(Image Credit: ‘Hoxne Hoard’ from Wikimedia Commons; the image is at this link)
As Canada Day draws nearer, voices about Canada being ‘stolen land’ are getting amplified. Notably absent from these messages is any hint of a proposal to remedy this situation – and significantly, of any personal initiative to that end.
In light of the recent discovery of graves near former Residential Schools, it was to be expected that demands for accountability for the harms inflicted on First Nations would increase. From what I have seen, both these demands and the responses to them follow a familiar and predictable format. In particular, I have seen partisan barbs floating around, both as commentary and on social media, blaming the past & present governments of the ‘other side’ for lack of progress in the matter. This ‘groundhog day’ situation is of a piece with our usual performance as a society on matters of policy, which I explored in the article ‘Structural Dysfunction’.
One point that I have seen come up in every bout of eruption of debate on this subject is that Canada is ‘stolen land’; the immediately preceding major one being in 2017 when Canada, as an independent country, reached the age of the psychologically important number of 150. There are certain standard responses to this issue of ‘stolen land’. For a variety of reasons, this debate is infructuous. Let us review these responses:
- “If you think Canada is so bad, you are free to move to another country.” This, unfortunately, does not resolve the issue of the ‘stolen land’; it merely reduces the number of people who can attempt to resolve it. As far as debate is concerned, therefore, it is a dead-end.
- The mirror image of the above argument, offered by ‘old stock Canadians’ is, “Do you want me to go back to Europe?” Apart from being the exact same dead-end, this argument also has the complication that a white person’s ancestors may have come from different European countries (or indeed elsewhere), rendering their outbound move non-executable.
- “This land was conquered, as is common in human history. So, as the losing side, the First Nations do not have any exclusive claims to it.” I see two problems with this argument. Firstly, there are sizable stretches of un-ceded territory in Canada; the question of who has the right to use this territory is up in the air. Secondly, and more importantly, as a civilized society that we claim to be, we expect Canada to treat the ‘losing side’ in a tad more civilized manner than has been the case in history.
The above list more or less rounds out the range of arguments in response to the ‘stolen land’ claim. As can be noticed, neither the claim nor the responses contain even the germ of an idea of how to resolve the situation. I think it is reasonable to have a higher expectation for such an idea from the side that makes the claim of ‘stolen land’. Instead of reacting to this failure, let us examine why it arises.
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
In law, there is the concept of ‘title’, meaning rightful ownership of something. If we accept the idea that Canada is ‘stolen land’, then, given that stealing is a criminal act, everything that exists on it qualifies as proceeds of crime. This applies not just to property (or physical stuff in general), but to everything that is part of people’s lives: making money, spending money, engaging in recreation, contributing to charity, volunteering for causes and advocating for issues (including the issue of ‘stolen land’). This is because, with the exception of the First Nations (and arguably, only those First Nations individuals who do not have a person of any other race in their lineage), every Canadian’s presence on this land called Canada is a consequence of the theft of that land.
This uncomfortable fact expands the scope of the term ‘stolen land’ to unmanageable proportions, and that leads inevitably to paralysis. But there is another factor contributing to the near-complete lack of action on this front: in our time, activism has become decoupled from action. Expressing strong views on an issue, including demands that positive changes be made immediately, does not require one to either take any initiative in the direction of those change or to incorporate such changes in one’s life to the degree possible. The popular term for this is ‘virtue signaling’, but I am leery of using it because it has become overused and hence lost its communication value.
To give but one example of this paralysis, if Canada is ‘stolen land’, thus making every Canadian complicit in the crime, is it justified for the government to have a policy of accepting hundreds of thousands of immigrants every year? For one, there is the issue of the ‘title’, which throws in doubt the government’s legal capacity to make such policy. Secondly, the previously innocent foreigners become complicit in the crime as Canadians. This should be deemed immoral. But asking for a complete removal of our immigration policy (including, it should be noted, our refugee policy) has such far-reaching ramifications as to make the idea moot.
Speaking of immigration, there is a subset of ‘activists’ here that need a special mention. When I see first generation Canadians talk about Canada being ‘stolen land’, I cannot but help think about the well-documented tendency for home-ownership among immigrants (for example, in this study from 2012 by the government of Canada). If anyone from these communities truly believes that Canada is ‘stolen land’, surely, they should know that a person in possession of stolen property cannot legally pass on to a buyer the title to that property? And that the buyer would be guilty of the original crime of theft, by perhaps being an accomplice after the fact?
But paradoxically, immigrants (who, let’s face it, are almost exclusively non-white) are expected to be ‘allies’ of the First Nations on grounds that they are fellow-victims of ‘systemic racism’ in Canada. In reality, however, this ‘bond’ is a lot weaker than it is made out to be. Barring exceptions, any display of such ‘ally-ship’ from an immigrant is likely to be a self-serving one.
