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One of the big risks of electoral systems like ours is that a minority of the population will vote in a government who undertakes a radical transformation of traditional institutions. Harper, who recieved votes from less than 1/5 people in this country, is a prime example of these fears. During his time in office he’s transformed Canada along lines we used to associate with places like Texas, much to the dismay of most Canadians. These changes, senseless as they might seem, follow an ideological agenda reflecting both the desires of his ‘sponsors’ and a strongly-held personal belief that capitalism can solve all problems.
In the latest Federal budget, two glaring examples stand out and have gotten a fair bit of attention. The first is the demise of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which had formerly been responsible for international aid. The second is to tie aid to young First Nations people on reserves to “job training” and similar initiatives. Both are obviously odious for plenty of reasons, but what I find most galling is the willingness to use the plight most vulnerable as an easy venue for this agenda, and to tie it in so deeply with questions of basic survival.
Capitalism, both in theory and practice, has always relied on the most destitute. On paper, they provide a constant demand for more growth and progress. In practice, they supply a cheap, flexible and massive workforce without which the system couldn’t function. While in past times this meant local slums, today entire countries and regions have been transformed into Dickensian landscapes. The spectre of Third World poverty has been used many times by the likes of Monsanto and the World Bank to promote their products and policies, though not to much (positive) effect. Instead, through “trade-based” policies, these areas have become the site of 21st century plantations and sweatshops. Canada’s role in this process is well-acknowledged, we’re the mining powerhouse so often cited for questionable mining claims and human rights abuses.
The demise of CIDA and incorporation of aid programs into the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) will accelerate the process I warned about last December when Harper started cutting the agency and talking of using aid to promote foreign investment. The Canadian press has taken a remarkably friendly view of this move (Star, Globe, Macleans), but the UK’s Guardian takes a much harsher tone,
Cida has pulled back from Africa and increased its programmes in Latin America, where Canada’s mining industry is especially active. As China is synonymous with global industry, so Canada is synonymous with global mining – although its activities in the sector embrace more than 100 countries. About 75% of the world’s exploration and mining companies are headquartered in Canada, partly because the country acts as a major banker for the extractive industry, but partly also due to weak corporate governance and enforcement.
Moves like this set a frightening precedent. Turning aid workers into the official missionaries of foreign investment poses a very serious challenge to their perceived neutrality. Conflicts over Canadian mining operations often get violent, and we don’t need to give foreign rebel groups any more reason to shoot at aid workers.
For the “Fourth World”, Canada’s internal colonies, Harper is pursuing a very similar policy. He’s making available $241 million in job training to reserves, but only on the condition that welfare support for young people on those reserves is tied to participation in those programs. The training in question will prepare native youth for the booming “resource development” industry in the North. First Nations youth are of course the country’s fastest-growing demographic and suffer horrible rates of poverty. This policy aims to use that desperation.
For those familiar with on-reserve politics, there’s other clear motives at work in this scheme, as well as a sick, assimilationist logic.. Many bands are bitterly divided over questions of resource development – deeply opposed but also dependent on projects for jobs and payments. These mirror deeper questions about the future of traditional ways of life, local autonomy and governance, as well as how to recover from centuries of colonization. Harper, obviously, would love to see one side of these arguments prevail, as the other has been one of the largest national thorns in his side. Those willing to oppose pipelines and logging with direct action, such as the Unist’ot’en blockade in BC, have threatened billions in infrastructure and investment, and given the national successes of Idle No More actions, stand to pose a much larger threat in the months to come.
There will, of course, be many, both here and overseas, who cannot manage the rigours of working resource extraction. There will also be many communities who just aren’t conveniently located near oil or precious metals. They’ll simply be left out. Others will see first-hand what these kinds of projects do to communities and ecology. The benefits, of course, will flow back toward Toronto and Vancouver, as that’s the point of investment. After all, this isn’t (really) charity.
The problem with any charity, especially of the welfare-state variety, is that it rarely does much to resolve the underlying problems. It relies on, maintains, and all-too-often exploits the inequalities and power relations it claims to help, usually in the name of religion, donations or social control. This kind of lifeline provides power over the recipients, and the temptation to abuse it can be overwhelming. As they say, charity is no substitute for justice denied – if we truly want to help, then we shouldn’t be setting terms.
