Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Negotiating the Terms of Surrender

As the community of Tsawwassen votes on their Final Agreement today and with the community of Huu-ay-aht set to vote shortly, I thought I would return from my self-imposed exile on "treaty" matters and share some thoughts and feelings on the political processes underway in BC. This is not a technical exercise. Others are far better at dissecting the legal jargon than I (Art Manuel, and even my London School of Economics-educated friend from Sḵwxwú7mesh).

Another friend, Lahalawuts'aat best characterized the BC Treaty Process when she said indigenous people were merely "negotiating the terms of surrender." To say that we have been negotiating is putting it generously. The governments are imposing the terms of surrender and indigenous people are being coerced to accept them finally and completely.

What's wrong with this picture? Perhaps, one can concede that the ubiquitous nature of the Canadian state is so powerful that resistance is futile and pragmatic collaboration is preferable. Even during the early, optimistic days of the BC Treaty Process, some of our leaders believed this, which brings me to my first point: Power politics and force.

In 1990, a 270 year resistance flared up again in Kanien’kehaka territory over the expansion of a 9-hole golf course. Initially, over a 1,000 SQ were called in, then a battalion-sized force of the Canadian Army took over for all the world to see. The stand-off lasted 78 days, but the legacy lasted much longer. Out of it came (however briefly) unprecedented national indigenous unity, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the BC Treaty Process. A tremendous amount of political space was created in the wake of Oka. [In 1990, I was 16, turning 17]

Political space eventually dissipates however, and 17 years later it seems almost non-existent, such is the current climate of government-funded dissent, political pragmatism, capacity building, and economic development. I was there in 1991, on the Capilano reserve of the Sḵwxwú7mesh people, when the BC Treaty Process began. Interestingly, it was a Conservative government in Ottawa and a Social Credit (right-wing) government in Victoria that ushered in the "modern-day treaty process." I was almost completely apolitical and in my first year of college at the time.

Shortly after the process began, I remember noticing a headline of the Nisga'a Agreement in Principle and a cash settlement of $190 million dollars [I was 23 at the time]. I thought that was a lot of money. I still think it is a lot money (in the appropriate context of course). I said as much to my father. He immediately replied that it was peanuts and that hardly anyone was talking about what the Nisga'a were giving up (92% of their lands, etc.) During the late 90's the general tone at the Summit was one of "respect for the Nisga'a and their decision" but a unanimous sentiment that echoed, "but WE are not going to SETTLE for that."

Most negotiators believed that they could negotiate a better deal. Some believed that they could not. The first, a group of mostly Native Youth Movement activists, strongly opposed the process from the beginning, often disrupting meetings and even occupying the BC Treaty Commission office. The second was a savvy and experienced Nuu-chah-nulth leader. He offered the Tribal Council a deal. He would negotiate a treaty for them single-handily for less than $200,000.00. He knew that the government would not negotiate, that they had predetermined mandates, and that all that would need to be sorted out were the details.

Of course the chiefs rejected his offer and 15 years later the Tribal Council is fractured into 4 distinct negotiating units and collectively carrying over $20 million dollars in BCTC loan debt. (Also notable is that the other major tribal groupings, once having entered into the process united, have also broken up at least two, and sometimes three or four-ways: Sto:lo, Tsimshian, and Kwakwakw'awakw). This leader, even though we differed substantially on most political matters, knew then what I know now. We are not really negotiating.

There exists a facade of negotiations. Research occurs. Papers are written. Meetings take place. Non-indigenous lawyers are paid copious amounts of money. Consultants are hired and the "people" remain suspiciously apathetic (note: I am not blaming the people for this). I worked in the business for nearly 6 years. I was paid a lot of money and in the beginning, I was optimistic as well. And while my peers may be shocked to hear it now, I did vote "yes" on the Nuu-chah-nulth AIP in 2001. It's safe to say that I've since changed my mind.

