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Cooperatives on stolen land?

Subscribe to our e-newsletter HERE. Below is an interview with Jarrett Martineau, recorded while walking on the streets in Toronto in late March, 2014 and now published online with Canadian Dimension. This interview is included in the latest print edition of Free City Radio, a seasonal zine publication extending from a radio program on CKUT fm in Montreal that explores topics of importance to social justice movements.

Jarrett’s reflections on cooperative economics are included because they point to critically important indigenous perspective on the cooperative movement in North America. Also included in the same zine is an interview exploring the history of farmer cooperatives in Canada’s prairie lands, looking back to the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool and exploring the people’s history of institutions like the Canadian Wheat Board.

How can we construct a cooperative economic model without deeply addressing the history of genocide and injustice toward indigenous peoples that shapes North America’s history?

How central is decolonization to creating a cooperative movement? How can traditional structures of indigenous societies in Turtle Island serve as a foundation and also as inspiration for our current efforts to exit the social, economic and environmental violence of corporate capitalism?

— Stefan Christoff, April 1, 2014

Stefan: Today in the North American context there is a building critique of corporate capitalism that a lot of people, especially since the financial crisis, have been willing to think about and explore a bit more, coming out of that is an interest in cooperative economics. In this context, I am wondering if you have any reflections on the importance of placing decolonization and indigenous political theory as central to the current discussion on cooperative economics?

Jarrett: Its an interesting question for the current moment. I think that question you raise in response to the financial crisis, respond to discussions on cooperatives and cooperative economics taking place within larger sections of society than before, but is also speaks to questions that a lot of indigenous thinkers have been coming to in regards to what economic directions to take.

Also this points to questions about what to rehabilitate, from economic systems that were in place pre-colonization, models that have the potential to be revitalized, probably in new forums within a contemporary context.

As connected more broadly to decolonizing and indigenous struggles, I see a lot of work in and between indigenous communities taking place, people exploring and looking to indigenous models of trade and exchange that existed between nations, which is actually also about rehabilitating an pre-colonial understanding on the connecting points that existed between nations.

Internal to indigenous nations I think that there is an interest, not a fully articulation of this yet, but an interest in finding answers to questions like; what were the trade routes that we had? What were the goods that we exchanged? What were the relationships that we had between nations? As a first step, these conversations are important, not only particular to one nation, but also in relation to all indigenous nation to nation relationships.

What do we start with and what were some of those commodities that we exchange before colonization disrupted our exchange systems? What were the nature and organization of those trade relationships between nations? Is it possible to have these indigenous relationships restored today and have them run parallel, or autonomous to the rest of the capitalist system that we are already deeply embedded in?

Against these cooperative possibilities, I would say you have a deep encroachment of neoliberal ideologies on the part of “leaders” within our communities, within the band council system, which makes a lot of these questions on cooperative systems very difficult. So you have a lot of people, in leadership positions, who are given authority and are basically working against any forums of egalitarian economic systems, alternatives would actually directly challenge the systems that are now putting money into the community, most often through ecologically destructive projects.

Especially through the extraction industry?

Especially through those industries, yes. You have this kind of new vanguard of indigenous entrepreneurship that doesn’t see a contradictions between the economic advancement of these types of projects and the damage and destruction that they do.

In a way this is temporary because we are talking about extraction industries, not all of which, but many of which only have 40-50 years remaining at this speed, but we are talking about real environmental damage to our lands. There is a lot of rhetorical talk and play to the seven generations and the generations to follow, but if your business model is built on the idea that we as indigenous people want our own oil companies, and that’s the extent of the long term thinking, it doesn’t actually set us up for anything that is more sustainable or egalitarian.

So a connecting point to history and cooperation is exploring actual land based practices, that flowed before in regards to economic exchange, that were in themselves very sustainable. If you are talking about fishing, hunting, forestry and various other things, there are possibilities for indigenous models that are sustainable because they existed before. Building practices that are not based on short term economics, that can be sustained over time, this is important step to make. All these ideas run up against a really heavy political reality happening right now in the “leadership” of our communities that makes this whole direction very difficult.

The heavy political reality in regards to the relationships developing between energy companies and First Nations band councils for example?

Yes exactly. Like I was saying, when people are in positions of leadership within the community, then the community voice gets represented by those figures individually who then stand in for our collective interests publicly, but don’t actually represent us.

So economics within indigenous communities is discussed in economic terms that don’t benefit most people and skirts potential alternative economic forums of exchange. Out on the West Coast I know that there are a lot of families, and also communities, that are working at the level of grassroots exchange, often at a really micro level in terms of the exchange of goods, and this isn’t strictly through a capitalist model.

