Socialism and Native Americans

by Peter Kulchyski

SO, LET’S start with some basics. Have you ever read the text of any one of the treaties made in Canada with First Nations? Do you know anything about the first attempt to form a national political organization for Indians in Canada? Can you name any of the reasons why First Nations so vehemently opposed the First Nations Governance Act? The high odds you didn’t do well on my snap quiz means that the sanctioned ignorance of how colonialism has operated within Canada has left its mark on the political left almost as much as it has on the political right. In the same way that our schools won’t tell us much about the labour strikes that helped build the welfare state, or the racism that our immigration policy was steeped in, it hasn’t had much to say about Aboriginal peoples in this country. Apart, that is, from a few lessons to titilate cultural curiousity.

While socialists in Canada have been strong supporters in solidarity struggles for social justice around the world, they have a less inspiring record when it comes to dealing with indigenous struggles in their own backyard. Demonstrations against international colonialism, from the protests of recent events in Iraq to earlier mobilizations around South Africa, El Salvador, East Timor, seem to attract hundreds and sometimes thousands of dedicated activists. Colonialism in Canada’s own far north and mid-north continue to draw a tepid response: a well publicized show of support last March in Toronto for the logging blockade at Grassy Narrows drew a handful of supporters from outside the Aboriginal community. The problem is not simply with activists. In my view it signals a failure of socialist theory in Canada to come to grips with the particularity of oppression here. It’s a pity because the left and Aboriginal people in Canada have a lot to say to each other, if they could really start talking.

It is often and easily forgotten, a key part of the sanctioned ignorance, that Aboriginal people’s labour ironically enough provided the fundamental productive value that established Canada as an economically viable economy. Aboriginal women and men were primary producers of fur for the first 300 years of colonization in Canada. This work did not constitute Aboriginal people as a working class: whatever their position may have been they were clearly not wage workers forced to sell their labour power on an open market. They retained access to their own subsistence (the “means of production” in Marx’s terms) and retained through the whole period a strong sense of distinctiveness, grounded materially in a hunting economy.


As the fur trade waned in centrality to the settler colony in the last half of the nineteenth century, Aboriginal peoples were marginalized and processes of dispossession were deployed to immiserate them and to force them into the position of wage workers. Marx recognized the centrality of such processes, arguing forcefully in Capital that the dissolution of the bonds between working people and their land was a central moment in the history of capitalism. However, such dissolutions did not take place in a vacuum: they were hotly contested in the old world as in the new. In the new, Aboriginal leaders successful deployed an array of tactics, ultimately codified in a doctrine of Aboriginal rights, to maintain a degree of access to the means of subsistence. While relations between Aboriginal peoples and newcomers for three hundred years were primarily economic, organized around the dynamic of the fur industry, at the end of the nineteenth century a new logic began to prevail: relations came to be organized around politics. The Canadian State became the key hegemonic institution in the lives of Aboriginal peoples, as it remains to this day.

Aboriginal people were therefore never a significant part of the working class in Canada. Here and there, in this or that historical moment during the last hundred odd years, Aboriginal people’s labour-power was exploited and they fought back using the tools of working people. In large measure, particularly until Indian Act revisions in 1951 lead to out-migration from reserves, Aboriginal communities in the mid and far north stayed apart from the dramatic series of capital and labour confrontations that helped shaped critical aspects of Canadian history. Instead, they represented another track, no less critical to capital development in Canada and in my view no less critical to Canadian history. Aboriginal people maintained some degree of access to and in some cases title to the land base that Canadian capital salivated over. As a resource exporting nation the land base was central to the wealthy. Clearing access to it has been one of the defining tasks of the Canadian State.


Attempts on the part of the Canadian left to neatly fit Aboriginal peoples into the working class have not served to illuminate any dimension of Aboriginal people’s struggles and not given socialist practice a strong base from which to support those struggles. In many cases, the direct implication of this kind of class analysis is that Aboriginal peoples should give up their attempts to maintain a subsistence economy, support whatever mining or pipeline or clearcutting projects that are proposed for their land, and join with other workers in carving out as good a deal as is possible for themselves as workers. And this means, materially, they should disadvantage themselves in the struggle against capital by surrendering the ground their ancestors fought to give them as a basis for maintaining a distinctive social identity and a distinctive way of life.

Radical theory does not have to fall into this trap. Marx himself offered a rich variety of concepts much more directly related to Aboriginal people’s struggles. These offer socialists a strong position from which to articulate support for the particular struggles of Aboriginal peoples. While I cannot in this brief space flesh these out, a few words will act as pointers. Most importantly, Marx elaborated a notion of understanding and classifying kinds of societies through the idea of the “mode of production” as a defining feature. This allows us to recognize that while a vibrant cultural diversity exists in Aboriginal Canada, underlying this cultural diversity is a political-economic similarity: Aboriginal peoples belong to a hunting mode of production. Hunting peoples create and affirm social relations, political structures and values that are antithetical to capitalism.