I am now accused of being philosophical, backward, unprogressive, and somehow in love with the Indian Act. From 2001 until 2006 I sat in on dozens and dozens of tri-partite negotiation sessions. Not once did I ever see BC or Canada capitulate on anything significant or increase their mandates in a substantial manner. Even when the Nuu-chah-nulth table broke up and the Maa-nulth tribes came back and reported that they had successfully negotiated for more land, leading some to believe it was their sheer intelligence, skill, and will that had accomplished the deed. I immediately called my source in the BC Treaty Negotiation Office and asked if this was true. The answer was that the parties agreed to remove smaller amounts of high-value land, and replace it with greater amounts of lower-value land. The overall formula remained unchanged. Surely, you can see the wool being pulled over someones eyes.

Perhaps I wouldn't feel so ill about it if the rhetoric was different. Both the Aboriginal and government negotiators speak emotionally about how tough negotiations have been and about the give and take and sacrifice on all sides. It's usually at about this point that I want to take a gravol or maybe something stronger. The "treaty negotiation" interview has become about as predictable as the hockey interview. "...We were caught on our heels at first. They came at us hard. We gotta give them credit, but then our guys really stepped up and put forth a team effort..."

Back to my philosophical arguments and the terms of surrender. Even according to colonial law (when they aren't changing them), the BC land question remains open. Even according to notions of imperial civilization, in which indigenous people should be grateful for the coming of our great white fathers, the matter has not been dealt with properly, until now. Now, our own people fill the offices of Indian Affairs. Even one of the Chief Negotiators for Canada, Dan Goodleaf, is a Mohawk. Fresh Aboriginal graduates from Canadian universities fill the offices and court rooms of the colonial state, with good hearts, hoping (I hope, at least) to change the system from within.

Is it working? Has anything substantially changed since 1990? How about 1975 or 1969? Finally, the colonial governments have managed to convince us to say yes, to sign on the dotted line and justify their theft. Our leaders are being paid (albeit sometimes with loans our people will have to pay back), to officially give up, at least the battle for a greater sense of independence - they used to call it Self-Government. Canada (and all the states in the Americas for that matter) have rotten foundations, a reprehensible past and an ongoing neo-colonial present). Finally, the settlers will be able to breathe a sigh of relief and recount, "Whew! That was a close one. It's ours. It's finally ours, legitimately. The Indians agreed to give up 95% of their lands and waters, and we didn't even have to compensate them, and even the land they do retain will be subject to our laws and jurisdiction."

It sounds like a great deal for somebody. Now this is undoubtedly the point where I get accused of being cynical and negative and somehow in favour of the status quo. The liberal-democratic-capitalist system breeds cynicism. Everyone expects it. No one trusts politicians, not really. Former Canadian Prime Minister Chretien campaigned on a promise to eliminate the Goods and Services Tax (GST), and in ten years, didn't even come close but people kept electing his party anyway. Why should this be any different, especially if we are being asked to plug into their system?

I am no longer apolitical, but I remain optimistic and I return to my father's words over ten years ago. What did they give up? What are we being asked to give up? Is it worth it and do we really want to be full-fledged Canadian citizens? Sure, they say it's one of the best places to live on earth and sure our conditions, both on the reserve and in the cities are downright despicable, but is it really worth it? Are liberal-democratic-materialist-individualist solutions really going to make us happy?

There are other places with lots of loot floating around: Hobema, Osoyoos, West Vancouver, north eastern BC, to name a few. Ask yourselves this, are the people happier and are they living healthy indigenous lives? I don't have a final answer myself. I am truly asking you. Of course, hinting at the importance of living an indigenous life begs several questions. What is it and is it even desirable?

Prior to the advent of the current process, closer to the time the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council made it's first comprehensive claim, there were over 200 Nuu-chah-nulth fishing vessels. Now there are less than 20. We have more people working with farmed salmon than wild salmon. Diabetes, among a litany of other health concerns are rampant. So what's the solution? A treaty? A 40-60 hour per week job? How about a white picket fence and a vacation to Disneyland?

I don't have all the answers, but I do have some ideas. I know that I feel my most content, fulfilled and empowered, when I see our culture in action. I'm reminded of my father who says there is no word in our language for "culture." It is not something we study or read about. It is not a weekend retreat. It is who we are. It is how we live. And I find that I am happiest when I am living what might be interpreted as a Nuu-chah-nulth life*.