As for Harper’s sick take on Reaganomics, I really doubt it’ll ‘raise all boats’ any more than his other many tide-raising policies. “Primary” (extractive) industries are notorious for not providing the kind of poverty alleviation they promise – the most successful economies have always been those who focus, as well, on processing those materials (“secondary” and “tertiary” industries). Exporting raw ore, bitumen or logs does little, even by capitalist standards, without the associated milling and refining jobs. Instead they engender an atmosphere of corruption and petty despotism among local officials, and often leave regions in ruin once the ‘mines run dry’. This shift in policy is dangerous, as is the self-serving ideology behind it. No matter what people tell you, subsidizing large, rich coporations rarely, if ever, does much for the poor.
When it comes to North America’s indigenous people and academic militancy, one name stands out: Ward Churchill. Love him or hate him, he’s hard to ignore. His arguments are beyond controversial but thoroughly researched, both of which tend to infuriate opponents. He speaks simply, but with unapologetic militarism – he’s a card-carrying member of the American Indian Movement and one of Leonard Peltier’s most vocal supporters. His books and essays have been arguably even more influential (and outrageous), covering a wide range of topics relating to indigenous peoples and liberation, including notorious works like Pacifism as Pathology, The COINTELPRO Papers, A Little Matter of Genocide and Struggle for the Land
These opinions have earned Churchill many enemies and provoked an almost endless series of scandals. The best known these days relates to an essay (later a book-length manuscript) entitled “On the Justice of Roosting Chickens”, which addressed the 9/11 attacks. In it he addressed the legacy of American imperialism and questioned the innocence of those in the Twin Towers, calling them technocrats and comparing them to Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann. Like him, Churchill argued, those working in high finance and other crucial bureaucratic roles play an crucial role in the death-toll exacted by American wars, even if they never personally see the bodies. As you can imagine, this point wasn’t well-received, and it evoked a fire-storm of academic scandal in the media.
Perhaps his most notable argument, and certainly the most relevant these days, is the contention that the colonization of North America constitutes genocide. A Little Matter of Genocide is one of the best-known works on the subject (I highly recommend it), and while the argument is fairly-well accepted today (even by Canadian judges), it’s also made a lot of waves. He asks, for instance, why those who died from disease amongst the overcrowding, overwork and poor nutrition at Dachau are counted among the victims, but not those who died from similar causes during the Trail of Tears? Given policies like residential schools (clearly genocidal under international law), hunting the buffalo to near-extinction and scalp bounties, as well as countless documents explicitly mentioning “extermination”, it’s hard to deny that a concerted effort was made by governments of the time to destroy native societies in every sense of the word.
I could go on. Pacifism as Pathology demands an article of its own, as does the plight of Leonard Peltier and history of AIM. Whatever you think of Ward, his work has long-since become required reading on these subjects (even when I took them at University). Tonight’s lectures are speeches by Ward on his usual subjects, and are worth watching if only for the fire and passion with which he speaks. The last one, in particular, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”, which deals with American and Canadian residential schooling, seems especially pertinent these days.
As an unprecedented wave of indigenous resistance surges across the country and the Prime Minister finally prepares to meet with hunger-striking Chief Theresa Spence, we’re starting to witness a backlash. Though initially caught unaware, the pundits and trolls are now coming out in force.
Yesterday, an audit of Attawapiskat’s finances (2005-2011) was leaked to the press. Obviously timed to diminish support and sympathy for the reserve and it’s chief, it examined the band’s finances between 2005 and 2011 when Chief Spence gained national attention by declaring a state of emergency over a housing crisis on the reserve. In response, Harper accused the band of squandering funds and placed the band under “third party management”, a move later deemed illegal by courts.
Spence has dismissed this audit as a “distraction“, but in many ways the damage is done. Canada’s editorial class is taking the opportunity to re-frame the issue along more traditional lines, and the past few days have seen an explosion of negative press. Andrew Coyne claims that Idle No More is little more than a conflict between “modernizers” and “traditionalists” on reserves. John Ivison of the National Post states “whatever the Canadian state cedes to Theresa Spence, it will never be enough”. And of course Christie Blatchford has weighed in condemning police for endangering “the rule of law” by not arresting rail blockaders in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley.
