Wherefore, as becomes Catholic kings and princes, after earnest consideration of all matters, especially of the rise and spread of the Catholic faith, as was the fashion of your ancestors, kings of renowned memory, you have purposed with the favor of divine clemency to bring under your sway the said mainlands and islands with their residents and inhabitants and to bring them to the Catholic faith.
– Inter Caetera Papal Bull issued by pope Alexander VI on 4 May 1493, granting Spain dominion over the western hemisphere
We also have no history of colonialism…
– Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper
It has long been abundantly clear to me that the land where I was born should not – in any moral universe – belong to the interlopers from Europe, of which my lineage derives. My passport states that I am a Canadian, but I philosophically and morally disavow such citizenship. I come from an anarchist perspective, and I, therefore, reject drawing lines on a map to demarcate what territory belongs to which group. I believe humans are beings with rights to freedom (of course delimited by moral conventions), and borders deny/hinder a fundamental freedom of movement. States are an enemy of freedom, and one need point no further than the state’s intrusions into the private sphere of its citizens or the use of force against other states, denying those citizens the right to live in peace.
It is undeniable that in the era of capitalism that nation states do exist, and there are laws that regulate states. Natural law is intrinsic to humans. Natural law would stipulate that, if land is to be owned, it would be owned by the people who have inhabited that land from a beginning. Positivist law is a human creation that endows a governmental body the power to rule over a land mass and its people. Unlike natural law, while positivist law may be grounded in a morality, the adherence or enforcement of the moral tenets of the law are susceptible as long as the government is in the hands of a partial plutocratic minority.
Turtle Island was declared free for the taking by the divine law as dictated by the Catholic Church. Consequently, European Christians bent on discovering gold and other riches were divinely enabled to plunder and dispossess the savages, as the genocidaires derided them while introducing them to Christianity.
Europeans eventually decided to appropriate the landmass by disappearing, assimilating, and treating with the Original Peoples. Kerry Coast, author of The Colonial Present: The Rule of Ignorance and the Role of Law in British Columbia (Clarity Press and International Human Rights Association of American Minorities, 2013) focused on colonially designated British Columbia because the province is for the most part unsurrendered. Some might argue that none of the province or Canada is surrendered.1 It is a topic I have some familiarity with.2
Coast is also skeptical of the so-called treaty process.
Coast has laid out the situation of the First Nations of BC, establishing – what no one denies – that they have been in the Territory of 30 Nations (a designation that seems eminently preferable to acknowledging the colonial dispossession which is not British and neither is it Columbian) for millennia, or as they often put it since time immemorial. Coast states, what should be obvious, that outsiders have no right to kill off and dispossess peoples who have been living somewhere since the beginning.
Coast is unequivocal. She states a genocide has occurred and that it is ongoing.3 Spreading smallpox was one method for disappearing the “Indian.” The methods were many and varied. They include making them wards of the state under the racist Indian Act; placing them on postage-stamp size reserves where subsistence was or became impossible for all community members because the land was infertile, the game had been decimated, or they were prohibited access to their hunting grounds; outlawing their traditions and economy; making them dependent on the state and welfare; taking their children and putting them in Indian Residential Schools more as laborers than students (a program of deculturation and linguicide4); destroying the environment upon which they depend, and passing various racist laws.
It is all there, and more, in The Colonial Present. Coast takes on the racism that is rife in the system and among the non-indigenous population. Corporations seek to exploit First Nations territory to enrich their shareholders despite the negative effects on communities. Academics come in for scathing criticism by Coast for upholding the colonial status quo or timidity in communicating on a moral wavelength. Because of their privileged position, morally academics are charged with a greater responsibility in divulging the truth.5
At first, I considered Coast to be a tad harsh against University of Victoria professor, John Lutz, author of Makúk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations,6 but probably he deserves it. Although he dispels the stereotype of Indigenous peoples as being “lazy” and dependent, Coast finds otherwise: “He does not question whether or not they were lazy.” (p. 80). However, on page 7 of Makúk, Lutz writes, “The myth of the ‘lazy’ Indian, derived from European views about labour that were prevalent in Europe at that time…,’ so to Lutz the “lazy Indian” is a myth. However, Lutz does lamentably weasel around “genocide” calling it “displacement,” and Coast’s overall skepticism of Lutz is warranted.
Some of Coast’s other criticisms of Lutz are farfetched. For example, she erects a strawman in complaining about Lutz’ exclusion of the relations between Chinese immigrants and First Nations in early history. (p. 82) Makúk is 431 pages (about 130 pages are bibliographic), and the subtitle is A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations. Why does Coast demand that Lutz go beyond the scope of his title? If he had, another reader might have complained about a misleading title for his book.
