-fracking movement in Elsipogtog. But that may be just the beginning. Emboldened by expanded legal recognition and severely deteriorated relationships with the federal government, many First Nations may be propelled toward actions in defence of land and water that are depicted by the powers that be as domestic terrorism. That was precisely one of the main aims of Bill C-51.
For the most part, this is nothing new. Mining has always been highly destructive. Energy projects, from dams to oil patches, have always been imposed on Native communities. Treaties remain unrecognized, with most Canadians imagining their country was founded on an armed victory over the Red Man.
Elsipogtog, New Brunswick, October 2013. RCMP launches massive military-style assault on Aboriginal protesters. Video stills from “Fault Lines: Elsipogtog — The Fire Over Water” posted by Al Jazeera.
So what’s new?
Stephen Harper’s brand of colonialism is not new. In fact, we can even learn something by looking at the governments that came before him.
You see, Canadian prime ministers have always had an “Indian Problem” — which has really meant a “These Indians still have land that we want” problem. Imagine how easy it would have been to settle these lands extract all oil, eat all the buffalo and live the good life, if only they weren’t full of pesky Indians blathering on about treaties, the rule of law and their human rights….
And a lot of them had different perspectives on how to go about resolving this huge “problem.” Assimilation was the great Liberal dream. Absorbing Indians into the general population was understood as a way to put to rest to their claims of particular rights or concerns about the buffalo going extinct.
Among the most infamous of these efforts was, of course, the residential school system. The principal proponent of that system, Duncan Campbell Scott, was a close friend of Sir John A. McDonald. The head of the Department of Indian Affairs through the early 20th century, Scott wrote: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem…. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.”
The intent could not have been clearer. And he set out to accomplish just that by creating a brutal “schooling” system designed to take plucky Indian children and turn them into respectable English-speaking Christians. It might well have worked, except that almost no families could afford education beyond primary school, and they forgot to tell respectable White people to abandon their stereotypes and offer jobs, the vote, and other benefits of “belonging” to these newly enabled citizens.
So that whole episode was a bit of a flop, and the government was still left with this Indian Problem. Well, that was all supposed to change with the ushering in of Pierre Elliot Trudeau and his Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian policy — fittingly dubbed the 1969 White Paper — under the management of his minister of Indian Affairs, Jean Chrétien. His proposal sought to pursue the aims of past governments by simply getting rid of the word “Indian.” That’s it — no more “Indian act,” no more people called “Indians,” no more reserve lands and no more federal responsibility for “Indian” issues. Done. Gone. Dealt with.
That was the plan, at least, until some disgruntled Indians got all indignant and started one of Canada’s first great social movements, bringing together grassroots leaders and chiefs from across the land. The movement would eventually lead to the creation of the Assembly of First Nations (then called the National Indian Brotherhood), and would eventually reject the White Paper as a “solution” imposed on people who were still seen as problems.
For our purposes, not a whole lot happened thereafter. Sure, there were land claims commissions, Supreme Court rulings, more inquiries than you could shake a stick at. There was even a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples designed to take a fresh look at the Indian Problem; it came up with hundreds of ideas, each promptly ignored. There were ups and downs, but the Indian problem remained a backburner issue while governments focused on sexier questions.
From the moment Harper grimaced onto the stage, something was very different. He didn’t act or sound like other prime ministers. He didn’t feign any of the pretensions of loving the Native peoples. And it seemed he had a cold, calculated plan we can piece together in retrospect, to gradually do away with Indian lands and Indian laws one little bit at a time.
No Canadian government has been at ease with the idea that Native people might have more rights to protect their lands than “ordinary” folk. Most anywhere in the country, oil or mining companies can stake your property or put a pipeline right through it without you having much of a say. This is not quite the case in Native communities (reserves) and territories (unceded areas of the country, like most of B.C, the Maritimes, big expanses of Québec and Ontario, etc). Instead, the courts have established that there must be some attempt at consultation and accommodation. In other words, it’s not the same as having a veto, more of a (legally enforceable) checkbox that says “This community has been consulted” about potential oil, mining, or other resource projects.
Then, in 2007, the United Nations issued its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Not as strong as a convention, a declaration still becomes part of the spirit of international law, usually leading to national governments adopting laws. The Declaration contained many provisions that would have protected Indigenous cultures, but one of the sticking points for Stephen Harper was that it contained a provision calling for Indigenous Peoples to have the right of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent over any development or even laws that could have an adverse impact on them, their lands, or their cultures.
It was as if the UN had deployed blue-helmets to shut down Canada’s prosperity-engine of mining and oil. Harper said that provision was unconstitutional, despite an open letter by over 100 legal and constitutional experts asserting the opposite. By now, it’s clear that most facts only exist to the extent that they support Harper’s vision. Canada joined Australia, New Zealand and the United States as the only countries to vote against the Declaration. Eventually, after a massive campaign, the government relented in 2010, saying they were confident they could interpret the document in a way that meshed with their understanding of the constitution, which means they are confident they can ignore it entirely.
Of course, the bigger backdrop to all this PR spin has remained the same: it’s all about the economy — specifically, the resource economy. You wouldn’t guess it from government talking points, but the oil, gas, mining, and forestry industry ranks only 14th of the 16 industries that Statscan tracks in terms of jobs. Historically, compared to other sectors of the economy, resources employ relatively little labour while earning big profits for investors.
