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Indigenizing Canadian foreign policy

The final chapter in an eight part series investigating the crisis in Canada-China relations

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous Politics

Indigenous communities across the country and around the world are on the front lines of defending and protecting the Earth from further resource pillage. Photo courtesy United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues.

Amid the wreckage of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have turned their sights on China. University of Victoria professor emeritus and historian John Price examines the rise of the coalition of Anglo settler colonial states of Canada, the United Kingdom, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, and how they are today fomenting conflict in the Asia Pacific. You can read the series in its entirety here.

The late Greg Donaghy, head of the historical section of Global Affairs Canada, was trying to reconceive relations with First Nations as “foreign relations” as he approached the end of his life.[1] Donaghy, like many people living in the territories now known as Canada, was affected by the resurgence of Indigenous activism as it disrupts the worn and outdated narrative of Canada’s development from colony to nation.

Working with First Nations to better understand their contributions to international history can yield surprising results.

For example, we now know that one of the first people from what is now known as “Canada” to visit China was not a missionary, as is commonly believed, but a Mowachaht warrior, Comekela.[2] He spent a year in China in 1786-87, and returned to Yuquot, his home village, speaking more Cantonese that English, to the chagrin of the British merchants who hoped he would translate for them at Yuquot, where they sought to profit from the trade in sea otter pelts for China.

Comekela, it turns out, was the younger brother of Maquinna, the famous Mowachaht chief who greeted Captain Cook when he visited the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1778.

The welcome pole at Yuquot faces across the Pacific. Yuquot was the Mowachaht home village of Chief Maquinna and Comekela. Master carver Ahtsik-sta Qwayachiik (Sanford Williams) oversaw the carving of this welcome pole. Photo by Brian Smallshaw.

When it comes down to it, First Nations have had a huge international impact, one that has unfortunately been erased from the global affairs record.

A few years ago, I met with my University of Victoria colleague and friend, Dr. Nicholas XEMŦOLTW̱ Claxton of the W̱SÁNEĆ Nation (Tsawout) in his office where he shared with me what he thought was the essence of Indigenous resurgence: “It’s all about the land,” he said, in his understated way.

I was honoured to subsequently explore with him what that meant. In the essay that resulted, he recounted:

For the W̱SÁNEĆ, the laws, beliefs, the SENĆOŦEN language, and the land were all a part of our ĆELÁṈEN, our birthright. W̱SÁNEĆ Elders maintain that our ĆELÁṈEN, as a concept, cannot be ceded, sold, given away, or, most of all, forgotten… In the SENĆOŦEN language, many parts of the natural world were referred to as relatives. Salmon, trees, deer, killer whales, even landforms were all considered to be relatives with human-like spirits. Within this relationship, there was a responsibility to each other and it was understood that a relationship could not be ceded or sold. We are here to protect them as much as they are there for us.[3]

Margarita James and the Elders of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation, with whom I had the privilege of working for a number of years, shared similar stories. Nuučaan̓uɫ terms such as ḥahuułi and ḤuupuKʷanum are part of spiritual lexicon that resembles that of the W̱SÁNEĆ. This organic concept of being, “in which people do not own the Earth but, rather, belong to it,” is immensely powerful and Nuu-chah-nulth hereditary Chief Umeek (E. Richard Atleo) has elaborated on it as hishuk’ish tsawalk (everything is one).[4]

Such concepts may take us “back to the future,” and accomplish what trade agreements, a polycentric globe, or green technology never will—lead us to a world of economic, social, and environmental justice.

Romantic idealism? Not at all. In fact, such foundational concepts have already changed the world.

UNDRIP and the legacy of George Manuel

Fifty years ago, George Manuel (Secwepemc/Neskolith) wrote that wherever he travelled in the Indigenous world, he found a common attachment to the land: “This is not the land that can be speculated, bought, sold, mortgaged, claimed by one state, surrendered or counter-claimed by another.”[5] It was the “land from which our culture springs […] like the water and the air, one and indivisible. The land is our Mother Earth. The animals who grow on that land are our spiritual brothers.”[6]

Summing up his perspective on the past, he concluded: “The struggle of the past four centuries has been between these two ideas of land.”

Manuel developed the idea that Indigenous peoples worldwide shared a different appreciation for the Earth, based on his own land-based experiences growing up, and from his visits with Indigenous peoples in the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and Scandinavia as president of the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB) in 1970-71.

Manuel adopted and promoted the term “The Fourth World” to describe this Earth-based association of Indigenous peoples worldwide, to distinguish it from the Third World (the Global South).

