Beyond a Formal Acknowledgement ~ The Symbolic Lie of Reconciliation and the Continued Genocide of Indigenous People’s thru Colonialism


TreatiesImage from the First Peoples Guide for Newcomers, published by the City of Vancouver (2014)

On June 24th, 2014, Vancouver city council voted unanimously to formally acknowledge that the city is built on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish Indigenous peoples. After more than a century of denial and erasure, the motion might have opened the way for real change in Vancouver. And yet when the motion was put forward, Councillor Andrea Reimer told the media that the gesture wouldn’t affect the legal practices of the City of Vancouver. “[Reimer] isn’t concerned,” reported the Toronto Sun, “about possible legal ramifications of declaring the city is on unceded territory because Vancouver is not involved in treaty negotiations and has no such authority over land.”

A few weeks later, the City of Vancouver withheld its reconciliatory gesture when it ignored the assertion of Aboriginal Land title by the residents of Oppenheimer park, moving instead to issue a series of eviction notices for the mostly-Indigenous residents. Formal recognition of colonial dispossession, it seemed, came with serious limitations. What exactly do the City’s words without action mean for reconciliation? At Oppenheimer the City of Vancouver and Parks Board did what governments of its kind have done since this land has been colonized: they ignored the voice of Indigenous people and continued on with the long legacy of state-sanctioned dispossession and violence.

Atrociously violent actions of colonialism are numerous throughout history and across Canada. This includes government-sanctioned starvation and nutritional testing, land dispossession and creation of the reserve system, deliberate spread of disease, abuses within the residential school system, and disproportionate numbers of Indigenous peoples in Canadian federal prisons (23 percent) and foster care (almost 50 percent). These atrocities were not, and are not, possible without facilitation by politicians.

These are the many ways in which politicians and politics have been, and are, enforcers of the colonial project. In the late nineteenth century Prime minister John A. Macdonald increased the rate at which European settlers colonized and ‘developed’ western Canada by creating policy that allowed Canadian officials to withhold food from Indigenous communities until they starved to death. Under the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG), adopted on December 9, 1948, this policy constitutes an act of genocide.

The horrifying acts and behaviours mentioned are symptomatic of colonialism, which Gord Hill (Kwakwaka’wakw nation) describes in these terms:

[Colonialism is] the practice of invading other lands and territories, for the purpose of settlement and/or resource exploitation. When an invading force confronts an Indigenous population already occupying a territory, colonialism becomes a violent conflict between two hostile and opposing ways of life, with one attempting to impose its will on the other. This is a standard definition of war, and colonization itself can be considered a war for territory involving all the means used to carry out wars: military, political, economic, psychological, diplomatic, cultural, etc.[1]

While this definition highlights the violent force of colonialism, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang highlight the importance of land, and how its commodification is integral to the success of the settler colonial project:“Land is what is most valuable, contested, required. This is both because the settlers make Indigenous land their new home and source of capital […] land is remade into property and human relationships to land are restricted to the relationship of the owner to his property.”[2] From its infancy, Canada, and its settler cities, have benefitted economically from the genocide of Indigenous communities. In a local context, Indigenous people, as is common in settler cities, live in impoverished conditions. According to the 2006 census, Indigenous people make up two percent of the total population of Vancouver, ten percent of the total population of the Downtown Eastside, and thirty percent of the homeless population.[3]

A Settler Move to Innocence

Vancouver City Council and other political parties are praised for their formal acknowledgement of the city’s occupation of unceded territory, even if it does little to change the everyday conditions of Indigenous peoples (poverty, dispossession, criminality, premature death). This gesture is what Tuck and Yang would define as a “settler move to innocence,” a strategy or positioning that attempts to relieve feelings of guilt or responsibility of a settler without the settler giving up land, power, privilege or changing much at all.[4] Gestures of remorse or acknowledgement may endow the settler with “professional kudos or a boost in their reputations for being so sensitive or self-aware.” For example, David Schaepe, director and senior archaeologist of the Sto:lo Research and Resource Management Centre and technical advisor for the Sto:lo Xwexwilmexw Treaty Association, has congratulated city council on its formal recognition and called it a “very positive development.” Despite the fact that the formal acknowledgment has been received positively in the media, Tuck and Yang warn that settler moves to innocence are hollow and only serve the interests of settlers. Such actions lend false legitimacy to settler governments, allow the ongoing work of dispossession, displacement, and settlement.

