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The colonization of reconciliation

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous Politics

Photo by David Suzuki Foundation

Canadians have been largely persuaded by politicians and mainstream media that the project of colonialism and assimilation of Indigenous Peoples is over. As the argument goes, reconciliation means a new, more respectful relationship has been established, realized via economic opportunities afforded by the expansion of fossil fuel exploration and infrastructure projects such as pipelines. Corporations and banks have begun to invest in Indigenous corporate training programs that associate economic prosperity with reconciliation. At the same time, Indigenous resistance to oil and gas projects is marginalized or entirely ignored in mainstream media coverage.

The consequence of government, corporate and media misrepresentation of reconciliation and the privileging of the extractive industry’s interests at the expense of oppositional voices is that the colonial project continues in the 21st century in a new, more insidious, economic form — what has been called resource colonialism.

Economic blackmail

The legacy of colonialism also continues in the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in foster care and prisons and in the wilful neglect of missing and murdered Indigenous women. But the coercive economic pressure now exerted by neoliberal global economics presents an impossible either/or situation to Indigenous Peoples.

Either Indigenous groups buy into clear-cut logging, fracking, mining, fossil fuel infrastructure and unconventional oil and gas production that threatens their culture, ways of life and land-based self-determination while compromising their water, environment and the health and well-being of future generations, or they miss out on wealth opportunities and are doomed to live in wretched and wholly dependent conditions. Subjecting Indigenous peoples to such a pernicious binary demonstrates profound disrespect, under any meaningful interpretation of reconciliation. Indeed, it should rightly be seen as economic blackmail.

Resource colonialism is not only continuing, it is actually expanding. Governments, aided by a compliant mainstream media, have not only allowed but encouraged extractive oil and gas industries to colonize the very notion of reconciliation so that it reflects investor interests and profit imperatives while causing divisions in Indigenous communities. There are numerous sites of resistance, and many Indigenous leaders and groups continue to fight on behalf of Mother Earth at the risk of being arrested or jailed.

However, in more and more cases, marginalized and economically disadvantaged Indigenous individuals and communities are being pressured into signing away their values and the integrity of their land for the sake of extractive industry jobs, housing and economic development. Much of this is represented in the mainstream press as win-win, but the reality is a profound loss for the environment and the sovereignty and dignity of Indigenous Peoples as a whole. In signing a benefit agreement, the most elemental right of Indigenous sovereignty over land and water is taken away: the right to say no to expropriation and exploitation.

Paid promoters of extraction

Reconciliation is only truly meaningful when there is a historical awareness of the past, an acknowledgement of grievous harm inflicted, reparation of damages, nation-to-nation negotiations, legal protections that ensure the harms of the past are not repeated and an end to all forms of colonialism, including extractive colonialism.

Genuine reconciliation must unfold through legal, environmental and economic forms of decolonization. At present, the mainstream media, Canadian political leaders and regulatory institutions have been captured by extractive industries to such an extent that they are little more than paid promoters. Modern resource colonialism has thus become a form of neocolonialism that views notions of recognition, respect, sovereignty and reconciliation not in terms of communal or environmental responsibility, cultural autonomy or Indigenous ways of knowing and being, but primarily in terms of the economics of fossil fuel capitalism. In this sense, resource colonialism commodifies the language of reconciliation so that its meaning is restricted to short-lived, individual economic empowerment — premised not on the Indigenous belief that land and water are sacred and must be protected but on individual greed realized through the destruction of Indigenous lands and waters.

Resource colonialism entices Indigenous Peoples who have been historically discriminated against and are economically disadvantaged into accepting short-term economic jobs over longer-term environmentally sustainable ones. It colonizes the language of respect and reconciliation, using it to legitimize the expropriation of First Nations’ land for economic resource development. The purpose of reconciliation in this sense is disciplinary: it employs the rationality of cost-benefit calculations to manipulate the powerless into making economic decisions that are only in their short-term interest, while ensuring that the dominant interests of the powerful are furthered without hindrance.

