The recent controversy over former BC NDP candidate Dayleen Van Ryswyk’s racism is part of a longstanding pattern in Canada. The mainstream media tends to frame these controversies as a debate between politically correct multiculturalists (like Adrian Dix) and reactionary racists (like Van Ryswyk). Both sides present different solutions to the “Indian Problem,” by asking how the Canadian government should deal with indigenous peoples. Forced out of this mainstream debate is the “Settler Problem:” the ongoing colonial present, and the possibilities of grassroots resistance, solidarity and decolonization.
Dayleen Van Ryswyk was recently forced to resign over comments she made about First Nations (and Quebecois) in an online discussion forum. Some highlights from her online tirades:
“It’s not the status cards, it’s the fact that we have been paying out of the nose for generations for something that isn’t our doing. If their ancestors sold out too cheap it’s not my fault and i shouldn’t have to be paying for any mistake or whatever you want to call it from MY hard earned money.”
“I don’t think anyone is saying that wrongs didn’t happen (incredible wrongs) you could have almost any race, group or ethnic people tell you horrible haunting stories of what happened to them. […] In my opinion, holding an entire group of people liable for something that happened hundreds of years ago, people who weren’t even alive yet for the wrongs of their ancestors is ridiculous.”
“I’m getting so sick of having french stuffed down my throat..this isn’t Quebec,,it’s western Canada…we speak english here…so does the majority of Canada. I’m offended that the french is spoken first. […] Why can’t we celebrate Canada’s diverse cultures..everyone..not just natives!”
Van Ryswyk was quickly forced to resign by BC NDP leader Adrian Dix, and she quickly received a flood of support from her constituents in Kelowna and others across Canada. Now she’s running as an independent. Recent polls by Castanet showed 73% of those polled didn’t think Van Ryswyk’s comments were inappropriate, and 49% will vote for her (against the runner-up Liberal candidate with 40%).
In short, Ryswyk’s comments may have made her more popular, and her comments clearly resonate with many Canadians. Others (including the BC Liberals and NDPers) have insisted her comments were racist, offensive, and inappropriate. Van Ryswyk and her supporters have insisted that Van Ryswyk was just saying what most politicians won’t, because of political correctness. So is Van Ryswyk racist, or is she just cutting through the bullshit of Canadian political correctness?
Both. The debate between Ryswyk and other, more ‘tolerant’ politicians repeats a pattern of debate in the mainstream media between reactionaries and multiculturalists. Elsewhere, I’ve called them Upsettler zombies and Monarchist demons. Both camps ultimately reinforce Canada’s colonial present by presenting different solutions to the same problem.
Reactionaries and the exploitation of indigenous lands
On Ryswyck’s side are the Canadian reactionaries: settlers who resent what they see as Canada’s “special treatment” of indigenous peoples. They tend mobilize arguments about equality and fairness, claiming that indigenous peoples receive undue ‘handouts’ from federal and provincial governments. Recently disgraced Canadian academic Tom Flanagan publicly held this view for decades (and still does). His book First Nations, Second Thoughts basically calls for the end to Aboriginal status: indigenous peoples should be stripped of any special rights or entitlements, so that they are the same as other Canadians. In the BC context, Mel Smith’s best-seller, Our Home Or Native Land famously attacks indigenous land claims:
Tiny communities are given enormous tracts of land while the majority of Canadians is not only ignored but kept in the dark. Incredible sums of money are spent–worse, even larger amounts are committed to be paid by future generations.
The views of Flanagan and Smith dovetail with Van Ryswyk’s and a flood of others who reacted to Idle No More with outrage and hatred, such Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson, who likened indigenous communities to tiny, delusional, dysfunctional municipalities, entirely dependent on government subsidies. A recent editorial in the Nanaimo Daily News by Don Olsen argued that indigenous societies are primitive peoples, devoid of technology and civilization, who now lack the ability to take care of themselves. Michelle Tittler runs a facebook page entitled “End Race-Based Law,” calling for an end to any laws that distinguish First Nations people from settler Canadians. Like other reactionaries, these tirades are often couched in the language of equality. Olsen proclaims that the only solution is to “bring them into society as equals. They should be getting jobs and paying taxes like the rest of us.”