Last year in school, I had the least amount of money and stuff I've had in over 13 years, and I was happier than I've been in almost the same amount of time. I've learned more about Nuu-chah-nulth ways of being and language than ever before. I've gained an appreciation of our philosophies and unique worldview in a way that I had not before, and have developed a burgeoning ability to implement these ideas into daily practices.

Some people earnestly believe that a deal, any deal is better than no deal. I disagree. I believe a bad deal is a bad deal and they've been imposed on our people for hundreds of years, but I will not agree willingly to one now. Since Oka, no one has really pushed the envelop. Sure there have been minor flare-ups but nothing lasting. Even from my pragmatic point of view, we have not created any greater leverage. If anything, it has decreased, along with our collective bargaining power.

I have no illusions about they way things have turned out. I've read enough history and lived enough direct experiences to know that it's all a game of power politics and that governments never relent willingly. Their behaviour at the negotiation table, in their court rooms and board rooms has not surprised me. I've learned to expect it. This realization doesn't even have to add to my cynicism. It can elevate my thinking. Have we tried hard enough? Have we sacrificed enough? Do the current deals truly offer our communities a chance at healthy resurgence (on our own terms)?

Some will say yes. I must say no. What do you say?

*I am in the process of getting in greater touch with my Tsimshian roots, but until I live and learn more, this commentary remains largely from a Nuu-chah-nulth perspective.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Indigenizing Revolution: Restoring Balance

The idea of revolution and immediate change is appealing, especially considering the horrendous living conditions endured by a majority of indigenous people in this country. Yet despite the need for immediate action to better the lives of indigenous people, leaders of modern indigenous resistance movements find themselves – counter-intuitively perhaps – facing the reality that substantive change will take a considerable amount of time. Indigenous activists are refocusing their attention on local, fundamental issues, while attempting to remain true to their indigenous philosophical roots.

While classic socialist notions of revolution are appealing, like their liberal-democratic counterparts they are rooted in Eurocentric political, social and economic worldviews. Indigenous resurgence is more than just the elimination of poverty or the improvement of any number of the socioeconomic indicators. Yes, indigenous people want to be healthy and happy, but not at the expense of losing who they are as a people. Of course, ideas that conceptualize indigenous resurgence are diverse, but most indigenous people express a desire to preserve and perpetuate their unique languages, cultures and ways of living.

In his most recent book Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom, Kanien’kehaka scholar and activist Taiaiake Alfred calls for indigenous people to move away from materialist and individualist state-centric engagements, and re-embrace their traditional values and principles. In dealing with the issue of violence Alfred writes, “How you fight determines who you will become when the battle is over.”

Identifying the core issue of ends-means consistency, Alfred calls for the employment of a variety of strategies, including what he calls non-violent creative contention. He further states, “A true revolution is spiritual at its core; every single one of the world’s materialist revolutions has failed to produce conditions of life that are markedly different from those which it opposed.” This critique can be seen not simply as abandoning all the ideals of revolution, but perhaps indigenizing them.

True indigenous resurgence is about restoring balance. Any Eurocentric solution, no matter how well-intentioned, is bound to fail. It is important to recognize certain unique indigenous worldviews and philosophical perspectives here. Bearing in mind that indigenous communities and cultures across the Americas are far from homogenous, there are some commonalities that are worth mentioning. A common principle amongst indigenous peoples is that of interconnection; indigenous worldviews see all creation as connected and interrelated. Recognition of this is manifested in indigenous ways of living in balance with the environment.


After a legacy of displacement, dispossession, devastating diseases, and state-led attempts at cultural erasure and assimilation, indigenous people have had to deal with an imposed form of governance – that of the Indian band council. These extensions of the federal government have ranged from ineffective liberal democratic regimes that lack popular legitimacy at the least, to unaccountable and corrupt authoritarian regimes at the worst. Even communities that manage to liberate themselves from the confines of the Indian Act and negotiate their own self-government agreements are forced to accept democratic constitutions that are not rooted in indigenous principles or values. Taiaiake Alfred identifies the mainstream strategies of political and legal engagement as “aboriginalism,” and sets out a compelling case not only of their futility, but of the very dangerous ways in which they promote assimilation.

