By Matt Hern
A couple of weeks ago I gently waded into the ‘foreign ownership’ debates on this site, prompted by some new and tedious research about the supposed ethnic backgrounds of home buyers in a few West Side neighbourhoods. I am hardly alone: it appears that most everyone in the city has a few opinions on this issue (!), and there is something about the compulsive focus on race and racialization that triggers particularly aggressively entitled ‘old stock’ kinds of responses.
I am not on any social-media platforms and avoid comments sections like the plague, but a quick look at subsequent media responses revealed an eager rush to self-exculpation: reflexive ‘moves to innocence’ insisting ‘we’re not being racist (it’s just numbers!)’.
The scramble to grant permission to one’s own prejudices here echoes every race-based rationale everywhere, whether it’s Blacks, Jews, Mexicans, Roma, or whoever is being targeted in the search to find to cheap and convenient explanations for complex social issues.
The huge volume of correspondence that I received from across the continent in response to my short piece however, confirmed what is already very widely understood: any serious debate about housing and property has to leave spurious notions of ‘foreignness’ out of the conversation. There is no need to rehash the argument; let’s leave that sad, diversionary trope behind for good.
It is well-past time to shift the debate in some other directions, and I’d like to suggest one that I think is particularly relevant: to underline the absurdity of settlers claiming any land as ‘ours’ on Indigenous territory. Straight up: if you care at all about the cost of shelter here you should care about the return of Indigenous land.
It is impossible in Vancouver to separate discussions of inequality from land and property. All too often that tends to turn into ‘affordability’ arguments, which are fine, but the root of our current crises has to always return to the fact that this is Indigenous land. Any concern with the cost of housing, with who gets to stay here and who has to leave, about who feels precarious and who feels secure—all of that has to be historicized in context of colonial rationalities.
Accumulation of wealth through dispossession has been locked into Vancouver’s DNA from its very outset: it is how we come to be here, generally and specifically, and unceded, stolen land is the font of all settler wealth.
Selling stolen property is typically called ‘fencing’, and is frowned upon pretty much everywhere. Any argument about who gets to sell what land to whom—like say, suggesting that it is not justifiable to sell houses to Chinese people with nonanglicized names—wilfully ignores the manner in which that land was acquired. As Leanne Simpson puts it ‘"You know what, when an individual even within Canadian law steals a really expensive car and gets caught—they still have to give it back! They don’t get to keep it even if it’s worth a lot of money and they really like it."
If we are ever to have reasonable discussions about the cost of housing and who gets to occupy what property, we need to account squarely for that history of colonial displacement. If we are ever to honestly think about unwinding narratives of spectacular inequality, then facing Indigenous claims to land is not a peripheral or ancillary issue. The grammar of displacement and dispossession underpins all of our thinking about property, wealth and land—explicitly and implicitly.
The logic that gives permission to wildly differential extractions of individual wealth from land is deeply connected to these histories of dispossession. It is not just speculation and profiteering, it is the fetishization of property, of turning land into commodity that pits neighbour vs. neighbour, renters vs. homeowners, settlers vs. Indigenous folks, newcomers vs. more recent newcomers in a wild scramble to commodify that which should never be.
The battles to forge a city where all kinds of people from all kinds of places can live peacefully require policies that will take land out of the market (which are well-documented and some of which I detailed in the previous piece) and all should be informed by the rematriation of Indigenous land. Decolonization cannot be reduced to metaphor, and the return of Indigenous land is our best route to escaping the pathologies of property. All of us: settlers and Indigenous people alike will benefit profoundly from a reasonable discussion about property and ownership.
Considering displacement is to ask who deserves access to land and why, and those answers, or at least those questions, strike me as right at the heart of what a city should be. City air should set us free and in many ways and for many of us that’s true. But all cities are built on colonial plunder, and most, certainly those in this part of the world, have been built on the backs of unearned privilege.
The buying and selling of land is closely related to the buying and selling of bodies, each giving permission to the other, and it is impossible to understand the great wealth of cities without understanding dispossession. I am convinced that cities, and certainly Vancouver, are critical starting places to account for these histories and to take rematriations seriously. That project necessarily demands a rethinking of the uncertainties of development, property and ownership. If we really want to talk about ‘affordability’ or about land or about who should be here, that’s where we should start.
Next up: Why the explosion of cheap credit costs us all so much.