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ÒdemocracyÓ Can Never Take Root On Stolen Land


I keep seeing books, articles and correspondence which refer to a “post-colonial world”. Which world is that? Hand me a telescope. It doesn’t seem to be in this galaxy.

Many of us liken the situation of Palestine to that of Bantustans in apartheid South Africa. Israeli journalist Danny Rubinstein and others have described “autonomy” for Palestinians as being “the autonomy of a POW camp”. Edward Said recently wrote that Israel is engaged in a “current all-out colonial assault on the Palestinian people”.

Absurdly, others still claim that Israel is an “island of democracy” in a dangerous, hostile region.

In another part of the world, a man described by a local trade unionist as a “jackbooted thug”, ruling a territory based on land theft, dispossession and genocide has initiated a referendum to serve the powerful political and economic interests that benefit most from extinguishing the rights of the rightful owners.

He wants to define and limit their rights to self-determination to a form of “self-government” with delegated authority from federal and provincial levels of government, like running a municipal council. This is the latest chapter in another all-out colonial assault conducted over generations. It has stirred up yet more hatred, tension and racism against the rightful owners of the land, who have survived invasion and continued colonial occupation, not infrequently backed up with massive military and police force.

Strangely enough, most of the world behaves as if this place is a progressive democracy, a humanitarian state, a shining example to other countries.

The leader’s name is Gordon Campbell. The place is British Columbia, Canada. (And yes, BC president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Barry O’Neill did say “Gordon Campbell is more than a liar, more than a thief, he’s a jackbooted thug,” at a rally in Victoria against January ‘s provincial budget cuts.)

Promising a “new era of hope and prosperity” for all, Campbell was elected as BC Premier last May when his BC Liberal party won a landslide victory over the “social democratic” New Democratic Party (NDP) which had ruled the province for ten years.

Friends in BC despairingly tell me how Campbell models his economic policies on New Zealand’s radical free market reforms, slashing spending and public sector jobs while giving tax cuts to the rich and big business. Meanwhile, Campbell has been enthusiastically promoting BC’s “investment opportunities” to international audiences, including February’s World Economic Forum meeting. But BC isn’t his to give away. It is unceded Indigenous land.

But Campbell’s government has hatched a plan to try to extinguish indigenous title through what he claims is a “democratically accountable” process.

Along with his neoliberal economic masterplan has come the realisation of Campbell’s election campaign promise to hold a one-time province wide referendum on principles to guide provincial treaty negotiations with Indigenous Peoples. From April 2 until May 15, British Columbia’s eligible voters can vote by mail on an eight-question referendum. Many note with irony that BC’s government is spending Cdn $9 million on this, while radically slashing social welfare, health and education spending.

Under International and British law, the lands now defined as “British Columbia” are Indigenous lands subject only to Indigenous jurisdiction. Successive provincial governments have claimed that BC is “terra nullius” and that Indigenous title had been extinguished, even though this argument has been rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada.

In his 1999 book, “Peace, Power, Righteousness: an indigenous manifesto”, Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred, Director of the Indigenous Governance Programme at the University of Victoria, wrote, “To assert the validity of Crown title to land that the indigenous population has not surrendered by treaty is to accept the racist assumptions of earlier centuries, when European interests were automatically given priority over the rights of supposedly ‘uncivilised’ indigenous peoples.”

That is exactly what previous BC governments, and now Campbell’s have done.

During the 1990s, BC’s NDP government, along with Canada’s federal government set up the BC Treaty Commission through which it sought to conclude treaties with Indigenous Peoples living within the province’s boundaries.

The government’s starting point was the mistaken premise that it owned the land. It did not recognise the title and rights of Indigenous Peoples. It insisted that no privately owned lands would be available for settlement of the lands and resource rights of the Indigenous Peoples living within the borders of British Columbia. Under five percent of the total lands in BC would be available for settlement.

Even under Canadian law, the provincial government has no power to legislate in relation to Indigenous Peoples and lands reserved for them, as this power is assigned to the Crown – i.e. Canada. Some Indigenous Nations in BC took out loans totalling around Cdn $ 180 million from the Treaty Commission in order to take part in the negotiations. Others refused to participate in the process.

Indigenous Peoples who dared to defend a sacred Sundance site from ranchers at Gustafsen Lake on unceded Shuswap territory in the summer of 1995, were met with Armoured Personnel Carriers, landmines (remember Canada’s international stand against the use of landmines?), and heavily-armed paramilitary police SWAT teams, ordered in by the NDP government. Like the Israeli Defence Forces, the RCMP blocked media access to the area while they laid siege.

Such struggles continue. For example, Shuswap people are now actively opposing a major expansion of Sun Peaks ski resort near Kamloops. There have been many arrests and racist attacks. Sweatlodges and homes have been bulldozed, and injunctions taken out by Sun Peaks against Shuswap people defending their lands and resources.

