The economics of insurgency: Thoughts on Idle No More and critical infrastructure

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News reports are ablaze with reports of looming Indigenous blockades and economic disruption. As the Idle No More (INM) movement explodes into a new territory of political action, it bears to amplify the incredible economic leverage of First Nations today, and how frightened the government and industry are of their capacity to wield it.

In recent years, Access to Information (ATI) records obtained by journalists reveal a massive state-wide surveillance and "hot spot monitoring" operation coordinated between the Department of Indian Affairs, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), local security forces, natural resource and transportation ministries, border agencies, and industry stakeholders. These efforts have been explicitly mobilized to protect "critical infrastructure" from Indigenous attack.

What is critical infrastructure? According to an RCMP internal document concerning the risk of Aboriginal protest, "critical infrastructure refers to infrastructure, both tangible and intangible, that is essential to the health, safety, security or economic well-being of Canadians and the effective functioning of government." RCMP National Security Criminal Investigations have prioritized four critical infrastructure sectors: finance, transportation, energy, and cyber-security.

On January 5 alone, INM protests included five border crossing blockades, bridge blockades, and rail line disruptions spanning the country.

And it's not only intelligence services that are warning of threats to critical infrastructure.

Conservative military analyst Douglas Bland has also long warned that Canada's economic vulnerability is based on the "critical infrastructure that transports natural resources and manufactured goods from mines, oil fields, hydro-electric facilities and factories to international markets." Without these critical systems, he cautions, "Canada's economy would collapse."

Though Bland has counseled a conciliatory approach to Aboriginals in order to stave off the coming crisis, his alarmism -- and that of other right-wing pundits -- simultaneously justifies the state's security and surveillance apparatus by manufacturing a fear of native uprising. But for Bland and others, a coming "Native Spring" is less feared for its potential "violence" and all the more grave for its threat to property rights.

In Bland's fictional book Uprising, he predicts coordinated attacks by secret native cells on key installations and urban hubs, such as the James Bay hydro-electric dam and the downtown core of Winnipeg. This attack on critical infrastructure tellingly ends in a blaze of heroic Canada-U.S. military attacks on the rebel army. (The U.S. gets involved only when they realize their source of electricity, oil, and gas is at stake).

Herein lies the real role of right-wing alarmists with respect to the INM movement: to maintain the economic status quo, because territory is capital. Land is money. And the circulation of goods, resources and energy through territory is the very essence of capitalism today.

The fact is that critical infrastructure in Canada is at the mercy of Indigenous peoples, who are more rural than Canadians and have access to important arteries for economic flows: transportation corridors, energy sectors, and sites of natural resource extraction.

This vulnerability is deadly to the logistics industry. Logistics is a business science concerned with the management of goods and information through global supply chains. As the World Bank has declared: "A competitive network of global logistics is the backbone of international trade." For an industry dependent on maintaining open channels for capital circulation, a blockade means massive losses: the trucking industry alone is worth $65 billion dollars and employs over 260,000 drivers.

In the energy sector, Canada has oil reserves second in the world after Saudi Arabia, though less accessible -- 98 per cent of this oil is in Alberta and 95 percent of it is in the tar sands, where effective Indigenous resistance by Treaty 8 and other First Nations has led to global boycott campaigns and fierce resistance.

In northern B.C., the Unist'ot'en Clan, with support from grassroots Wet'suwet'en, have built a community of resistance directly on the GPS coordinates of the proposed pipeline route from the Alberta tar sands to the Kitimat port. From this camp they have evicted surveyors working for Pacific Trails Pipeline. Meanwhile, in Ontario, Enbrdige's Line 9 has been has been opposed by the Oneida, the Haudenosaunee Development Institute, and Aamijiwaang First Nation, who have all vowed to fight the pipeline to protect their lands and waters.

In terms of natural resource extraction, over 10 per cent of Canada's economy is comprised of the natural resources sectors and earth science industries, which directly employ close to 763,000 people. The greatest concentration and correlation between Indigenous lands and mineral claims are being currently developed in the northern modern treaties and territories, such as Nunavut, Yukon, the James Bay region of Quebec, and the Quebec-Labrador Border, on unceded northwestern B.C. lands (e.g. on Nakazdli, Tzalten, and Tlingit traditional territory), and in northern Ontario's "Ring of Fire" on historic treaty lands, particularly Treaties 3 and 9.

In addition to mineral resources, over half of large intact forest landscapes are found on lands in historical Aboriginal treaty areas. More specifically, as Global Forest Watch reports, "Treaties 8 and 9 contain about a quarter of all of Canada's intact forest landscapes and close to half of all the intact forest landscapes that occur within treaty areas. Modern land claim settlements contain about a quarter of Canada’s intact forest landscapes."

That is not to say meaningful consultation concerning critical infrastructure has not been taking place. The problem is that it has exclusively been between industry and government, instead of between Indigenous peoples and the state. Journalists have been uncovering multiple incidents of high-level coordination between industry and government officials. For example, Access to Information requests revealed that the government has been sharing information with the oil industry on environmentalists and Indigenous groups twice a year since 2005 at secret briefings, even on such seemingly irrelevant activities such as participation in anti-G20 demonstrations.

The irony is that many corporations are tired of having operations held up by Indigenous protest and are willing to go further than governments to recognize Indigenous rights. The logics of colonialism and capitalism divide here around conflicting objectives of territorial acquisition versus the circulation of goods. But more often than not, the state and industry converge around the common interests of the ruling class. For Indigenous peoples, this becomes a question of coordinating leverage.

In conclusion, I want to highlight three main concerns expressed in the risk assessments undertaken by RCMP, CSIS, Indian Affairs and right-wing thinkers on Indigenous uprising that foreground Indigenous economic power.

The first is that a mishandling of conflict will galvanize coordinated efforts of First Nations across the country. Hence, the relatively hands-off approach taken until now. In the Federal Coordination Framework for the AFN Day of Action in 2007, their proposed solution in the case of coordinated mobilization is to "isolate the splinter group."

Second, that the economic cost of even a few hours of such coordinated efforts would be crippling and impossible to police given current resources.

Third -- and this is one of the most worrisome trends to observers -- that solidarity and coordination between non-natives and Indigenous peoples will encourage the movement to build.

As a final thought, while the general population might have been taken by surprise by the strength of Idle No More, the government had long prepared for this inevitability. As far back as 2008, when changes were first proposed to the Navigable Waters Act, CSIS's Integrated Threat Assessment Centre warned about "potential unrest."

Canada created the crisis of insurgency. Because Canada's greed created a situation where Indigenous peoples stand with almost nothing to lose. Therefore the fight is theirs to take. It is also ours to support.


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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