Conflicts between contemporary capitalism and Aboriginal peoples need to be thought in terms of the developing dominance of the former mode of production over the latter and in terms of the latter’s resistance. Marx also, especially in his understanding of the commodity and capital accumulation, understood how capitalism was a totalizing dynamic: it has to expand and absorb, ultimately erasing anything that acts as an obstacle to its rule. The “developing dominance” I referred to can also be called totalization: for Aboriginal peoples a benign liberal democracy (as Canada presents itself) is experienced as a totalitarian machinery devoted to the ruthless eradication of their life ways. In his view of “primitive communism”, guided by his reading of the anthropology of his time, Marx articulated a notion that “early” forms of society could contain quite advanced social relations. It’s also interesting to note that in his early years Marx wrote about the “customary rights” of working people in much the same fashion that today we understand Aboriginal rights. Marx himself provides a much better place to begin an analysis of Aboriginal politics in Canada than many of the marxists who have followed in his wake.

Where does this leave activists? If new socialists do not want to repeat the mistakes of too many of their ossified ancestors they will have to engage in some rethinking. Although they were not a working class in the nineteenth century, it is striking that in the production of belts made of buffalo hide that ran industrial machinery or whale oil that lubricated the same machinery, Aboriginal people’s labour and resources were near the core of the early accumulation of capital. Today the North American energy sector, in particular, which plays a key role in capitalist geopolitics and in the global economy in general, is looking northwards for oil, natural gas, hydro electricity.

Aboriginal lands are again a critical stumbling ground in the drive to capital accumulation. And Aboriginal life ways can be thought of, not as sentimental holdovers of an outdated premodernism, but as the advance guard for the values we will all have to come to appreciate as human beings if we are to imagine a sustainable future; values, coincidentally, that line up far better with socialist ideals than many a more commonly referred to example of “real world” socialism.

So pay attention to the mighty Deh Cho and the Mackenzie Valley pipeline project. Pay attention to the road that will push its way up the eastern side of Lake Winnipeg. Pay attention to the hydro corridor that will bring ever more power to Toronto. Pay attention to the grand flooding that will take place in northern Quebec. And the diamond mines in the NWT. And the nickle mines in Labrador. And the clearcutting in B.C., in Manitoba, in Ontario. Will this be the next few decades of Canadian history? Are Aboriginal people involved in this history? Are you sitting on the sidelines? You don’t have to be. Read some history. The treaties are a good place to start. Read some anthropology. Here and there, midst all the kinship confusion, you can find some real inspiration. Read some literature. There are some Aboriginal novelists and poets who have more than a little to say about all this.

The notion of the nation, a continuing vexation for socialists, can be thought of in this light. The “First Nations” clearly involve some kind of project to consolidate a national identity that enacts these life ways and values. Such a project is always destabilizing for the broader project of nationalism in Canada. Just as the Cree Nation on the east side of Hudsons Bay in their existence challenge a Quebecois national project, so the Dene Nation and the Mohawk Nation throw into question the Canadian project. The Canada that is a site for carefully orchestrated capital accumulation through “peace, order and good government” is antithetical to the democratic aspirations circulating in another country that exists within: I call it “bush country.”


I was recently in Lac Brochet, a Dene community in the northwest corner of Manitoba. They are in “receivership,” officially seen by Indian Affairs as one of the most mismanaged communities in Canada. In the week I was there, among many other meetings and gatherings, a community assembly was held. A strong proportion of the people came out. Leaders were criticized, publically. Decisions were made. This was a normal event in Lac Brochet, barely worth a passing comment to my friends who live there.

Something called democracy, the vague ghost of which barely survives in the marks some citizens make every few years, was performed before my eyes, not for my eyes but for itself. It is this, precisely this, that the Canadian State relentlessly works to stamp out. Hence, the First Nations Governance Act: give them as much bureacracy as the rest of us suffer with. Call that Democracy. Accountability. Transparency. The new holy trinity of capitalist politics, which capitalist politicians of course feel no need to abide by, and capitalists themselves reject as notions that have anything to do with how business is run. Do new socialists have anything to say about this colonial struggle?

New socialists will appreciate that what is going on in Grassy Narrows today is not some quaint environmental struggle that they can add to their growing list of worthy causes to be fit into the schedule where possible, another addition to the long list in an ever extending rainbow coalition of “bigger tent” leftism. New socialists are in a position to understand which Aboriginal projects, for all their new age sensitivity, are engaged with fundamental collusion with capital and which, for all their inarticulate rage, are engaged in a fundamental collision with capital. There are more Aboriginal people in the cities than ever before. These people often cling fervently to their Aboriginal identity, though their struggles are the struggles of poor people of colour and they can be identified as a segment of the working class. But numbers are not everything. The call of a very small part of the Canadian population, living in remote northern communities practicing and embodying values that we can only dream of, is a call that must not be ignored by new socialists or we will not deserve the name we give ourselves.