If the Canadian government intends to meet First Nations in good faith, it must invite Earth back to the bargaining table
Canada looks and feels different lately. Shopping malls, street intersections, parks, and public buildings have become gathering places for people singing, drumming, dancing, and carrying signs. It took a little while for the country to catch on, but the grassroots movement Idle No More, which has been with us for over a month, is obviously not going away. Members of the First Nations of Canada, tired of being asked to remain invisible, are continuing to speak their truth in public spaces, and a good many of their fellow Canadians are joining them. Finally, stories are appearing on the front pages of newspapers, and the movement promises to be in everybody’s face for a little while longer as it has now graduated to roadblocks.
“Something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear,” says a song recorded by Buffalo Springfield a few years before the 1970 Vietnam War protest at Kent State University. But unlike the incident that left four students dead and nine wounded, most of the ugly mudslinging and name calling in Idle No More has fortunately been confined to the press and Internet. Except that the level of racism being displayed there has made many very uncomfortable.
January 11 was a big day. The hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence pushed a planned interchange between the government and First Nations forward and a hasty meeting was called. Questions abounded. Would Stephen Harper be there for the whole time? Which chiefs would attend? Would this honour Spence’s requests? Would the Governor General show? Did that really matter and why was it a concern for First Nations leaders? Backed by protests all across the country, there was a lot of noise and fuss around this day. But when all was said and done, many were cautiously optimistic about what they considered “first steps”.
Once again the government of Canada and the First Nations were on opposite sides of the bargaining table. And once again the government had the upper hand and they were playing by rules of their own making. This curious relationship has been going on for centuries. Way back in 1701 there was a very big meeting in Montreal called “The Great Peace”. Two to three thousand people from 40 First Nations groups came to a huge ceremony to hear speeches, dance, feast, and smoke peace pipes. The French settlers put on their own show of pomp and splendour. In the end a treaty was signed in good faith and this put an end to a hundred years of fighting. “The hatchet has stopped,” said Quarante Sols, a Huron chief. After that there appeared to be peace between the French colonists and the Iroquois but the balance of power would soon change when the British won over the French on the Plains of Abraham in 1760. The upshot of all of this, however, was that 200 years later when I was growing up in Montreal I hardly saw or met a Native person until I was 21. The city was full of all kinds of the English and French descendants of settlers and a host of other European immigrants, including my parents. But the numbers of First Nations inhabitants had been tremendously reduced over time by disease and fighting, and those that remained were marginalized on the fringes of society.
Since the Europeans first landed in Canada a few hundred years ago the government of the day and the resident Native people have constantly been in negotiations. Most of the time, however, the odds did not favour the original people of this country. Their numbers were never able to match those of the waves of immigrants who came to the New World to escape poor living conditions back home. Not only could First Nations not argue against the muskets the settlers brought and the organizational power they wielded, but this tide of newcomers quickly got the upper hand. And the settlers have retained the more powerful position ever since.
Along with their country’s flag there was another idea brought by the British people that was highly invasive. Newly arrived from a country that would soon pioneer the Industrial Revolution, their dominant elites were filled with the spirit of commercial enterprise and they could see possibilities for global trade. They did not just want to be confined to cutting wood from the vast forests which blanketed North America to make houses or build a fire for cooking or heating; the preference was to cut and sell wood abroad for money. From their point of view, the plentiful stores of natural capital they surveyed—trees, fur, fish, minerals, fossil fuels, and land for agriculture—were simply an inventory of commodities.
With strong military power and increasing numbers, these people forged a new reality in this pristine place. They convinced themselves of their right to take whatever they saw. A legal theory that the “Crown” owned the country was declared and representatives of the Crown—which were first appointed and then elected by colonists with the same worldview—got to decide what happened to the land, its resources, and resident species. Compared to the already densely-settled and highly altered landscapes of Britain and Europe, this land looked limitless. And with the diminished power and numbers of the resident First Nations and the farming communities of the original French-Canadian settlers, there were few people offering alternate viewpoints.
From that time until today this “free enterprise” economy has reigned. It has thrived for most of that time because natural resources were plentiful. But political power was also in favour of this approach and the First Nations of Canada with their traditionally more local trade horizons gradually became bystanders as a powerful, internationally-minded commercial culture with few ecological inhibitions took over. This dominant stance continued to bring most natural resources under the control of the governments. Whether this was just or unjust, until recently, few doubted that this method was efficient. So the push was to “integrate” First Nations into the “more efficient” extractive industrial economy.
