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.


At 12:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Na'cha'uaht, When you lose touch with the indigneous way of being, practicing cermonies, customs, harvesting, that is when you fill your self with western religion "money". It is the story of the 2 wolves. Which wolf survives--the one you feed. Cuu, Lahalawuts'aat

At 11:52 PM, Blogger OldManRivers said...

Is it time for a Clone Army, or is the Empire Striking back?

At 12:07 AM, Blogger Na'cha'uaht said...

Definitely time for a NEW HOPE!

At 11:31 PM, Anonymous dirk said...

I am thinking you might find the debate taking place here
of interest.The question being debated in in regards to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
I am part of the debate,I was hoping you might offer some thoughts.Or at least read my submission,your insight would be much valued and appreciated.
Anyway check it out...

At 11:15 PM, Blogger claire.andinista said...

I stumbled upon your blog while trying to find a topic for my Sociology 310 "Canadian Society" class. During last week's class, we were reading an article "Parcelling off our northern heritage," (Tanis Fiss, National Post, Nov 5, 2004, pA15). The article was remarkably racist, and the prof is educating and encouraging students to read with a more critical eye. So, the article was based on the premise that Bill C-14, the Tlicho Land Claims and Self Government Act, is too generous and that we shouldn't carve up Northern Canada, as it is a part of 'Canadian heritage'. Disturbing, really.

So we discuss the racist tone, and I (the only First Nations student in the class) ask the question: why do First Nations people want to sign treaties? And the prof didn't really have a good answer. I think a lot of the time people forget the land that treaties cover is just a minute fraction of the land and resources our ancestors had. Should we see treaty-making as a milestone? I'm not sure. But I'm not willing to take these 'accomplishments' at face value.

I was wondering if you knew of any authors or public figures who also consider the pitfalls of treaty-making.

At 11:44 PM, Blogger Na'cha'uaht said...

Some people who have take a critical look at the BC Treaty Process:

Taiaiake Alfred, Mohawk (UVic) - His book, "Peace, Power, Righteousness" was just re-released as a second edition and he includes some updates on the modern "treaties" and court cases.

James Tully, Settler (UVic) has also taken a critical view - check out some of his articles as well as his key note address at the "Speaking Truth to Power" treaty forum (2001).

Glen Coulthard, Dene (UBC) is also doing some interesting work critiquing the "politics of recognition" - not directly addressing treaties, but looking at some of the underlying themes.


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