Roots and Revolutionary Dynamics of Indigenous Struggles in Canada

A Movement for Land and Self-Determination

By Mike Krebs

Mike Krebs is an indigenous activist in Vancouver and a contributing editor to Socialist Voice. This article is based on a talk given at the Vancouver Socialist Educational Conference in March 2007.

The indigenous question is one of the most political issues in Canada today – perhaps the most important. There are indigenous struggles going on in many different levels across Canada. There are struggles over land and resources such as that happening up north with the Tahltan nation, who are opposing the mining developments happening on their territory against their wishes. There is the similar situation with the Six Nations, who are opposing the theft of the Haldimand Tract in southwestern Ontario and the development that is going on there.

There are also indigenous people fighting poverty in indigenous communities both on and off reserve. The mainstream media carry many articles exposing what people do or should already know about, which is the horrible conditions that indigenous people are forced to live under in the Canadian colonial society.

Another major issue that indigenous people are dealing with and fighting, is the way that the lives of indigenous women are devalued in the colonial society, and how this  leads to such widespread instances of indigenous women disappearing and being killed. This has been an issue in Vancouver with women going missing from the Downtown Eastside and up north along the Highway of Tears, the highway that runs between Prince Rupert and Prince George. This also happens in cities all across the Prairies, especially in Saskatoon. It is an urgent question.

The indigenous struggle for self-determination is a revolutionary struggle. Yet it receives little recognition from leftist activists, currents, parties, and organizations in Canada.

Many groups talk about indigenous struggles or cover them in their publications, but generally reframe these struggles in a way that does not address their revolutionary content. One example of this is the tendency of some left groups to frame the indigenous struggle in Canada as one of an oppressed minority, without taking up the question of land and the question of indigenous people as nations. This approach unscientifically separates the discrimination that indigenous people face from its material base.

The reality is that indigenous people are repeatedly finding themselves on opposing ends from leftists when it comes to leftist theory and practice.

Living standards of indigenous people in Canada

As a starting place for looking at indigenous struggles in Canada, it is important to outline the current conditions that indigenous people are forced to live under. One of the ways to do this is look at some basic statistics. Here are a few that are taken from a report published by the Canadian Population Health Collective in 2004 called “Improving the Health of Canadians.” This is of course only one way to understand the kind of conditions indigenous people live under, but it gives a general idea:

  • More than one-third of indigenous people live in homes that do not meet the most basic government standards of acceptability.
  • Average life expectancy for indigenous people is ten years less than the Canadian average.
  • Indigenous children die at three times the rate of non-indigenous children, and are more likely to be born with severe birth defects and conditions like fetal alcohol syndrome.
  • The suicide rate of indigenous people is six times higher than the Canada-wide average.
  • Tuberculosis rates are 16 times higher in indigenous communities than the rest of the population, and HIV and AIDS infection is growing fastest among indigenous people.

We could go on and add to this the high rates of unemployment; the higher rates of being subjected to violence, whether it’s domestic or at the hands of police; the higher rates of incarceration, victimization by sexual assault, child apprehension and the lower level of access to formal education.

None of these statistics should be a surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with the conditions of indigenous people in Canada. These statistics are produced, repeated and exposed over and over again. Indigenous people don’t need to read these numbers to understand our situation, because this is just a basic description of day-to-day life, and this is only touching the surface.

But what’s really important to understand is why indigenous people face these conditions. Without the “why” of things, these statistics are meaningless towards understanding what they are portraying.

The true history of the development of Canada is significant, because the conditions that indigenous people live under today are the result of hundreds of years of the dispossession of indigenous peoples from their lands and resources. They are the result of a genocidal campaign against indigenous people at the hands of Canadian colonialism, and hundreds of years of suppression of the development of indigenous nations.

This process of colonization involved many stages, across Canada and the Americas, and it manifested itself in different ways. Here we are only looking at the general picture.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763

The early colonization of North America involved destroying the traditional societies and economies. This was carried out in the pursuit of the hegemony of merchant, and eventually industrial capitalism.