Working closely in Ottawa with Marie Smallface Marule (Blood Tribe, Alberta) and her husband, Jacob, a member in exile of the African National Congress then, Manuel visited Tanzania in 1970 where he met with then president, Julius Nyere. Manuel came to appreciate the potential of global decolonization and saw that the Third World would get to the point that it “will no longer need to imitate and compete with the European empires from which they have so recently emerged.”[7]

In the meantime, George Manuel and Marie Smallface Marule threw themselves into organizing Indigenous peoples worldwide, leading to the formation of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples in 1975 on c̓išaaʔatḥ/Tseshaht territory (colonial: Port Alberni, British Columbia) with George Manuel becoming its first president. It would go on to play an instrumental role in creating the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982, and in the eventual adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007.

The power of one. Not one person, but a foundational concept—that Indigenous peoples are one with the land in commons—had the power to unite 60,000,000 Indigenous peoples around the world to demand land back and Indigenous rights.

Today that concept has come full circle as legislators in British Columbia and Canada feel obliged to adopt in some form the UNDRIP. In the process, however, the underlying concepts, such as hishuk’ish tsawalk and ĆELÁṈEN, have been diluted.

Yet it remains alive and powerful among many Indigenous communities, who have not only survived colonialism but continue to challenge it.

Continuing resurgence

The concepts that motivated George Manuel and Indigenous peoples around the world to organize globally continue to have huge effects, locally and transnationally.

Communities across the country are on the front lines of defending and protecting the Earth, both as rightful owners of the lands and because Indigenous legal orders require jurisdiction. As described by the Yellowhead Institute’s Red Paper: “Indigenous legal orders embody critical knowledge that can relink society to a healthy balance within the natural world.” Such legal orders are based on concepts such as hishuk’ish tsawalk and ĆELÁṈEN described above.

In some cases, this involves language revitalization and land-based learning to protect and restore Indigenous sovereignty. For example, the W̱SÁNEĆ Nation today is vigorously applying traditional ecological knowledge to a multitude of projects, including the restoration of sea gardens in the Salish Sea. The W̱SÁNEĆ School Board runs the ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱ tribal school, W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Secondary, a child development centre and it is vigorously promoting the revitalization of their language, SENĆOŦEN. Nick Claxton teaches youngsters ecological principles embodied in the traditional technology of reef-net fishing, a practice historically banned by federal fisheries.

In BC and across Canada, Indigenous activists are in the front lines defending the Earth from further resource pillage. This includes the many activists on the ground defending the Wet’suwet’en yintah, recently captured by Métis journalist Brandi Morin in her Al Jazeera article “We Are the Power.” Or Kanahus Manuel (Secwepemc/Ktunaxa), the granddaughter of George Manuel, who with the Tiny House Warriors continues to confront the Trans Mountain pipeline. Or the Sipekne’katik Nation (Mi’kmaq) who have been asserting their right to manage the lobster fishery on the east coast based on treaties signed over three-hundred years ago.

From Oka to Wedzin Kwa in Canada; from Wounded Knee to Standing Rock in the United States; from Te Urewera to Ihumātao in New Zealand; from Kahoolawe to Mauna Kea in Hawai’i; from Brighton Bypass to Doongmabulla Springs in Australia, Indigenous peoples are confronting white settler colonialism in the Anglosphere.

So too, in Africa, Asia, South America, across the Pacific, and beyond, Indigenous peoples are fighting to protect the Earth, often with Indigenous women at the forefront.

These ongoing contestations are having huge ramifications globally, revolutionizing international relations, and helping realize “a better world is possible.”

Rethinking internationalism

In the introduction to The Fourth World, UBC professor Glen Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene and author of Red Skins, White Masks) provides a wonderful genealogy of Manuel’s contributions. Pointing to Manuel’s connecting of the Third and Fourth Worlds—“the wretched of the Earth”—he concludes that Manuel embraced outside theoretical traditions, but this in no way diminished “Indigenous thought and intellectual traditions.”[8]

Today, a reverse process to that described by Coulthard also seems to be taking place: non-Indigenous social and intellectual movements today are moving towards and adopting Indigenous ways of looking at the world championed by George Manuel and the Fourth World.