These pundits and the horde of trolls which fills the comment sections below their articles make up the Canadian state’s front line of defence against threats like this. After the failure of massive police/military mobilizations to stop demonstrations in the 1990s (Oka, Ipperwash, Gustafson Lake, etc), we’ve seen a shift toward somewhat gentler physical responses. This has left reactionary pundits to ‘hold the line’, but also fuelled their claims of “special treatment” and “lawlessness”. The narratives they present are fairly consistent if shockingly ignorant, and this new leaked audit fits perfectly into their tales.
Too Many Chiefs?
Of the stereotypes and clichés used to dismiss First Nations protests, the notion of a wealthy and corrupt leadership which keeps everybody else in poverty plays an incredibly important role. With Band Councils presented as “the real bad guys”, pundits can shift attention away from the government. What they don’t mention is that Band Councils are government institutions, imposed by the Indian Act to replace “traditional” leadership. Such critiques are often put forward by activists themselves, and generally fall on deaf ears. Many have questioned what gives Theresa Spence the authority to go on her hunger strike, but can anybody imagine the National Post giving her the same kind of scrutiny if she were simply trying to sell off her reserve’s timber and mineral rights to some big corporation?
If there is corruption on reserves (and there is), we should pay attention to where it tends to take hold – particularly those institutions most closely linked to the Department of Indian Affairs (“and Northern Development”). This is still one of the world’s most legendarily restrictive bureaucracies, and had to sign off on these expenditures at every step of the way. Attawapiskat has been under “co-management” for most of the last decade, while Theresa Spence was only elected in 2010. Much has been said about highly paid Band Council officials, but just like “wealthy union bureaucrats”, this critical light rarely shines on those they sit across the table from.
Regardless, there’s a very simple reason that “overpaid Chiefs” don’t explain the Attawapiskat housing crisis or any other case like it – there was never enough money coming in to prevent it, even if all the local authorities worked for free. With a yearly paycheque coming in around $70 grand, Theresa Spence has not yet been paid enough since taking office to put up a single house (around $250 000 given transport costs).
Along with this comes the distortions of indigenous politics and the division between “modernizers” and “traditionalists” (as Coyne puts it). This division is real and crucial to understanding reserve politics. Instead of examining that context, though, pundits like Coyne tend to characterize it as the same old “progress” debate. Left out entirely is the history of attempts to “modernize” reserves, well over a century old, filled with abuses of human rights not to mention being a spectacular failure. Toronto-style economic strategies have never worked in Canada’s North, despite decades of attempts to impose them. “Traditional” strategies, on the other hand, have a well-document and growing legacy of success in areas from governance to justice and health care. In the “Fourth World”, much like the Third, aid and development strategies which disregard local culture, custom and opinion tend to offend more than anything else.
The True North…
I don’t know how many of these columnists have been very far north in this country (no, not Muskoka and Huntsville), but it isn’t like Southern Ontario. Admittedly, I haven’t been as far as Attawapiskat, but I’ve spent enough time bumming around to get some perspective. For most of this country’s landmass, a “big city” has a church, a post office a general store. <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attawapiskat_First_Nation”>Their reserve</a> is a thousand kilometres north of Toronto, accessible mainly by air and has just under two thousand residents. Their roads are dirt, they speak mostly Cree and they’ve been mired for years in a housing crisis as well as all the other usual ailments of northern indigenous communities. Is anybody really surprised that they’ve had trouble finding a good accountant? Does anybody seriously think that accountants are what they need right now?
There’s one final point which needs making about the characterizations of Chief Spence, Idle No More and other indigenous resistance making the news right now: this is a movement. Theresa Spence does not speak for Idle No More, nor does any other official representative as organizers have already stated. Others involved include groups as diverse as land defenders in Unist’ot’en and the Assembly of First Nations. Coyne and others have, as usual, dismissed the lack of a single leader or central authority as a sign of incoherence. The implication they make is that only such kinds of top-down authority can be legitimate, which of course goes against most history and principles of both indigenous nations and social movements.
