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Aboriginal Rights: The Backlash and Socialist Strategy

Valerie Lannon

January 1, 2003

Marxism No. 1, 2003
Recently in Canada, there has been an organized racist backlash against the struggles of aboriginal people for self-determination. At the same time, there has been an increasing sentiment of solidarity with aboriginal people and to combat racism.1
The primary context of this discussion is the province of British Columbia, where unceded First Nations land has been the site of longstanding struggles. It has also become the site of new alliances among First Nations, environmentalists, and trade unionists which will be key in building continued battles for aboriginal rights.
Aboriginal peoples, the original inhabitants of "Turtle Island", have long been denied their rights to self-determination by the policies and practices of the imperialist Canadian state. The struggle for self-determination, including the right to control over the resources of the land and sea traditionally used for survival, is only, however, one of the contexts in which aboriginal resistance takes place. A second context is the fight against racism, which aboriginal people living both on and off reserve face as a daily occurrence.
History of Aboriginal Oppression
Before considering the scope of the current backlash, a brief review of aboriginal oppression in Canada is in order. European traders made contact with this hemisphere as a result of the growth of a budding capitalist system, and with this contact oppression of indigenous people began. In the case of the Spaniards in South America, there was nothing short of a holocaust in which millions of indigenous people were slaughtered. In the Caribbean and Central America, indigenous people were taken into slavery on a mass scale by the Portuguese. In Canada, the oppression took a somewhat different form. Both the French and English relied on the aboriginal people to survive, to find their way around the harsh conditions of the continent, and, particularly by the end of the eighteenth century, to engage in the fur trade. Military alliances were also struck as part of French and English imperialism. It is in the context of English victory that the Royal Proclamation of 1763 was declared. The Proclamation of King George III of England declared that the First Nations of North America had existing rights, and established the system of surrendering those rights by treaty. This Proclamation is cited to this day by First Nations in court to defend their use of traditional lands and waters.
But words on paper were defied by the reality of colonial oppression. The cumulative effects of disease, poverty and displacement saw the BC aboriginal people reduced by more than 90 percent, from an estimated 250,000 before contact to 23,000 in 1929. One of the most diabolical instruments of oppression used by the Canadian state, however, was its policy of assimilation. Unlike the fur traders, gold seekers, and settlers, missionaries had deliberate plans to change the traditional form of life and culture of First Nations people. Their intent was to alter and assimilate First Nations culture completely, encouraging agrarian settlement and abandonment of traditional ceremonies and beliefs. More destructive, however, because of its broader base, was the introduction of residential schools, a system that was established in Canada in the 1880s. The schools were funded by the government and operated by a variety of religious orders. The policy was to break the children of all cultural ties, such as language, family and traditional ways, and then re-educate them in Christian and Euro-Canadian norms. It was common for children to be given new names, to be physically abused for speaking their aboriginal language and to be taught that the ways of their parents were savage and evil. Abuse of all kinds was rampant.
Even though it was recognized that the schools were not "working" in terms of assimilation, and that by 1947 prominent anthropologists such as Diamond Jenness were calling for their abolition, it was not until 1984 that the last residential school in BC was closed.
At the same time as residential schools were originally established and reserves were allocated, the federal Indian Act was passed in 1876. This Act is a document of insitutionalized colonial oppression and racism. It governs such things as the acquisition of status, election of councils, use of reserves, management of money, education, and the destruction of cultural practices such as the prohibition of ceremonial potlatches. Also around this time, Sir John A. MacDonald crushed the provisional government in Manitoba, and in 1885 suppressed the Métis’ Northwest Rebellion. Métis leader Louis Riel was hung for his leadership of the rebellion.
Until 1930, First Nations people had to have a special permit from the federal Indian Agent in order to leave the reserve. Aboriginal people were not allowed to vote federally until 1960. In the 1960s and 1970s, the "the adoption scoop" was organized, which saw the wholesale adoption of aboriginal children into non-aboriginal homes, mainly in the US.
This policy of assimilation continued through to the 1969 White Paper brought in by the Indian Affairs minister of the day, none other than current Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. Reaction was so negative that the government was forced to withdraw the plan. But the Paper represents the continuing view of the Canadian ruling class that aboriginal people’s limited rights on reserve and non-treaty lands are a barrier to the expansion of corporations out to make huge profits from the earth’s resources.
The facts of aboriginal life today are bleak:

  •  income levels at half of the Canadian average
  • a teen suicide rate that is the highest in the world
  • half the Canadian rate of high school completion

This is in addition to the daily acts of racism, which have been structured into the relationship between the Canadian state and First Nations, beginning with the first betrayals of promises and treaties. In 1991, the federal government established a royal commission, made up of both aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, to investigate issues concerning aboriginal peoples. The Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, published in 1996, documents the broken promises and calls for an end to the status quo treatment of aboriginal people. In recognition of the widespread frustration and anger among aboriginal peoples across Canada, the Report calls for extensive reforms.
But since the Report was published, the acts of overt racism have continued, particularly at the hands of the police. We have seen the Ontario government first approve the 1995 killing of aboriginal activist Dudley George, who was defending Ipperwash territory, and then try to cover their tracks and refuse to call for an independent inquiry into police action. In Saskatchewan, police have been responsible for a string of "freezing deaths", arresting aboriginal men and depositing them in snow banks in sub-zero temperatures to freeze, sometimes to death. The NDP government in BC was responsible for sanctioning the largest Canadian military assault on aboriginal people in Canadian history when the RCMP, backed up by the military, attacked the Sundance defenders at Gustafsen Lake. Subsequent court transcripts and the RCMP’s own evidence reveal a conscious smear campaign to discredit the First Nations defenders.
In this context of increasing backlash, the most vivid public attack on aboriginal rights has been the BC Liberals’ referendum on treaties. After almost ten years of negotiation and some five hundred million dollars spent, including $150 million in loans to First Nations organizations, there are no treaties in place.2 The BC Liberal government almost immediately upon election in 2001, decided to ask the non-aboriginal majority to agree to the principles of negotiations with the aboriginal minority. For anyone opposed to colonialism and racism, this is truly offensive. The Liberals established a road tour of public ‘consultation’ in the name of seeking input to what the referendum questions should be. A mere 500 people out of the whole province attended.
When the referendum was initiated in April of 2001, ballots were sent to some 2.1 million voters. No less a person than Angus Reid, the famous pollster, denounced the amateurism of the design of the questions, which guaranteed ambiguity. He describes it as "a cynical, manipulative process to produce a specific result."3 The government has stated it would not be bound by ‘no’ votes and will ‘respect’ the results of the referendum even if only three people bothered to vote.4
The history of Liberal opposition to First Nations preceded their election, including prosecuting a court action against the Nisga’a Agreement. They lost in court in a decision which said that rejecting the negotiated agreement would violate Nisga’a constitutional rights. The Liberals favour only a municipal style First Nations’ government.5 The First Nations Summit, representing those bands engaged in the treaty process, was the first group to come out strongly opposed to the proposed Liberals’ referendum. While the Summit represents only half of the bands in the province, these particular bands collectively constitute the majority of First Nations registered membership. But the other major aboriginal political organizations also spoke out against the referendum, not because they support the treaty process, but because they know a racist stirring of the pot when they see one. The three main aboriginal political groups agreed on a position to boycott the process and to send in ballots for a count. Major organizations publicized their intention to follow their lead. These included the NDP, the BC Federation of Labour, numerous individual unions, and most faith communities (with the notable exception of the Catholic Church).
Opposition to the referendum is part of the overall resistance to the Liberals and their neo-liberal agenda. Had there been a high voter turnout, and a high ‘yes’ vote, the process would have been tragic for BC and Canada. One of the few voices in support of the referendum was a white supremacist group in Kelowna. This is precisely the sort of rot which, in at atmosphere of racist backlash, is given the confidence to come out of the woodwork, as predicted by the first opponents of the referendum. Fortunately, the actual response to the referendum was a record low voter turn out of 36 percent, including five percent who voted ‘no’. Some 60,000 ballots were returned to First Nations organizations in a show of massive solidarity.
Fighting the Backlash
In the 1970s, aboriginal people began to reassert their rights and use terms such as self-determination, self-government and sovereignty to express their desire to control their own destinies, and to regain the sense of dignity they had lost since the time of European contact. But when First Nations in Canada argue for self-determination, are they talking about secession? The short answer appears to be no. First Nations have asserted their rights in three ways: litigation, negotiation, and what is referred to as affirmation or assertion. In all three contexts, the fight is for control of the natural resources in territory traditionally used by First Nations.