During the early stages of British and French colonialism, the British produced Royal Proclamation of 1763. This was basically a recognition by the British of the right of indigenous people to their land. This document is brought up a lot by indigenous people, because it is seen as the colonial government admitting and acknowledging that it cannot and should not take indigenous lands and territories without some sort of consent or arrangement. In terms of Canadian law and the perspective of indigenous people, there has been nothing since then that has revoked the Proclamation of 1763.

But why did the British, at this point, recognize indigenous rights to their lands and resources, and then go ahead and completely ignore them?

There are three major contexts that have to be understood in looking at the Proclamation of 1763. One is the balance of forces that existed at the time between the British and French settler societies and the indigenous population. This is prior to industrialization, and is at a time when indigenous people still made up the vast majority of the population in what became Canada. So the settler society was qualitatively and quantitatively in a much weaker position than it would soon become.

Second, this document was issued during an indigenous insurgency led by Chief Pontiac against the colonial policies of the British, during which several British forts were besieged and others completely destroyed. The British needed to respond to this insurgency, and in issuing the Royal Proclamation hoped to placate the indigenous people involved in this uprising.

Finally, this document was meant to protect the interests of British colonialism against those of French colonialism. This document came out of the French defeat by the British at this time, when the main interest of the British over Canada was the extraction of primary resources, such as furs.

The intention of the document was to prevent further settlement by French settlers on indigenous land. For the British, indigenous territory was little more than a vast hunting ground, that needed to be kept free of settlement. The majority of people who were gathering these resources for Companies like the Hudson’s Bay Company were indigenous.

What this all means is that the British had an interest in enshrining at least some rights for indigenous people, as the protection of these rights served the interests of British merchants.

This early merchant capitalism started to slowly have an effect and transform indigenous societies. Traditionally indigenous people were hunting, and in some cases farming, for the purposes of local consumption, or engaging in small-scale trade with other indigenous peoples for tradeable goods.  But the influence of the fur trade economy through the Hudson’s Bay Company, the French and the British, changed these hunting practices to primitive accumulation of these same goods in exchange for products from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and eventually straight for cash.

This created some instances where the development of capitalism, though it was inherently exploitative process, was being carried out with some degree of cooperation between the settlers and at least some indigenous people. This is how the development of the Metis Nation should be understood, as a society comprised of indigenous and settler culture, growing out of this process around the trade of fur and other natural resources.

Understanding the development of the Metis nation is important because it shows that the impending genocide against indigenous people wasn’t a necessary part of the development of production in Canada. In this period there was some degree of cooperation, at least from indigenous people, with the settler society, a willingness to co-exist.

But over time, the dominant trend was towards a complete dispossession of indigenous people from their lands and resources.

From ‘co-existence’ to conquest

As industrial capitalism developed, the importance of the fur trade and other forms of primary accumulation dropped. What became more important was the need to implement private property relations as the foundation for the further penetration of a market economy. This directly clashed with indigenous land rights, because it involved speeding up the transformation of these lands into private homesteads held by non-indigenous people.

This rapid settlement met with a lot of resistance from indigenous people in Canada. There were the Metis and Northwest Rebellions, and numerous battles across what would become Canada, including large-scale resistance by the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations) and by indigenous people along the northwest coast.

These were battles over the land, and also over different conceptions of economic property relations, different conceptions of what the land meant. Indigenous people did have some concepts of ownership. Territories used primarily by a particular indigenous society were belongings of a people, clan, or family. But this is completely different from the European conception of private property that was being imposed in this process.

This process also clashed with the concept that was held by many indigenous people of the ability to co-exist with the people who were coming from Europe and settling there. One of the more well-known examples is the Two-Row Wampum that is still upheld by the Haudenosaunee people. This was an agreement made with an understanding that people were coming from Europe and settling on indigenous lands, but that this land could be shared. Indigenous people and the European societies might live totally separately, and might develop in different directions, but would nonetheless be able to share the territory in a more or less peaceful manner.

