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'Dismantling two centuries of privilege and power': Glen Coulthard on #IdleNoMore

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Glen Coulthard. Photo by David P. Ball

As Idle No More prepares for its next day of action on January 28, Indigenous activists and thinkers took time to reflect on the grassroots movement tonight as part of a Vancouver panel, “Idle? Know More.”

It explored "Indigenous rights and self-determination, a legacy of struggle against colonialism, and the Idle No More movement."

The Left Coast Post spoke earlier with one of the panellists, Glen Coulthard -- an assistant professor of First Nations Studies and Political Science at UBC.

Coulthard is from Yellowknives Dene First Nation. We asked him about where he sees Idle No More heading, what solutions are being discussed to the Canada-Indigenous relationship, and some of questions swirling around tactics, blockades and rallies.

DAVID P. BALL: Where do you see the Idle No More movement heading next?

GLEN COULTHARD: Idle No More, and the tactics it's involved so far, will have to continue -- and not bow to pressure from both Canada, but also potentially the more mainstream First Nations leadership and the Assembly of First Nations. If substantive changes aren't being made to restructure the relationship between First Nations and Canada, [Idle No More] has got to proceed with what it's done so far. Rapidly disseminated actions – like the flashmobs and blockading that have emerged -- will have to proceed, if not escalate.

DB: What about Idle No More's message? Do you think it's getting heard?

GC: Yes, but in order to not get trapped in the mirage that it's simply a reaction, without any promises to develop alternatives, we have to start to think about getting that message across. There's been a number of proposals, ranging from the recommendations of the Royal Commision on Aboriginal Peoples -- which calls for Indigenous Peoples to have delegated to them, or devolved, their own authority over their land base (...) – to talk of Canada living up to its treaty obligations already. And there's the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada is a signatory to -- living up to the obligations that are legal norms.

DB: Which of these approaches do you think would be most effective?

GC: Personally, I think a lot of the questions revolve around land and authority over it -- to break the back of colonial dependency among Indigenous People. There are a lot of proposals [...] which need to be examined in detail. One is the revitalization of Indigenous economies, land-based economies. Usually this gets characterized as just a “back to the land” fantasy, but a lot of research historically has looked at the sustainability of mixed economies, subsidized by contemporary economic ventures, and with the diversion of funds from mainstream economies to revitalizing traditional practices on the land.

DB: What are some of those practices?

GC: The bush economy, hunting, fishing, land-based economic production. These usually get pitted as entirely opposed to more contemporary economic ventures, but even that is false. Indigenous people, particularly in the north – for instance, some of the proposals formulated in my community, the Dene [...] in the 70s – wanted to see land-based production as an alternative to rampant capitalist resource development. They proposed drawing money from the mainstream economy up there. But if we are to venture, as Dene, into the mainstream economy -- oil, gas, and so on -- then we would have to do so in a way that reflects our values as Dene people. That's the story you don't get told.

DB: Could you talk about some of those values that should inform an Indigenous economy?

GC: In the conversation tossed around at the time, we were reinvigorating the co-op model.

DB: What is the co-op model?

GC: Democratic control of production, workplace democracy, essentially. There's a whole host of alternatives out there proposed and thought about by Indigenous folks, not solely based on resurrecting Indigenous modes of production, or submitting ourselves to the dictates of capital in non-renewable resource development, or capitalist development, on our territories. Those [alternatives] need to be put back on the agenda.

DB: Could you talk about the importance of the land base to Indigenous Peoples?

GC: Land is essential [...]. It's still, for most Indigenous Peoples, understood as a core aspect of our identities as Indigenous Peoples. There's the cultural significance of the land to our identities, but it's also the idea that land is essential to sustaining ourselves over the long haul -- both as humans, but also because we take from land what we need to survive over time. This requires the land to be around long enough to sustain that. It's not the unchecked access to land for the purpose of unregulated development. We have to think about more ways of relating economically to our homelands, in ways that are sustainable. To do that, we have to start thinking about alternative modes of production. Capitalism is based by definition on modes that are not sustainable.

We as Indigenous People can draw insights from land-based practices, and apply them to contemporary institutional settings. This is really interesting about the proposals before, [which] were attempting to apply our values as Indigenous Peoples to how we go about producing and relating to the land, to sustain an independent existence.

Jerrilyn Webster (aka JB the Firstlady) MCs at a Vancouver Idle No More event. Photo by David P. Ball


DB: If we could talk about Idle No More a bit, what do you make of some of the tensions that have arisen over what tactics the movement should use to achieve its goals? Is this a matter of different Indigenous cultural approaches, for instance, or political differences?

GC: The tensions that exist are blown out of proportion. When they're reported, at least in the mainstream media, they're as much constructions as reality -- long-standing, historical ones not based on national differences, but on the creation of different voices with varying degrees of legitimacy based on the Indian Act and who it's created as leaders over time.

Often, the tensions are between the grassroots and leaders attempting to enter into some sort of negotiations with the federal government. But they have to toe a line around assertive direct actions in order to make headway. These are a products of the Indian Act and the acts that preceeded it over a century.

[Recognizing] national and cultural differences amongst First Nations are absolutely essential. The fact that these conversations are happening should be seen as a good thing, not a bad thing. We should embrace those differences and conversations that come out of them. They give us perspectives on what we should do. They give us a different points of view from different traditions. That conversation gives us a host of alternatives and ways of thinking about how to proceed. Difference should be embraced.

DB: Do you think there's also a double-standard applied to any divisions amongst Indigenous Peoples, that are not applied to Canadian politics?