The idea that indigenous peoples are dependent on subsidies and so need to be “brought in” to Canadian society is one of the most prevalent myths in Canada. For example, when Idle No More began, the Conservative government leaked documents about Attawapiskat, suggesting fiscal mismanagement and corruption by Chief Theresa Spence. But as Drew Oja Jay explains,
Right now, DeBeers is constructing a $1 billion mine on the traditional territory of the Āhtawāpiskatowi ininiwak. Anticipated revenues will top $6.7 billion. Currently, the Conservative government is subjecting the budget of the Cree to extensive scrutiny. But the total amount transferred to the First Nation since 2006 — $90 million — is a little more than one per cent of the anticipated mine revenues. As a percentage, that’s a little over half of Harper’s cut to GST.Royalties from the mine do not go to the First Nation, but straight to the provincial government. The community has received some temporary jobs in the mine, and future generations will have to deal with the consequences of a giant open pit mine in their back yard.Attawapiskat is subsidizing DeBeers, Canada and Ontario.
Indigenous peoples are not economically dependent on Canada; Canada is economically dependent on the exploitation of indigenous lands (and on the subjugation of indigenous peoples who would protect those lands). When indigenous peoples refuse to accept resource extraction on their lands, the reactionaries call for the ‘rule of law.’ Since the law allows for resource extraction and environmental destruction and criminalizes resistance, they are calling for the continuation of settler colonialism. ‘Canada’ is made possible through this ongoing colonization, and it has consistently tried to assimilate and eliminate indigenous people so that land exploitation can continue.
These views aren’t just racist, radical outliers on the fringe of Canadian ideology. They’re entirely in line with much of Canadian policy and practice. For example, Pierre Trudeau’s 1969 White Paper aimed to wipe away any special relationship between Canada and indigenous peoples. The White Paper sought to eliminate “Indian status” and treat indigenous peoples as citizens with the same rights as settler Canadians. This was a final solution to the problem indigenous peoples posed to land exploitation and settlement, and the White Paper was only defeated because of a wave of mobilizations and resistance across indigenous communities and the lands claimed by Canada. When reactionaries mobilize arguments about equality and fairness, they’re in line with past policies like the White Paper, which would assimilate indigenous peoples completely and immediately into settler society, at least under Canadian law.
Multiculturalists, benevolence, and land negotiations
On the opposing side of the mainstream debate are the Canadian multiculturalists. They advocate a more measured approach, supporting some combination of reform and recognition of the special status of First Nations. BC leader Adrian Dix quickly denounced Ryswyk’s comments as “unacceptable” and forced her to resign. He is likely to be the next Premier of BC, and the NDP is being billed as a party that is more sensitive to the concerns of environmentalists and indigenous peoples. Multiculturalists are much more willing to negotiate with First Nations, as long as they don’t get in the way of the Canadian economy and its industries. Multiculturalists support some version of limited self-government, the resolution of land claims, and special rights for First Nations.
Multiculturalists are experts at appearing benevolent and respectful. A Dix government in BC will try to kill the Enbridge pipeline plan and invest in ‘green’ initiatives, but it will support other pipelines, logging of old growth forests, and other industries on unceded indigenous territories. Indigenous communities will continue to be faced with blackmails framed as opportunities: collaborate with ecologically disastrous resource extraction and get a tiny portion of the revenue, or resist, receive nothing, and the project will likely go ahead anyway. But multiculturalists would never put it in such stark terms. They are always in favour of negotiations, reasonableness, and compromise. For federal and provincial governments, this means negotiating with First Nations band councils on special rights, entitlements, forms of self-governance, and revenue-sharing agreements, without radically reshaping Canada or its relationship to indigenous peoples.
A prime example of this is the British Columbia Treaty Commission. The BCTC is often celebrated as an example of decolonization and multiculturalism. It is supposed to result in the return of unceded territories to indigenous peoples in BC and usher in a new relationship between settler governments and indigenous peoples. But the process was designed by Canadian settlers, and indigenous peoples were then invited to negotiate for a tiny portion of their lands (around 5%) through their band councils. If negotiations ever finish, the land is not returned to indigenous peoples allowing them to manage it and govern it autonomously; all land remains under federal and provincial authority, reclassified under the Land Title Act. Taiaiake Alfred outlines the extreme limitations of the BCTC process:
- No recovery of indigenous lands held by private individuals.
- Municipalities retain present legal authorities in indigenous territories.
- Non-indigenous people have access to indigenous lands.
- Non-indigenous people not subject to indigenous laws.
- No new budgetary allocations for agreements.
- Federal government pays most of the costs of negotiations and agreements.