Nonetheless, Coast is very correct to criticize the gamut of academia for their failure to confront the racist colonialism that has never gone away.
Coast is critical that an open racist like explorer Simon Fraser — “I hate that place and the Indians” (p. 197) — has BC’s major river and a university named after him. I had attended this university, and I asked professors at another alma mater, Vancouver Island University why they had changed the name from one imperialist to another. Why hadn’t the university deciders asked the local First Nations? I never received a knowledgeable reply. Nonetheless, the designations throughout much of the province belie a colonialist-imperialist imperative.
Coast exposes the politicians across the political spectrum in BC who are beholden to their racist mindsets – echoed nationally by the extraordinarily ignorant denial of colonialism by the current Canadian prime minister.7
The examples of racism are documented throughout The Colonial Present; for instance:
- the fact that no inquiry has been called into the highway murders of hundreds of Indigenous women in BC;8
- the racism of police toward Indigenous peoples; e.g., “Twelve-year-old girl protestors are treated to excessively weighted police chiefs kneeling on their ribs and breaking them during arrests at peaceful road blocks,” (p. 36-37) and alacrity with which Indigenous peoples are incarcerated.9
- the corporations that fund the politicians’ campaigns that allow mining, forestry, ranching, and environmental destruction of First Nation territory (“It was never the intention of officials or any Europeans to be business partners with native peoples. They wanted everything, and relied on the assistance, generosity and tolerance of the native people to get established independently so they could take it.” (p. 63)
- the ignorance, or insouciance, of non-Indigenous BCers: “These people seem completely unaware as they pay for ‘past’ crimes, they are actually still carrying them out.” (p. 53)
- in addition to struggling against racist politicians, corporations, academics, and the public, Original Peoples must also contend with a racist media. Coast is especially scathing to the state media: “The CBC has been, without question, the single greatest purveyor of one-think and double-speak on the aboriginal title issue.” (p. 250)10
Indigenous title, recognized by the Canada Act and by Supreme Court rulings, causes headaches for government officials who refuse to recognize, wish to ignore, or extinguish such title. Could BC circumvent its lack of treaty-making in the past? What of modern day treaty-making? As Coast points out, the process is one of “extinguishment,” giving up Indigenous11 title.
“Ultimately it is the genocidal acts which enable the modern practices of denial and extinguishment to continue—while the denial and extinguishment lead to genocidal results.” (p. 32)
Education, under the auspices of the BC government, is one method of inculcating denial. “The public school history curriculum suffers from the minor oversight of neglecting to include much of it.” (p. 59) And when it does include information, the perspective is clear. For example, the BC grade 11 social studies textbook had one passage that reads:
The isolation of the province had delayed large-scale settlement, which allowed Aboriginal peoples to retain their lands longer than those in eastern Canada and the Prairies.12
The Indigenous peoples were “allowed to retain their lands…” There is an admission that the lands belong to the Indigenous peoples, but that this holding onto Indigenous title is at the convenience of the European settlers/invaders/colonialists (choice of descriptor depending on one’s perspective).
The Colonial Present argues that it doesn’t get much better in post-secondary institutions: “… all standard Canadian textbooks purporting to tell indigenous history in university courses today were not written by indigenous people.” (p. 64)
“… misrepresentation and obfuscation in the indigenous area is rewarded with academic prestige.” (p. 75)
Coast is very critical of Encyclopedia of British Columbia for its dearth of information on First Nations. (p. 65)13
One criticism of The Colonial Present is the unclarity over how many First Nations there are in BC. On page 14 Coast writes, “BC, or rather 26 indigenous nations, was made a British colony in 1858″… There are 3 nations on “Vancouver Island” that would bring the number up to 29 for BC in 1871. Elsewhere she writes, on p. 81: “in a province occupying 26 separate languages and some 30 nations” and she refers to 30 nations subsequently as well. Coast does not provide a source for her numbers. The province of BC acknowledges 27 First Nations.14 As for languages, a 2010 report indicated that there are 32 languages and 59 dialects in BC.15 The Colonial Present would have been well served by a map of The Territory of 30 Nations (BC) and where the nations are situated. BC is home to around 4 million people, and outside of Canada many people might be unaware of the province and who the First Nations are.
Another quibble is that, while there are numerous footnotes, often I was wanting to check where a source of information came from, but there was no footnote.
The North American Indian Brotherhood made known what they want: “We do not want anything extravagant, and we do not want anything hurtful to the interests of white people. We want that our actual rights be determined and recognized; we want a settlement based on justice…. We want … that in the future we shall be able to live and work with white people as brothers and fellow-citizens.” (p. 110-111)
How to achieve justice is another matter. “We have always felt the injustice done to us, but we did not know how to obtain redress. We knew it was useless to go to war,” lamented 80 chiefs of BC’s interior. (p. 102-103)
Thus colonialism is perpetuated.