Photo by Al Jazeera
Follow the money
In December 2011, a group of industry associations that included the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) wrote a private letter to Ottawa asking for changes to a slew of laws that were slowing down progress. In January 2012, the government began attacking environmentalists and First Nations as radicals and extremists trying to undermine the Canadian economy. By October, it had tabled two omnibus budget bills that delivered the remaining vestiges of environmental oversight right into industry’s hands.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment process was gutted, with almost no projects now requiring an assessment. The National Energy Board, which approves pipelines much like a loan shark approves loans (read: always), was also gutted and had its power of approval given to Cabinet. The protection of fisheries and navigable waters (read: water) was removed from about 2.8 million lakes and rivers, and reduced to just 159 still deemed worthy of protection (amazingly, many in Conservative cottage country!).
In addition to changes to First Nations reserve land laws, climate change oversight was slashed. Since then, CAPP even asked the government to consider what would happen to business interests if certain animals continue to be ranked as endangered without first considering economic interests.
The backlash was to be expected. In December 2012, a series of protests made the name Idle No More a household word. From its origins as a protest movement of grassroots Indigenous organizers against the omnibus budgets, it evolved into a full-blown rejection of the government on a wide range of Aboriginal issues, maybe the biggest mobilization of Native people since the 1969 White Paper.
The government didn’t back off, but neither did Idle No More and other groups it helped to nurture. Native issues were again making a splash, and making the government look uncaring, if not malicious, to many middle-class voters. Suddenly, it seemed, Native people were connecting with the average voter, through the national news and Twitter, and their concerns were seeming somewhat reasonable. The government could not allow this.
They soon took the offensive. Remember Chief Theresa Spence, fasting near Parliament Hill to get some sort of resolution to many community concerns? Well, can you believe she owned an SUV, in her remote community? Imagine how many community issues, like education and loss of territory, she could have resolved if she had forgone a fancy vehicle….
Remember all those First Nations in B.C. who had serious concerns about pipelines transporting toxic oil through their watersheds? Well, they’re simply extremists and radicals like David Suzuki, seeking to rain on the great Canadian economic parade!
Or maybe they’re potential economic terrorists, as suggested by Bill C-51, aimed at protecting us against those who seek to impede our financial freedom. Over and above all the hyperbole, the government has recently been found to have been spying on leading First Nations activists while meeting with industry groups to keep them abreast of any possible disruption.
We’ve gone from having a government that made some semblance of monitoring industry and reporting to the public to a government that monitors the public to report to industry. But you get what you pay for, right?
Unfortunately, the scenario may well play out as scripted. As the Harper government (and, realistically, any government that might succeed it) continues its drive to access steadily harder-to-find resources, it’s going to come into conflict with more and more Indigenous communities, which it will find rowdier than ever, now having access to the White Man’s Gift of law schools and Instagram.
But much like the riots and protests sweeping the U.S. over police violence against the Black community, the actions of Native communities here continue to be seen as spontaneous reactions to recent events on the part of a few brazen individuals. While we may only be aware of the flash mob in the local mall, or the railroad blockade delaying our train, any real solutions will require efforts by non-Native society to assume responsibility for their governments.
This is not a call for individuals to feel guilty and hopeless but rather the opposite: to take collective responsibility and thus action that will, yes, lead to this rotten government being thrown out. But if its replacement is driven by the same corporate donations, with the same understanding of treaties and Indigenous rights, we will be no better off.
There is still a huge problem with overt racism in Canada. But so many of the wider issues are rooted in things that aren’t visible: how our cultures and practices remain curiosities, how our treaties and laws are disavowed and disallowed, how our sacred lands have been taken and sacrificed to the new gods of capitalism.
Leanne Simpson writes of an elder who, asked to respond to a lecture on sustainability, remarked that the idea is nonsense, at least in an Indigenous way of thinking. That’s because, the elder says, it assumes human greed is natural, and only has to be reined in to the point where it hopefully won’t destroy everything. Contrast this with Indigenous ways of living that aim to have as minimal an impact on ecosystems as possible, and it becomes apparent how these two worldviews are at loggerheads.
As I write this, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has delivered its recommendations to Ottawa. The need for reconciliation is clear. However, that cannot happen until there is an end to the abuses and offensives against our peoples. Reconciliation cannot simply become synonymous with interpreting Indigenous voices and visions in ways that are compatible with what we think we already know. Any real learning and change has to be a bit discomforting, painful even.
There is a need to listen to Indigenous voices and visions, to those who have been wronged, and to try and address and redress those injustices. Of course, this has implications for the ballot box come October, but far more importantly, it has implications for how each of us lives our lives and acts together to decolonize these lands.
Ben Powless is a Mohawk citizen from Six Nations in Ontario, currently living in Ottawa, Canada. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. He has worked with the Indigenous Environmental Network, focused on climate justice and resource extraction in Indigenous territories, particularly the tar sands, and most recently Ecology Ottawa as an organizer against the Energy East Pipeline. He is also an organizer with the Defenders of the Land network, Idle No More, and was a co-founder of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition. He enjoys biking and photography in his spare time.