Will reconciliation’s shit-disturbing sister crash the Canada 150 party?

The official celebrations won’t be able to hide the country's contradictions
Photo: Mike Foote

How can we make reconciliation real? This question has emerged since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action began seeping into Canada’s collective consciousness last summer. As a Métis woman living on unceded Algonquin territory in Ottawa, I want to challenge Canadians to bring decolonization — of land, waters and people — into the reconciliation proposition.

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Vancouver rang in this new year with stirring words and the symbolism of 150+ to say that First Nations have a much longer tenure in this country than people of European descent. Farther west, the City of Victoria invited First Nations to a place of prominence at its new year’s levée and declared 2017 a year of reconciliation.

Who can argue with these avowals? It would be like contesting tree planting after clear cuts, or sopping up after an oil pipeline spews its black guts into the clear waters of a mountain stream.

“The decision to determine and articulate what is and is not reconciliation belongs to survivors,” wrote Anishinabe scholar and writer Hayden King recently. As new year’s resolutions for reconciliation extend into Canada’s 150th birthday year, I hope politicians and church leaders will heed these words.

I am also asking Canadians to ponder this question: What if healing the wounds that colonialism has inflicted on the lives and lands of Indigenous people in Canada also means healing everyone’s shattered relationship with land, waters and the myriad beings dependent upon the land and waters?

Half a millennium of plunder

For more than 500 years, all across Turtle Island (the North American continent), colonial governments have given corporations carte blanche to plunder land and waters.

In the business of nation-building, these partners in crime colonized the beaver, turning the furry rodent into a commodity. They decimated the buffalo and the passenger pigeon. They arrived here lusting after silver and gold, and they have never stopped digging. They dammed rivers to power grist and paper mills. They cut down trees in successively more heinous ways.

Moving up the “great chain of being” as defined by European religiosity, latter-day capitalists and their political handmaidens sought to colonize the Indigenous people of Turtle Island. To date, no one has put them on trial for the human or animal genocides they perpetrated.

We need to repair the future.

I do not think that reconciliation as defined by the TRC can hold government institutions or culpable churches to further account. The TRC detailed the atrocities meted out in residential schools and described intergenerational trauma that continues today. I suspect that most of its calls to action resonate with non-Indigenous folk because the reconciliation story most Canadians are open to hearing about lays bare the soft underbelly of liberal guilt: we did wrong, we will don our penitential hair shirts, and we will repair the torn fabric of the past.

This is not enough. We need to repair the future.

I believe Canada must embark on a huge and daunting proposition that allows decolonization — reconciliation’s shit-disturbing sister — out of the closet and into the party.

If she were invited, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people could begin the hard work of extricating ourselves from the sticky web of colonialism. We need to do this because our relationships with plants, birds, animals, waters, land, and the sky matter. Humans must honour and cultivate these relations if we want to ensure a world exists for future generations.

Meet the sister

“Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies,” wrote Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang in a 2012 journal article published in Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society. They described two kinds of colonialism:

External colonialism … denotes the expropriation of fragments of Indigenous worlds, animals, plants and human beings, extracting them in order to transport them to — and build the wealth, the privilege, or feed the appetites of — the colonizers, who get marked as the first world…. This form of colonialism also includes the feeding of contemporary appetites for diamonds, fish, water, oil, humans turned workers, genetic material, cadmium and other essential minerals for high tech devices. External colonialism often requires a subset of activities properly called military colonialism — the creation of war fronts/frontiers against enemies to be conquered, and the enlistment of foreign land, resources, and people into military operations. In external colonialism, all things Native become recast as “natural resources” — bodies and earth for war, bodies and earth for chattel.

Internal colonialism [is] the biopolitical and geopolitical management of people, land, flora and fauna within the “domestic” borders of the imperial nation. This involves the use of particularized modes of control — prisons, ghettos, minoritizing, schooling, policing — to ensure the ascendancy of a nation and its white elite. These modes of control, imprisonment, and involuntary transport of the human beings across borders — ghettos, their policing, their economic divestiture, and their dislocatability — are at work to authorize the metropole and conscribe her periphery. Strategies of internal colonialism, such as segregation, divestment, surveillance, and criminalization, are both structural and interpersonal.

The authors also define settler colonialism because doing so answers this crucial question: What happens when the colonizers come to stay, as they have on Turtle Island?

Within settler colonialism, the most important concern is land/water/air/subterranean earth (land, for shorthand, in this article.) Land is what is most valuable, contested, required. This is both because the settlers make Indigenous land their new home and source of capital, and also because the disruption of Indigenous relationships to land represents a profound epistemic, ontological, cosmological violence. This violence is not temporally contained in the arrival of the settler but is reasserted each day of occupation…. In the process of settler colonialism, land is remade into property and human relationships to land are restricted to the relationship of the owner to his property.

What resonates most with me is the statement that disrupting Indigenous relationships to land is violence.

Land and water protectors

In September 2016, the corporate media decided that Standing Rock and the opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline was newsworthy because blood was being shed. It was then that the term “protectors” came floating into mainstream parlance to describe what thousands of people were doing at the site.

