Land Back: Reclaiming Indigenous Jurisdiction

Canada is fake, but it continues to dispossesses Indigenous peoples from the land— and communities are, in turn, organizing to to get it back. Shiri Pasternak, co-author of the Yellowhead Institute’s Land Back Red Paper, joins Team Advantage to discuss the project of reclaiming indigenous jurisdiction. What does “consent” look like if you can’t say no? What interests is Canada’s legal system designed to defend when questions of jurisdiction arise?

Read about Land Back here: redpaper.yellowheadinstitute.org and follow Shiri on Twitter @shiripasternak.

Read “Canada Is Fake” at theoutline.com/post/8686/canada-is-fake

Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. I am your host, Kate Jacobson, and joining  Team Advantage today is Shiri Pasternak, co-author with Hayden King of “Land Back: A Yellowhead Institute Red Paper,” which was released in October of 2019. Shiri, thank you for joining us on The Alberta Advantage.

Shiri: Thanks so much for having me.

Kate: So, the Land Back report was inspired by a report known as the Red Paper, or Citizens Plus, written by First Nations leaders in Alberta in 1970. Before getting into the contents of your own report, could you tell us a bit about what the 1970 Red Paper was about, why it came to be, what it was authored in response to, and what it contained?

Shiri: Absolutely. The Red Paper was a response to the White Paper, which was a policy paper put out by the federal government on Indian policy. All those policy papers were called white papers, but it took on a particular meaning when the paper focused on — as a solution to the so-called “Indian problem in Canada” — the elimination, essentially, of all essential rights and recognition for Indigenous treaty and the special relationship between Indigenous people and the Crown as a result of colonization. And so the White Paper came to mean an assimilationist policy, a paper that proposed that all reserves were gradually phased out or became municipalities, that treaties cease to be the basis of recognition or difference between Canadians and Indigenous people, and a series of other policies that would essentially eliminate any differences between Indigenous people and Canadians. And it was based on this liberal understanding of equality being the most essential value of our society. And so the response was pretty swift and outraged by Indigenous people, partly because the White Paper was the result of months of consultation between the minister of Indian Affairs at the time and Indigenous communities across Canada where, you know, the Liberal government  — this was under Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s government — was promising to really spearhead a meaningful change in the relationship, and to deal with what was clearly, evidently, massive inequalities and all the outstanding issues arising from land dispossession and oppression and the residential schools and so on. And communities really felt like they were being listened to, and that there was going to be a real change in society, and instead they got this White Paper. And so when it came out, you know, a lot of Indian associations — as they were called at the time — across Canada wrote response papers, but the Red Paper by Harold Cardinal really encapsulated a lot of that outrage and a lot of the demands that Indigenous people had to be recognized precisely in their differences, not only in their status as landholders and original landholders across the country, but also in a future-looking relationship between Canadians and Indigenous people that would be different, that would restore land, that would meaningfully respect treaty relationships, that would provide some means of reparations for what had been taken, and so on. And instead it was the absolute opposite. So this Red Paper report — we’d always had an idea that we wanted to write at least one powerful response to ongoing colonization in Canada in the form of an annual report, and so Land Back is the first of what will be a series of Red Papers that we publish every year to deal with major critical issues and ideas coming out of Indigenous ideas of jurisdiction and governance against the colonization of the Canadian state.

Kate: Mhm. So, 2015 saw the election of Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s son Justin Trudeau, and, with it, also a big push to promote a certain kind of reconciliation. The word “decolonization” was even thrown around. But many people have pointed out some major flaws in this approach, mostly being that those conversations focused on the past, rather than on anything that is ongoing or contemporary, and intended to exclude any mention of things like land, or resources, power, and — specifically —  restoring any of that which had been stolen from Indigenous people. Could you tell us a bit about how this Land Back report serves as kind of a response to the reconciliation industry that is promoted by the Trudeau Liberals?