“You’re never going to gain the full recognition of your freedom from your oppressor,” argues Glen Coulthard, member of the Dene Nation and author of Red Skin, White Masks, in an interview. “They will only recognize you to the extent that it serves their own interests. The effect that that recognition being given to you has on the dominated or the colonized is that they come to see that gift of recognition as a form of justice or decolonization itself. You think recognition is actually freedom and decolonization, but it’s really colonization in a new form.” The recognition that Vancouver city council has offered to Indigenous peoples only extends to the acknowledgement that Vancouver occupies unceded territory. This primarily benefits Vancouver city council and other political parties because it creates a semblance of sensitivity and self-awareness. The formal acknowledgement falls short because it only acknowledges one aspect of settler colonialism rather than the multitude of ongoing violence and traumas. It does not recognize the historical or ongoing role of Vancouver city council in settler colonization through practices such as policing and community dispersal of the Downtown Eastside community, where economically marginalized Indigenous peoples are over-represented.[4] Nor does it begin to engage in the difficult work of moving beyond metaphors and gestures and towards changing the material conditions underlying the daily warfare of colonization.

In addition, the Vancouver motion calls for council and city staff to “develop appropriate protocols for the City of Vancouver to use in conducting City business that respect the traditions of welcome, blessing, and acknowledgement of the territory.” What the motion does not call for are decolonizing protocols that shift power and privilege from settlers to Indigenous peoples, nor does it acknowledge colonization as an ongoing process that actively dispossesses Indigenous peoples of their way of life through land theft. This clearly shows that Vancouver city council, and other political parties, do not intend to dismantle the system and structures that benefit settlers. Instead, the goal is to protect City business and the perpetuation of the settler colonial project, free of feelings of guilt or responsibility–thanks to this tokenistic gesture.

Vancouver city council, past and present, perpetuates the poverty and dispossession of Indigenous peoples. These actions benefit not only settlers, but also make the legal and economic existence of Vancouver itself possible. The city council motion to recognize unceded territories operates in tandem with the established economic and political interests of Vancouver. To underline the continued protection of those interests, Mayor Gregor Robertson spoke to media, saying that landowners and businesses “shouldn’t worry” because the formal recognition of occupying unceded territory is largely symbolic.

In a recent interview on Mainlander Radio, Diana Day, a member of the Oneida Nation, shared her thoughts on the formal acknowledgment:

We have the worst rate of almost everything that’s negative happening to us and yet they don’t put us at the table to say “What can do we do? How can we change that?” They sit in rooms and make decisions for us, or not. They don’t have an Indigenous person right on council who’s able to provide that input and if they have no vested interest in the issues around homelessness, and mental health. There’s not a strong Aboriginal voice who’s at the table who is discussing these things, and who’s advocating for these things, so until that happens, I think a lot of things are just words. It’s just an acknowledgement, it’s not meaningful. I think it has a lot to do with actions speaking louder than words, so if you were really sincere about this, then you should have Indigenous people on your slate, on every slate, not just in one area because I think we need to be represented at all meetings, and at all discussions.

For Day, the failure of the city’s formal acknowledgement lies in the fact that it remains “largely symbolic,” as the Mayor also said. It does not engage in meaningful action that work towards Indigenous sovereignty, nor does it even attempt to challenge the decision-making process of settler colonial governments. The inclusion of Indigenous decision-makers, not just voices, is not even considered. This, in addition to the city’s recent rejection of Indigenous peoples’ legitimate title claim at Oppenheimer Park, shows that settlers will continue to act in their own interests until there is an intervention against settler colonialism.