One “leader”, even one as noble as Spence, could be bought off or taken out. With a diverse and decentralized movement presenting many kinds of pressure in many places, Harper has little choice but to face the issue itself, rather than a few representatives. John Ivison is right about one thing – there’s no amount which could be given to Chief Spence to stop this movement. What Coyne, Ivison, Blatchford and others don’t seem to grasp is that this movement isn’t after anything so simple.
Earlier this afternoon, the latest local demonstration in support of the Idle No More movement, shut down the southbound half of the 403 for over an hour. Beginning at Dundurn Plaza, a few hundred protesters gathered then (with the help of police) took over King St and marched onto the on-ramp and then down onto the highway itself, marching until the next exit, then back along Main West to the plaza. The atmosphere was festive and cheerful – there were prayers and sweetgrass, drumming and round-dancing, and of course a prevailing sense of relief at the lack of mass-arrests.
The demo, planned mostly over the last week and largely on Facebook (with one meeting which cops attended), called for one of the boldest plans in recent memory. None of us knew what to expect when we showed up, and there’s little doubt that turnout was limited by these fears. Despite this, hundreds appeared, including elders and families with children, and relations with the few authorities present flowed pretty smoothly, all things considered.
This was the third big demonstration Hamilton’s seen (after the Limeridge Mall flashmob and march downtown), and I’m told the other two were even larger. It was the first I’d seen in person, and the energy really impressed me. There was a large and diverse collection faces, with a great may who obviously weren’t regular attendees at demonstrations, as well as many old friends. Even the weather was surprisingly pleasant, and nearly everyone seemed to leave inspired.
Across Canada, similar actions shut down roads, railway tracks and border crossings in Sarnia, Tyendinega and many other locations, continuing the inertia built up over the past few weeks. Harper has finally promised to meet with Chief Spence next Friday, but she’s vowed to continue her hunger strike until (at least) then.
For nearly a month now indigenous protests against the Harper government and its policies have been exploding across Canada and beyond. Under the banner of “Idle No More“, protesters have targeted Bill C-45, our second budget omnibus bill which cuts funding and environmental protections while making it easier for outsiders to lease reserve lands (among many other changes). Adding fuel to this fire is Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat, who’s been on hunger strike since Dec 11th demanding to meet with Harper himself, who’s remained remarkably absent since the whole ordeal begun.
Within weeks, the mobilization had reached or exceeded the peak of turnouts for the Occupy movement in most parts of Canada. Given that First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples make up less than 4% of Canada’s population (rather than “99%”), and that December is one of the hardest months to organize, that’s a breathtaking achievement. Flashmobs of hundreds have struck some of Canada`s most iconic urban centres (malls, plazas and intersections). Blockades have begun on highways and railway tracks (like Aamjiwnaang, near Sarnia, which ended last night and Tyendinaga) and many more are planned. Tensions are rising quickly, solidarity demonstrations and words of support have been coming in from around the world, and at this point even organizers are having trouble keeping track of all the demonstrations happening.
In my experience, this kind of rapid and resounding success only comes when tensions below the surface are close to the breaking point. There have been a number of high-profile indigenous protests in the last decade, from the Aboriginal Day of Action in 2007 to years of events surrounding the controversy in Caledonia. Many have inspired solidarity demonstrations (including road/rail blockades) across the country, going right back to the infamous armed standoffs of the 1990s (Oka, Gustafsen Lake, etc). Few, though, have seen this kind of rapid and viral spread. What seems different this time, if anything, is the response – one which this time is seeing far more solidarity and less hostility.
Whether this is a continuation of inertia from the Arab Spring, Occupy and Quebec Student Strike (among others), a reaction to the increasingly radical and unilateral actions of our Prime Minister or simply the culmination of centuries of frustrations, it’s certainly about time we saw a mobilization like this.
