A Review of Douglas Bland. 2009. Uprising: A Novel. Blue Butterfly Books.
“By every measure, be it respect for treaty and land rights, levels of poverty, average lifespans, violence against women and girls, dramatically disproportionate levels of arrest and incarceration, or access to government services such as housing, healthcare, education,water and child protection, Indigenous peoples across Canada continue to face a grave human rights crisis.”
- Amnesty International, Matching International Commitments with National Action: A Human Rights Agenda for Canada. December 2012.
In 2009, military scholar Douglas Bland predicted that the frustrations of Canada's indigenous people would boil over into an uprising. At the end of 2012, as Idle No More grew, it appeared that Bland was right. But also, that he was wrong. The question of what he got right, and wrong, can tell us a lot about how the Canadian establishment views First Nations.
As I write this, Chief Theresa Spence of Attiwapiskat is past day 35 of a hunger strike. Her simple demand: to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnson about negotiating a new relationship between Canada and indigenous people.
Spence has taken drastic action before. In 2011, Chief Spence declared an emergency in her community over shocking housing and water conditions. The Red Cross stepped in to help on an emergency basis, something unusual in a developed country. Harper's government responded first with denial, then by deposing Chief Spence and her council, implying that the housing crisis was a result of their financial mismanagement. The Federal Court found otherwise, restoring Chief Spence and the council and awarding the First Nation the costs of the litigation. Showing a level of transparency that Harper's government has rarely demonstrated (think F-35), Attiwapiskat First Nation has prominently published its past five years of financial records on its website.
Now, Chief Spence is protesting against Bill C-45, one of the Harper government's omnibus bills. C-45 makes a wide array of legislative changes, many of whose impacts will only be felt far in the future, and all of which are designed to facilitate and expand the extractive industries of Canada's north.
Chief Spence's protest is part of a bigger movement, Idle No More, which was started by four women who organized teach-ins about the bill's environmental impacts. The Idle No More movement was seen by thousands of people over social media (and dismissed on that basis by the Aboriginal Affairs minister, John Duncan, who said: “That's social media. We'll see how it goes”) for weeks before it started to get even minimal coverage in national newspapers and media networks. After Christmas, Harper's government began trying to create a counter-narrative, offering Chief Spence the chance to meet with Conservative Members of Parliament or Senators, but not Harper.
Diverse and creative actions have taken place all over Canada. Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia's “Chemical Valley”, which has suffered terrible environmental impacts over recent decades, has blockaded a rail line. Mi'kmaq activists have blocked roads in New Brunswick. Every major city in Canada has seen flash mobs, round dances, rallies, and other actions over December. Idle No More has explicitly spoken to non-indigenous Canadians, arguing that Canada is a treaty nation, and “The Treaties are agreements that cannot be altered or broken by one side of the two Nations.”
The clash over C-45 is a clash between two visions of Canada. One vision is of an extractive economy that expands over the whole massive territory, turning the earth into profit at the fastest rate possible. The other sees people living sustainably, with respect for each other and the land. The debate on climate change, and the debate on the tar sands, have brought these two visions into a sharp conflict. C-45 is not the only bill that will be coming before the Conservative majority Parliament. Idle No More has warned that a series of bills are coming, intended to undermine the ability of indigenous people to mount the kinds of successful court challenges that have prevented extractive industries from destroying their lands in recent years. Time and again, courts have found that the government's actions to facilitate extraction broke existing laws and treaty obligations. The government's solution? Use their Conservative majority to change the existing laws and go back on the obligations.
A movement started by women, over legislation, emphasizing social media and both indigenous and non-indigenous solidarity, concerned with the natural environment, seeking nation-to-nation respect for treaties, with a dramatic hunger strike and a callous prime minister.
Now let us enter an alternative world. In this world, there is also an indigenous uprising in Canada. But instead of being started by women lawyers and legal educators, it is started mainly by aboriginal veterans of the Canadian Forces in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. Instead of organizing flash mobs and reaching people through social media, the core group of fighters organizes in secret, conspiratorially, to take over the First Nations governance infrastructure. Instead of a grassroots strategy involving non-indigenous solidarity and a dramatic hunger strike, these indigenous activists engage in urban warfare with the Canadian Forces in the cities of the prairies and attack the James Bay hydroelectric infrastructure. And instead of showy demonstrations of indifference and contempt for native rights, the Prime Minister obsessively panders, not wanting to seem harsh.