- Non-indigenous companies on indigenous lands will be paid a settlement.
- Province keeps control resource management and environmental protection.
Federal and provincial governments aren’t negotiating with indigenous peoples with the aim of returning any of their lands. The intention is to change the way a small portion of these lands are classified under Canadian law, while ensuring complete control over the rest. The government also loans First Nations the money required for the legal fees in this process, sending them into crippling debt, which forces them to follow through on the process so that they can use their settlements to pay it off. The BCTC requires indigenous peoples to give up the capacity to advance any future assertions of rights or land claims as part of the agreement. The federal department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development explains the economic imperative behind the BCTC:
Uncertainty about the existence and location of Aboriginal rights create uncertainty with respect to ownership, use and management of land and resources. That uncertainty has led to disruptions and delays to economic activity in BC. It has also discouraged investment.
The consequences of not concluding treaties are lost economic activity as well as escalating court costs and continued uncertainty. Key benefits of negotiated settlements are economic and legal certainty as well as harmonized arrangements between the different levels of government.
The overarching aim of the BCTC is to ensure that settler governments can have economic and political certainty over land and resources, so that resource extraction and industrialization can continue. As Nuu-chah-nulth scholar Johnny Mack writes:
The conclusion seems unavoidable – the provisions [of the BCTC] ensure that we are still subject to a constitutional legal order that we did not create, and within that order, only 5 percent of the lands taken from us will be returned to us. Rather than providing for a reincorporation of the colonial takings into our own story, this process acquires our consent to lock that plunder into the state structure, where it will be subject to state authority and exposed to the hungry forces of the global market.
This situation has led many indigenous people (and whole communities) to abandon the BCTC and other offers of reconciliation by colonial authorities. These policies are the legacy of multiculturalism in Canada, which promise reconciliation and respectful relationships. As an indigenous mentor once explained to me, this is like breaking into someone’s house, killing most of their family, and trying to force them into the closet for years while we ransack the place and make ourselves at home. Indigenous peoples resisted the whole way along, and most forms of resistance are criminalized. The reactionaries are angry that they still have to put up with people making noise in the closet, and they are especially outraged when the homeowners disrupt the goings-on in the rest of the house. The multiculturalists announce that they want to negotiate and maybe indigenous peoples can have one more room in the house, under certain conditions. Neither party ever considers the fact that they’re uninvited guests, living in a stolen house, and destroying it.
Reactionary and Multicultural solutions to the “Indian Problem”
Multiculturalists and reactionaries are often portrayed as polar opposites by the mainstream media. The reactionaries like Van Rysywyk go on racist tirades, and the multiculturalists denounce this racism and call for respectful relationships with First Nations. Each camp resonates with different segments of the Canadian population. The reactionaries play on liberal notions of individual equality, mixed with the racist underpinnings of Canada and its attempts to eliminate indigenous peoples. The multiculturalists play on a different version of liberal equality, combined with the fantasy of a Canada where indigenous peoples are a little bit different, and a few policy tweaks makes everyone get along. To be clear, I’m not saying indigenous peoples shouldn’t negotiate with governments, or that they’re naive for doing so. I’m talking about the way in which Canadian multiculturalism is framed as respectful negotiation, while continuing to impose colonial structures on indigenous peoples.
The reactionary and the multiculturalist are two different solutions to the “Indian Problem” in Canada. The Indian Problem is a phrase made famous by Duncan Campbell Scott at the beginning of the 20th century, who sought to eliminate all indigenous peoples, either by outright extermination or forced assimilation:
“Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question and no Indian department.”
This was the explicit purpose of Canada’s Indian Act. Some of its most heinous elements, such as residential schools, have since been abolished over the last half-century, but the Indian Problem continues to inform the way governments (and most Canadians) understand their relationship to indigenous peoples. When the Indian Act failed to destroy indigenous communities and eliminate all indigenous ways of life, Trudeau and others attempted to use the language of equality to finally assimilate them. In a different way, as Taiaiake Alfred explains, the BCLT is structured as a final solution to the Indian Problem:
In essence, the BCTC process is designed to solve the perceived problem of indigenous nationhood by extinguishing it and bringing indigenous peoples into Canada’s own domestic political and legal structures with certainty and finality […] the federal and provincial governments are evidently seeking to consolidate the assimilation and control they have gained over indigenous peoples and their lands since the collapse of indigenous social and political strength as a result of the mass dying by epidemic diseases – a tragedy that began to recede only in the early part of the 20th century.
