Thursday, November 02, 2023

Book Notes: Taiaiake Alfred, It's All About the Land

I’m not the intended reader for Taiaiake Alfred’s new book It’s All About the Land. You probably aren’t either. 

Mostly, Alfred is addressing indigenous people about what they must do to get out from under us. To that end, he argues that Canada and settlers and industrial civilization have so colonized indigenous peoples that even legal, structural changes that would amount to self-government will fail unless indigenous peoples succeed in decolonizing themselves psychologically, culturally, and collectively. He argues for an indigenous spiritual awakening, drawn from the land and expressed in a warrior sensibility, meaning not violence but a willingness to suffer, to take responsibility, and to confront.

Alfred has advised royal commissions and the TRC, but he is profoundly critical of any indigenous person who participates in band councils, the Assembly of First Nations, and all the other Indian Act-approved forms of self-government. He used to be a professor at the University of Victoria, but he finds indigenous academics overwhelmingly susceptible to being co-opted and colonized by their employment. One can guess he makes enemies.

Reconciliation? Nice in principle, he says, but mostly a con:

Reconciliation in a classic sense… I think that anybody who comes at the concept in an objective way would say… ‘We need to go through those steps.’ But in Canada reconciliation is not that. … It’s recolonization. …  Everybody likes the idea of reconciliation as a concept, but as it is being developed and applied in Canada, it’s a problem and, I would say, even a manifestation of contemporary colonialism.

One thing he finds absent from genuine reconciliation is an acceptance that the treaty relationship between Canada and indigenous nations is fundamental. As Alfred defines it, a treaty is:

a fundamental agreement that is solemnized and recognizes the fundamental equality of the two parties to the agreement. It creates a commitment on the part of the two parties to recognize both the independence of each other and the interdependency of each other on the land. That’s what we mean by treaty in the Canadian context.

For Alfred, the practical consequences that would flow from accepting that vision of treaties seems to resemble the plan outlined by the late Arthur Manuel in TheReconciliation Manifesto: Recovering the Land, Rebuilding Our Economy: namely, seriously accepting that the treaties were and are sharing agreements under which the indigenous nations retain an ownership share in all the treaty lands.That kind of treaty relationship would provide First Nations with independent revenue sources sufficient to fund and sustain genuinely independent self-governing indigenous polities (as opposed to the Crown-dependent and subsidized band councils on reserves). The Manuel model for the basis of reconciliation is: land sharing, a secure revenue base, real self-government, and relations with Canada guided by treaty, not by Canadian legislation.

What Alfred adds is his emphasis on the profound psychological decolonizing and cultural revival he believes indigenous communities still have to go through to pursue those goals. That, and an uncompromising attack on all and any indigenous leaders, scholars, and thinkers more willing that he is to work within existing non-indigenous systems, even toward similar goals.

It's not a part of Taiaiake Alfred’s mission, but in my mind as I read It’s All About the Land was this thought: there is already a body of work by historians that reinforces and supports the argument that reconciliation only becomes meaningful when based on this treaty/land understanding. 

For me, John Long’s Treaty 9: The Agreement to Share the Land in Far Northern Ontario in 1905 was the work of historical scholarship that really brought home how the treaties, no matter what Ottawa’s printed texts may say, really were negotiated and settled, on the ground between chiefs and Crown agents, as agreement to share land and sovereignty rather than as “surrenders.” And there are equivalent historical studies from almost every region and territory, a growing number by indigenous scholars themselves -- these are not new ideas in indigenous communities -- but many by mainstream indigenous scholars who have worked closely with indigenous thinkers and institutions.

I know, “It’s not in the history books!” is what everyone says. But already the history books are coming into being. Eventually what they confirm will get noticed.

Meanwhile a parting thought from It's All About the Land:

There’s a silver lining to climate change. People are starting to question the entire basis of Western civilization and societies that have developed industrial economies. There is a little bit of suspicion as to whether countries like Canada represent the apex of human civilization.

I should add: I mentioned I was reading this book to another Indigenous scholar and activist, much more rooted in the community than me. He instantly said, "I think Taiaiake Alfred is a dick!" So there's that too.

[My blogging software seems to be playing about with font size beyond my control.  Apologies if that is turning up on your screen.]

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