Decolonizing Property Rights in Canada

Decolonizing Property Rights in Canada

The story starts on Manuel’s home territory. While non-Indigenous people rarely ask, “whose land am I on” in such a way, in my experience Indigenous people often introduce themselves as such. It’s a good way to begin a book about a long and ongoing struggle that is fundamentally about decolonizing land, sovereignty and a whole range of associated property relations.

The book passionately documents the Indigenous movement-building and legal successes, as well as “missed chances and wrong turns” of the authors’ generation. They reach back into the history of racist colonialism, to give origins to both the settlers and legal-political structures fought against in the mid to late twentieth century.

It’s a personal book, in a certain compassionate and respectful way.  Manuel locates his activism and the course of his life in the importance of his relationships with his father and mother, and his own partners and children. And with numerous other Elders, youth, and Indigenous leaders he has worked with and learned from along the way.

Manuel grounds his telling about his first planned action – a food strike – at residential school in the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in jail, and the greater likelihood of arriving there that to the end of high school. He also weaves into that telling how the expansion of human rights consciousness and legal regimes post WWII was significant in aiding Indigenous movement building.

His father – Grand Chief George Manual, a powerful historical figure, founder of the National Indian Brotherhood (later to become the Assembly of First Nations [AFN]) – was actively involved in the organizing that was part of this. The fight for enfranchisement without giving up status (as defined in the Indian Act) was both a critical civil rights battle and also an important foundation on which to expand movement building.

In relating such events the reader learns not only by receiving information about the specific content of what happened in the writers’ and their peoples’ lives, but also, by being shown through Manuel’s voice his learning processes within the authors’ own historically-driven realities. Such organizing praxis is a compelling and important read.

The authors also relate some of Derrickson’s trajectory to becoming a “successful businessman.” Almost unavoidably for Indigenous people of the time, he also went to residential school, as a result of transferring there due to the intense racism in the white-run public day schools. He later learned the welding trade, lived frugally, and bit-by-bit began buying small parcels of land on which he developed various businesses. Such a sharp entrepreneurial sense has led to him now being “the owner of more than thirty businesses.”

The book explores a number of modern turning points in the relationship between the Canadian state and Indigenous peoples, particularly the pivotal and appropriately-named, state-issued 1969 White Paper that has since framed the state’s contemporary alternately dismissive, co-opting, and violent approach to relationships with Indigenous peoples. The White Paper was about extinguishing inherent land rights, treating Indigenous peoples as any other ethnic group in the Canadian multicultural mosaic, and relating to Aboriginal peoples as municipalities within circumscribed territories.

The White Paper was the forerunner of the Mulroney era (1986) Comprehensive Claims Policy that Harper and company are determined to implement today. Russell Diabo has accurately coined this policy  the “termination plan,” which is also graphically explained by Idle No More (INM).

The book also analyses a number of complex and critical legal victories, tracking the connections back and forward to Indigenous organizing, negotiations and future hopes for change. The Calder decision of 1973 meant a recognition that Aboriginal people had property rights to Crown land. This was most significant for peoples that had not signed treaties.

The Delgamuukw decision of 24 years later was an even more important “reset (of) the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the federal government” because the decision confirmed Section 35 Canadian Constitution Aboriginal rights as “real proprietary rights to our lands.” This was extremely significant given the constitutional patriation struggles of the 1970s, and the deflation and disappointment Manuel describes of the 1980s, as the federal government put forward a “colonialist package” of proposals to implement the Constitution Act so as to deny Aboriginal peoples’ sovereignty rights.

Interestingly, the authors describe the 1980s as “a lost decade” for Indigenous organizing, noting how much of leadership got sucked into legalistic negotiations with the state, a state that then “simply dropped the file.” A cautionary tale for all on the perils of embarking on legalistic strategies for change without a political movement to direct and support the game plan.

Some Key Struggles

Indigenous legal victories have laid important groundwork for socio-political changes, but the state has continually erected “political blockade(s),” working around real gains with semantic shifts (such as generally dropping the term “extinguishment”) while continuing on the same material path. Derrickson summarizes the state conduct in the BC treaty process as a “corporate risk management strategy” based on a particular anti-Indigenous type of systemic racism.