Shiri: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a really good question. And it sort of speaks back to the first major report that the Yellowhead Institute put out when we launched; we actually launched with a critique of the Liberal Government’s “Rights and Recognition” framework. And that overview of the record of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals on Indigenous rights really goes to the heart of your question, which is: behind all of the rhetoric around the new relationship that will be nation-to-nation between the Crown and Indigenous people, what has really changed? And there has been, in fact, a landslide of changes. There’s been more legislation introduced by Justin Trudeau’s government on Indigenous people than in the last 150 years of the country. But what is the nature of that change, exactly? Is it, as you ask, a change in the status of land for Indigenous people in Canada? Is there restoration of the original and ongoing crime of dispossession and land theft? Or is it, you know, more of the same? And what we found is that it’s actually a landslide of change towards what we think is an acceleration of business as usual; colonization under a kind of proliferation of so-called off-ramps from the Indian Act into legislation that encourages a delegation of Indigenous jurisdiction to the provinces — so an offloading of federal responsibility, rather than a kind of recognition of Indigenous jurisdiction unto the provinces, and no radical revisions to the self-government and land claim policies but rather, again, a proliferation of smaller policies that are meant to expedite the process but really just break things down from territorial claims to nations’ traditional territory to, sort of, one-off sectoral agreements around one resource or one area of land, and so on. So, really, behind the discourses of reconciliation are a real image, I think, of what would smooth the path of development for business as usual in Canada, which is more participatory framework for Indigenous people to participate in resource extraction on their lands and to basically remodel their governments along more municipal lines.

Kate: So, speaking of business as usual: colonialism. How is Indigenous consent generated — or extracted, even — when it comes to land and water use in Canada? What range of responses did your report find?

Shiri: The authorization of consent for Indigenous people to resource extraction is very dense and complicated terrain, unfortunately. And so what we looked at were changes over the last 20 or 30 years that looked like there was an increasing attempt to gain consent from Indigenous people before development or extraction takes place on Indigenous lands. And part of this is motivated by legal and constitutional changes in Canada. In 1982, when the Constitution was patriated, Section 35 recognized and affirmed Aboriginal and treaty rights, and there was an expectation that this would lead to major changes in the way that decisions were made, and particularly when they affected Indigenous peoples’ land. And so one way of authorizing consent is through a legal precedent called the “duty to consult and accommodate” that comes out of the Haida decision in 2004 and a series of other decisions as well. And the problem is: consultation has become one of the main frameworks for authorizing so-called consent on Indigenous lands, but — under that legal precedent — consent actually is not directly connected to consultation. So wherever Aboriginal rights could potentially be violated by development or extraction, now Indigenous people must be consulted. But there’s no correlation between that consultation and the ability for Indigenous people to say “no” once consulted. And so it leaves this sort of open-ended process that, as Arthur Manuel used to say, “Where process becomes its own reward,” and there’s no outcome where Indigenous people can actually voice opposition in any decisive way. And so we look at the kind of regimes of consultation that have emerged, that sort of flow in a number of directions, one of which is through environmental regulation processes, where Indigenous people are consulted through, for example, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act — now called the Impact Assessment Act — and also through private commercial contracts; for example, through impact and benefit agreements with companies where that consultation, again, sort of raises questions about whether or not it’s actually consent that Indigenous people are giving to these projects when they’re negotiated in confidential, commercial contracts rather than being able to bring to bear the whole jurisprudence on Aboriginal rights into the conversation.

Kate: Mhm. One of the basic maxims I learned as a young feminist was “Consent isn’t meaningful unless you have the actual ability to say ‘no.’” I think that’s something very simple that also applies in this case as well.

Shiri: Definitely. My friend Eugene Kung — a lawyer for the Tsleil-Waututh — talks about all of the distress around the veto, the concept of the veto, whether Indigenous people should have the veto. So Canada and some provinces, like British Columbia, are ready to say that they’re adopting the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which contains the principle of free prior and informed consent. But governments are very, very, very reluctant to say that that gives Indigenous people a veto. So they do these, kind of, mental gymnastics around how you can have consent but not a veto, and Eugene says that if you’re fooling around with someone and they want to have sex, and you say no, you don’t say, “Well, you don’t have a veto over this.” You can’t jump discourses from consent to veto where, in one case, it’s clear that consent means that someone has the right to say no, whereas in another case, if, when you call it a veto, it suddenly becomes terrifying to actually conceive —

Kate: And I think there’s been some interesting research around the word “veto” specifically, where if you poll settler Canadians about whether Indigenous people should have a veto, you get, oh, people don’t really like that word. But if you poll people around, “Should indigenous people have the final say in projects that happen in their territory?” people say, “Oh yeah, that sounds right.” So governments and the media have kind of manufactured this word “veto” as this scary, illegitimate right that Indigenous people possess.

Shiri: Yeah, that’s interesting.

