Canada is a colonial country?
It's actually surprising there are so few native blockades,
considering the violence that's been done to First Nations communities
A Six Nations protester mans a barricade in April near Caledonia, Ont.
It seems that our dominant society is incapable of really hearing,
understanding and acting swiftly, broadly and generously upon native
Andrew Orkin, Citizen Special
Published: Wednesday, May 10, 2006
This time the Indians are occupying a new non-native subdivision on land
they say is theirs in Caledonia, Ont. A court injunction issued by a
non-native judge is being defied. Citing signs of Warrior involvement or
the influx of Indians from other communities, the OPP raided the
occupation and arrested the occupiers "without violence." Many more
Indians then barricaded Highway 6.
Six Nations Band Council says the occupiers are renegades and there is
no recognized land claim involved. The Haudenosaunee blockaders have
allegiance only to their ancient Six Nations confederacy traditional
government. They are demanding nation-to-nation discussions with the
federal Crown. Frustration grows among local non-natives. Some are
claiming that Caledonia is theirs by virtue of "conquest." Ministers and
the provincial and federal governments say the occupiers are "illegals"
because the Indians "sold or surrendered" their land in the 1800s and
now have only a reserve. At the same time, these ministers call
repeatedly for a peaceful outcome.
Ironically, a judicial inquiry into the shooting death of Dudley George
at Ipperwash a decade ago grinds on in Forest, dissecting that Indian
land occupation and its own ex parte (only one side appeared in court)
injunction, renegades, police raid, arrests, ministerial pronouncements
of illegality, and the state use of force. It may be beneficial, and
maybe even save some lives, if we explore the meaning of some of the key
terms here. Illegals: An injunction means the Indian occupiers are
"illegals," right? The mayor of Oka said so in 1990; Mike Harris said so
in 1995; and Ontario government officials say so now. Wrong. It means
only that a court, usually on the basis of a summary ex parte injunction
hearing, has ordered the occupiers to leave or face arrest. The
municipality in Oka in 1990, the Ministry of Natural Resources at
Ipperwash in 1995, the City of Hamilton in the Red Hill Valley in 2005,
all had injunctions, as does the developer at Caledonia. At Ipperwash
for example, other courts found later that aboriginals had acted with
"colour of right" because of their genuine and well-founded belief that
the land was rightfully theirs. At Oka, Burnt Church and Ipperwash,
occupier-arrestees were mostly or all later acquitted of all charges.
Conquest: Here I will quote the globally important 4,500-page 1996 final
report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) authored by
(among others) Supreme Court Justice Bertha Wilson and Quebec Court of
Appeal Justice Rene Dussault (which unfortunately sank unread like a
stone soon after it was released): "There was no conquest. Early in the
contact period the relationship was one of peaceful coexistence and
It was mainly after Confederation that Canada began to appropriate large
tracts of land to house the ever-increasing influx of settlers and that
the process of colonization and domination of the aboriginal population
began. No one asked them whether they wanted to be British subjects or
Canadian citizens. They were simply herded into small reserves to make
way for development and at Confederation were assigned to the exclusive
jurisdiction of the Parliament of Canada."
Indians from other communities: In October 1995, the federal government
invited and sponsored Canadians from every direction to converge on
Montreal for a giant demonstration to help defeat the secessionists and
save the nation. Ahem ... Indians can't do that too, to assist their
Land claims: Here again I'll quote Wilson and Dussault et al: "Opinion
is virtually unanimous that the present system does not work. The system
is generally inequitable, inefficient, time consuming and far too
expensive. And it places the Department of Indian Affairs in a clear
conflict of interest as funding agent, defence counsel, judge and jury.
"... One of the most significant weaknesses of comprehensive land-claims
policy is the lack of any provision for interim measures before
submission of a comprehensive claim and during negotiations. Governments
are free to create new third-party interests on the traditional lands of
aboriginal claimants right up until the moment a claims agreement is
signed. It should not be necessary for aboriginal people to mount
blockades to obtain interim measures while their assertions of title are
being dealt with."