The Role of the Municipal Government in Settler Colonialism

Despite Reimer’s claim to that the municipal government has no authority over Indigenous land, Vancouver city council maintains settler colonialism through specific means: upholding claims to private property, enforcing property laws through state-sanctioned police violence, re-zoning and development decisions, and lastly by profiting directly from the sale and taxation of land.[6] Through taxation and zoning, the municipal government has the ability to eliminate or encourage specific land uses throughout the city. For example, the area known today as Stanley Park was inhabited by Indigenous peoples until it became a park in 1888, following a slew of evictions from the park. Indigenous families continued living in the park and were continually evicted until the 1930. This was a political move by the city which removed Indigenous peoples from a key source of settler flows of capital, people, and goods. The city also maintains colonial structures and systems through lobbying (or neglect of) higher levels of government. This list is not exhaustive; rather, it identifies some of the ways in which the municipal government upholds settler colonialism and is able to exercise authority over land, contrary to the City’s claim. The formal acknowledgement reinforces the colonial perception of land as private property. What is necessary today, and will not come easily, is to de-center the conversation from ownership of land, which is a largely European colonial concept, and instead imagine, and pursue, the meaningful action that could follow if Vancouver city council and settlers truly sought to challenge the perception of land as property under an illegitimate colonial legal system. [7]

“We want to make sure we’ve done the appropriate steps with the three local First Nations to understand exactly what should be said according to their traditions and customs,” Robertson said. “We just want to make sure we’re observing those correctly and bringing them into the modern context as well.” While this is perceived as a move away from settler colonialism, it only further entrenches Vancouver city council in the settler colonial project. As Scott Morgensen writes, “Historically, non-Natives became settlers by adapting Indigenous dwelling sites, travel routes, place names, modes of gathering or cultivating food, and spiritual knowledges and practices. These acts are part of the normative function of conquest and settlement.” The adaptation of Indigenous place names, customs, or knowledge into the business and function of settler cities is part of colonialism. These practices do not embody a responsibility to dismantle and interrogate the material conditions of settler colonialism. The formal acknowledgement does not, then, enter into the difficult territory of challenging colonial structures and systems of land and property – property which necessitates an owner and the protection of the landowner’s rights by a colonial legal system and state sanctioned violence. Furthermore, this gesture does not sufficiently acknowledge the ongoing traumas of colonialism, nor the ways in which municipal politics are implicit in reinforcing and reproducing settler colonialism.

In the words of Andrea Smith, settler colonialism is not undone by “individuals confessing their privileges or trying to think themselves into a new subject position, but through the creation of collective structures that dismantle the systems that enable these privileges.”[7] Gord Hill defines the political terms in which the undoing of settler colonialism might be undertaken: “this means a radical de-centralization of national power (i.e., the dismantling of the nation-state) and the establishment of local autonomy (community & region, traditionally the village and tribal nation).”[9] The limitations of the City of Vancouver’s recent territory acknowledgement tell us that much more should be demanded from those who hold power and benefit from the systems and structures of settler colonialism.

The work needed to dismantle the systems and structures that privilege settler colonialism will not be easy. As David Harvey wrote in Right to the City, “We can dream and wonder about alternative urban worlds. With enough perseverance and power we can even hope to build them.” Today, we must create other worlds because the one we live in normalizes genocide and colonization. We must re-imagine our relationships to the land and each other beyond a settler colonial framework, and cultivate it collectively. This requires decolonizing our spaces and relationships, and unlike the formal acknowledgement, it will not be symbolic.

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Notes

[1] Colonization Decolonization by Zig Zag (aka Gord Hill) http://warriorpublications.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/colonization-decolonization.pdf

[2] Decolonization is not a metaphor by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/18630/15554

[3] Unsettling the Politics of Exclusion: Aboriginal Activism and the Vancouver Downtown East Side by Donna Shatz.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Municipal Colonialism in Vancouver: City Planning and the Conflict over Indian Reserves, 1928-1950s by Jordan Stanger-Ross.

[6] The colonialism that is settled and the colonialism that never happened by Andrea Smith.

[7] The Problem with “Privilege” by Andrea Smith, quoted by Laura Hurwitz & Shawn Bourque in Settler Colonialism Primer

http://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/settler-colonialism-primer/

[8] Ibid., 8.

http://themainlander.com/2015/01/07/beyond-a-formal-acknowledgement/

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