Kate: I was wondering if you could talk a bit about what a more restorative approach to consent for land and water use between Indigenous people and Canada would look like?

Shiri: That’s a great question. In the final section of the report, the reclamation section, we look at a number of different ways that Indengous people are exercising their jurisdiction on the land. So the answer to that question is as different as the multiplicity of legal and political orders that exist across the country in Indigenous communities. And that consent looks different depending on, you know, the particular practices in those communities for gaining internal consensus, but also relationships to non-humans, relations on the territory with whom people are in relation and subject to their consent to some extent as well. And so, for example, tiny house warriors that we profile in the reclamation section are asserting their jurisdiction through the construction of tiny houses along the proposed pipeline route for the Trans-Mountain Pipeline. And their assertions of jurisdiction look like Secwepemc law, but also very, very deep beliefs, about Aboriginal rights in Canada being economic rights for Indigenous people as well, that come from the Manuel family’sown genealogy and political philosophy around Indigenous resistance. Other communities, this looks very different. So we also looked at the Labrador Land Protectors on the East Coast that were fighting, and continue to fight, the Muskrat Falls dam. And that was a much broader coalition of Innu, Inuit, and non-Indigenous people that came together in a coalition in order to protect waters that meant something very different to different people within the coalition, but came as a result of a concern for the water that was deeper for the kinds of claims being made by the province for the need to generate electricity for export, or even, you know, the massive subsidies that backstop that kind of construction against the will of the people.

Kate: Mhm. So what did the Land Back Report find are the major ways in which Canada’s governments deny and ignore Indigenous consent, particularly with regards to extraction and development?

Shiri: So we looked at a number of different ways that the Canadian government denies Indigenous consent, and we really take it back all the way to the doctrines of discovery in order to ground our analysis of why Canada thinks that, actually, it has the right to authorize extraction and development on Indigenous land, and look at the fiction of Crown land as being the foundation for those claims. So, you know, this great quote by Lee Miracle that she once said when I went to a talk has always stuck with me, which is: “Why does a hat need so much land?” If you look at the percentages of land distribution in the country, then you find 96%, I believe, of all land in Canada is Crown land. Most of it is provincial. In some provinces, like BC, you have, like, 98% of the land claimed by the province, for example. And in the northern territories, the percentage is flipped towards federal Crown holdings. But that is the beginning of the denial of Indigenous consent, which is the Crown’s claim to underlying title over all land in Canada, which dates back to British law and the laws of tenure there that were patriated here with colonizers who carried that law in their little hearts through the doctrine of reception and came to apply to our own government. But that is the beginning of a deep, deep deception about who the landholders are in this country. And we trace that, you know, through its various manifestations in how extraction is authorized. And then we look, also, at different tools that the government uses in order to reinforce these doctrines of discovery. So, for example, we led the biggest study of injunctions in the country in the context of First Nations and extraction. We looked at over a hundred cases of injunctions filed by and against First Nations in the case of — well, we just looked at all injunctions, and we found that 99% of them had to do with extraction and development. And we found that, when companies file for an injunction against First Nations, they succeed at a rate of 86%, whereas when First Nations file injunctions to remove either provinces or corporations from their land, they lose at rates of 81 to 82%. So there are some broad tools of dispossession, or some, let’s say, more distinguished tools of dispossession through the Supreme Court of Canada, for example, through the “duty to consult” jurisprudence, but then there’s just some brutal, crude legal tools, like the injunction, that companies use to remove Indigenous peoples from their lands on very insubstantial tests that actually don’t even allow for judges to bring in the case law on Aboriginal Rights and Title, which we saw, you know, in a spectacular way unfold on Wet’suwet’en territory this year when Coastal Gas Link successfully got an injunction against the Wet’suwet’en, who won a landmark case in 1997 in Delgamook that actually recognized the fact that they have never ceded their title to the Crown, and they were still removed by this company based on this flimsy test precedent of balance of convenience and the other tests for injunctions. So there’s a number of different ways that Indigenous consent is denied in Canada, and we try to do a survey of some of the main ones that we see in operation.