The Caledonia occupiers are explicitly not asserting a "land claim."
They are simply taking back their land because they state it has been
stolen from them by the Crown and they have no faith that it will be
returned through a land claim, especially once it has had subdivisions
built on it.
Surrender or sale: RCAP found that "Land reserved for aboriginal people
was steadily whittled away after its original allocation. Almost
two-thirds of it has 'disappeared' by various means since Confederation.
In some cases, the government failed to deliver as much land as
specified in a treaty. In other cases, it expropriated or sold reserved
land, rarely with First Nations as willing vendors. Once in a while,
outright fraud took place.
"Even when First Nations were able to keep hold of reserved land, the
government sometimes sold its resources to outsiders.
"... The history of these losses includes the abject failure of the
Indian Affairs department's stewardship of reserves and other aboriginal
assets. As a result," RCAP found, "aboriginal people have been
impoverished, deprived of the tools necessary for self-sufficiency and
self-reliance. It is hardly surprising that the most intense conflicts
between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people centre on the use and
control of land." Blockades: As native frustration inevitably grows at
the uselessness of official processes, they resort to blockades. It
surprises me there are so few of them, because at the current rate the
many thousands of outstanding land claims will take many centuries to be
More important, is it not high time for the dominant society -- the
non-native "rest of us" -- to realize that the corrosive,
transcontinental 200-year-old legal and physical blockade and siege by
the Crown and its settlers of entire aboriginal societies and their
people, governments, economies, legal systems, territories and resources
is still under way?
>From my study of history in such contexts as minority-rule Rhodesia,
> apartheid South Africa, Czarist Russia, Nazi Germany or colonial India,
> it seems to me that dominant societies are not particularly good at
> recognizing the essential structure of systemic injustices being
> maintained or perpetrated in respect of subjugated peoples while it's
> all under way.
They are also not particularly attentive to or comprehending of victims'
contemporaneous entreaties that what's being done to, or with them, is
fundamentally wrong, and why.
That's all left for much later, if ever, when the monuments and museums
of regret get built, or the truth and reconciliation commissions get
staged, or occasionally when things just go seriously wrong.
In the 30 years I have lived in Canada, I have heard indigenous
populations cry out that they they are experiencing unjust
impoverishment, displacement, dispossession, racist oppression and
abuse, neglect, state violence or even cultural genocide at the hands of
We may disagree with their various characterizations, but it seems to me
that our dominant society is determinedly incapable of really hearing,
understanding and acting swiftly, broadly and generously upon the
elements of native grievances and complaints that are demonstrably true.
I have also heard some remarkable non-native expressions of sympathy,
understanding and solidarity, but much more frequently and consistently,
and sometimes from surprising sources, I have heard strong skepticism,
rejection, dismissal, hostility and mean-spiritedness, and ongoing
insistence on policies of assimilation, extinguishment and renewed
I have lived through numerous aboriginal blockades and occupations, and
have even come to represent some of their players and victims as legal
Canada, it now seems to me, is a colonial country that is still
insistently in the very depths of its colonial experience. It is not
meaningfully discussing or commencing its long-overdue decolonization
any more readily. Rather, it is still engaged in ignoring, perpetuating
and entrenching, or even denying it.
Wilson, Dussault and their fellow RCAP commissioners reported a decade
ago that "We have before us an agenda of decolonizing the relationship
between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada -- an agenda that
the experience in other societies demonstrates is not an easy road to
A good place to start attending to all this -- remembering that
colonialism is a violation of human rights that harms and stunts present
and future generations -- might be to discuss and clarify the
terminology we all use, and to start taking to heart some of the many
clarion commission reports and court judgments from recent decades that
warn that the path we are on is fundamentally wrong.
Andrew Orkin is a Hamilton-based human rights lawyer who has represented
aboriginal peoples in a number of Canadian provinces and territories.
The Ottawa Citizen 2006