Indigenous peoples must be able to choose how they govern themselves. For indigenous peoples it is a fundamental right, as well as a responsibility. This concept of responsibility that places indigenous people as stewards of the land has largely been lost in the debates and negotiations. Adopting the rhetoric of rights and engaging with the colonial political and legal institutions on their own terms are a significant departure from indigenous worldviews and philosophies. This is why narrowly focused, state-centric initiatives have proven largely unsuccessful.

Politically, some argue that progress has been made. While the $5 billion Kelowna Accord seems to have been abandoned by the current Conservative government, the provincial Liberals in British Columbia continue to move ahead with their $100 million New Relationship initiative. Premier Gordon Campbell surprised many with his about-face on “treaty” negotiations and unexpected efforts to accommodate First Nations in British Columbia with a series of social and economic policy shifts.

But co-optation will not come easily. The community rejection of the Lheidli Tenneh Final Agreement by a vote of 123-111 on March 30 is sending shockwaves throughout the BC treaty establishment. After 14 years of negotiations and hundreds of millions of dollars of accumulated debt, the BC Treaty Process has yet to produce a single ratified agreement – the Nisga’a negotiations predated the formal BC Treaty Process and their agreement was concluded outside its domain. Two other agreements will soon face community referenda: Tsawwassen and Maa-nulth. Both will face considerable community opposition, especially in the wake of the Lheidli Tenneh rejection and overall dissatisfaction with inflexible government mandates, ongoing resource extraction, and continued community poverty.

Endeavours to obtain justice in the Canadian courts have proven equally disheartening. Aboriginal law and the concepts of aboriginal title and rights began to take shape with the Calder decision in 1976. While the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Frank Calder and the Nisga’a Nation on a technicality, aboriginal law and rights rhetoric had found a venue – and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of lawyers willing to take on cases. After the 1982 repatriation of the Canadian constitution and the inclusion of section 35.1, which recognized “existing Aboriginal and treaty rights,” aboriginal law and its practitioners gathered momentum that continues unabated.

In cases like Sparrow, Gladstone, Marshall, Haida, Taku, and Delgamuukw the courts have been notoriously vague in their rulings about the nature and scope of aboriginal title and rights. What they have not been vague about is the unassailability of Crown title and jurisdiction. Delgamuukw, often heralded as a victory for indigenous people, confirmed aboriginal title but only as a “burden” on Crown title. To top it off, Justice Lamer provided a veritable grocery list of reasons for “justifiable infringement” of aboriginal title that all but rendered the recognition of it useless. Both negotiations and the courts have proven time-consuming, expensive, and have produced dubious results at best.

A Community-Centred Approach

Political and legal efforts to achieve reconciliation are mostly disappointing and somewhat esoteric to average community members. So what are the alternatives? Many young indigenous activists struggle with how best to lead their communities, often responding to the dire need for change with elitist revolutionary ideas. In contrast, Nicole Cross, a 22-year old Nisga’a woman, believes that the consciousness and awareness of the common people is where we must focus our efforts. Consistent with Frantz Fanon’s belief that action occurs most often amongst those with nothing to lose, Cross advocates a broad community-centered approach to organizing. Seventeen-year old Dustin Rivers of Skwxwú7mesh also believes that community resurgence cannot merely be an elite-led process.

Jessica Wood, a young Gitxan mother, believes that our politics must be more inclusive, suggesting that indigenous communities have become increasingly divided – especially on the basis of gender. Possibly one of the most devastating and divisive strategies employed by colonial authorities was the implementation of the overtly sexist provisions of the Indian Act. Prior to an amendment in 1985 that allowed for a limited recovery, the legislation granted “Indian status” to non-indigenous women who married indigenous men, and stripped it from indigenous women who married non-indigenous men. In many cases non-status Indians were required to leave their home communities and fend for themselves in urban centres often under conditions of isolation and poverty. The legacy of this community fragmentation is no more evident than in the national disgrace that is the reality of Canada’s more than 500 missing and murdered indigenous women.

If the restoration of balance is intrinsic to community resurgence rooted in indigenous principles however, then restoring balance to indigenous gender relations must be a priority. After years of public and police apathy, community activists and concerned family members have worked hard to focus attention on the issue of violence against women, especially in places like the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver where countless indigenous women have been lost and forgotten by most.