Kate: So, one of my favourite things to say here on the podcast is that Canada is fake, but the consequences are very real. And it’s a very glib way, for sure, of saying something that I think is true, which is that this is a country that was founded on ideas — like the doctrine of discovery — that many people, when you explain it to them, recognize as illegitimate, which is settlers showing up to places where other people already lived and had entire societies and nations and saying, like, “Oh, we’ve discovered all of this, and this is ours,” which is not a legitimate basis for any nation or country, but that the consequences of it are incredibly, incredibly real for Indigenous people. And you mentioned what happened in Wet’suwet’en territory earlier this year, but I’m also thinking about things like how colonization includes a gender regime that targets and disempowers women, transgender, queer, two-spirited people, and impacts decision-making authority around land and water and Indigenous communities, and the cumulative impact of extraction and removal from land, and things like that. So the consequences of this indisputably illegitimate idea of Canada are very, very real, and they are around us, and they are ongoing; it’s not something that just happened in the past, it’s an ongoing relation.

Shiri: Yeah. There was a great article that came out — I just looked it up  — by Alex Green that was called “Canada Is Fake.” And the best line in it is that Canada is just three mining companies in a trench coat.

Kate:

Which I think is true, you know? Like, what we think of as Canada is very, very much just a front for companies to do resource extraction. And that is mining companies, oil and gas, all those sorts of things.

Shiri: Yeah, that’s really the legacy of the country — and, more importantly, the political economy of the country, you know? So much of each dollar in Canada that is generated is through either, directly, extraction or through a proliferation of subsidiary industries that depend on extraction in order for themselves to be profitable.

Kate: Absolutely.

Shiri: And that obviously has massive correlations with dispossession; not only because all of this land is indigenous land, but also, there’s a particular to  reserve settlement in Canada as well, where you have most of the Canadian population concentrated on the Southern border, but Indigenous people live in every single region across the country, and therefore their proximity to loggin, mining, oil and gas infrastructures, hydroelectricity, and so on just put them on the front lines of all of these major extractive projects, and really in the line of fire when people are pushing, as they are more and more today, for just transition to a different kind of economy, a more sustainable economy.

Kate: The state and industry have adopted some measures to respond to Indigenous demands regarding the protection of land and of water, and I’m wondering — what do these kind of concessions, if we can even really call them that, look like, and whether they’re useful as a long-term strategy for addressing Indigenous demands regarding land and water? And I guess the bigger question here is: does the economic order that we live under — capitalism — coexist with meaningfully addressing any of these Indigenous demands regarding land and water and meaningfully coexist with decolonization in a real sense?

Shiri: Yeah. So, some of the forms of recognition, I guess, that you’re asking about, that claim to go towards recognizing Indigenous jurisdiction, I think — first of all, just to speak to that, I would say it’s important to take a moment to really understand that colonization and capitalism have been radically shaped by Indigenous resistance. And I think a lot of those forms of recognition today really come out of enormous successes that Indigenous people have had in pushing the envelope. So I want to be careful not to make it seem like I’m saying, you know, all of the sort of strategies by states and corporations are just these duplicitous tactics being foisted on a population. It’s really nothing like that. It’s like, if you look at — even the duty to consult, or the patriation of Aboriginal rights and to the Constitution, or the fact that companies now are coming to First Nations to gain their consent in order to get their shovels into the ground, all of that is a kind of — you can cynically look at it — I don’t know, cynically, maybe realistically — in terms of how capitalism works, understand it as risk mitigation in order to, first of all, be compliant, legally, with new precedents around the need to consult with Indigenous people and recognize their land rights and their treaty rights, but also to minimize any future harm to profits by virtue of ignoring those legal precedents, ignoring Indigenous rights, and then having to pay later when there are blockades. So I think, you know, understanding the kinds of forms of recognition isn’t just about thinking about the state as trying to manipulate Indigenous people; they’re trying to grapple with very real problems of an expanding framework of Indigenous rights, a growing Indigenous rights movement that has increasingly found meaningful solidarity with other movements like environmental movements and even religious movements, and regular Canadians who are tired of seeing the blatant discrimination against Indigenous people. The state and companies need to really calculate and factor in these kinds of things when they devise policies to recognize Indigenous rights. But I guess you’re asking to what extent can those forms of recognition really change the relationship.

