Blood & Oil: A Smattering of Canadiana

The camera pans over rows of plush chairs upholstered in a hideous green, creaking under the weight of indifference. A man, wearing a crisp suit, his long black hair swept back, stands and speaks an unwelcome truth into a space which is saturated in long years of deceit.

The speaker is Romeo Saganash, Member of Parliament for the riding of Abitibi–Baie-James–Nunavik–Eeyou and you can watch his speech here. In it, he called for an official inquiry into the hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of missing and murdered Aboriginal women of Canada. The proposed inquiry has been gaining support after the body of 15 year old Tina Fontaine was found dead in a garbage bag in the Red River in August, and volunteers, losing hope in the government’s willingness to do so, begin to drag the Red River themselves, looking for the bodies of other missing indigenous women.

Another clip from the House of Commons circulated on social media around the same time as Saganash’s speech. In this second clip, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is shown asking some pretty reasonable questions of Conservative MP Paul Calendra regarding Canada’s military mission in Iraq. Instead of responding to the questions (with information that I believe Canadians are entitled to know!), the Conservative MP launched into a completely unrelated attack on the NDP concerning the position of an affiliated fundraiser on the Israel-Palestine conflict, repeating the same irrelevant information over and over again, like an enraged parrot.

As if we needed any more proof that the Canadian government currently in power is utterly and completely out of touch with Canadians’ priorities, our dear leader Mr. Harper declined to attend the UN summit on climate change which took place a couple of weeks ago. Harper has made it audaciously clear that we apparently have neither the right to know the details of our military involvements in other countries, nor the right to any assurance from our leader that he recognizes the importance of what has been called by many the greatest challenge of our lifetimes (i.e. climate change). Nor do we apparently have the right to a say in how our natural resources are used, and whether or not we want pipelines spewing toxins into the water and land.

At first glance, these issues may seem disconnected. They are not. Building pipelines and developing the tar sands are a direct repudiation of the idea that we cannot continue to rely on fossil fuels and carry on with business as usual. To do so would be to commit a slow, toxic, collective suicide, and the evidence is clear that breaking our dependence on fossil fuels is essential if we want to counter and reverse (if possible) the effects of climate change. Indigenous peoples have been extensively involved in environmental activism, and respecting the Earth was a common theme in the Idle No More movement, which began in December 2012. Not only does our addiction to fossil fuel continue to destroy the planet, it also sets the stage for devastating military interventions, such as the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and for the greedy despoiling of land in blatant disrespect for indigenous people’s rights to it.  The depth of denial of the Conservative government is readily apparent in the actions of its leader: denying that we have a history of colonialism, claiming that the murder of so many indigenous women is a “crime problem” and not a “sociological” one, tweeting about the deliciousness of bacon while Chief Teresa Spence was on hunger strike outside the Parliament building protesting the stunningly economically depressed conditions of Attawapiskat, muzzling scientists working on the issue of climate change, and generally creating an environment where speaking out against such things is more and more saturated with a simmering fear of government crackdown.

These sorts of actions reinforce a creeping suspicion of mine that perhaps the answer to these questions will not come from coercing and needling our government into respect our long term interests through acting on climate change, breaking our dependence on fossil fuels, and forming respectful relationships with indigenous people whose territory we have colonized. I’m not convinced the current class of people from whom the ranks of politicians are drawn will ever be able to do so, given how intimately tangled up they are in the flows of the capitalist class’s ill-gotten wealth. In short, they have been bought. But I refuse to be bought, or paid off for my silence in this egregiously obvious manner by shaky promises that cannot be delivered: candied promises of jobs from poisonous pipelines in the depths of a recession will not sway my conviction that to force these projects to completion would be morally reprehensible on multiple levels.