This alternate universe is the universe of Douglas Bland's 2009 novel, Uprising (Blue Butterfly Books). Bland, a 30-year veteran of the Canadian forces and a Defence Studies scholar at Queen's University, wrote the novel as a warning. But a warning of what? In an interview at the back of the book, Bland describes:
“dysfunctional Canadian aboriginal policies, failures of leaders both native and non-native, crumbling aboriginal governance structures, failed schools and failing welfare programs, 'days of protest', and occasional violent confrontations between aboriginal people and other Canadians.”
The stage is set. Bland continues,
“the only missing ingredient preventing these loosely connected forces from erupting into a full-blown insurgency was a unifying narrative about injustices, promises betrayed, and rights denied – as extolled by a charismatic revolutionary leader who preached that these crimes provided just motives for rebellion and independence.” (pg. 500)
In his book, the narrative unfolds in the pattern of a classic nationalist insurgency, with military targets and doctrine that Bland understands and explains very well. Bland knows the limits of Canada's military power and that it does not match what most Canadians think. He understands the tremendous vulnerability of Canada's geography and infrastructure to a strategy of sabotage, if the saboteurs have the right training and the will to spend lives for their cause. He also understands the military's self-perception, the way that soldiers feel constrained from doing what they understand to be their job – the application of force to resolve conflicts – by politics and media.
Bland's fictional uprising ends badly, with huge losses of life, no real gains for the insurgency, and the loss of Canadian sovereignty to an American intervention. These, too, are possible outcomes to be feared, and Bland's warning should be well taken.
It is not impossible that an uprising of the kind that Bland warns against could happen. Bland studies Canada's “native problem” through a military lens, by imagining an armed conflict playing out on the Canadian physical and political landscape. The grievances exist, and so do the vulnerabilities. To Canadians who think it could not happen here, Bland answers: yes, it could.
What is unfolding in Canada today, however, is not the military uprising imagined by Bland, but a broad-based democratic movement whose most visible leader is Chief Spence, a modest, unassuming, and quietly courageous woman. What in Bland's vision made him miss the possibilities of Idle No More?
First, as a military expert, Bland creates a world that downplays the role of the political in armed conflicts. As a student of insurgencies, he could have found in the revolutionary literature the actual importance of politics. Trotsky's entire military theory during the Russian Revolution centered on the primacy of politics in military struggle. Che Guevara said, about the Cuban Revolution, that "the presence of a foreign (American-preferred) journalist was more important for us than a military victory." To take an example from the Canadian Forces Dallaire apparently told Brent Beardsley in Rwanda that “one reporter with an Inmarsat [a satellite phone] is worth a battalion of troops on the ground.” (Shake Hands with the Devil – The quote appears at 29:41). This might have been true for Trotsky, Che, and Romeo Dallaire, but not for Bland's indigenous revolutionaries, who operate in secret, from a bunker, and with no regard for their public image.
A less well-known theorist of revolution, the late Eqbal Ahmed, worked with the FLN in Algeria in the 1960s and predicted the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon after a quick look at Palestinian forces in that country the year before. Ahmed wrote that the task of a revolutionary was primarily not to defeat the enemy in battle, but to “out-organize, out-administer, and above all, to out-legitimize” the opponent. Military conflict is political conflict, and political conflict is a conflict of legitimacy. The indigenous activists of Idle No More are winning that battle; the indigenous insurgents of Uprising pay it no heed.
The military detail provided by Bland in memorable battle sequences in Winnipeg and James Bay show extensive knowledge of tactics, doctrine, and weaponry. But Bland's revolutionaries are more tactically capable than they are strategically wise. Two other theorists of revolutionary war come to mind: Mao Tse Tung and Ho Chi Minh. Both formulated doctrines of protracted people's war. The protracted part is important: both of these guerrilla leaders recognized that if their inferior forces sought a quick decision with superior forces, the result would be inevitable defeat. But this kind of quick decision is exactly what the indigenous revolutionaries of Bland's fictional uprising seek, with an outcome that 20th century revolutionary literature would have easily predicted.