Kate: I think I would understand those forms of recognition — which have been, as you really wonderfully pointed out, been, for the most part, through Indigenous resistance to previous practices that were, perhaps, more harmful — as a kind of reform that exists in this relationship. And I think of it as similar, although not completely analogous, to any reform that has been won by other movements; whether you’re looking at womens’ movements or movements for migrants justice or trade unions right, any kind of rights enjoyed by those groups were the result of struggle, not the result of benevolent government or group in power bequeathing it onto those people. But what I was thinking about when I was reading this section was the extent to which this recognition framework — which is very much a framework that exists under capitalism, you talk in the report about pawning off bad projects on Native people — is a barrier to a true form of justice, or what decolonization would look like, or what going beyond that reclamation framework looks like, to the reclamation you talked about earlier in this interview. And I was just thinking about: can the settler-colonial state we live under, can the capitalist order we live under, exist with what would be a truly meaningful form of decolonization and not just lip service? Which I know is a big question. [laughs]

Shiri: But it is the question — I mean, I think we raise it repeatedly around how congruent Indigenous law is with capitalism. You know, there are differences within our institute about where to come down on this question, I think; you know, it’s important, also, to realize that Indigenous self-determination can mean participation in the market economy and in resource extraction. As it always has. I mean, Indigenous people have been incredibly adaptive, economically, to the wage labour economy in order to get important cash into their economies in order, often, to actually support going out on the land and getting Ski-Doos and having access to their territories and so on, but also just because we live in a society that demands certain kinds of participation in the market economy. So we’re careful not to say “This is an anti-capitalist position on what Indigenous governance and jurisdiction must look like,” but certainly the people that I work most closely with are, you know, quite anti-capitalist — not necessarily in the sense of being Marxist and having critiques of a kind of wage labour economy, but more in the sense of being extremely critical of the kinds of ecological externalization necessary in order to support a capitalist economy, the values that engender class stratification which are totally foreign and deeply disrespectful from an Indigenous perspective of how people are treated (particularly elders and children), the assertion of Indigenous law, certainly by a lot of the communities that I work with against resource extraction, are really based, fundamentally, in a different epistemological worldview about human beings and our role on Earth, which is very diametrically opposed to a kind of human-centered economic organization of society, and so on. And so I see a lot of Indigenous people really being at the forefront — not really, I guess, being at the forefront of an anti-capitalist, or a new, society, but really sort of living through the organization of their own societies already, always modeling a different way of being that has persisted in parallel to settler economy and settler political systems that are deeply inspiring and that, I think, show incredible leadership at this moment in terms of how things could be done differently.

Kate: Mhm. So we talked a little bit about this earlier in the interview, but what measures have been adopted by First Nations communities to assert and reclaim their jurisdiction beyond the reserve boundaries that were set up by the state?

Shiri: There’s as many different models as there are communities, so we look at everything from Nishkandaga’s development protocol, where they devise four pages of questions to ask companies if they want to do work on their territory that look at everything from impact on their lands to the benefits for the people and the scale and the scope of the project and its timelines and so on — really a form of leadership that is about driving and directing anything that happens on their territories, grounded in their own concerns about what is desirable for them — to seeing communities like the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, who I’ve worked with for a very long time, who came up with an entire land management plan for ten thousand square kilometers of their territory where they would lead all of the decisions around resource use based on their own Indigenous knowledge, to the Tsilhqot’in’s mushroom permitting where they found a way to generate revenues for their own community through regulating mushroom-picking on their territories and doing it in a way that’s sustainable based on their understanding of best yields. We look at, you know, the use of land use and occupancy mapping — so GIS mapping — that brings to bear the Indigenous use of the land, everything from moose hunting yards to fish spawning areas to cemeteries and sacred areas and so on, and maps that into a plan that allows them also to direct best use of their territories and assert their jurisdiction accordingly rather than dealing with what is commonly the case across the country, which is that resource companies send a letter to the band council and the band council has thirty days to respond. And sometimes they can get dozens and dozens of letters a month and have absolutely no capacity to be able to do any kind of meaningful assessment given the lack of resources and timelines, so, instead, communities are thinking proactively about how to develop these comprehensive plans so that, when a letter comes, they just correlate it with their ideas about what should be happening on that territory, and how, and can respond accordingly. But those are very capital-intensive processes, in terms of getting land use and 0occupancy maps. And a lot of communities can’t afford them. But those that can have found them very effective. But they’re still fighting the same dirty fight with corporations — even with those incredible maps — because the incentives are so strong for companies and provincial authorization is relatively easy to get, despite these incredible land planning strategies. So, yeah, the answers are as diverse as the communities themselves.