And yet historically, this was an alien idea to the indigenous people in this part of the world, as they had always factored the Earth into their worldview. In fact their faith, culture, and economics were never artificially separated. The natural world and its resident species were a community, not a commodity, and they were always considered an integral part of daily physical, spiritual, and moral reality. The lives of these people depended, viscerally, on the health of these non-human communities and there was no room for disrespect. With the gradual introduction of a more commercial worldview, First Nations control over their land base gradually shrank to almost nothing. Since the power of their culture depended on this connection, their strength and reason for existence shrank at the same time. To add insult to injury, the dominant classes also forbade the First Nations to practice their culture and educate their own children. As time went on, with no limitations placed on how much the Earth could be altered and used up, the new “industrial machine” continued to chew its way through natural capital on a broad front, producing voluminous flows of cash for the Crown’s coffers. Most First Nations had little choice but to be drawn in, for better or worse, to this continued and unsustainable high-speed extraction of resources.
Things moved quickly. When resources were used up in one location, the commercial “powers that be” with their partners in government relocated to take more elsewhere. Few rules were established about putting back any value into the land or cleaning up after making a mess and even fewer rules were enforced. In retrospect, any rational person could recognize that the Earth’s resources have never been without limits and this kind of endless taking of natural capital for liquidation is impossible to sustain. In this scenario everyone loses in the long term. But if we sincerely put the Earth back into the picture, the whole balance changes. Each person has to scale down their needs and wants and has less in the short term, but everyone wins in the end. This means that if the present Canadian government really wants to be fair in meetings with the First Nations, and responsible to future generations of all Canadians, the Earth has to be invited back to the table.
In early January, Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson, who sometimes shows rather more insight, wrote a very insensitive piece. In a column called “Too many First Nations people live in a dream palace”, he mocked their notions of “nations”—an idea that was likely given to them by settler society. He then lists what he considers their false ideas of “rights”, “sovereignty”, and their dispute with “settlers”. One would hope his intentions were simply to shed light on problems in First Nations societies and offer constructive suggestions for reform. But this column ended up sounding awfully patronizing. He went on to say, “Much of the rhetoric surrounding Chief Spence is of the usual dreamy, flamboyant variety, a mixture of anti-capitalism and anti-colonialism blended with mythology.” And what is Simpson’s remedy for these foolish ideas of upholding their “traditions”? To be like those wise First Nations groups who have turned away from “dependency” and embrace a lifestyle that “benefits from participating directly in the exploitation of natural resource near their communities, which should be the driving thrust of all public policy.”
Ah—there are those natural resources again. Except that once again a sense of their true value as anything other than revenue and their finiteness barely shows up in the discussion. Instead of considering natural resources as an asset which could yield a sustainable flow of income if not depleted, the dominant elites of Canada, following in the footsteps of their kind all over the world, picture natural capital as only existing one dimensionally, solely for the benefit of one current generation of human society. Once more natural resources are nothing more than a pathway to make a living for purely self-regarding humans. Even though people cannot take credit for creating these resources in the first place, “civilized” humankind has followed a model that says every generation has a God-given right to extract as much as they like. Other than the odd park set aside for human recreation, the beautiful vistas of forest and water are just viewed as inventories of unsold goods waiting to be exploited. That, supposedly, is our only option for “creating an economy”. Now who’s living in a dreamland?
Centuries of this worldview have offered some of the more well-off humans in Canada and around the world plentiful food stores, more than adequate shelter, and good medical care and safety, at least for the time being. But it has also created crowded urban communities crammed into concrete boxes high in the sky. On the ground, the earth is paved over with asphalt; the streets and freeways facilitate fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, which destroy natural ecosystems, pollute the air, and create climate change. Trees and other species have shrunk in number or have disappeared altogether. The Canadian economy continues to be based primarily on continued high rates of resource extraction and the present government seems to think this is a good idea, value-added be damned. So in order to make a living in this country, we rely far too heavily on outrageous industrial projects like the tar sands which eat up huge portions of boreal forest, create poisonous environments for thousands of square miles, pollute waterways, diminish ecosystems and species, and release greenhouse gases which contribute to more climate change. They also need an extensive infrastructure of invasive pipelines and marine-environment threatening supertankers to get their product to market. Oh, and they also adversely affect the health and hunting way-of-life of the local First Nations people.
This isn’t a dream. It’s a nightmare for one and all—especially for those living in the vicinity of these invasive projects. And it seems to be all we are offering our children as our future. Simpson is rather too typical of his associates. The discussion of the full impact of our present-day human lifestyle on the natural systems of soil, air, and water and other species as well as future generations has just barely begun. Maintaining a state of denial about the bigger picture is foolish in the short term and tremendously tragic in the long run. Not factoring the Earth properly into our economic balance sheet and leaving it completely out of moral discussions is unconscionable. We should never have let it get this far.
If Idle No More has taught us anything to this point, it is that no one should be made to feel invisible in this country, least of all the descendants of the original residents who protected the natural world they lived in better than we have. And the powers-that-be need to wake up to the fact that their reckless, myopic overconfidence in GDP growth above all else has gone on long enough. They have been steering our common human ship towards a looming iceberg for too long, and now that we are just about ready to hit, those in charge appear to be gunning the engines. The Earth is a metaphorical “player” in our activities whether humans admit it or not. The sooner we get that fact back on the agenda and offer the Earth an ability to state its case properly, the better the future will look for all of us.