The practice of resource colonialism is a logical extension of settler notions of private property, industrialization and resource development. As such, its intention is, once again, to take “the Indian out of the child” and cultivate in Indigenous people the “cunning of the white man.”

It is the most destructive form of colonialism precisely because its purpose is not just to extract resources, but in so doing to also “extract” or hollow out Indigenous historical and cultural identity. In destroying the land and polluting the water, resource colonialism destroys that which gave rise to a uniquely Indigenous cultural identity. More insidiously, it has the effect of dividing First Nations communities in much the same way employers use a divide-and-conquer tactic when dealing with progressive labour unions.

Land and life defence

Let me provide a few concrete examples.

In a letter issued Dec. 14, 2018, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on Canada and B.C. to suspend construction of the Site C dam because of the long-term harm it would do to the environment as well as the land rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Peace River region. Though many First Nations communities came together to fight the dam, other Indigenous groups agreed to negotiate for compensation and were willing to sign impact benefit agreements that put them at odds with their neighbours. This caused a rift between Treaty 8 First Nations over whether to fight the mega-project or accede to it and receive compensation settlements.

In the same province, on Jan. 7, 2019, the RCMP and the military forcefully breached a peaceful checkpoint set up by the Unist’ot’en to stop the TransCanada-owned Coastal GasLink pipeline. Indigenous people were ripped from their homes, and there were at least 12 confirmed arrests, which included an Elder.

The Unist’ot’en, part of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, seek to preserve the beauty and future health of their land, and protect traditional hunting, fishing and trapping territories. Fighting against the natural gas pipeline, they set up a camp as “a checkpoint to keep out industry that has not been given consent to come onto the territory.” The Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs believe they are neither morally nor legally obliged to obey a court injunction that tells them to get out of the way and that fails to acknowledge their claim to the land they have protected for thousands of years. As with other projects, the Coastal GasLink pipeline project has sown divisions. In this case, the Haisla Nation, for economic reasons, supports natural gas and the pipeline.

Another story

As part of its work “on reconciliation and building new relationships of mutual trust and understanding,” the B.C. government in 2004 invited the reintroduction of place names that “represent the rich and diverse history of First Nations.”

For thousands of years the Tsleil-Waututh have protected their lands and waters at the Whey-Ah-Wichen village site, located on the Burrard Inlet in Cates Park, one of largest waterfront parks in North Vancouver. Their traditional territory encompasses 190,000 hectares from the Fraser River in the south to Mamquam Lake in the north. In the shadow of surrounding mountains and towering Douglas firs, the Tsleil-Waututh people hunted and fished for generations.

Reconciliation and respect for First Nations is fine when it is limited to recognizing original place names. When it comes to building pipelines, extracting oil and making a profit from exploiting Indigenous lands — well, that’s another story.

That is the story of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which will require 980 kilometres of pipe to carry diluted bitumen from Alberta to Burnaby, B.C. The pipeline will require 12 new pumping stations and raise the pipeline capacity from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels a day, dramatically increasing the potential for spills and long-term environmental damage to a very sensitive environmental region. The proposed tanker route will pass through a very narrow channel of shallow water from the open sea.

The leaders of local First Nations, including the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs continue to resist the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Other First Nations have signed benefit agreements in support of the project. Elder Belinda Claxton of the Tsawout First Nation, concludes, “The government tries to starve First Nations out. They wait for people on council who will sign on. It ultimately gets down to divide- and-conquer mentality.”

From genocide to neocolonialism

These disturbing examples of capitalist resource colonialism through the extraction and transportation of oil and gas raise anew the question of what reconciliation with and respect for Indigenous Peoples and Nations really means. If reconciliation arises from the need to come to terms with Canada’s appalling treatment of Indigenous peoples, then we need to understand past and current colonialism.

Historically, the project of colonization was a project of Indigenous genocide — first through imposed starvation and the deliberate spread of infectious diseases like smallpox and tuberculosis, and then through state attempts to destroy Indigenous collective memories, language, spirituality, economies, practices and systems of governance. The most infamous institutional attempt at assimilation was the Indian Residential School System, which was funded by the Canadian government and administered by Christian churches.