The Big Tent
Idle No More, like Occupy, is a very broad, “big-tent” styled movement. Both the tactics and demands up until this point have stayed fairly moderate, considering what often happens at these protests. Even to the usually unsympathetic Canadian public, there’s very little which could be deemed unreasonable. After the national embarrassment which was the PM’s handling of the Attawapiskat housing crisis (later deemed illegal in court), ongoing struggles over pipelines and other Northern development and the horrific revelations which emerged from BC’s inquiry into missing native women, it’s becoming harder to pretend that anything’s really changed since the passage of the Indian Act in 1876.
This moderation hasn’t come without criticism, though, from more radical sectors who haven’t been “idle” for quite some time now. Particularly controversial has been the involvement of Band Council leadership in mobilizations, who many regard more as representatives of the Canadian government than their respective bands. Monday, organizers issued a statement distancing themselves from the chiefs and stating a “mandate from the grassroots to work outside systems of government”. The next day, Spence responded that the chiefs must “humble themselves and be one with the grassroots”, admitting their “imperfect past” by “becoming one and the same as the people”. I certainly share many of these concerns, and a longstanding respect for traditional leadership such as the Confederacy Chiefs and Clan Mothers at Six Nations, but I’m also inspired by the grassroots focus shown so far also can’t deny the incredible grassroots show of support so far. No movement is free of such internal conflicts, but is this a chance any of us can afford to pass up?
Our Home On Native Land
Canada has an utterly atrocious record when it comes to indigenous peoples, at home and abroad, which continues up to the current day. Last February, Justice Murray Sinclair of the Truth And Reconciliation Committee was forced to admit that Canada’s Residential Schools clearly qualified under UN Conventions as “an act of genocide“. There have been involve in forced relocations, sterilisation programs, deposed governments, incredibly strict racially-based laws (an “Indian” could not vote, drink, gather in public, hire a lawyer for treaty matters or play pool for much of the last century) and sweeping efforts to strip groups (women, professionals etc) of their “status”. Reserves have been stripped of hugely valuable resources (timber, metals, oil, uranium) and dosed in return with nearly every kind of toxin imaginable, up to and including many cases of nuclear irradiation (Serpent River, etc). Then there’s the history of sexual violence, so pervasive and depraved that one can scarcely find words for it. “Atrocious” hardly seems strong enough a word for this horrific history, except in its literal meaning – the above-mentioned acts aren’t just crimes, they’re atrocities.
It’s time for Canadians to abandon cute and cuddly notions of our nation’s history. This isn’t a footnote, it’s a defining feature – without colonization of indigenous peoples and lands there wouldn’t be a “Canada”. First, because (treaties or not), it’s where we ultimately got every square millimetre of this country. Second, because the Fur Trade was the nation’s economic base for the first few centuries. And third, because we’d likely be an American state were it not for the warriors who fought alongside British troops in the war of 1812 (while most redcoats were occupied across the ocean with Napoleon and the Luddites). Even the names Canada, Ottawa and Toronto have their roots in indigenous languages.
At some point, as a nation, we will have to face the ugly realities of our past. We’ve been putting it off for decades, still hoping, like they did a century ago, that Canada’s native peoples would just die off or assimilate already. That’s not going to happen – in spite of centuries of efforts, aboriginal peoples are Canada’s fastest growing demographic. Indigenous rights are becoming just as large an international issue in the 21st century as they were in the 19th, and it’s sad that a country so willing to promote itself with native imagery has fallen so far behind in practice. No apology, no inquiry and no “Royal Commission” is going to suffice – only meaningful action on our parts can go toward healing these rifts. This isn’t something the government will or can do for us – they will continue on their path until they can no longer count on complacent and racist citizens to support them. Saying we’re sorry isn’t enough here, but showing a little solidarity might be.
The issues facing Canada’s native communities – pollution, neglect, corruption and poverty (to name a few) are the same which afflict every other community – white, black and brown – across the country as well. Regional autonomy and cultural are issues for Western, Eastern, Northern, rural and French communities, just as they are for inner-city neighbourhoods in Southern Ontario. This is not and has never been “just an Indian issue”. For many years indigenous activists have played crucial roles in broader struggles (poverty, development, environment etc.) – it’s time to return that favour. This is one movement which none of us, not even the Prime Minister, can afford to sit idly by and watch.