Indigenous peoples are still prevented from accessing the vast amount of their traditional territories, and settler colonialism continues to occupy indigenous lands, extract resources from them, and subjugate indigenous peoples. When colonialism is discussed at all, it is framed in terms of the Indian Problem: what do we do about them? What do they want from us? How can we finally ‘move on’? The Canadian government still seeks to manage, assimilate, or eliminate indigenous peoples and their ways of life. That is the endgame of colonialism.
Reactionaries want to solve the Indian Problem by getting rid of any special status and assimilating indigenous peoples as equal citizens under Canadian law. The multiculturalist wants to allow some room for special rights and entitlements, and limited self-government, while ensuring that resource extraction and industrial development can continue. Both views lead settlers to understand colonialism as an “Aboriginal issue” that happened in the past, to be resolved by governments, with no implications for the daily lives of settlers. Settlers keep living in the house, arguing about whether indigenous peoples should be allowed a whole room, just a closet, or nothing at all.
The Settler Problem: complicity and decolonization
The problem is the Indian Problem itself. It tries to deal with indigenous peoples from within a colonial framework, and leaves that framework intact while framing colonialism as something in the past. As Adam Barker and others have argued in recent years, Canada actually has a ‘Settler Problem:’
“Settler people who are so immersed in colonial psychology that their political structures make co-existence with Indigenous peoples impossible.”
The Settler Problem invites settlers to focus the problem on ourselves, our institutions, and our inheritance of a colonial system that shapes the way we relate to indigenous peoples, each other, and the land we live on. The Settler Problem is ongoing; it’s not a past wrong to remedy through reparations. Settlers came, committed genocide, set up colonial institutions, occupied and pillaged the land, and we’ve inherited this situation. The recognition of settler involvement in ongoing colonialism often provokes paralyzing guilt or denial. A common reaction is that ‘we’ didn’t do anything; it was our ancestors (or other peoples’ ancestors).
Settlers are often eager to point out that they or their ancestors didn’t benefit from colonialism. My great great grandfather was an Irish indentured servant who was forced to come here and work for nothing. This implies colonialism is about individual blame or guilt, and we’re either guilty or we’re not. But this individualistic response frames colonialism as part of the past, rather than an ongoing project. As Lorenzo Veracini and Edward Cavanaugh write, in the definition of settler colonialism:
settler colonialism is a resilient formation that rarely ends. Not all migrants are settlers; […] settlers come to stay. They are founders of political orders who carry with them a distinct sovereign capacity. And settler colonialism is not colonialism: settlers want Indigenous people to vanish (but can make use of their labour before they are made to disappear).
The Settler Problem frames colonization as an ongoing phenomenon; it’s happening right now and we’re implicated in it, whether we like it or not. White, middle-class settlers like me are the ones with enough privilege to ignore it if we choose to: settler colonialism can fade into the background for some of us, as a way of life that seems normal and natural. Not all settlers have this option, and the settler/indigenous dichotomy can flatten out differences between settlers. ‘Settlers’ are often implicitly white, European-descended people whose ancestors took part in conquest and slavery. Depending on how it’s used, the term ‘settler’ can miss the ways that privileged white men like me are positioned differently from people who don’t benefit from the linked systems of capital accumulation, heteropatriarchy, and racism. But acknowledging these differences, privileges, and positions in the structure of settler colonialism doesn’t amount to much if it doesn’t affect the ways we live our everyday lives. The concept of ‘complicity’ has been advanced as a way to move beyond individualistic discussions of privilege, towards the ways that people are positioned differently in the colonial structure, with implications for collective action. As Beenash Jafri explains:
Complicity hasn’t been circulated in the same way as privilege. Nor are there many handy pedagogical tools or checklists for thinking about complicity. Complicity is a messy, complicated and entangled concept to think about; it is not as easy to grasp and, because of this, it requires a much deeper investment on our part. This would demand, for example, that we think about settlerhood not as an object that we possess, but as a field of operations into which we become socially positioned and implicated.
