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Three sovereignties and an election

Canadian Politics

Photo by US Embassy Canada

The concept of nation-state sovereignty has a lot to do with what the public perceives to be the legitimate use of violent force (e.g., Canadian borders, army, police, etc.). The reality of sovereign violence in our society is that it impacts the lives of different groups of people in very different ways.

The potential for violence makes some people feel more secure because they think it will only be used to protect their rights and privileges. For others, sovereign violence is a threatening force that is central to the ongoing process of colonization through the forcible displacement of Indigenous people from ancestral lands, and the aggressive pursuit of destructive natural resource extraction.

Governments get scared when people resist the smooth functioning of profitable colonial processes, and this fear can be used as a propaganda tool to label people as extremists, enemies or even terrorists. In reality, this simply demonstrates that the balance of sovereign power is actually always in a state of constant flux: sovereign force can be redistributed, its violent impacts shifted away from vulnerable lands and people.

The Canadian federal election on October 19 was an opportunity to begin actively reformulating what sovereignty means in our day-to-day lives. Voting is not enough, though. Elections feature a lot of hype and propaganda, but in “stable” countries like Canada they largely reproduce the status quo in the form of a purely “nation-state” sovereignty. But politics does not end at the polls. Other less visible forms of politics are critically important in the struggle for social legitimacy and decision-making power (a.k.a. the bread and butter of sovereign control).

Under Stephen Harper’s reign, aspects of Canadian sovereignty continued to be handed over to large corporations. International free trade agreements like the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), completed in 2014, and the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), signed this February but not yet ratified, shift the balance of Canadian sovereignty in favour of unelected corporate profiteers.

Corporations want greater access to valuable natural resources and fewer government regulations slowing down their money-making activities. These same corporations also want the state to use its sovereign force (the police, border guards and the army) to remove any barriers standing in the way of their extractive activities and their ability to get resource products to markets.

International trade deals have established corporate legal systems that trump Canadian sovereignty, specifically through what are called investor–state dispute settlement (ISDS) tribunals. These tribunals are made up of corporate lawyers given the power to decide what is a fair balance between the interests of countries and corporations.

For example, if Canadian environmental protection laws were to prevent a large-scale mining project from going ahead (because it would cause too much ecological damage), an ISDS tribunal could rule that these laws “unfairly” hurt the corporation’s investment treaty right to make money. The mining company could then sue Canadian taxpayers for lost profits.

This is not an abstract example. The Canadian mining company OceanaGold recently sued the nation of El Salvador for lost future profits because elected politicians revoked the firm’s license due to the fact the mine it was causing extreme harm to the natural environment and the local people. In Canada, U.S. firm Bilcon secured an ISDS victory last year when a NAFTA tribunal found a government environmental assessment process had violated the mining company’s guarantee to minimum standards of treatment. Bilcon now wants Canada to pay $300 million U.S. dollars in compensation.

International trade lawyer Luis Prado puts the situation this way: “The ultimate question in the case [of ISDS] is whether a foreign investor can force a government to change its laws to please the investor as opposed to the investor complying with the laws they find in the country.” Our generation will be increasingly confronted with the reality of corporate sovereignty using its force to bend national legal systems to suit greedy, destructive interests.

A lot of what corporations are willing to do to make profits is twisted. A new prime minister in Ottawa isn’t going to fix this. We need to recognize the 500-year history of sovereign Indigenous struggle against the ways that state sovereignty creates and maintains colonial boundaries that serve the interests of selfish exploiters.

Indigenous sovereignty is unlike either Canadian sovereignty or corporate sovereignty. Even within the Eurocentric Canadian legal system, Indigenous connectedness to the land is recognized as a basis for sovereign claims and functional self-determination. Just this past year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Tsilhqot’in people’s relationship with traditional lands constitutes a long-standing and legitimate legal system.

There are many Indigenous nations on Turtle Island, and each has different laws, customs and perspectives. However, many of their shared priorities, such as honouring human interdependence with the natural world, are fundamentally opposed to the economic-bottom-line thinking that is both the force and structuring logic behind colonial-capitalism.

Everyone in Canada—not just eligible voters, but all people willing to put their values and beliefs into action—has the capacity to exert their influence in order to create the type of country we want to live in, not to mention the social and ecological conditions that we leave for coming generations. To do this, we must recognize the direction things are currently going.

There is a growing gulf between rich and poor. Climate change caused by industrial activities like the tar sands is destroying global ecosystems and causing extreme weather such as droughts, wildfires and hurricanes – crises that disproportionately impact the already marginalized. Refugees are forced to flee their homes because of food scarcity and wars over oil. Tens of thousands continue to be left to die at the borders of the very countries that have benefitted from wealth stolen from the lands of these same people. The status quo is not acceptable.

Sovereignty, whichever way you cut it, is still largely a matter of what “we the people” feel we are able to do, and our willingness and determination to do it. Together we have the collective strength to push for real transformation. In Winnipeg, and all around Canada, there is an Indigenous-led resurgence that is shaping local, national and international politics. Young leaders are breathing life into the fires of old teachings, realizing that the world we experience is and always has been our responsibility, our legacy, our inspiration.

We can disrupt the flow of colonial-capitalist power. Legitimacy and power are an open game (as much as career politicians and big businesses hate to admit it). The balance of sovereign power can be altered in particular moments.

The October 2015 federal election was one chance to push for such a change. But independent of the results, the future realities that will prevail in Canada will depend on what we do now. By building relationships and communities based on values of respect for people and the land, we can resist the spread of corporate sovereignty.

If corporations and governments make it seem like their power is unshakable, they’re faking it. We live in a time when economic markets are collapsing and the need for new ways of life is obvious. This period of chaotic change and popular social unrest is bad news for colonial-capitalism and good news for the people who are being hurt by these old systems.

There are ever-increasing opportunities to intervene against exploitation and violence, to create new spaces that are healthy and life-giving. A degree of practical creativity is needed to identify the cracks that exist within the current exploitative systems, and then to begin creating healthy, sustainable communities. By following the lead of indigenous land-defenders and nurturing relationship-based alliances those of us who refuse to let Turtle Island continue to be a corporate colony can begin to exert new sovereignties based on sustainable, inclusive and positive values. At the very least these efforts will facilitate diverse collective actions and help to generate creative ways of jamming the gears of destructive systems that threaten us all.

Jobb Arnold is a Winnipeg based writer and community activist trying to trip-up the oligarchy wherever possible while remaining reasonably positive about life. He is also an assistant professor in Conflict Studies at Menno Simons College exploring the dynamics in land-based politics and experiential learning.

This article originally appeared in Red Rising Magazine.

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