Intimations of the determination needed to combat these sorts of actions float across my newsfeed daily. Recently, a group of indigenous nations located on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border signed an international treaty amongst themselves, vowing to protect the Salish Sea, and asserting their right and their perceived duty to do so. Notably, the Canadian government is not a signatory, because it does not recognize the sovereignty of indigenous nations. The fact that this treaty was signed, even though the Canadian government will not recognize it fills me with hope: although we may not see much of it in the mainstream media, indigenous sovereignty is real, and it is being practiced as we speak.

This kind of quiet “we’ll just have to do things our way” action calls to mind David Graeber’s book “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology”[1]. In it he discusses the idea that in the end, perhaps capitalism will not be dismantled in the roaring fires of revolution, but rather through quietly determined, collective non-cooperation, through the construction of alternative networks and circuits of economic exchange which reflect a different set of values than those endorsed by the current political hegemony and the wild west/neoliberal iteration of capitalism those in power so vociferously champion.

clearing the plainsWe, political subjects and ‘ordinary Canadians,’ know better than to believe that the Conservative government currently in power will ever treat any of these issues with the seriousness and respect they deserve. Despite Harper’s historical amnesia, we know about residential schools, policies of forced starvation[2], discrimination, mass murder, systemic sexual violence, and economic conditions that result in extreme poverty, suicide, and substance abuse for indigenous people.

What we don’t seem to know is our own power. What would happen if Settler Canadians collectively chose to recognize indigenous nations’ sovereignty despite our government’s colonial attitudes? In what position would the Canadian government find itself, if we-the-people decided to actually treat indigenous nations as de-facto sovereign nations? Would we ask permission to enter their territories, passports in hand? How would this look? How could this be practiced? Perhaps we could start by thinking of these pipeline projects in the same way that we think about the invasion and occupation of places like Iraq. There are some striking similarities, to be sure. Depending on how you look at it, our government is unilaterally entering another sovereign nation’s territories for the purposes of economic gain (specifically pertaining to oil), against the will of that nation’s peoples. Perhaps we should oppose the pipelines on this basis and start asking our government to reveal not only the exit date for our troops in Iraq, but also for the exit date of unwelcome government agents and their business sector cronies in indigenous territories.

[1] Graeber, David. 2004. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

[2] Daschuk, James. 2013. Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Indigenous Life. Regina: University of Regina Press.


Nelson Mandela and Political (Mis)Remembering

Terrorist. Freedom fighter. Subversive. Communist.

All of the above are words that have been used to describe Nelson Mandela, contrary to those being used by the mainstream media in the wake of his death in order to sanitize and subvert his legacy. He is now being hailed as an icon of peace, and elevated to saintly status with the likes of Gandhi and Mother Teresa (who are not exactly the kind of moral compasses we have been led to believe – Teresa was virulently anti-choice, and Gandhi’s exploitative sexual practices have recently come to light). I would like to argue that Mandela was not a peace icon, nor was he a saint – but that these are the very aspects of his legacy that have left such an impact on us, and that should give us hope for the future.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of the mainstream media’s discussion of Mandela is their smug, self-satisfied declarations that equality and democracy have arrived, that history is past and settled, that racial harmony is pervasive and the struggle is definitively over. All of this is a blatant lie.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this approach is apparent in American right-wing politicians clumsily stumbling over themselves in attempts to ‘pay homage’ to the legacy of Mandela. What they are really doing is desperately trying to obscure their own complicity and support of the former Apartheid government in South Africa. You can view a timeline of American right wing support for the Apartheid government and their accompanying demonization of Nelson Mandela here.

UK Conservative Students

A Poster from the UK’s Federation of Conservative Students (1980s)

But one aspect of the coverage which seems to be distributed across the ideological spectrum is this idea that Nelson Mandela was an icon of peace. In a time when class divisions and resentment over increasing joblessness and income inequality is growing, maintaining the idea that the only legitimate form of political change is peaceful is clearly only in the interest of the status quo. Nelson Mandela was a man who believed that violence had its time and place, that sometimes the system is entrenched in such a way that violence becomes necessary.