That may sound like a harsh assessment, but there is a way to ascertain whether it is justified or not.
MOM & POP
In many South Asian languages, there is the term ‘sarkaar maai-baap’. I don’t think there is an equivalent term in English.
The word ‘sarkaar’ means ‘government’, but can also be used when addressing or referring to someone of a high enough rank in society such that they are able to decide the fate of others. The word ‘maai’ means ‘mother’, and ‘baap’ means father.
So ‘sarkaar maai-baap’ means a person who is the only one having control, and that control is absolute. Nobody else has any agency, as a matter of force. That’s where our thinking is in Canada in relation to government. As I mentioned in my earlier article ‘Searching For Zero’, at some point in the past 100 years, our society metamorphosed from being ruggedly individualist to being trenchantly collectivist. I am of the opinion that this change is augmented by immigrants, due to the fact that in their countries of origin, the government had an oversized presence in people’s lives. It is, therefore, more likely for them to think that resolution of issues is a matter of government action rather than private initiative. In such a case, a gap between espousing certain principles and the need for personal engagement in their pursuit naturally exists in their minds. They are not being duplicitous when they talk about ‘stolen land’ while buying a second house as investment property. It’s just that ideas and the actions that follow from them are not connected in the paradigm that they are used to. But their participation merely adds to the paralysis, leading one to question if there is a way out of the impasse.
In the early Fall of 2018, I attended a public debate involving the mayoral candidates for Brampton in the election that was to take place in October of that year. The event was being held in the Rose Theater in downtown Brampton. The host started it with a Land Acknowledgement. I had heard about such acknowledgements, but this was the first time I actually heard one. I filed the new experience away in my mind for future reflection.
Having read more on the subject since then, and with the benefit of discussion with many people (including First Nations), I have formed the opinion that the chief function of these acknowledgements is to let the politicians off the hook for their multitudinous failures in dealing with the problems besetting the FN. Their secondary function is to ease the conscience of those Canadians who may be feeling uneasy about the poor conditions that some of their fellow-Canadians have to live under, despite the fact they were here first. In both cases, the effect is to obviate the need for action.
One recent evening, I was discussing this with my daughter over dinner, and said that it would have been better if, instead of making this hollow announcement, the organizers of the event had found at least one needy First Nations student to sponsor for post-secondary education, and made arrangements to accept donations from the attendees at the event. I said that at the most, this would have required some arrangement to receive money via cards.
She agreed with the main idea, but had several observations. The first was that limiting donations to the few minutes before the start of the event could create avoidable rush / over-crowding, and could be a distraction from the event itself as well as (potentially) reduce the amount of donations. Secondly, more people may be inclined to donate if they had more time to think about it after the event for which they were assembled. And lastly, she suggested that the cause could be expanded beyond education, to include things such as promotion of indigenous artists by putting their work up for sale.
Since my thinking is still rooted in the paradigm of the industrial era, I wondered how these could be accommodated in a system without making it overly complex.
“Just create a go-fund-me page for each of them, or use Kijiji or whatever” she replied, “Keep it cellular.”
As the (perhaps outdated) expression goes, ‘the nickel dropped like a ton of lead’. The answer to the government’s inability / unwillingness / failure to address the issue lies in grassroots action – the various initiatives being interconnected or independent as suits the needs from time to time – in such a widespread manner that the government is rendered ‘superfluous to requirement’. This also has the advantage of keeping the need for resources at the manageable level for private citizens.
Soon after coming to Canada, I learned that the word ‘assimilation’ has negative connotations in Canada owing to history. So its substitute ‘integration’ is to be preferred. In the context of new immigrants, I have seen a distinction being made between ‘acculturation’ and ‘integration’.
I think what we perhaps need – or need more of – is to be interwoven. Just as different strands in a piece of tapestry create a valuable pattern while maintaining their individuality, we can make a better Canada without ceasing to be what we are (I consider this to be especially relevant to the FN). The idea that Canada is ‘stolen land’ ranks with the concept of ‘original sin’ in religion, in that it permeates our whole existence. Unlike in the religious context, however, the doctrine of ‘stolen land’ offers no path – or possibility – of Salvation. This is perhaps because the very aim is to achieve a dead-lock and then milk it for all it is worth. Or perhaps the deadlock is due to paucity of ideas.
In either case, it appears to me that the only way to overcome the ‘stolen land’ situation is by standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the First Nations, constantly striving to resolve issues at the micro level, and thereby demonstrate that we belong as much on this land as they and their ancestors did. Then, the land that we call Canada, and life on that land, will no longer be the proceeds of crime.