What Does It Mean for the Dispossessor to “Compensate” the Dispossessed?

Settlers enjoyed a seeming free permission: to dispossess natives at will of all the best land, turn them out of traditional fishing locations, disrespect elders, women, children and religion, leave whole communities without political representation and punish men for breaking laws which they could have no means of knowing existed. It was inconceivable that all this change could happen overnight without violence. Instead, there was the greatest imaginable violence: genocide.

— Tom Swanky, The Great Darkening, 2012

Somehow, even “genocide” seems an inadequate description for what happened, yet rather than viewing it with horror, most Americans have conceived of it as their country’s manifest destiny.

— Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, 2015

Imagine, if you can, that someone would take almost everything from you — your home, your culture, your language, your spirituality, your connection to the past, your children, your elders — and render you spiritually, emotionally, and economically destitute. In subsequent years, the thief uses the purloined land and resources to amass enormous material wealth. While others around you have suffered injury and death, you are among those still breathing — a survivor? Sometimes the word survivor seems so inappropriate. Isn’t it possible to breathe the air and still feel as if you have not survived?

Canada exists because it conducted a genocide. Canada prefers that the genocide have an adjective attached: cultural. A cultural genocide sounds like there were no bodies, that only some traditions were ripped away. But that is a lie. Many Indigenous children taken from their families did not return. Indigenous children with contagious tuberculosis were intentionally kept in dorms with otherwise healthy children. Smallpox is also known to have been deliberately passed on to First Nations. The purposeful propagation of lethal diseases is, first and foremost, biological not cultural. Land is a lot easier for the taking when there are no people on it.

But history sometimes has a seemingly morality-attuned quirk for re-emerging and biting the backs of those, or their progeny, who reaped unjust fruits.

Canadian society and its government have been dominated by European settler-colonialists. Many of the settlers denigrated Indigenous peoples, viewing them as savages, lazy, uncouth, and inferior. So the Indigenes were removed to postage-stamp sized reserves far from White society’s sensibilities. In the meantime, the plan to disappear Indigenous peoples, by way of assimilation, was being carried out by the church and state.

The long-buried crimes would eventually resurface and set off a paroxysm of consternation in sensible society.

One powder keg, was the launching of a national class-action lawsuit by Indigenous peoples concerning a long-standing human rights complaint over the underfunding of First Nations child welfare. The Canadian government fought it, but sometimes a form of justice prevails. Canada was found culpable for racially discriminating against First Nations kids living on reserves. Canada was ordered to pay the statutory maximum of C$40,000 to victims of discrimination and some family members.

Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) reported: “The federal government is pledging up to $40 billion [approximately US$30 billion] to compensate First Nations kids and reform the child-welfare system.”

What is a pledge from the Canadian government worth? After all, prime minister Justin Trudeau promised to lift all long-term drinking-water advisories by March 2021. Progress was made, but as of 9 December 2021 there are still 42 long-term drinking-water advisories in 33 communities.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission — whose raison d’être was to come to grips with the tattered legacy of forced assimilation and abuse in the residential school system — issued a report in July 2015 with 94 Calls to Action. As of 8 October 2021, 13 calls were completed, 29 had projects under way, 32 had projects proposed, and 20 calls had no action started. More than 6 years later, Canada has completed almost 14% of the actions. What does that indicate about fidelity to reconciliation?

Then there is the question unexplored: from where did the Canadian government derive the money to “compensate” First Nations kids? Is the Canadian state not filling its coffers with resources extracted from First Nations, Michif, and Inuit land? Land, much of which is unceded or obtained through fraudulent treaty negotiations.

Consider what reconciliation and compensation looks like to the Wet’suwet’en people who are facing militarized Canadian gendarmes helping force a pipeline route through unceded Wet’suwet’en territory.

What should be done?

If someone (especially someone of means) steals something precious from you, don’t you want it returned? If someone unlawfully tosses you out of your home and off your property, don’t you want it back? There is an Indigenous-led movement calling for Land Back. If land was stolen should it not be returned to the original users? Users because many First Nations do not believe in ownership of the land, meaning that it cannot be bought or sold.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Read other articles by Kim.