As one commentator predicts, “As with [Martin Luther] King, it is this subversive aspect of Mandela’s legacy that is most in danger of being erased as he enters America’s pantheon of sanitized moral icons.”

However, it is possible to resist this trend of sanitization and to remember history despite the mainstream media’s short memory and the status quo’s campaign to wipe it out.

As one blogger reminds us,

“Mandela founded and ran Umkhonto we Sizwe, the paramilitary wing of the ANC, which carried out armed resistance and a bombing campaign. The bombings mostly targeted high-profile pieces of property, but were nevertheless responsible for many civilian deaths. Umkhonto we Sizwe also executed collaborators…Botha would have freed Mandela in ‘85 if he’d agreed to renounce armed struggle; Mandela courageously refused. On his release in 1990, Mandela repeated:

“The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement will be created soon so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle.”

Instead of buying into the insidious repackaging and sanitizing of Mandela and his politics, let’s examine some of the issues he cared about, such as his belief that freedom from poverty is a fundamental human right. Because as much as we turn away and try not to see it, we face some of the same issues today, now, in our country. When the crisis in Attawapiskat came to light in 2011, images of people living in shacks, with no running water or electricity emerged. Many mainstream commentators were shocked, as they exclaimed “this is not what Canada looks like!” Unfortunately, extreme poverty is the reality for many Canadians, and indigenous people are disproportionately affected. We, as Canadians, must face our own history as well as the fact that we continue to live in a colonial state. It is not enough to praise leaders in faraway places for confronting these issues in other times, if we ourselves do not recognize our current complicity in the colonial structures that, for instance, continue to oppress indigenous people here in Canada.

Returning to the case of South Africa, the truth is that it is impossible to look at the poverty in South Africa today and say that the struggle is over. It is impossible to look at how entrenched the ruling political party, the ANC, is and view South Africa as an entirely healthy democracy. South Africans have dismantled Apartheid. But they have not yet dismantled the economic system which still places an incongruent amount of the nation’s wealth in the hands of so few (disproportionately white South Africans), while leaving so many out on the peripheries, struggling with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and suffering in poverty. The fact we all must face is that when we speak about poverty, what we are really talking about is income inequality and the greed of the ruling class. Poverty will not be alleviated until we have set up an economic system in which everyone shares in the wealth, and everyone has access to the resources a government can provide.

So instead of remembering Mandela as a peace icon and a saint, in a slick, repackaged image let’s remember him as the man who went to prison because he was charged with the intent to overthrow the government (and not only actually tried to, but had some measure of success). Let’s not forget him as the man who was branded a terrorist by the United States government up until 2008. It is those fearless confrontations with entrenched imperialist powers that really make him great.

As one commentator beautifully put it,

“Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X…You will make out that apartheid was just some sort of evil mystical space disease that suddenly fell from the heavens and settled on all of us, had us all, black or white, in its thrall, until Mandela appeared from the ether to redeem us…You will try to make out that apartheid was some horrid spontaneous historical aberration, and not the logical culmination of centuries of imperial arrogance. Yes, you will try that too. You will imply or audaciously state that its evils ended the day Mandela stepped out of jail…

Well, try hard as you like, and you’ll fail. Because Mandela was about politics and he was about race and he was about freedom and he was even about force, and he did what he felt he had to do and given the current economic inequality in South Africa he might even have died thinking he didn’t do nearly enough of it.”

With that in mind, we should celebrate the aspects of Mandela’s life that brought these issues to the fore and refuse to sanitize his beliefs and his values. We should also refuse to forget all the messy complications, and competing forces in history (including the sordid past of his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, infighting between different political parties in the fight against apartheid, and the ANC’s collaboration with organizations such as the IMF and World Bank along with the damaging consequences of these collaborations for many South Africans). We should refuse to allow mainstream media sources to colonize his radicalism. Let’s take him at his word, because I believe that that is exactly what he would have wanted. Let’s apply the lessons he has to offer us to our own country and the injustices that are apparent all around us.

The struggle is far from over. We still have a great deal of work to do.