Bland's revolutionaries are modeled on the Iraqi insurgents, or the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, more than the indigenous rebellions of this hemisphere. But given the geographic, cultural, and historical connections, the Latin American rebels are better sources for analysis – and, for that matter, inspiration.
This is unfortunate, because the recent history of indigenous uprisings in the Americas provides a great store of wisdom. On December 21, as Idle No More was growing in strength, 40,000 Zapatistas were silently occupying the streets of five different municipalities (Ocosingo, Las Margaritas, Palenque, Altamirano and San Cristóbal) in their state of Chiapas, Mexico. In Cauca, Colombia, in July 2012, the Nasa indigenous (who have sent their own video in support of Idle No More) pushed the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian Army from their territories, with unarmed indigenous people physically disarming armed soldiers and walking them off of their territory. These manifestations are the outcome of decades-long efforts of organizing in their villages, along a very different pattern than that of a classic armed insurgency.
The Latin American indigenous movements are highly attuned to legitimacy and the power of an ethical example, as well as showing great media savvy. The Zapatista uprising unfolded for Mexican readers in the pages of La Jornada, one of the major daily newspapers, and through the direct communications of Subcomandante Marcos over the internet. The Bolivian indigenous uprisings, which preceded the election of Evo Morales, were documented by a new generation of Latin American independent journalists. As it plays out over social media – and increasingly, traditional media – Idle No More is much closer to the hemispheric pattern than it is to the violent, conspiratorial uprising that Bland envisions.
The second problem in Bland's analysis is his cynicism. The indigenous revolutionaries are cunning in their exploitation of grievances, but we never really get the impression that their grievances are actually legitimate. Their leaders are portrayed as unreasonable fanatics. Their claims of “ injustices, promises betrayed, and rights denied” are merely a “narrative” to be exploited, not a reality that is lived. But Aamjiwnaang First Nation suffers from a range of shocking impacts of pollution, including a sex ratio of 187:100 females to males between 1998-2003, when the normal sex ratio is 106:100. The tar sands have poisoned the fish of the Athabasca First Nation. The ancestral lands of these nations have been inexorably shrinking for hundreds of years, making way for the extractive economy and settler communities.
Third, the book comes from the viewpoint of a soldier's frustration with the image-conscious politician, and the fictional Prime Minister is drawn accordingly. Bland's politicians want nothing more than to score political points by seeming generous with First Nations. But Canada's political base is diverse, and Harper has shown that political points can be scored by pandering to right-wing, anti-native sentiment, along with aggressive foreign policy and an expanded military. By cautioning against political weakness, Bland's book will probably give comfort to the Harperites. But a hard line from the establishment has a logic that ends in atrocity, as most of the real insurgencies of the past few decades have showed. The contrast between both sides of Bland's insurgency and Sylvia McAdam Saysewahum, one of the four founders of Idle No More, could not be greater:
“The Elders say, anyone can make war & violence. The greatest achievement a warrior woman or man can do is to create peace during a time of crisis. It takes great skill to negotiate and accomplish what needs to be done in a peaceful manner. Lets gather together peacefully but make a powerful stand. Lets us not be silent.”
Studying Bland's book is important because his limits are shared by much of the Canadian establishment, which Idle No More is currently facing. Far from the weak, media-conscious PM of Bland's book, Harper and the Conservatives are responding to Idle No More in a way that plays to their base, to try to look tough, to prove their pipelines and mines won't be stopped by an indigenous elder on a hunger strike.
Ultimately, Bland's book is less of a prescient warning of an indigenous uprising and more of a non-indigenous take on Canada's “native problem”. This take is extremely well informed on military problems and vulnerabilities, but limited in terms of media, politics, and legitimacy. These are the kinds of arenas where the struggles of the future will be played out. Indeed, they have started, and instead of fearing them, we should accept the challenge and join the side of justice.