Occupy(ed) Canada: The political economy of Indigenous dispossession in Canada

| October 20, 2011

The political economy of Canada rests on claims of ownership to all lands and resources within our national borders. So, what, in concrete terms, does it mean to talk about Occupy(ed) Canada to express the demands of the 99 per cent?

Last week, the Globe and Mail reported that the Canadian Forces' National Counter-Intelligence Unit has been keeping tabs on the activities of Indigenous organizations. While the Department of National Defence -- the unit that released the surveillance documents -- is tasked with protecting citizens from espionage, terrorists and saboteurs, the content of these co-intel reports do not contain a single shred of evidence that Canadians' safety is at stake. In fact, what these surveillance reports starkly reveal is that the self-determination, well-being, and territorial heritage of Indigenous peoples are at the heart of Indigenous protest and land reclamation.

Even Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) confirms this observation. In a 2007 presentation to the RCMP, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) states that "the vast majority of Hot Spots" of so-called Native unrest are "related to lands and resources," with most conflicts "incited by development activities on traditional territories." It seems, in other words, that "Native unrest" is largely a euphemism for bands that are protecting their lands from ecological damage, or in the case of land claim disputes, from dispossession. More broadly, "Native unrest" has become a rhetoric of dismissal for the struggle to exercise inherent Indigenous rights.

So why is the Department of National Defence spying on Indigenous communities in Canada?

It is the fear of economic disruption that is driving Canada to spy on Indigenous peoples. Moreover, in recent years, it has become the fear of an exceedingly more dangerous risk to business-as-usual in this country than paranoid phantoms of espionage. It is the fear of Aboriginal Title.

Since 1997, Indigenous politics in Canada have unfolded against a changing landscape of economic consequence. In that year, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia that Aboriginal Title is the collective proprietary interest of Aboriginal peoples in their unceded traditional territories. Therefore, wherever treaties had not been signed, Aboriginal proprietary rights underlie provincial, federal, and private property lands.

And in addition to unceded or unsurrendered lands, as Arthur Manuel and Nicole Schabus pointed out in an article in Chapman Law Review in 2005, "Many Indigenous Peoples argue that the 'spirit and intent' of the treaties also ensures Indigenous control over their traditional territories."

Unceded and treatied lands cover a massive amount of territory in Canada from coast to coast, translating into significant uncertainty for industry and government. There is no question that the active defence of Indigenous rights and lands has major economic consequences for Canada. In 1990, INAC commissioned a study by Price Waterhouse on the economic value of uncertainty associated with Indigenous claims in B.C., for example. The report concluded that around $1 billion of capital expenditures involving up to 1,500 jobs in the mining and forestry sectors would likely be affected by the land claims process.

This problem is not going away. It is only intensifying with the current global scramble for energy, minerals, oil and gas. Key natural resource projects cannot proceed without Indigenous consent and cooperation. In the last few years alone, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug shut down Platinex mining in northern Ontario Ojicree territory, 64 B.C. First Nations threaten the development of the west coast Enbridge pipeline to the Pacific Coast from the Alberta tar sands, and local Tsilhqot'in Nation sank the Prosperity copper and gold mine at Fish Lake in B.C. Moreover, mega-projects like the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, Plan Nord in Quebec, and the Ring of Fire in northern Ontario, have all been hampered by the failure of ENGOs, government and industry to recognize the land rights of Indigenous peoples.

These developments are hardly new. Indigenous peoples have been on the geographic frontier of capital accumulation for over 500 years of permanent resistance. Indigenous peoples' labour and lands have shaped the political economy of Canada, from the time of the fur trade to bankrolling industrialization with their lands and resources, and today, by confronting neo-liberal policy in the form of continental restructuring and intensified resource grabs.

One example of the economic role of Indigenous lands historically and today can be found in the case of railways, to which Canada maintained a pre-emption right to clear Indigenous lands, and that facilitated the industrial pathways for capitalist development. Over a hundred years later, authorities have become well aware of the risky correlation between Indigenous lands and the steel rails that cross the country from coast to coast. In an RCMP briefing to CSIS on operational responses to Aboriginal occupations and protest, the RCMP warn: "The recent CN strike [referring to the Tyendinaga Mohawk rail blockades in April 2007] represents the extent in which a national railway blockade could effect the economy of Canada."

In addition to these massive expanses of treaty areas and unceded traditional territories, Indigenous lands were historically fragmented into isolated and remote reserves by successive colonial administrations. There are over 2,600 Indian reserves across Canada today. This forced settlement resulted in a unique spatial phenomenon that unwittingly placed Indian reserves on the frontier of vital national and regional boundaries: frontiers, for example, for natural resource extraction, suburban development, military training grounds, oceans and in-land waterways, state borders, and energy generation.

Despite their wealth in land and resources, economic racism prevents Indigenous peoples from obtaining financial benefits from their traditional territories. Their proprietary interests have been largely ignored and Aboriginal Title is extinguished through the land claims settlement process. Chronic under-funding of reserves has deepened the gap formed by deprivation from traditional subsistence economies due to land loss and ecological deterioration. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) commissioner stated in 1996 that "current levels of poverty and underdevelopment are directly linked to the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples from their lands and the delegitimization of their institutions of society and governance."

In addition to systemic impoverishment, and where Indigenous populations join the 99 per cent, austerity programs attack the weakest first. Murray Angus, in his slim but critical book, "And the Last Shall be First: Native Policy in an Era of Cutbacks," gives three main reasons for why Indigenous people are the first ones out of the social security boat when austerity programs roll around: (1) funding -- money for Indigenous people comes from the 'social envelope,' which is under attack; (2) demographics -- Indigenous peoples are the fastest growing population -- so even maintaining programs is expensive; (3) and racism -- white people will look after their own first.

The government has been doling out austerity programs to Indigenous peoples for decades by downloading their responsibilities onto provincial and territorial governments, as well as through bogus self-government policies. But as bureaucrats cast around for deep cuts that Harper has demanded, austerity measures will trim whatever is left in Aboriginal budgets that cannot be tied down. In 2010, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation lost funding, an organization that financed community-based programs to address abuse suffered at residential schools. That same year, Harpers' Conservatives cut funding to the Sister in Spirit research project that brought to light hundreds of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Most recently, Department of Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan announced upcoming budget cuts to his department amounting to a $100 million slash.

The wealth of the nation still depends fundamentally on land. Financial investment for resource development projects is funnelled through the same banks protested against across the U.S. and Canada, such as RBC Royal Bank that funds tar sands development on Treaty 8 lands. Global structural inequality can only be addressed then by questioning the sources of authority by which resources are bought and sold. If you don't own it Canada, how can you give it away?

Shiri Pasternak is a writer and researcher living in Toronto. She is an active member of Barriere Lake Solidarity and the Indigenous Sovereignty and Solidarity Network.

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