Once again our Nation’s attention has turned to the modern-day fourth-world horrors of Canada’s northern First Nations reserves. This time the focus is on Attawapskat, Ontario, for the housing prolonged housing crisis, where many will go to sleep tonight in shacks and tents and brave the already-sub-zero temperatures. Like usual, the response from the government has been utterly ignorant of context or history – treating the issue like a “crisis” where normality and order need to be re-established, and where no colossal problem existed before. Attempting to “take charge ” of the situation Harper has seized financial control of the reserve from the Band Council and demanded to know where the tens of millions of dollars it’s received went.
It takes an incredible ignorance of First Nations people and issues to see the problems of Attawapiskat in this way. The first obvious objection might be that the Band Councils are Federal Government institutions, at least as much as they are representatives of the band. If Harper wants to know where the money’s going, he need only ask around his own government – for they know full well exactly what’s happening to it. As the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples showed years ago, there’s enough money already being spent on First Nations to address all of the issues brought fourth – if only they’d cut the budgets being spent on paternalistic bureaucracies overseeing them.
Harper says he wants “responsible Self Government”. Responsible to whom? Taking control in this manner is the epitome of the colonial mentality which still crops up constantly in these issues. It may be racist and unbelievably historically ignorant, but these ideas are very popular. The notion that white statesmen have a duty to take over and rule dysfunctional communities of coloured folks is as alive and well as it was when “White Man’s Burden” was written. It’s also just as false, and every bit as destructive.
Like safe drinking water, education, political representation and nutritious food, housing is in “crisis” on reserves across the country. Take a drive through a few of them if you don’t believe me. When have Canada’s reserves been any different? This isn’t a case of some silly natives squandering their funding and screwing up their homes, this has been the status quo since these reserves were established. A century of “Northern Development” policies have been a grandiose disaster, hoping to replicate Southern, “civilized” life with a utopian naivete which is all too familiar. Populations were settled for the sake of being settled, in the middle of nowhere, and neglected for generations. Large scale resource extraction companies never left much money behind for communities, but they did often leave entire landscapes toxified (pulp mills, Tar Sands, uranium mines etc) and unable to support traditional lifestyles like hunting game or drinking from rivers. There never was a chance of another Toronto or Calgary rising in the Yukon, nor was there ever any real funding for such a dream. Were this not enough, countless millions were spent on the indigenous populations, policing them, stripping them of land abducting their children. The harm caused by Residential Schools, the Indian Act and RCMP will endure for generations, leaving a legacy of pain, depression and shattered communities.
Without a view of this context, First Nations issues are impossible to discuss honestly. How can we talk of a “two tiered justice system” without mentioning the incredibly disproportionate number of Native people in jail? How can we talk about the lack of property rights on reserves when so many valuable resources are extracted from native lands without compensation? Indigenous issues are not some marginal issue of Canadian identity politics, they’re a very serious concern in nearly any country you can name. Wherever you look, from South America to Australia and everywhere in between, these issues sit uncomfortably under all discussions on economics, ecology and development.
We all need to stop thinking about “Northern Development” like people from Southern Ontario. We’re not cowboys or pioneers settling a “frontier”. The kind of expensive and extensive state-supported infrastructure which exists here is financially impossible there, and beyond unwelcome politically. Corporations owned and here and listed on the TSX care about as much about the indigenous populations their Canadian diamond and uranium mines here as they do in Equador or Bolivia. We need something far more sustainable.
Venture out into Canada. Virtually all of this country makes Toronto or Vancouver seem like the distant future or another planet. Forget about cell phone signals – most of these places barely get one radio station. These communities are small and remote. Mills and processing plants have been vanishing for decades in favour of larger consolidated ones elsewhere. These communities often exist in environments of unbelievable bounty, which all too often is is shipped off our way with little left behind. Communities are vanishing – small towns, family farms and reserves are all struggling to keep their young people from fleeing to the south. This isn’t just true of First Nations people, but they bare some of the worst of it. This situation was spawned by centuries of distant rule and from Ottawa, Toronto and overseas, and more of it isn’t going to fix the problem.
(Next I’ll look into these houses themselves – did you know it takes ~$250 000 to build a single house in Attawapiskat? And do you know what happens next to those houses in that Arctic floodplain?)