The other half of this question is about the relationship between indigenous communities and non-indigenous relations that are living in the same place. First if we haven’t worked out, or revitalized, or reestablished what those practices are between our own indigenous communities and nations, its difficult to think about how that alternative economic cooperation could happen between indigenous and non-indigenous communities. How do indigenous models look like and translate to non-indigenous people who might want to engage in a cooperative framework?

On this point there are a lot of people talking about cooperative economics right now in North America in a broad sense, there is a significant discussion. So in this context as people are having this discussion and preparing this Free City Radio zine, I was reflecting on this in relation to a parallel between Canada and Israel for example as colonial societies, many people point to the kibbutz cooperative farms as progressive models in Israeli society, however those farms were established largely on stolen land. In the same way that the wheat pools and farmer cooperatives in Western Canada were established on stolen indigenous lands, or on lands where signed Treaties weren’t being respected.

So today in Canada and more broadly in North America, when people are talking about cooperatives models, I am wondering if you have reflections about the importance of thinking about the colonial aspect of our society and these lands when thinking about and exploring cooperative economics? How essential including that anti colonial analysis is to the exploration of cooperatives today?

So this is is why I single out the questions on what cooperation between indigenous models looks like first and then pointed to ideas on broader models including all the people living on these lands could look like.

Because if you go back to founding agreements, in terms of treaty making for example, those treaties were trying to set out some of the terms, both politically, socially and economically, to the relationship between peoples occupying the same place, but those treaties were never fundamentally respected, so we need to address that point for sure. So we need to figure out what are our treaty relationships, and look at how we have all lived together, what are the problems, and given that, what are potential models to explore that respect indigenous social and economic systems.

Yes for sure, especially in this context in Canada where beyond treaties, there are lands where settler society isn’t legally legitimate, BC as colonial occupied territory for example.

Yes for sure, treaty discussions, or negotiations over non-treaty lands, are often framed as taking place with people representing the official Indian Act governments negotiating with representatives to the Canadian government, a discussion that removes most people on the ground and that is removed from most indigenous peoples realities, who live in the communities impacted.

So if you are talking about cooperative economics, you are not talking about representatives of the state having policy development discussions, but about the relationships between people who live on the same land base. So these lands have usurped and stolen, a foundational point, but today we have a situation where people are living on and sharing these lands, accessing the same water, so we need to look at questions around the ways that all the people who are actually here, living on these lands, can together build alternatives that are more sustainable.

Part of my questioning around this is revolves around the language of the commons, which is tied to this discussion around cooperative economics.

Going beyond the ‘This land is your land, this land is my land’ sort of framework that removes colonialism here?

Yes, this all kind of gets presented in a way that overruns a discussion about what is the actual relationship is to the original peoples of these lands, of these particular places. Before we start getting to broader cooperative economic systems, we need to figure out the actual terms of living together first, that includes a discussion about economics, but we can’t just supplanting one system over another without looking to indigenous histories.

This kind of goes to the point around our internal struggles also and one of the big points being around the sort of ideological internalization of neoliberalism, that is as much of the case for non-indigenous society, as its is for indigenous societies, this is a founding part of this whole question.

We can’t individually emancipate ourselves from a capitalist system on either side of this colonial equation.

You put out that sticker graphic reading DECOLONIZE that a lot of people were sharing this past year, I am hearing ideas around that resonating here…

Yes for sure, I mean so much of what I think is happening in the political landscape is about making interventions into public discourse.

What would decolonization mean? We aren’t thinking through what that would mean, but we need to. Part of that project is to bring these questions into the discussion, to try to get people to start a dialogue with one and another about what’s been happening with the Idle No More movement and beyond on these lands over the year.

Trying to insert these questions into public dialogue, into the context of large scale resource development for example, its not only about native people standing up to resource development to oppose those projects, but also to make space to have a conversation about what economic alternatives to full scale destruction of the land base would look like. As long as there is the continued relentless onslaught of those type of development projects there is no space politically and economically for mass alternatives, so these projects like the tar sands need to stop, while also we need to explore real alternatives at a local level.

So you need to stop these mass developments first before a cooperative society is possible?

Well yes, you need a kind of buffer from that kind of ongoing violence, to be able to make the space to work on cooperatives at a large scale. Part of the problem with this whole question politically is that the system within which we live, has no interest for us to take the time out, to find the space to be self critical, to think about real cooperative alternatives.

Jarrett Martineau is an indigenous scholar and media activist @culturite Stefan Christoff is a community activist and musician @spirodon