Complicity might offer a way out of individualistic, guilt-ridden discussions that often plague settlers’ coming-to-awareness of our roles in this process. Complicity focuses our attention on relationships and institutions, rather than individual identities. I don’t think this means that differences are flattened out, or oppression doesn’t matter; I will always have to keep unlearning my own heteropatriarchal, racist, colonial ways of thinking and being as a white guy; that unlearning is crucial for respectful relationships across difference. As El Machetero explains, complicity helps frame oppression and resistance as a collective project:
It also focuses much less on individuals, and much more on this system and its accompanying parasitical lifestyles, understanding that this is an arrangement which is violent, genocidal and ecocidal (since it increasingly involves the actual destruction of the land itself) and which makes accomplices of us all. What matters more than where such a system would choose to locate us for its own ends is what we choose to do together with one another, the strength and quality of the relationships and communities we build, and our knowledge of the context in which we live and our foresight towards the consequences which emerge from the choices we make within it.
Towards collective decolonization
The solution to the Settler Problem is collective decolonization: moving towards non-dominating relationships between settlers, indigenous peoples, and ecosystems. I have no idea what these decolonized relationships will look like, but I know it will take more than a multiculturalist yearning for a kinder Canada, or outraged denunciations of Van Ryswyk and other reactionaries, or a guilt-ridden ‘awareness’ of settler colonialism. What would it mean for settlers to act like uninvited guests? What are our responsibilities as settlers? What happens when settlers give up on their certainty and sense of entitlement to indigenous lands? How can settlers divest themselves from a faith in government and begin to build direct relationships with indigenous communities? How can settlers build alliances with indigenous peoples and help stop the destruction and exploitation of their lands? If settler colonialism is a ‘field of operations,’ how do we navigate this field? How can we disrupt its operations and construct alternatives? People are already asking and responding to these questions. There are indigenous peoples and settlers across the territories claimed by Canada who are resisting settler colonialism and working towards decolonization.
Many of these efforts were galvanized by Idle No More, though INM is only the most recent and visible movement of resistance and decolonization amongst indigenous peoples. From the perspective of the mainstream media, Idle No More seems to have vanished, but this is only because the mainstream media can only see things from the vantage point of the Indian Problem. If indigenous peoples aren’t publicly protesting and presenting demands to governments, there’s nothing happening. When Naomi Klein interviewed Nishnaabeg writer and activist Leanne Simpson, she asked Simpson what the next step was for Idle No More. Simpson replied:
“I think within the movement, we’re in the next phase. There’s a lot of teaching that’s happening right now in our community and with public teach-ins, there’s a lot of that internal work, a lot of educating and planning happening right now. There is a lot of internal nation-building work. It’s difficult to say where the movement will go because it is so beautifully diverse. I see perhaps a second phase that is going to be on the land. It’s going to be local and it’s going to be people standing up and opposing these large-scale industrial development projects that threaten our existence as indigenous peoples—in the Ring of Fire [region in Northern Ontario], tar sands, fracking, mining, deforestation… But where they might have done that through policy or through the Environmental Assessment Act or through legal means in the past, now it may be through direct action. Time will tell.”
Beyond the gaze of the mainstream media, things are happening all the time. In British Columbia for example, grassroots Wet’suwet’en peoples have erected a permanent camp and blockade on their lands to protect their territory from oil, gas, and bitumen pipelines from the Tar Sands and fracking projects.
They’ve been defending this camp for three years. In the process, they’ve forged alliances with settlers and other indigenous nations across the province, including an upcoming teach-in organized on Lekwungen and WSANEC territories (Victoria) on April 28th, on settler solidarity and decolonization:
This Teach-In will provide settlers with an understanding of how the destruction of land as well as violence experienced by Indigenous peoples, who stand in assertion of their inherent sovereignty, can be located in both a historical and contemporary reality of colonialism. In preparing for resistance to the Pacific Trail Pipelines, this Teach-In will begin to prepare settler people to stand alongside Indigenous peoples in resisting the ongoing processes of colonialism – whether that be at the Unis’tot’en camp in the spring and summer, or elsewhere.
As the description implies, this isn’t just a one-off event; it’s designed to create the conditions for meaningful and lasting solidarity with indigenous struggles, and it holds open the possibility of decolonized relationships between settlers and indigenous peoples. This is just one of hundreds of public events that focus on decolonizing the relationships between settlers and indigenous peoples on the lands claimed by Canada. And these public events are only the most visible forms of decolonization in response to the Settler Problem. The mainstream media won’t cover these efforts, and when they do, they’ll frame them as terrorism, because there is no place for them in the narrative of the Indian Problem. Shifting to the Settler Problem asks us all to reflect on the ways we’re caught up in settler colonialism, whether we like it or not.