Josh is the main author of Northern Currents – A Leftist perspective on Canadian politics. Josh is an electrician of 10 years and has been interested in radical politics for even longer. Follow on Twitter at @ncjoshkaye.
Given the recent events in which Wet’sewet’en land defenders were arrested by BC’s militarized RCMP, it is obvious now that what we call reconciliation is a sham, in the most literal sense of the word, when spoken of by our political elites.
Reconciliation has a double-meaning in Canada. To most of us, it refers to “establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country,” as defined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
This implies a nation-to-nation relationship – between many nations in fact – in which each nation stands on equal footing. Indeed, many reconciliations are required to overcome the Canadian state’s colonial acts of aggression toward Indigenous communities.
Unfortunately, our political leaders have another deficient definition of reconciliation though. What they want to reconcile are the contradictory interests between Capital and Indigenous self-determination. Ultimately, our political leaders, embodied by the Canadian state, side with Capital.
RCMP arrest Wet’sewet’en land defenders
Under the cover of catastrophic flooding that displaced thousands of people in British Columbia, the RCMP saw their opportunity and seized it. While most of us, including the media, were hyper-focused on these mass-flooding events (how could we not be?), the RCMP flew about 50 officers to a remote service road to arrest Wet’sewet’en land defenders.
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At least 14 have been arrested by the RCMP so far.
The RCMP was heavily armed, equipped with machine guns, military equipment, K9 units, and even threatened to use a chainsaw to break in to a building to “extract unarmed Indigenous land defenders inside.”
All of this for a pipeline that could have been re-routed. All of this while Wet’sewet’en hereditary chiefs were in the process of finding a diplomatic solution:
Surely the cops could be put to better use, given that the province is under a state of emergency due to mass floods driven by climate change? Nope, the interests of capital always prevail, it seems. The RCMP are simply doing the bidding of Coastal Gaslink.
It’s almost a yearly ritual at this point. Land defenders make a stand and claim what is theirs, and soon enough RCMP swoops in to crush democratic expression. Maybe it’s possible that policing isn’t the solution to all of our problems?
To me, this sounds all much more like reconciliation from the barrel of a gun, for the benefit of oil and gas companies.
Silence at the top
To bring the focus back to our political leaders, the most unsettling fact about these recent events is the sheer volume of complete silence from our political leaders. If one were following Justin Trudeau or Erin O’Toole in recent days, one wouldn’t even know this was going on. No statements or even acknowledgement of these developments. This isn’t surprising to those of us on the left.
Even worse, our social-democratic (in name at least) leaders have been nowhere to be found. Leader of the federal NDP, Jagmeet Singh, was very quick to comment on the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict – happening in another country – but has still remained silent on the issue. John Horgan, premier of BC and leader of the BCNDP, has also remained silent. These are arguably the two most relevant leaders with the ability to center attention to this issue in national media.
It’s worth noting the NDP has finally put out a statement, but it’s simply too little too late. If acted upon earlier, the reckless RCMP invasion could have been avoided altogether.
Other lesser known political leaders have made statements of solidarity with the land defenders such as Dimitri Lascaris, Leah Gazan, Niki Ashton, and members of the Communist Party of Canada.
Equality vs Autonomy
This double-meaning of the word reconciliation has been elucidated by others. In his essay Paved with Comfortable Intentions, published in the book Pathways of Reconciliation, David B. Macdonald has made the distinction between two conceptions of reconciliation: liberal equality and a more radical, transformative Indigenous autonomy, including over land.
His essay spells out how most Canadians (here I would include our political leaders) view reconciliation as an issue to be resolved under a liberal framework of equality under the law. In this view, everyone within the borders of Canada becomes a Canadian citizen, the Indian Act is abolished, and private property is instituted in reservations defined by the Indian Act. Indigenous authorities and Canadian governments “work together” under the same system and the colonial government retains its control.
This view is very convenient for our political and corporate elite; if Indigenous people become solely subjects of the Canadian state, they are therefore subject to its laws, without any special protections or right to self-determination. Thus, an injunction becomes valid, and the RCMP have the right under Canadian law to enforce the interests of Capital, even on unceded land.
This view contrasts with a more transformative view of reconciliation in which emphasizes political autonomy over liberal equality. Macdonald brilliantly explains:
Transformative reconciliation, by contrast, is about fundamentally problematizing the settler state as a colonial creation, a vector of cultural genocide, and one that continues inexorably to suppress Indigenous collective aspirations for self-determination and sovereignty. In this type of reconciliation, we will see the rollback of settler state control over Indigenous individuals and communities, commensurate with Indigenous lands, cultures, laws, languages, and governance traditions. […] We might understand Indigenous self-determination as the “right to political autonomy, the freedom to determine political status and to pursue economic, social, and cultural development.”
In this more radical, anti-colonial interpretation of reconciliation, injunctions and RCMP invasions into politically autonomous regions are invalidated, and Indigenous law would overcome colonial state law.
Understanding the distinction between these two competing concepts is crucial to grasp how our political leaders use words like “reconciliation” or “nation-to-nation relationships.” Marc Miller, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, recently went as far as asserting, “it’s time to give land back.” Does anyone think he has any intention of ceding land in any meaningful sense? Or is it the corporate-friendly framework of liberal equality under the law, which turns Indigenous communities existing on this land for millennia into Canadian state subjects?
Real nation-to-nation relationships require substantive political autonomy as a precondition for determining how the Canadian state interacts with Indigenous communities and individuals. This conception of reconciliation is largely omitted from mainstream news sources, political leaders, and corporate stakeholders. This is for good reason too: it threatens their esteemed positions within capitalist power structures, therefore undermining their ability to profit from environmental destruction and displacement of people.