But colonialism, in its drive to seize indigenous peoples’ lands and resources and to implement private property, left no room for this coexistence whatsoever. By the end of the 19th century, the colonizers had a more advanced army with an entire empire behind it. This was backed up with the divide and conquer tactics that were played out over several generations against different indigenous people, and in many cases the complete destruction of indigenous peoples’ traditional economic base. In this context, indigenous resistance to this process was effectively quelled.

Almost all indigenous land was expropriated, and the vast majority of indigenous people were forced onto reservations. In some cases, there was a piece of paper that the government could point to, known as a treaty, so that they could at least claim that they took the land fair and square. For most of the lands in B.C., however, they don’t even have this, and by their own admission stole this land outright.

Cultural assimilation, germ warfare, genocide

The next major stage in this colonial process going into the 20th century was the attempted forced “assimilation” of indigenous people. This was done with the promise of educating indigenous people and “civilizing” them, supposedly in order to integrate us into Canadian society. It should be obvious to anyone familiar with the true history of Canada that this is all completely nonsense.

The first means through which this “civilizing mission” was carried out was the residential school system, which was above all a means of destroying indigenous societies.

The residential school system had the effect of fostering complete self-hatred in most of those who went through it, building a collective psychology within indigenous people in the colonizer’s image. Indigenous people were forced to internalize a conception of themselves as being drunken, lazy, and stupid.

This was done by dislocating indigenous people from their communities, putting children in schools where they were punished for speaking their languages. There was also the rampant, systematic sexual abuse and rape against indigenous people, an experience that has negatively affected the interpersonal relationships of indigenous people and will continue tro do so for generations to come.

The second significant part of this attempted forced “assimilation” was government support for economic projects by indigenous people. In many indigenous communities, the government supplied training and resources for people to have their own farming projects, and in other areas, fishing projects, or economic projects of a similar nature.

These were projects that were designed to fail. What was really behind these projects was to promote the  belief among indigenous people that they would be able to “make it” in the dominant settler society. (This is very similar to the illusions that are put in the minds of other working and oppressed people, the illusion that in Canada people can become their own bosses and achieve greatness along that path.)

Originally many of these farming and commercial fishing projects by indigenous people were very successful. In the reserve my family is from, Piikani, we were given some of the worst farmland in the area, and yet we were very successful initially in adapting and getting farming going.

But this was happening at the same time as, in our particular case, we lost up to 80 percent of our population in a period of 25 years, basically to biological warfare: deaths from tuberculosis, smallpox, and other diseases. This early farming was also happening when people were being forced into the residential schools, both on and off the reserves.

So of course in this context indigenous people were not able to compete as new players in the growing market economy, and with few exceptions, these indigenous-run farms collapsed.

Indigenous resurgence and “Red Power”

These processes dominated the experience of indigenous people up to around the mid-twentieth-century, when there was an upsurge of indigenous resistance. (This is not to say that indigenous resistance to Canadian colonialism ever subsided: it wasn’t until 1924 that the Iroquois Confederacy, the traditional government of the Haudenosaunee was forcibly broken up by the Canadian government and the band council system was imposed on those communities.)

The 1960s gave rise to the Red Power movement. This movement was heavily influenced by the upsurge of anti-colonial struggles all over the world, including in Vietnam, Algeria, and Cuba. It was also influenced by the Black Power movement that was a growing force in the USA.

This was also happening when there was a very large migration of indigenous people off reserves and into cities, and it was this population that formed the seed of the Red Power movement.

It is significant to note that many of those involved in this were among the most assimilated indigenous people: very urbanized, with relatively more formal education than previous generations. And yet, despite that, the dominant tendency of the indigenous struggle in Canada and the U.S. at the time and up to the present, has been a national one. The aims and orientation of this struggle haven’t been towards struggling for “recognition,” for acceptance, for integration, or parity within the Canadian or U.S. society. Instead, the struggle has  been against the dominant path of these colonial societies, rejecting the very legitimacy of the existence of these nation states.