On the self-defense and movement-building front, the book makes connections among some significant contemporary struggles that had potentially far-reaching effects. One example is in 1990, the so-called “Oka Crisis,” where Kahnesatake Mohawks defended territory from a golf course expansion. In the aftermath of the 78-day standoff, escalated into a shootout by Quebec police, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) was launched. The RCAP report both repudiated the “doctrine of discovery” – a central pillar of Canadian colonialism – and affirmed Indigenous self-government as an inherent right to self-determination.

Another example is in 1995, when Manuel was Chief of Neskonolith. The spiritual use of a sacred site of their territory was the flashpoint for a confrontation started by a white rancher, claiming ownership to what was actually Crown land, and thus part of Secwepemc title land. This led to the 31-day “Gustafsen Lake Standoff,” with the state bringing in hundreds of militarily-armed RCMP, who escalated the crisis, firing thousands of rounds of live ammunition and even using a land mine.

The standoff ended with multiple arrests and at least one Defender going into exile. The book also dedicates a full section to the strategic fight against the Sun Peaks development in Skwelkwek’welt, again part of Neskonolith lands that ended in late 2001 with yet another violent RCMP assault and ensuing criminalization of more Indigenous people.

The combination of such violent state intransigence (recent apologies notwithstanding), and the late 20th century internationalization of capitalist relations to even less accountable global bodies (for example the WTO in relation to the logging industry), has paved the way for deepening the struggle for Indigenous rights on an international scale, especially through the United Nations (UN).

Manuel himself was actively involved in the negotiations that led to the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, an historical document enshrining peoples’ rights to meaningful self-determination. A document that the Canadian state remains in violation of.

Yet, within Canada, the 2014 Tsilhqot’in decision that recognized Aboriginal title to some 200,000 square kilometres of their land, is an important recent legal development. For Manuel, it is pivotal, a “fundamental decolonizing action” that gives “the legal and constitutional footing” to travel alongside non-Indigenous peoples as equals.

Beyond Bureaucracy

What is not entirely clear as the book closes is how the authors might see movements being built to implement such important legal victories. Perhaps this is because this is quite complex and so unclear to many. They certainly don’t see the AFN as a movement standard bearer. The book is profoundly critical of its conservatization, draining off energy, subsuming Indigenous struggles (officially, those of “First Nations”) into Canadian state controlled forums and structures, and even colluding with the RCMP.

While I waited for more about Indigenous women active throughout the period, and their influence on the organizing, the book does occasionally bring into focus some significant moments for the authors, such as Elder Irene Billy’s sharp commentary on how Canadian-state functions have been cleverly devolved, and sub-contracted to band managers, who she simply refers to as “Indian Affairs.”

Both the issue of First Nation Indian Act-based management and the AFN’s way of functioning remind me of bureaucratic social relations within the organization and functioning of unions in Canada. Such moments of shared reality comprehension show just how much we all stand to gain by allied social transformation efforts.

Which brings me to the question of where non-Indigenous people have been and continue to be in these struggles. The book points to groups like faith-based KAIROS in the Sun Peaks struggle, and non-Indigenous supporters in Gustafsen Lake. And there are pockets of allies active with specific Aboriginal communities, but generally we are few and far between.

A hopeful sign is found through the more recent formation of the groups Defenders of the Land, INM, and the Indigenous struggles they have supported (such as that of Attawapiskat and Chief Theresa Spence). The authors remark upon the Defenders “remarkable ability to build alliances with non-Indigenous youth,” through a shared commitment to environmental defense and protection.

The authors hold out much hope for non-violent movement building, fuelled by legal victories. It is hard to tell how they think such Indigenous movements can be functionally inclusive of the range of people who are legally understood in the Canadian context as being “Aboriginal.”

They also leave significant questions about how entrepreneurial strategies that appear to amass profits for a few at the expense of Indigenous land and workers’ rights can be reconciled with the kind of democratic Indigenous sovereignty they seem to advocate for.  While these are complex issues to be worked out amongst Indigenous peoples in their sovereignty struggles, to be effective allies non-Indigenous peoples’ consciousness of the complexity of the terrain is critical.

Manuel and Derrickson have written a frank and inspiring call to involvement in this fight, inviting the allied participation of non-Indigenous people. We must accept such invitations to be an active part of unsettling and decolonizing property relations. Not only for the just purpose of acting in solidarity, but also for the good of all of our futures.

Sheila Wilmot is the author of Taking responsibility, taking direction: White anti-racism in Canada (Arbeiter Ring, 2005). She has been active in Indigenous solidarity actions and projects.