What is the avenue open to Indigenous peoples to address their marginalization? The courts, as Coast writes, steadfastly avoid the topic of Indigenous title, and besides, as Coast also notes, why should the Indigenous peoples submit to the invaders’ courts? BC and Canada, however, will not submit to a neutral third party court.
Canada presents a Catch-22 to First Nations:
“… proof of ‘exclusive and continuing occupation’ is a Supreme Court of Canada standard for the finding of aboriginal title to a place, and since the people have been confined to Indian Reserves and criminalized for practicing their traditional economies and ways of life outside of those small boundaries, aboriginal title has become prohibitively difficult to prove.” (p. 215)
“Sadly,” comments Coast, “the BC government’s greatest strength in the combat for title to the land is the ignorance and racism of its settler citizens.” (p. 260)
Even sadder is the presence of collaborationists among Indigenous peoples, people who would sell out their kith and kin. Here condemnation should be tempered because were it not for the dispossession, the poverty, and economic dependency brought about by the newcomers, Indigenous people would never have been forced into the position of benefiting by committing treason against their own people.
Coast understands this well: “… the appetite for dollars from any source among the impoverished communities could easily overwhelm the long-held vision of independence and dignity cherished by previous generations, who were still benefiting from healthy salmon runs, forests, wildlife and birds that weren’t Blue Listed as endangered species.” (p. 305)
If the reader is concerned about social justice, especially in their own backyard, then The Colonial Present is an important read. It is jam packed with urgent human rights and sovereignist issues that affect the Original Peoples, not just of BC, but throughout Turtle Island and on down to Tierra del Fuego. The peaceful revolution of Idle No More is a grassroots awakening, but as long as the Original Peoples of the western hemisphere endure under modern colonialism, social justice is denied.
- Andrea Bear Nicholas “points out that in the Maritime Provinces, most treaties were nation-to-nation agreements — peace agreements between the encroaching settlers and Original Peoples. They were not land treaties.
“When you add it all up,” says Chrisjohn, “for about 90 per cent of Canada, even under the best possible scenario, there is no legal transfer of title from the Aboriginal inhabitants to the Crown.” Quoted in Kim Petersen, “Hoping Against Hope?” The Dominion, 20 February 2007. [↩]
- See Kim Petersen, “Unceded, British Columbia,” The Dominion, 16 February 2010. For further information, check out contents of Original Peoples, The Dominion. [↩]
- For a more in-depth reading of the genocide, see The Great Darkening: The True Story of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific plus The Tsilhqot’in and other First Nations Resistance. See the review and interview. [↩]
- In 1890, 100% of First Nations people spoke the Indigenous tongue compared to 5.1% in 2010. “Report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages 2010.” [↩]
- Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” The New York Review of Books, 23 February 1967. [↩]
- See review. [↩]
- See Harsha Walia, “Really, Harper: Canada has No History of Colonialism?” The Dominion, 28 September 2009. [↩]
- Kerry Coast, “Regional Human Rights reps to visit BC, focus on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women,” Vancouver Media Co-op, 28 July 2013. [↩]
- See my “Land & Jail” series at The Dominion: “Ipperwash, official racism and the future of Ontario,” 23 September 2008. “Part II: Canada’s incarceration strategy,” 5 January 2009. “Part III: Challenging the disproportionate incarceration of First Nations in Canada,” 29 March 2009. [↩]
- “This morning we sent this message to CBC rebuking them for their failure to cover the unfolding events at Lubicon Lake.” Email from the Eagle Watch, November 30, 2013. [↩]
- I do not use word “aboriginal” since it has been pointed out by resisting Indigenous peoples that the word is, among other criticisms, “genocidal.” See Press Release, “Anishinabek outlaw term ‘aboriginal’.” [↩]
- See Michael Cranny, Graham Jarvis, Garvin Moles, and Bruce Seney, Horizons: Canada’s Emerging Identity (Don Mills, ON: Pearson, 2009): 270. [↩]
- I had earlier pointed out discrepancies in the encyclopedia of BC. For further examples, see my interview with author/historian Tom Swanky: Kim Petersen, “Shedding Light on The Great Darkening,” Dissident Voice, 16 August 16 2013. [↩]
- See map at ”Fisrt Nations Peoples of British Columbia.” The number of First Nations is seemingly difficult to determine as a First Nations in British Columbia website informs, there are “approximately 30 different tribal groupings…” [↩]
- “Report on the Status of B.C. First Nations Languages 2010.” [↩]