In terms of litigation, the most famous was the Calder case of 1973, in which the Nisga’a of northwestern BC argued successfully that the title to their lands had never been extinguished. The Sparrow court case in 1990 used not only the Royal Proclamation, but the Canadian constitution in support of its claim of aboriginal rights. The Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution protected aboriginal rights to fisheries, and that the right of aboriginal people to fish for food should be given priority over commercial or sport fishing. The Donald Marshall Supreme Court decision in 1999 involved a similar claim for the Mik’maq of New Brunswick, and resulted in a court decision which supported the right of aboriginal people to make a reasonable living from the fish in their traditional territory.
The Delgamuukw case resulted in a decision in 1997 by the Supreme Court of Canada that the lower courts should give more weight to the oral histories of First Nations peoples and that governments may only infringe on aboriginal title if they have a "compelling and substantial legislative objective." Furthermore, when governments do infringe this right, First Nations must receive "fair compensation."6 to successfully obtain court injunctions against mining and logging operations on land where they have laid claim. The prime example of the negotiation strategy is the treaty development process underway in BC. Only half of the First Nations have agreed to enter this process, which was initiated by the province’s NDP government in the early 1990s. After all this time, and millions spent on consultants, negotiators and lawyers, no new treaties are in place. Those that have come close, like the Sechelt and Nuu-chah-nulth, have been rejected at the grass roots community level. Some of the nations not involved in the treaty process refuse to participate because they see the process as simply another form of assimilation. This leaves the third option of assertion or affirmation, or what some refer to as "direct action". These are the actions either of taking power (e.g. Burnt Church and Gustafsen Lake) or blockading others from using First Nations resources (e.g. Oka and Ipperwash).
From the front lines in Oka, to Gustafsen Lake and Burnt Church, in the last ten years we are hearing more and more about First Nations in Canada asserting their rights to their lands and waters. At the same time, there is a growing anti-capitalist movement which, among other things, is fighting for human rights around the world. A question raised is, where does a socialist strategy for change fit with the aspirations of aboriginal people? How does the anti-capitalist movement provide a nexus for both revolutionary socialists and the new wave of militants in aboriginal peoples’ movements?
What do Marxists say about Oppressed Nations?
About a hundred years ago, on the other side of the world, socialists were trying to come to grips with colonial oppression not dissimilar to the experience of aboriginal peoples in North America today. The question posed for the revolutionary Marxists in Russia in the early 1900s, was how do Marxists understand national oppression, and the politics of national minority resistance. For the Bolsheviks, the mass revolutionary party that led the Russian working class to power, the debates around the national question were not abstract. In Tsarist Russia, 57 percent of the population belonged to national minorities, either in its European or Asian sections.
Marxist politics and nationalist politics are built on very different traditions. For Marxists, class differences are of primary importance, whereas national divisions impact directly on the class struggle. It was V. I. Lenin, a leader of the Bolshevik party, who went the furthest in developing a Marxist analysis of the national question. For him, nationalism in an oppressor nation played a role quite different than nationalism in an oppressed nation.
In the oppressed nations, or among people who comprised oppressed minorities within advanced nations (as would be the case with First Nations in Canada), nationalist consciousness is a part of a challenge to the oppressor state. Capitalism, especially advanced capitalism or imperialism, relies on nationalism as one more way to divide workers. So the ruling class tries to draw workers in the advanced countries to identify with the nationalistic ideology of their ruling classes. The flip side of this is that those in the oppressed countries are drawn into common cause with the aspiring ruling classes of those countries.
The key task for socialists is to break down these divisions of the working class in order to form a united struggle from below against all oppression and exploitation, and to break these false nationalist alliances. To do so, Lenin argued that it was critical for socialists to support unconditionally the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, up to and including the right to secession. In his 1914 essay, entitled "The Right of Nations to Self-Determination", Lenin asked:

Can a nation be free if it oppresses other nations? It cannot. ... Insofar as the bourgeoisie (or ruling class) of the oppressed nation fights the oppressor, we are always, in every case, and more strongly than anyone else, in favour of the oppressed and the staunchest and most consistent enemies of oppression.7

Lenin saw the struggle for self-determination of an oppressed nation not as an end in itself, but as a means to create bonds of unity among workers divided by nationalism and imperialism. In the oppressor nations, the thrust of the political arguments of socialists had to be against national chauvinism, and in defense of the rights of oppressed people. In the oppressed nations, the thrust of the political arguments was not only against imperialism, but also against a narrow nationalist agenda to build independent capitalist states, ones in which workers would continue to be exploited.
Lenin warned against romanticizing the middle class leadership of nationalist movements in oppressed nations, cautioning not to "paint them with communist colours." The reason why Marxists support the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, Lenin argued, was not to encourage fragmentation of the struggle among a working class already divided, but as a means to achieve genuine international solidarity in a united and common struggle against capitalism. Lenin made it clear that the right of national self-determination was part and parcel of a democratic program, and that there could be no socialism without democracy. In his 1916 essay "The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up", he wrote that:

In the internationalist education of the workers of the oppressor countries, emphasis must necessarily be laid on their advocating freedom for the oppressed countries to secede and their fighting for it. Without this there can be no internationalism.8

Marxism and Anti-Racism
Aboriginal people are confronted by oppression on two levels, first on the level of national oppression, and second, and relatedly, in the form of racial discrimination. But what is the cause of racism in general? It exists as an ideology and discriminatory practices used by the ruling class to divide us from one another. In its modern form, it was first used by British slave traders and the burgeoning capitalist class of the day to justify the cross-Atlantic slave trade from the 1600s into the eighteenth century, and then until the nineteenth century in the US. The ideology has continued to be used long after the end of the slave trade. It was employed by the capitalist class in the imperialism of the nineteenth century to justify the subjugation and slaughter of the people of an entire continent of Africa, as well as India and throughout Asia. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, racism has been at the basis of restrictive immigration policies, so that while money can cross borders at the push of a button, some people can only cross borders in a container or inside a truck, and then if they survive, be sent back to their country of origin for trying to "take advantage" of "lax" rules.
The ruling class uses many tools to keep workers divided. Besides racism, it relies on sexism, homophobia and, not least, nationalism, particularly to justify all out war. Marxists recognize racism for the tool of the ruling class that it is, but we argue that as socialists, we must be in the front lines of fighting racism. British socialist Tony Cliff, succinctly addresses this issue:

How does the oppression affect the conditions of workers who belong to the oppressed section? They get lower wages, their conditions at work are worse, they suffer from bad housing, and other social deprivations.... Their oppression sharpens their exploitation as workers. How does the oppression affect the workers who belong to the oppressing section? They believe they are superior to the "inferior" workers. But do they really benefit from this? Studies have shown that white workers in southern US make lower wages than whites in comparable jobs in the north. Similarly, Protestant workers in northern Ireland make more than Catholics, but less than comparable workers in Britain.9

Capitalism, Aboriginal Resistance and Socialist Revolution
As we have seen, both racism and the denial of Aboriginal rights to self-determination are rooted in the needs of the capitalist class. If the source of the problem is capitalism, then eliminating capitalism is a precondition for eliminating both racism and the denial of First Nations’ rights. While it is crucial to fight for gains for aboriginal peoples within the capitalist system, as long as capitalism exists, there will be a continual drive to subordinate land, resources, and human need to the drive for corporate profit. To actually get rid of capitalism itself, not just to reform it, or to replace a particular government leader or army commander, requires a complete shift in power to those who create the goods and services. This is the working class.
The working class is the main agent capable of challenging the capitalist class and establishing genuine democracy through collective organization from below. This is not because the working class is smarter or morally superior to any other group, such as students or the unemployed, but because of the relationship workers have to the sources of the capitalists’ power, the means to produce all the wealth in society. Sometimes, we only appreciate the awesome power of the working class in its "absence", i.e. in a strike situation.
A number of aboriginal Marxists have put forward this perspective. One of them was Howard Adams, a Métis activist and writer from Saskatchewan. He was a participant in what became known as the Red Power movement in North America in the 1960s and 1970s. In his books, Prison of Grass and A Tortured People: The Politics of Colonization, he attacks both capitalism and what he sees as co-opted aboriginal leaders with an almost equal vigour.10 He argues that self-determination:

can only come about if aboriginal people are provided with a solid economic base on which to build that self-government. The important question then becomes: is a capitalist government willing to hand over sufficient resources in Canada to give aboriginal people genuine self-government, i.e. real self-determination involving social justice and first class citizenship in Canada? The answer to this question can only be ‘no’. To allow for this would mean taking those resources out of the hands of the rich and powerful class of people in Canada – and it is these same people who run the government in Ottawa.