GC: The same standard isn't held for the Canadian community or political perspectives; the same standards are not held to them [...]. There's three areas that are commonly presented as problematic by the dominant society: One is disunity; there's internal fractures that make the Idle No More movement fractured, [for instance, saying], 'They don't have one coherent plan.'

Secondly, I get asked by media all the time about the movement's aim as being vague or ambiguous, or that there's no substance to its claims or vision. Those are both blown out of proportion. On one hand, the diversity of Indigenous nations in this country will amount to a diversity of perspectives on how to move forward. The diversity of situations that First Nations find themselves in will amount to different perspectives on what needs to be done. To claim that as a deep-seated problem is ridiculous; it's just a fact.

Over the last two weeks, we have seen the demands emanating from the grassroots sharpening and becoming even more precise. Before, it used to be housing conditions, the material conditions on reserves, and the attack on some of the environmental and land concerns with one omnibus bill -- C-45. Those were symptomatic of the colonial relationship. Now we're focusing on the core issue: setting right the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada. That requires two fundamental changes -- changes to Indigenous Peoples' land bases, and authority over their communities and lands. We're seeing this very precision emerging in the Idle No More movement, which was previously just dealing with symptoms.

DB: And the third criticism from dominant society?

GC: Third, there is a lingering assumption -- or demand, actually, from both some Indigenous people and Canadians -- with respect to this movement “shooting itself in the foot” if it begins to upset people. There's a demand on Indigenous activisms that they not be too disruptive, because it will upset Canadians. This [attitude] will damage the cause. I think that placing that demand on Indigenous Peoples poses the most damage to cause.

DB: What sort of damage?

GC: The transformative changes required in order to fix this relationship -- where Indigenous People can live cultured, healthy lives in relationship to their communities and territories -- requires the dismantling of a good solid two centuries of privilege and power amassed by the dominant society, in particular its political and economic interests. That is going to upset people, particularly those interests, when it's corrected! The idea that we can proceed without being disruptive or upsetting the powers that be seems an unreasonable demand, which will result in the solidification of the status quo.

DB: A lot of the criticisms have been around the use of blockades as a tool for change. What are your thoughts on that?

GC: The blockading tactic has been one of the more effective tools in First Nations and Indigenous Peoples' arsenals for decades now. It's proven itself in that way. [Also], it's not aggressive; it's been peaceful, and for most part, historically, it has remained so.

DB: Is Idle No More a continuation of previous self-determination movements, or something new, do you think?

GC: What distinguishes Idle No More from previous self-determination struggles is that we have already amassed quite a following from the dominant society. They're starting to see their interests expressed in this struggle, rather than the economic agenda of the current federal government. With the environmental gutting we see in Bill C-45, Canadians are starting to [...] support the self-determination of Indigenous Peoples as stewards over these lands for centuries. We already have quite a bit of solidarity, as I've seen it now, which hasn't existed in the past.

DB: What about the worries among some in Idle No More that this support might be alienated by more disruptive tactics?

GC: I think there's an element of truth -- yeah, it's disruptive. Of course it's going to be! We're challenging illegitimate power and privilege amassed over at least two centuries, if not longer here in Canada. That's not to dive into questions of strategy or tactics uncritically. These conversations are happening all the time, everywhere, over what is to be done to pursue our justice struggles in the most effective way. What we're seeing here is a good thing. It's being critically discussed.

DB: Do you think the mainstream media have shifted somewhat in their coverage recently? There's still some terrible reporting and distortions, sure, but even some conservative columnists, like at the National Post, are finally acknowledging some of the Idle No More demands, for instance around nation-to-nation relationships -- even if they reject those demands.

GC: In the realm of media representations, that's a hard one. When they enter into the conversation with that reaction -- “We have to cover this now” -- what ends up happening is they cover it in a de-historicized way -- [i.e.] “It's just about housing.” They can react by showing audits and mismanagement, so we're now focused on the mismanagement of First Nations, rather than the historical, abusive relationship that produced this context. These are institutional or structural problems with mainstream reporting on these issues. These are deep-seated, historical effects bubbling over once again, to the point where now they are being paid attention to.

What's not being paid attention to is thinking critically of alternatives that would approach problems with the recognition that this is a long-standing structural problem that is the result of the ongoing dispossession from Indigenous Peoples of their land-base. That has caused the material conditions in our communities -- the unhealthy living conditions.

DB: Do you think that such thinking about alternatives needs to happen in Idle No More, or is starting to happen?

GC: It's already there. We've seen over the last couple weeks a shift from a focus on particular policies or the housing crisis, to one about protecting the land, getting some of it back, and ensuring we have authority over those lands, in order to break our colonial dependency.

The structural analysis is there. I think it probably should inform our conversation on where to go from here. Let's think of alternative economies, and more sustainable ways of relating to the land. Not [necessarily] withdrawing from the economy and pursuing a land-based way of life, but informing our decisions and organizing based on aspects of Indigenous Peoples' values and forms of knowledge. It's not a question of just going back to the land, [versus] just submitting oneself to the dictates of capitalist economic development -- we have more to offer than that.

DB: What inspires you about the Idle No More movement, overall?

GC: What is inspiring, to me, is how broad-based it's becoming. There was a lot of focus on youth before, which had to do with its dissemination on social media, which was really important in getting people mobilized, and of creating this really large conversation and discussion on our rights and what to do next. But to leave it at that is a misnomer -- it's being influenced by the values of elders, the knowledge bases of our ancestors, and of course women have been central in all this as well.

This is really a grassroots, broad-based movement which is utilizing all sectors of Indigenous society, and informing what we ought to do next to build alternatives to the colonial relationship that exists now.

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