Kate: Yeah, and I think that’s something you’ve mentioned a couple of times in this interview, but I want to really acknowledge and re-affirm that, is that, so often, because we use the word “Indigenous,” it can have a tendency of thinking of Indigenous people as belonging to a homogenous group that has, you know, Indigeouns practices, and not of belonging to nations that have their own practices, epistemological ways of seeing the world, systems of law and of relating with one another, with non-human forms of life, with land. I think it’s very, very important to not kind of put everyone into one group that says “Indigenous” on it.

Shiri: Yeah, especially — Land Back, it’s not really even Indigenous-focused. It’s much more First Nations focused; that’s the focus of the Yellowhead Institute more generally, basically because of the people who make up the institute, not out of a lack of desire. Hopefully, at some point, we will have more Métis and Inuit representation in the Institute.

Kate: Mhm. So, for our listeners who are concerned about the damage that settler colonialism and capitalism continue to do, why is the issue of Indigenous jurisdiction so important, for both Indigenous people as well as the human species more generally?

Shiri: I mean, I think, for me, jurisdiction is the terrain on which these struggles take place, and, to me, jurisdiction is about the authority to speak the law, the right to speak the law, the right to carry the law in a particular place. And so, you know, looking at all of these examples that I’ve talked about, and dozens and dozens more that we could discuss, really what we’re talking about is what kinds of knowledge, what kinds of relationships, govern what humans do in particular places. And I think the reason why it’s so important to think about Indigenous jurisdiction is to think about, you know, people who have lived in their territories — or have migrated to their territories and lived there — for thousands and thousands and thousands of years, who have the stories of those places, whose stories of those places connect certain families to those stories, whose leadership is connected to the stewardship of those places. All of these forms of belonging that are so deeply rooted in respect and understanding and reciprocity are really the most intelligent way of determining governance over places that I can imagine. You know, imperialists coming over from other countries with their own understandings of property and fee simple estates and registration that have nothing to do with the ecologies of this place really shouldn’t have the right to govern. They do not understand — they are not laws for political systems that have been crafted in ways that respond to the actual relationships and animals and waterways and wind systems and seasons that are inherent and indigenous to this place. So I really think that, you know, from my perspective, we need to connect the ideas of authority to jurisdiction in ways that respect the place that we are, and the best relationships that we want to protect, and the place that we are. And so that’s why I think coming at all of these questions about, you know, climate right now, and resource extraction, and the ecological crises, should really be grounded in Indigenous jurisdiction, people who actually have the knowledge and the understanding to be able to govern this place accordingly.

Kate: Beautifully said. Pivoting a little bit to talk about what is happening in contemporary Canada at this moment with the COVID-19 pandemic and the impacts that can have on Indigenous peoples currently living in Canada; given the likely higher risk level that is faced by Indigenous communities, do you have a sense of the kind of support, or lack thereof, that the Canadian state is providing?

Shiri: Yes, I do. [laughs] I just spent the last two days poring over all of the funding commitments that the federal government has made and trying to get someone from indigenous Services Canada to answer my questions about how the money is being allocated and so on. So I do have a good sense, and deep, deep concern — really deep concern — about what is going to happen. You know, you have to start by thinking about what are the preconditions of the circulation of this virus which is highly, highly infectious and requires, as we know now, these lockdowns of entire countries, to shelter in place — which is impossible for Indigenous people living on reserves where you have this housing crisis —  which is a crisis, but it’s hard to call it an emergency when it’s been the status quo for so long — where you have people living three families, twelve to fifteen people can be in a three-bedroom house, and it’s impossible to shelter in place. If you look at the infrastructure deficits that have been calculated, there are anywhere between nine to twenty to thirty billion dollars that experts have said would be needed to backstop the lack of housing, health services, community infrastructure, roads, et cetera, that First Nations need to have the same kind of access to resources and to services that the rest of Canadians have. So you’re going into a pandemic with an already very vulnerable population — in terms of infrastructure, but also in terms of health outcomes because of lack of access to health services, but also all kinds of complications that arise from, you know, compounding housing shortages, but also a lack of clean water, and so on. And so it’s just terrifying to think about remote communities right now. Like, Eabametoong just has a case reported in Northern Ontario, and Eabametoong, Neskantaga, thinks they might have a case. These are communities that are fly-in communities — at the best of times, they have winter roads that vary in terms of how long they last and, depending on how mild or cold the winters are, in terms of getting supplies and getting people in and out of those communities. And so the federal government has committed a $305,000,000 Indigenous community fund — so about $215,000,000 of that would go to First Nations. If you calculate that per person, compared to the $2000 a month that Canadians have been promised who need economic supports, I believe it’s probably pennies to the dollar of what First Nations are getting. It’s just more inequities and inequalities that are compounding the already-massive structural discrepancies between First Nations communities and the rest of Canada. And there’s already fifteen communities reporting cases, and I just hope to God — I don’t even believe in God, I’m just really terrified watching what might unfold and trying to really find some — not solace, but trying to really learn from some of the Indigenous people that I’ve been in conversation with, like Isaac Murdoch, about having hope in these times, of what Indigenous people have survived before in terms of pandemics, and not to succumb to grief, but to pull together at this time and go into the bush and take care of families and just focus on practicing the same level of care and love that has gotten Indigenous people through all forms of crisis in the past, including a number of just devastating pandemics.