This struggle has been coupled with a tremendous revival of indigenous culture over the last 2 or 3 decades. Indigenous people were able to start to learn about the real histories, about their backgrounds. Languages considered “dead” by the anthropologists are starting to return.

This stems from indigenous people having a common understanding of the roots of indigenous oppression: that the Canadian state is an entity of occupation, that it exists at the expense of indigenous people. And the problems that we face today stem directly from this occupation.

Indigenous struggles continue

We are not just talking about land as a historical question either. To this day, infringement on indigenous territory continues and is still deepening. This is happening primarily at the hands of Canadian mining and land development companies. It includes, for example, the territory of the Tahltan Nation, the Six Nations territory near Caledonia, and the logging of Cree territory near Grassy Narrows.

Indigenous people are also trying to stop the International Monetary Fund-style deals that are being forced upon us in the form of so-called “modern treaties.” These agreements are an attempt to pave the way for the eventual elimination of the reserve system, which is the last cohesive land base that indigenous people are able to live on.

For this reason, the most pointed indigenous struggles over the last couple decades, the ones that have electrified indigenous people across Canada, have been assertions of indigenous peoples’ rights over their lands. These are struggles framed by indigenous people as a struggle over the land that belongs to us as nations. These are happening regardless of the relatively small size of the indigenous population in Canada. And despite our numbers, when indigenous people assert these rights, it has a huge impact on the overall politics of Canada.

To emphasize the significance of indigenous struggles for land is to present the objective reality in Canada today. It’s not to say that indigenous people’s movements are completely separate from other struggles going on in Canada, including of course the struggles of working people. The participation of indigenous people in the workforce in Canada is actually a lot higher than the perception. Historically, and up to the present, indigenous people still make up the vast majority of the reserve army of labour. There is large participation of indigenous people in skilled and semiskilled labour jobs, including participation in the construction industry, mining, fishing, logging. There is also a significant amount of indigenous women working in clerical jobs.

In the last decade more and more indigenous people have entered post-secondary schools and middle-class professions: doctors, teachers, lawyers, different types of administrative positions. But none of this has changed the fact that as indigenous people we still frame our struggles mainly as national struggles, and we still see this as the primary battle that we face.

Indigenous people are fighting for the ability to decide what can and cannot happen with indigenous land and resources. We are fighting for real control over the institutions that affect our lives directly: education, the judicial system, community services. Or, in situations where indigenous people have their own living structures, models or institutions, we struggle for these to be respected, and that there be no more attempts to try and destroy them. We are struggling as indigenous people for the space to develop institutions that actually serve our needs.

Revolutionary dynamics of the indigenous struggle

It is essential that other working and oppressed people support these aspirations, and support the right of indigenous nations for self-determination. Their struggle has a revolutionary dynamic that inherently challenges Canadian capitalism. The indigenous question in Canada cannot be solved within the confines of Canadian capitalism. The Canadian government and corporations cannot afford even relatively small concessions, let alone the much larger concessions that would be necessary to allow the space for indigenous communities to solve the numerous problems we face, in a way that is just and in a way that is lasting.

The Canadian ruling class understands this, and this is why they pay so much attention to indigenous struggles. The assertion of indigenous rights challenges the very legitimacy of Canada as a nation-state.

In conclusion, it must be understood that the indigenous struggle in Canada is part of the larger struggle of indigenous people that is unfolding at the international scale. Indigenous people are on the move throughout Latin America, especially in Bolivia, Mexico, and Ecuador. The indigenous struggle in Canada has to be understood as part of other indigenous struggles, like that of the Palestinian people, who have been waging for decades a national liberation struggle, against the occupation of their land by the Israeli Apartheid state. These struggles and their significance must be understood, appreciated, and supported, in order to make revolutionary change, here in Canada and internationally.