Cree lawyer and scholar Sharon Venne reminds us, “Canada, the great peacekeeping nation, must maintain its international image because its treatment of Indigenous Peoples makes its human rights record as black as the record of white South Africa. After all, the legislation to keep blacks down in South Africa was modelled upon legislation drafted and used in Canada against Indigenous Peoples.”

Voters are being asked whether they agree that “the Provincial Government should adopt the following principles to guide its participation in treaty negotiations” and to enter a yes or no vote, for example, to principles like “private property should not be expropriated for treaty settlements”; and “the terms and conditions of leases and licences should be respected; fair compensation for unavoidable disruption of commercial interests should be ensured.”

These and other questions were already set as parameters in the BC Treaty process, and completely ignore the fact that Indigenous Peoples in BC never released, extinguished or ceded their lands to the settlers. On what legal basis can private property rights be said to exist in BC? And by what authority have leases and licences been given?

The current BC government says it is “committed to negotiating workable, affordable treaty settlements that will provide certainty, finality and equality”.

This is the same sort of logic that the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other multilateral financial institutions use when pressuring “debtor” countries (many of which share the same Pacific Ocean with coastal BC) to “reform” traditional land tenure systems.

This must be done, they say, to attract foreign investment, create economic growth, and encourage “optimal land use” under a free market regime which guarantees the rights of private capital over local communities’ rights. Like earlier colonial projects, this agenda ultimately seeks the commodification of all things. Indigenous Peoples’ relationships with their lands and resources are seen as mere impediments to “progress” and “development”.

There has been widespread opposition and condemnation of the BC referendum from Indigenous leaders and communities, churches and other religious communities, trade unions, opposition parties, women’s groups and others.

Hupacasath Chief Judith Sayers, whose people are from the west coast of Vancouver Island, sought an injunction to halt the referendum but was unsuccessful in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. Indigenous Nations in BC also called on the Canadian government to stop the process. While it said that it did not agree with the process, it would not get involved.

Chief Sayers now co-chairs a movement to promote an active referendum boycott which calls for unsigned ballots to be sent to a local Indian band office, labour council or church in protest. These will then be presented in protest to the BC Government or disposed of at a public ceremony.

She says: “The proposed questions are one-sided, leading, ambiguous and designed to elicit yes responses from the voter as well as to spread fear, racism and hatred for the Indigenous Peoples.” The referendum “has created the most contentious, public display of emotion that has ever been seen” in BC….There have been public demonstrations, forums, and everyday the newspapers, radio and TV are reporting the heated public debate that shows how polarized and divided this issue has made the province.”

In her submission to the UN Commission on Human Rights of April 15, she says that school authorities in the small town of High Level in neighbouring Alberta have warned principals and teachers to be aware of bullying and violence in schools due to the increased tensions in BC caused by the referendum.

In the BC city of Kelowna, a white supremacist group, BC White Pride, recently delivered leaflets urging people to support the treaty referendum to make BC “a better place for white families.” The leaflet said that the referendum will go down in Canadian history as “the most fundamental symbolic expression of White unity since racial pride went out of style almost 40 years ago.”

Chief Stewart Philip of the Penticton Band and the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs is also calling for an active boycott. He says:.“The referendum questions seek a self-serving mandate to perpetuate an outdated, economically racist and colonial relationship, of which many features have been repudiated by the Courts.

By refusing to adequately consult and to enter into good faith negotiations, the province has only left many First Nation communities two choices to defend our title and rights, enter the courts or prepare for a protracted campaign of confrontation vis-à-vis land-use conflict arising as a consequence of acclerated resource development activities.”

In November, Taiaiake Alfred wrote: “Distracted by the on-going ‘war on terrorism’ south of the border, it seems that we have forgotten about the war on us. Remember that one? The war that was so important in the days before 9.11, the one for the environment, for our homelands and our rights? …. The enemy is still after our lands and our resources, and sad but true, they are winning the fight.”

Our outrage and activism against the brutality and injustice wrought by the coloniser Israeli government and its armed forces, and our support for Palestine’s struggle for self determination is vital if we are to build massive international pressure on Ariel Sharon’s government.

Recent mobilisations in Washington, DC and other cities around the world have linked issues of corporate globalisation with the war on/of terror and Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine.

But governments like those of Canada and BC cannot be allowed to keep getting away with ongoing violations of Indigenous Peoples’ rights by virtue of their membership of an elite group of “Western democracies” and their carefully maintained international image.

Canada will soon get another chance to showcase its “democracy” to the world when the ski-resort of Kananaskis in Alberta hosts the June G-8 summit.

But how can “democracy” ever exist on stolen land, anywhere?

Global justice movements must subject governments like those of British Columbia and Canada’s federal government to the same kinds of condemnation and pressure that people have brought against Suharto’s Indonesia for the genocide in East Timor, apartheid South Africa, and Israel.

As Chief Judith Sayers says: “There needs to be a light shone on the state of Canada and the province of British Columbia for such a gross violation of our rights as Indigenous Peoples.”

In our global struggles for justice we need to do whatever we can to shine such a light.

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