A central theme of the Nuu-chah-nulth Stop the Violence Movement is the restoration of hope. In May 2006, a handful of young Nuu-chah-nulth people, with the support of respected elders, embarked on a 10-day journey that would take them to all 15 Nuu-chah-nulth communities on Vancouver Island. Their concern was domestic violence, and their message was simple: Indigenous people must stop the violence in their communities, a manifestation of anger turned inward. Men and women need to stand together, restoring balance and bringing dignity again to the people.

Organizers worked outside the state-sponsored band council system, choosing instead to recognize the traditional Nuu-chah-nulth Ha’wiih (hereditary leaders), and when possible observe all pertinent cultural protocols. Given the positive responses from the communities, organizers have decided to make the Stop The Violence Movement an annual event. This year participants plan to travel to all the major urban areas where more than 65% of Nuu-chah-nulth families reside to continue sharing the message of love, concern, and hope.


Community people young and old are saying, “no,” and “enough.” One of the most common criticisms levelled at indigenous dissidents is that it is not enough to merely say “no.” It is as if one is unable to articulate a comprehensive alternative, one is not deserving of a public opinion. Grassroots community members often feel intimidated by the legal and political jargon prevalent in current indigenous politics and negotiations. With the immense pressure to plug-in, buy-in, go shopping, go to school, go to work, pay the bills, and “just do it,” and assimilate into the Canadian state politically and economically, many believe that for the time being it is enough to just say no.

In this view, resistance precedes resurgence. Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano writes in his book, We Say No, “By saying no to the devastating empire of greed…we are saying yes to another possible America…In saying no to peace without dignity, we are saying yes to the sacred right of rebellion against injustice…By saying no to the freedom of money we are saying yes to the freedom of people: a mistreated and wounded freedom, a thousand times defeated…a thousand times arisen.” Indigenous activists in Canada, while focusing their efforts locally, are mindful of allies abroad, and like their Zapatista brothers and sisters in Mexico, also say “Ya Basta!”

What is the future of indigenous resistance, and why is resistance specifically, an important element to the overall project of indigenous resurgence? Perhaps Sub-Comandante Marcos, spokesperson for the indigenous Zapatista uprising in Mexico, states it most eloquently in Our Word is Our Weapon, “For everyone, everything, nothing for ourselves.”

In explaining why the Zapatistas use the weapon of resistance, Marcos further states, “From the beginning of our uprising, they have offered us everything to get us to sell ourselves, to surrender…But we chose not to sell ourselves, we chose not to surrender.” The Zapatista movement and its most recent incarnation, the Other Campaign, epitomize a non-state-centric, anti-neoliberal approach to indigenous community resistance and resurgence.

Are the Zapatista lessons relevant to Canada? For the Zapatistas, their poverty is integral to their strategy. It is a weapon. In Canada widespread indigenous poverty is a reality. But there is also a burgeoning indigenous elite that has grown to lead the mainstream political and legal engagements with the state. Such a vanguard-led approach, whether from the left or the right, will be problematic and susceptible to co-optation.

Seeds for Tomorrow

For the time being perhaps it is enough to say enough. Resistance may be the order of the day. But like all truly indigenous movements, the current movement must connect to the next movement, and the next, and the one after that. While addressing the most urgent needs of today, we must also begin planting the seeds for tomorrow. And here I am reminded of my nieces and nephews, and our future generations. It is more than just a cliché. Cycles of violence, depression, poverty, and cultural devastation are broken intergenerationally. As we overcome our trauma and grief through the generations, so must we rebuild our strength and dignity through the generations.

My nephew Kashus will be two-years old in August. He is the son of my sister, a strong, compassionate, wonderful woman and her husband, a man of immense character, respect and a true warrior at heart. When Kashus was a few months old, my sister sent me a photograph of him lying in his crib with his right hand balled into a little fist raised in the air defiantly. I have the picture in a frame on my bookshelf and every time I look at it I am reminded of my commitment to him and my family. Tsimshian/Cree activist and performer Skeena Reece is known to have coined the phrase, “We must raise the next generation on truth.” In itself, this is an act of resistance and resurgence.

[This article was originally published in the Summer '07 issue of the New Socialist. Many kleco's to Deb and Adam for their editing prowess.]