Indigenous communities have always been the canaries in the coalmine: whether that meant the reserve systems would become precursors of apartheid system developed in South Africa, or whether the rampant corruption caused by devolution of Indigenous sovereignty for the benefit of toxic patriarchy being imposed on reserves. We have been at the forefront of bad policy imposed on our communities to the detriment of our people.
As Canadians deal with COVID 19 and the economic fallout that affects their livelihood. First Nation Indigenous, who were never on firm economic footings, are not only dealing with the pandemic, but also with continued issues of poverty, sanitation, water shortages, housing, unemployment, ongoing habitat and environmental destruction, and the desecration of traditional lands.
From the Secwepemc Tiny house warriors in British Colombia to the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia, First Nation Indigenous still fight for land or rights attached to the land. Throughout Canada, First Nations Indigenous people are battling against the pandemic and against the racist systemic oppression.
Prior to the COVID 19 pandemic, the hereditary houses of the Wet’suwet’en of British Colombia waged blockades against Coastal GasLink, TC energy and a proposed pipeline that crossed their territory. They were gaining ground and national support. The pandemic sent their efforts into a tailspin.
Meanwhile, the media, devoid of traditional Indigenous voices or understandings, continues to fumble the issues that surround First Nation Indigenous people. To mainstream media, the simple answer is the Indian Affairs-sanctioned Wet’suwet’en council has agreed to the pipeline. Mainstream media is unschooled in tribal politics. In Wet’suwet’en territory, the hereditary chiefs have put up blockades demanding a voice in the pipeline talks. When your lens is this myopic, this cursory understanding suffices only for a 30-second report on the evening news.
Going east into Alberta, federal and provincial shenanigans have divided First Nation bands initially with Minister of Crown Relations Caroline Bennett’s interference in the 2018 Assembly of First Nation national chief’s election. During the elections, Minister Bennett went into the Alberta caucus, cautioning chiefs to “stay the course” in their selection of national chief which would allow for resource buy-ins.
Premier Jason Kenney followed up on this federal promise with a fund created for First Nations to access to fight court challenges when there is opposition to oil and gas. Then Kenney, during the COVID hiatus, enacted Bill 1 – Critical Infrastructure Defense Act – which interferes in federal criminal powers and negates the charter of rights in the right for Indigenous people to protest or gather.
Going further east, the Mohawk and members of the Six Nations are holding space in Caledonia fighting a housing development with the 1492 Land Back movement.
Meanwhile in Nova Scotia, the Mi’kmaq specifically the Sipekne’katik First Nation are defending their right to fish while the province, the RCMP and the federal government silently watch.
What is the common denominator in all these actions? The First Nation Indigenous people who have always been here on this land agreed to share the land with the settler newcomers. Whether it was through the Peace and Friendship treaties, decrees made by Britain during the American revolution, “historic numbered” treaties, or the inherent rights still to be negotiated between British Colombia or territorial governments and the successor state Canada – the intent remains the same. The First Nation “owners” of the land are to maintain their livelihood with access to land and water in exchange for sharing this country.
What is the difficulty with this action? Canada comes from a tradition where land has a monetary value – land is property – property is a right administered by the Crown. The original peoples were happy to share their knowledge and to live peaceably with the newcomers but once it became clear that sharing meant taking land, the First Nations Indigenous were forced to fight back. Canada’s “success” to be its own country relied on First Nations peaceable support. This support is at the core of the issue at Grand River in what is now “Ontario”. Without the military skills of the original people, eastern Canada could well have been eastern USA. Today that benevolence is challenged.
Canadians rapidly agree with head-nodding here – but are quick to also say this is history and they are “not responsible” for historical wrongs. Yet, they live in a province that exists because the original peoples fought alongside the British. They live in a country where they are “free”. They live freely fiercely maintaining that this freedom comes with “equality for all people”. Where is the equality when land is exchanged but the terms are altered or dishonoured?
On the eastern shores, the Mi’kmaq fished and traded their catches with other nations for millennia. Today, the Mi’kmaq are fighting to fish even though this was an inherent right they always practiced: they have a treaty that predates Canada; then they obtained constitutional protections with Section 35 in 1982; and finally in 1999 the Supreme Court put in further protections to allow Mi’kmaq fishing.
What does it say when you spend generations clarifying agreements and making concessions, only to have it thrown into upheaval because of the interests of interlopers. The Indigenous people did not break the agreement. Why then are non-natives freely destroying Mi’kmaq fishing equipment, catches and threatening violence without penalty? Various spokespeople have made mouth movements about “the passion” behind this situation, the jurisdictional kerfuffle and long whines about conservation. No spokesperson (that is non-native) has said this attack is racist. No spokesperson has addressed the deep-rooted racist attitudes that have festered in this country.
In the 1492 Land Back struggle, the courts are eager participants doling out fines and incurring further legal work – probably to get Canada’s economy moving again. In Alberta, interesting things are happening including one reserve where an INAC council is facing a forensic audit. In British Colombia, the Sewepemc are being arrested.
The original peoples of this land were stewards and part of the land. The ancestral knowledge that has been handed down is in the language and in the land itself. This idea that Indigenous people are part of the land has not been communicated to mainstream. If they continue to take “Canadian values” and apply them haphazardly to Indigenous situations, miscommunication and disrespect will continue. The violence perpetrated by non-Indigenous people will continue.
The Indigenous people are holding the land and waters in ways that were always prescribed. But, as colonization makes larger footprints, little is done to inform, educate, and restrict the activities of the non-Indigenous to bring them in line with the promises of Treaty. The Indian Act and the resultant councils that are extensions of Indian Affairs continue to assimilate or terminate the rights of First Peoples. It does not seem to matter that global science and international understanding have reached the knowledge bases of Indigenous. By the time Canada and the globe catch up with Indigenous thinking, it will be too late. They will be fighting over conservation of fish or lobster in a sea that has risen in volume and temperature. They will be fighting over resources that have dwindled or become extinct. They will be fighting a hotter planet without planning, and their capitalist agendas will collect dust while people struggle to survive pandemic after pandemic. This is the Canada that is coming and this is why the Indigenous are fighting.