Canada’s Original Sin
by Jonah Gindin
In my lifetime, First Nations struggle has forced itself upon public consciousness in Canada, against all odds. That is no small feat in a country that is still an active Colonial power.
That may seem like an antiquated term, but consider that Canada is actively engaged in the subjugation of indigenous nations in this country (in addition to the peoples of Haiti and Afghanistan abroad). The theft of Native land, and the intentional destruction of Native culture has resulted in a two-tiered society in which Native peoples are 7 times more likely to be the victim of violent crime than non-natives, native women are 5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted (most often by non-native men), native youth are 6 times more likely to commit suicide, and over half of native people living on reserves in Canada are without adequate housing or safe drinking water.
A recent study shows that on some reserves, the suicide rate is as much as 800 times the national average, while on others there has not been a single suicide in 15years. The difference? Resistance. On reserves where suicide is not a problem, Native peoples are actively fighting to preserve traditional lands, culture and asserting their right to self-government.
On reserves where it is an epidemic, the community is defeated, not currently engaged in this kind of active struggle. So resistance to colonialism is literally a question of survival for Native peoples in Canada. Most of the time, however, we never hear about Native communities’ daily struggle for dignity and survival unless we happen to be driving on the road/rail line, working in the building/etc.., affected by a protest. Over the last two years that has begun to change. 2006 and 2007 saw a general increase in the intensity and frequency of native protest, and a corresponding inability for the media and the government to keep these protests from public view.The struggle on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory is emblematic of the way Canadian authorities (provincial, federal, civil, military) deal with native demands for justice, so here’s a lightning-quick overview: The Culbertson Tract was stolen from the Mohawks in 1832. In 2003, the federal government acknowledged that the land belongs to the Mohawk people, but while the government stalled in negotiations a portion of the Culbertson Tract itself was literally being trucked away by quarry operator Thurlow Aggregates at a rate of more than 100,000 tonnes per year. In response, members of the Mohawk community occupied the quarry in March. Meanwhile, the provincial and federal governments play “pass the buck,” and refuse to take any meaningful steps toward returning stolen land. Their preferred course of action is repression.
Shawn Brant is a spokesperson for the Mohawks of Tyendinaga. He is currently facing charges for participating in the rail and highway blockades. The Crown wants Shawn to spend 12 years in a federal penitentiary. Shawn is just one member of a community that has taken a brave and historic stand in defense of its sovereignty. The targeted harassment of Shawn is the government’s attempt to say this is the isolated work of one marginalized radical. The fact is that Tyendinaga participated in and supported the blockades and the reclamation of the quarry as a community, and it will continue this struggle whether Shawn is at home with his family where he belongs, or locked up in prison.
Last Spring, in the lead up to the June 29th National Aboriginal Day of Action, Shawn called on non-native people in this country to establish a new relationship with native peoples. But despite the fact that several polls conducted around the time of the highway blockades showed non-native approval of native land rights at over 70 per cent, and approval of direct action such as rail blockades at over 50 per cent(!), we as non-natives failed to live up to Shawn’s invitation.Sue Collis, a long-time anti-poverty and native-rights activist and Shawn’s wife put it best when she spoke at an event in Toronto last year. “The question is what is the non-Native community going to do, because the government at Queen’s Park and the government in Ottawa - that’s not Mohawk government, that’s not First Nations government, that’s the government of the Canadian people.”
This is more than merely a ‘human rights’ or ‘moral’ or even just a ‘social justice’ issue. This is Canada’s original sin, upon which every other injustice committed in its name is compounded. Whether you are primarily concerned with homelessness and poverty in this country, Canadian-supported sweat-shops abroad, military occupation, or general issues of equality, First Nations struggle is a logical starting point. Not only that, it is also the most dynamic form of resistance to injustice today. Look around you, and ask yourself who is resisting with as much conviction, integrity and consistency as First Nations peoples? We have much to learn from these struggles, and much to gain in supporting them.
Return the Land Now! Drop the Charges Against Shawn Brant!
Want to know what you can do?
•Have your class write a letter of support. Send it to support.tmt[at]gmail.com.
•Invite a trained facilitator from the Tyendinaga Support Committee to give a presentation to your class or to teachers at your school on the issues surrounding Shawn Brant’s trial and the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory quarry reclamation. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
•Make a donation:
Tyendinaga Legal Defence Fund
c/o 10 Britain Street
Funds raised will be split between Shawn Brant’s legal costs, and the purchase of materials needed to winterize the Quarry in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory.
•Stay informed by checking the website for regular updates, new information and upcoming actions and campaigns:www.ocap.ca/supporttmt.html.Join the Tyendinaga Support e-mail list:https://masses.tao.ca/lists/listinfo/tyendinaga_support.
Join the Free Shawn Brant Facebook group.
•In Toronto, join the Tyendinaga Support
•Sign the petition
*Thanks to the excellent materials generated by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, and by the Tyendinaga Support Committee, from which this article draws heavily.