Like the Unist’ot’en camp in British Columbia, the Standing Rock camp exists to occupy and protect land and waters that corporations aim to traverse with pipelines. In Quebec, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake have created their own land defence camp to oppose a copper mining corporation. Land defence — another new term for the mainstream — can also include Indigenous statements of claim to sacred sites and other lands. It may involve blockades and injunctions.

Grizzly bears, snakes and birds, whose nesting trees will be obliterated if the pipeline proceeds, are unlikely to reap benefits of any kind.

These kinds of direct actions and occupations constitute the hard work of decolonization. They meet the machine of government and its twin brother, corporate interests, head-on. Essentially, land protectors are asserting that corporate America and Canada must curb their appetites for natural resources. In the face of climate change and with full knowledge that hundreds of species, including our own, face endangerment, their message is that business as usual cannot remain acceptable.

A petition in support of the people of Barriere Lake says that “any mine in the region would contaminate water, affect wildlife, and negatively impact the health and way of life of the Algonquin peoples living there.” A new film called Honour Your Word documents the Algonquin land defence over time. It shows Quebec’s provincial police cars patrolling the reserve’s dirt streets, simply to harass residents. The police wield batons and pepper spray during a peaceful land defence action, just as colonial police and military have done at Standing Rock.

The intransigence of the Liberal government in Canada on issues related to land and water protection can engender only one outcome: resistance. Indigenous battles to protect land and waters will accelerate during 2017. Unless decolonization shows up on Canada’s agenda, this year’s birthday party could leave a few people crying.

Promises, promises

During the 2015 election campaign, Justin Trudeau promised to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. He also said he would allow First Nations a veto on resource extraction and pipeline projects traversing their territories.

He has violated those promises, even though Indigenous people voted for him — and maybe even chose to become Liberal candidates — based on those promises.

By failing to honour the promise on UNDRIP, Trudeau is also turning his back on the TRC’s call to action #45, which exhorts the federal government to issue a proclamation that will bite at the ankles of colonial practices affecting Indigenous land and land rights:

i. Repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius. ii. Adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for reconciliation. iii. Renew or establish Treaty relationships based on principles of mutual recognition, mutual respect, and shared responsibility for maintaining those relationships into the future. v. Reconcile Aboriginal and Crown constitutional and legal orders to ensure that Aboriginal peoples are full partners in Confederation, including the recognition and integration of Indigenous laws and legal traditions in negotiation and implementation processes involving Treaties, land claims, and other constructive agreements.

Have you heard Trudeau talk about making such a proclamation? I haven’t, even though he promised to implement all the TRC’s calls to action. Instead, the federal government continues to grease the wheels of corporate greed. When he announced approval of two contentious pipelines in November 2016, he set a key raison d'être of colonialism — economic growth — in the spotlight.

"The decision we took today is the one that is in the best interests of Canada," Trudeau said. "It is a major win for Canadian workers, for Canadian families and the Canadian economy, now and into the future."

The Trudeau gang, meanwhile, has twisted its way into a new definition of free, prior and informed consent.

Later in December, the prime minister made it clear that Indigenous people will have no veto over government decisions on energy projects crossing or affecting their land, including pipelines designed to deliver oil sands bitumen to the ocean.

“No, they don’t have a veto,” he said of the First Nations opposed to the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

He noted that there are dozens of First Nations along the route in both B.C. and Alberta who support the project and have signed more than $300 million in economic benefit agreements.

I am pretty sure those millions can only go into the wallets of beings who are wearing pants or carrying purses. Grizzly bears, snakes and birds, whose nesting trees will be obliterated if the pipeline proceeds, are unlikely to reap benefits of any kind.

Twisting the definition of consent

First Nations that consent to tar sands pipelines must know of the huge price tag for the land and waters of northern Alberta. Corporations bent on extracting bitumen from the tar sands are destroying the trees, animals, and waters of a fragile boreal forest.

Indigenous people living near the tar sands have described oil sands pipelines as the iron snake. They know what oil sands extraction is doing to the land, and they have refused to consent to pipelines, along with a coalition of 50 First Nations chiefs.

The colonial project that spawned this country is alive and well.

The Trudeau gang, meanwhile, has twisted its way into a new definition of free, prior and informed consent, which happens to be a hallmark of UNDRIP. Here’s how the Globe and Mail, in a recent feature on the debate over pipelines, described the views of Jim Carr, the federal government’s natural resources minister, on Indigenous consent: “[it will] require companies and governments to work closely with indigenous communities to ensure they are partners in the evaluation and monitoring of projects, are properly consulted, and have their concerns accommodated.”

The cynical among us might substitute “sign economic benefit agreements” for “accommodated.” One report on consent for western pipelines says that $9.3 million in benefits flowed from oil company coffers into the bank accounts of consenting First Nations in two recent years. Hard work by those corporations raised the amount to $300 million by the time Trudeau announced federal support for Kinder Morgan’s pipeline.

Where does this leave us? In a Canada where no veto exists on energy projects or pipelines, where the minister of justice has called a halt to any timely implementation of UNDRIP, and where various First Nations are slobbering over crumbs from an economic pie cooked up by corporations, I say the colonial project that spawned this country is alive and well.

So too is the call for healing and repatriation of Indigenous land and ways of life, in support of a world beyond the human one.

I predict that reconciliation’s shit-disturbing sister, decolonization, will crash this year’s birthday party. She’s not waiting for an invitation.

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