Leading environmental advocates such as Jason Hickel, author of Less is More, and William Rees, who developed the concept of an “ecological footprint,” have begun to ground their approach to environment justice in ideas that reflect and amplify Indigenous concepts. According to Hickel:

Scientists estimate that 80% of the planet’s biodiversity is to be found on territories stewarded by Indigenous peoples. Clearly they are doing something right. They’ve protected life. They’ve nourished it. Not out of charity, or because it’s beautiful, but because they recognize the fundamental interdependence of all beings.[9]

In recent years, Rees has shifted his perspective and believes that climate change reflects a much deeper problem of human ecological dysfunction that is driving incipient global system collapse. Like Hickel, he challenges the “GDP growth” paradigm and also arrives at the need for adopting Indigenous ways of being:

Obviously, a managed descent will require a paradigmatic shift in society’s socially constructed values, beliefs, and assumptions. At a minimum, we must replace our unrelenting anthropocentrism and strictly instrumental approach to Nature with a more holistic, eco-centric perspective. People must come to acknowledge both their utter dependence on the integrity of the ecosphere and the intrinsic worth of other species and natural ecosystems. This means overcoming capitalism’s addition to material growth and adopting systems compatible with one-Earth living.[10]

To be sure challenges will arise, as some try to co-opt Indigenous thought to perpetuate proprietary forms of development. But the tide is turning.

Coming out of the ecology movement is the recent surge to confront environmental racism. McMaster University professor Ingrid Waldron is co-producer of the Netflix film based on her book There’s Something in the Water. Waldron unabashedly takes on the environment justice movement in Nova Scotia and Canada by focusing on “how environmental racism manifests within the context of white supremacy, settler colonialism, state-sanctioned racial and gendered forms of violence, patriarchy, neoliberalism, and racial capitalism.”

Illustrating the intersection of Black and Indigenous experiences, she calls for collaborative partnerships that respect these communities’ traditional knowledge, citing a Mi’kmaw Elder: “Everything I do onto her, Mother Earth, I do unto myself…how do we convey that message to the general population, that it is about time that we come together as one and say enough is enough? We’re not going to allow you to desecrate Mother Earth, because by desecrating her, you’re compromising my chances of survival.”

Black Lives Matter and the abolition movement point to a Black resurgence that is increasingly intersecting with Indigenous views. Rinaldo Walcott, author of Black Like Who? and director of the Women and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto, recently published On Property in which he connects the movement for prison abolition, to the abolition of private property, and a return to communal relations similar to Indigenous-inspired relations with the land and its living beings.

In this he echoes the approach of Black historian Gerald Horne of the University of Houston who, in his recent The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism, reminds us that “white supremacy in the United States was never solely targeted at African Americans: Native Americans were the first victims.”

As Black History month begins, we have an opportunity to reconnect with the stories of Black communities and writers such as Waldron, Walcott, Horne and many others who are pointing towards intersectionality, enlivening the project of decolonizing Canadian foreign policy, and making humanity one with the Earth and all its living creatures.

Afterword: I would like to thank my colleagues of the project Canada-China Focus for inspiring me to write this series. My appreciation to Michelle Wei of UBC for helping edit the first draft of this series, to Harrison Samphir for final edits, and to Cy Gonick and Canadian Dimension for publishing this series; and, finally, to my partner Margaret, the best critic and editor a writer could hope for.

John Price is professor emeritus at the University of Victoria, author of Orienting Canada, and a member of the Advisory Board of the newly formed Canada-China Focus, a project of the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute and the Centre for Global Studies (University of Victoria).

[1] David Webster’s “Mental Maps and Canada’s Postwar Asian Policy,” International Journal, 75/4 (2020), 562.

[2] John Price, “Relocating Yuquot: The Indigenous Pacific and Transpacific Migrations,” BC Studies 204 (Winter 2019/20): 21–44.

[3] Nicholas XEMŦOLTW̱ Claxton and John Price, “Whose Land Is It? Rethinking Sovereignty in British Columbia,” BC Studies 204 (Winter 2019/20), 119-120.

[4] See Umeek, E. Richard Atleo, Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004). See also Charlotte Coté, “hishuk’ish tsawalk—Everything is one. Revitalizing place-based Indigenous food systems through the enactment of food sovereignty,” Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development, 9 (Suppl. 1), 37–48.

[5] This account is based on George Manuel and Michael Posluns, The Fourth World: An Indian Reality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019; first published in 1974 by the Free Press) and Peter McFarlane with Doreen Manuel, Brotherhood to Nationhood: George Manuel and the Making of the Modern Indian Movemen (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2020 edition. First published in 1993 by Between the Lines).

[6] George Manuel and Michael Posluns, The Fourth World: An Indian Reality, 6.

[7] Manuel and Posluns, The Fourth World, 6.

[8] Coulthard, “Introduction: A Fourth World Resurgent,” in Manuel & Posluns, The Fourth World, xxx.

[9] Jason Hickel, Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World (London; William Heineman, 2020), 264.

[10] M.K Seibert and W.E Rees, “Through the Eye of a Needle: An Eco-Heterodox Perspective on the Renewable Energy Transition,” Energies, 14, (2021) 4508, 3.


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