None of this is to say that there are no instances of Indigenous local initiatives where a form of reconciliation and community healing has taken place through community projects, ventures or developments that stand as exemplars of cooperation and respect for local knowledge, history and practices. These are individual and community stories of hope restored in people for whom there seemed to be no hope, stories of reconciling with those who represent harms done to them in the past and stories of healing from injustice and long-standing prejudice.

But the examples of resource extraction described above show that legal and institutionalized resource colonialism continues in contexts where the enforced poverty of Indigenous Peoples pressures many to make economic decisions they would not otherwise have to if Canada actually invested in and developed green energy alternatives. Some may argue that Indigenous Peoples today have much more autonomy than they had in the colonial past. Yet there is nothing inconsistent about giving Indigenous Peoples a measure of internal autonomy within a colonial system.

Indeed, in a real sense neocolonialism is typically legitimated through the notion that in the enlightened neoliberal present, Indigenous Peoples can be economically empowered and achieve a level of free-enterprise autonomy by turning over their lands to extractivist oil and gas corporations. Granting a limited measure of economic autonomy is precisely a way of avoiding or escaping from the obligation to deal with Indigenous Nations on a full and equal footing — which would involve prior consent, full legal recognition of their status as nations and a genuine effort by government and corporations to immerse themselves in Indigenous languages, legal frameworks, environmental worldviews and ways of relating to life-giving resources such as land and water.

Retooling the entire economy

The precise terms of reconciliation must, of course, ultimately reside with those who have been and continue to be subject to discriminatory colonial attitudes and practices.

What is clear is that there can be no authentic notion of respect for or reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples so long as Canada embraces an economic model that puts profit over health, well-being and the environment. There can be no reconciliation so long as the settler-colonial population continues to cling tenaciously to the primacy of the individual pursuit of wealth, and attempts to gradually displace notions of belonging, community and a close spiritual connection to the land and water. There can be no reconciliation with governments that continue the long-standing colonial project of appropriating First Nations land for the kind of resource extraction that pollutes the water and contaminates the soil. If reconciliation is to have any meaning at all, it must begin in the recognition of First Nations as sovereign and wholly self-determining nations.

Numerous economic arrangements and diverse economic experiences and conditions can be found in Indigenous communities. However, colonization of the language of reconciliation works best in those contexts where land or territories can be economically profited from in some way. For those who live on lands that don’t yield extractive profits — those on poor reserves or in urbanized areas — the notion of reconciliation as respect and recognition means very little in substantive terms.

At a broader political level, reconciliation is for the “winners” in the capitalist game — those who happen to live on or near a site where minerals, oil or gas can be extracted. Those left on squalid reserves with no clean water, insufficient funds for health, education and social services, substandard mold-ridden housing, overcrowded conditions, substance use issues, suicide and isolation are largely left to fend for themselves. To talk of Indigenous Peoples reconciling with governments that continue to do nothing in the face of such appalling conditions would be nothing short of contemptible.

Canada must finally legally recognize Indigenous Peoples as fully sovereign and self-governing peoples. Mohawk lawyer Stephen John Ford has persuasively argued that with recognition of sovereignty “comes the necessary redistribution of wealth which will remove the yoke of dependence and control exerted over First Nations by the federal government. Indigenous sovereignty will also provide First Nation jurisdictional control over their territories to protect the lands and waters, thereby ensuring sustainable development of the economic possibilities found therein.” This also means that Canadian governments, at all levels, must begin right now to fundamentally retool the entire Canadian economy around green alternatives — transitioning energy, transportation and jobs towards zero carbon in 10 to 12 years.

Unlike the property-owning corporate capitalist class, First Nations peoples are quite willing to share their lands and waters. They only ask that these be treated by all as something of deep value, to be protected and nurtured for the sake of all the generations that follow.

Fred Guerin teaches philosophy at the Powell River campus of Vancouver Island University.

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