Kate: Mhm. So, somewhat strangely, while most of the Canadian population was under orders to shelter in place due to COVID-19, the oil sands work camps in Alberta were deemed an essential service; and, similarly in British Columbia, Coastal Gas Link, LNG Canada, Trans-Mountain, and Site C are also currently continuing. When I first heard about these, my first instinct was to say, like, violating Indigenous sovereignty is not an essential service, or Indigenous dispossession is not an essential service. But then I took a second and I thought about it a bit further, and I was thinking — the way Canada is currently set up, doing those things that I mentioned almost is an essential service in that it is an essential function of this country as it is currently organized. And I was wondering, kind of, what your reaction was to the knowledge that these oil sands work camps and Site C and Coastal Gas Link, these projects are continuing, even in the midst of a pandemic, and what this tells us, if anything, about the nature of these projects.

Shiri: I think the best meme that I’ve seen on it, to build on your point, is from a meme account called Skodenne that says “Genocide is an essential service.” You know, and it’s the meme, I think, of one of the housewives of LA, teary-eyed, defending herself. [laughs] Which seems sort of appropriate, too, given the absolutely disgusting entitlement you have to think that now is a good time to endanger communities, even more who are extremely vulnerable, not just to the ecological devastation of extraction, but to the particularly gendered impacts that man camps have — these temporary work camps to house temporary workers who come to build these massive infrastructure projects on Indigenous women girls, trans, non-binary and two-spirit people. Many reports have shown this: reports from Amnesty International as well as a number of other organizations who show disproportionately higher rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls when there are man camps nearby. So you already have these extreme vulnerabilities — ecologically, from a gender perspective — and now you have this virus as well, that not only will endanger local populations, but could also overload local hospitals so that, if Indigenous people are infected, it could be actually fatal in ways that are even more extreme than if people had just carried them into their communities on their own, because those work camps have thousands of workers in them. And so Site C, for example, in BC, is saying, “Oh, we’re scaling back.” So they’ve cut a 1700-person workforce to just under a thousand. That’s still a thousand people living in close quarters. Ten people are in self-isolation now because of a suspected case. They’re saying that that case hasn’t been confirmed. I don’t think there’s any reason that we shouldn’t take at their word that there are no confirmed COVID-19 cases; I mean, I’m certain that they don’t want to alarm people, but even the BC trades association is calling for construction sites to be shut down. This seems like it’s a no-brainer for most people; the union of BC Indian Chiefs has called for the shutdown of these camps, there have been petitions that have been circulating for the shutdown of these camps. You know — some Indigenous people believe that the camps aren’t being shut down, not just because of a blatant disregard for Indigenous health, but because a lot of communities that would be on the front lines, resisting these construction companies from pursuing operations, are demobilized now, on lockdown, and so companies can really take advantage of this opportunity to push forward without resistance. And, you know, I don’t know if that’s true or not in terms of what conversations are being had, but certainly in terms of practice it is very convenient for companies like Trans-Mountain — which, the company is Canada — and Coastal Gas Link — of whom the owner is TC Energy, which just got billions of dollars from the Alberta government— really do have an opportunity here, a golden opportunity, probably, from their perspective, to pursue these projects under the cover of darkness, i.e. COVID-19.

Kate: Shiri, on behalf of everyone here at Team Advantage, thank you so much for joining us here on the podcast and talking with us about your report that you co-authored with Hayden King, “Land Back: A Yellowhead Red Paper.” It was an absolute pleasure having you on.

Shiri: I love your podcast, and it was an absolute pleasure to be on.

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