He goes on to argue that:

Unless there is broad support for progressive aboriginal policies by whites, no government will implement such policies. In order for Metis, Indian and Inuit organizations to win significant reforms, social and economic progress, they must build alliances with other, non-aboriginal groups fighting for similar goals.11

Adams urges aboriginal people to become much more politically active in broad based community education and grass roots activism. In Canada, a substantial number of aboriginal people are part of the working class. Aboriginal people entered the waged workforce over one hundred years ago. In BC, for example, Aboriginal people worked in the commercial fishing and lumber industries, in the sawmills, fish canneries and in railway construction. Accordingly, they were also members of early labour organizations. While unemployment levels on reserves are often 90 percent, most aboriginal people live off reserve. Even in urban settings, where unemployment rates for aboriginal people are higher than average, and employment is often in the lowest paying jobs, most are employed.
Non-aboriginal workers have a crucial role to play in building solidarity with aboriginal workers, employed and unemployed alike. Trade unions in Canada need to show solidarity with aboriginal struggles every time and as soon as they emerge. And non-aboriginal workers need to oppose the racist backlash and refuse to be complicit. This will support not only aboriginal people in the workforce, but also those aboriginal people who are not employed and whose power to take on the capitalist system is based in local community resistance. Solidarity must become our watchword.
Links with the Anti-capitalist Movement
Aboriginal peoples have been at the centre of the international anti-capitalist movement. The Zapatista uprising erupted in Mexico when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed into law in January, 1994. The struggle of the Chiapas indigenous people has been become a touchstone that has inspired resistance and solidarity within the movement. At a recent teach-in in BC against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the only speaker to get a standing ovation from the crowd was a representative of the Westcoast Warrior Society. Warrior Societies are being organized among young aboriginal militants across the country, committed to defending aboriginal territories, traditions and promoting cultural awareness.
There are further signs of growing solidarity. In BC, for example, loggers in the Queen Charlotte Islands have thrown their lot in with the Haida G’wai First Nation, rather than the multinational corporation Weyerhauser. They believe that the Haida G’wai are far more likely to be able to sustain jobs over the long term. This act of unity would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. Unions also spoke up against the BC referendum on treaties, and the Hospital Employees Union is now calling on its members to take part in civil disobedience to support the Skwelkwekwwelt Protection Centre, which is attempting to defend traditional lands taken over by Sun Peaks resort, an arm of the Delta Hotels chain.12
There are many possibilities for unity and solidarity that can challenge the racist attacks from the likes of the BC Liberal government, and virtually every other level of government across the county. These inspiring examples point to the way to organize to resist the backlash today, and at the same time build the basis for a new world of socialism in the future.
1 The term "aboriginal " will be used to include First Nations (on and off reserve), Metis and Inuit people. First Nations, the majority component of the aboriginal population, will usually serve as the term used in the context of land claims.
2 The exception is the Nisga’a treaty, in BC that allows for minimal self-government in return for extensive concessions of traditional land rights. The Nisga’a accord was negotiated under the former BC NDP government, and opposed by then opposition BC Liberals. Enter the backlash.
3 "BC Treaty Referendum", (April 25, 2002),
4 The statement came from BC Attorney General Geoff Plant. See David Charbonneau, "Eye View: Wacky Referendum Takes Province Through the Looking Glass", Kamloops Daily News, April 16, 2002. <>
5 The Liberals only want to use the "Sechelt model" because municipalities are creatures of provincial governments – and the Sechelt model has been turned down by virtually all other First Nations in B.C.
6 The text of the decision can be found at <>.
7 V. I. Lenin, "The Right of Nations to Self-Determination," in Selected Works, vol. 1 (Moscow: 1977), pp. 567-617
8 V. I. Lenin, "The Discussion of Self-Determination Summed Up", Collected Works, vol. 22 (Moscow: 1964), pp. 320-360
9 Tony Cliff, Marxism at the Millennium. (London: 2000)
10 Howard Adams, Prison of Grass (Toronto, 1975), and A Tortured People: The Politics of Colonization. (Toronto: 1999)
11 Adams, Tortured People, 1999
12 Throughout the next year, the Skwelkwekwwelt Protection Centre, Sun Peaks (near Kamloops), may require human rights observers to provide legal observation and documentation. An e-mail message has been sent by the BC Hospital Employees Union (July, 2002), calling for those who are interested in acting as human rights or legal observers to join an orientation program, sponsored by the Building Bridges Human Rights Project.

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