Spartacist Canada No. 176
Canada: Racist Hell for Native Peoples
Labour Must Defend Native Rights!
The Idle No More protests have put a harsh spotlight on the desperate conditions of Native people. Beginning late last year as a teach-in organized by four Saskatchewan women in opposition to changes to the Indian Act and several federal government bills, the protests spread like wildfire. Thousands of people in cities, towns and reserves across the country mobilized on December 10 to demand recognition of Native rights. The next day, Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat band in Northern Ontario began a hunger strike. In the weeks that followed, rallies, teach-ins and flash mobs popped up in cities from coast to coast, along with road and rail blockades.
The protests have been fueled by the misery and racist brutality that blight the lives of the vast majority of Native people. Whether on the desolate reserves or at the margins of the cities, everywhere the aboriginal population is plagued by unemployment, poverty, illness and homelessness. Supplementing and enforcing this is a remorseless diet of racist police violence. While making up less than three percent of the population, Native people comprise a staggering 35 percent of the women and 23 percent of the men in prison. Almost half of Native adults are unemployed and over half have less than a high school education. On the reserves established to formalize their dispossession, median family income is barely $11,000.
The backdrop to the spate of new federal laws further eroding aboriginal rights is the government’s push to accelerate resource extraction in areas where Native people are the predominant population and/or have longstanding land claims. Some $650 billion worth of resource projects are at stake over the next ten years. This notably includes the Northern Gateway pipeline, which is opposed by most Native groups. Some of the new laws that sparked the protests weaken or eliminate environmental protections. Changes to the Indian Act allow for the surrender of reserve land without proper consent of all those affected. Such measures will directly benefit the resource companies, who long to get their hands on the mineral wealth from which they hope to reap fabulous profits. And it’s all being done without any pretense of consultation, much less the consent of the Native population.
The Idle No More banner was also taken up by the annual February marches in remembrance of the aboriginal women who have been murdered or gone missing since the 1990s, particularly in B.C. According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), the number dead or missing now approaches 600. The NDP has joined NWAC, Amnesty International and other groups in calling for a “national inquiry.” The ruling class cares nothing for the lives and deaths of Native women. When they accede to calls for public inquiries, their purpose is to channel anger into whitewashes that ultimately strengthen the capitalist state by refurbishing its tarnished image. It is precisely the state—the prisons, courts and cops—that is the main source of the repression of Native people.
A new Human Rights Watch report entitled “Those Who Take Us Away” drives this home in wrenching detail. Dozens of aboriginal women and girls from ten northern B.C. towns have faced violent abuse by police, with at least one report of rape. The brutality includes young girls being pepper-sprayed and shocked with tasers; a 12-year-old girl attacked by a police dog; a 17-year-old girl repeatedly punched by an officer in the back of a police car; women strip-searched by male officers; and women injured by excessive force during their arrests. The researchers were “struck by the level of fear on the part of women we met to talk about sexual abuse inflicted by police officers.”
Capitalism and Native Oppression
The legacy of colonialism, first French and later British, besets Native peoples today. Through a combination of fraud, military conquest and the devastating impact of disease following European contact, the pre-existing aboriginal societies were destroyed and the foundations of Canadian capitalism laid. Over much of the last century, a state policy of forced assimilation led to the abduction of Native children from their parents and their internment in church-run residential schools. The aim was to destroy the aboriginal languages and culture. The architect of the residential school system, Duncan Campbell Scott, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, laid this bare in 1920:
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that this country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone…. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department….”
—quoted in E. Brian Titley, A Narrow Vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada (1986)
The capitalist rulers failed to wipe out the indigenous peoples, but a wall of racism and systematic deprivation keeps the Native population in a state of wretchedness. Every year, exposés of the life-threatening conditions on one reserve or another spark anger and media attention—to utterly no effect. In late 2011, it was the turn of subarctic Attawapiskat. Theresa Spence and other Native leaders declared a state of emergency to draw attention to the desperate housing crisis there. Dozens of families were living in uninsulated tents and shacks without running water or plumbing, some using buckets as toilets and emptying them into nearby ditches. Another 128 families were living in homes condemned because of black mould and “infrastructure failures,” meaning that they were uninhabitable. The Conservative government responded by blaming the band. Then they appointed a third-party manager against the band’s wishes and ordered an audit.
The Harper Tories have shown the same disdain for the recent protests. One could not read a daily newspaper without seeing Spence vilified and portrayed as financially corrupt (courtesy of the feds’ audit). Obscenely, she was baited as a terrorist by the National Post (27 December 2012) and denounced a day later by the Globe and Mail for using “coercion,” i.e., a hunger strike. Spence’s hunger strike and the Idle No More protests became lightning rods for racist filth in the gutter press and on the internet, sparking protests at Sun News media offices in Calgary, Toronto and Winnipeg. As Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick put it, “it turns out that writing a column about Idle No More and the ongoing battle by Indians in Canada for fair treatment attracts racists the way a wet lawn calls out to worms.”
Reflecting an increasingly young Native population with few prospects, the Idle No More protests were striking in their youthful makeup. The protests were also fueled by growing discontent on the part of younger Native people with the ineffectual Assembly of First Nations (AFN) leadership and its cozy relationship with the federal government. This was symbolized by the outcry against AFN national chief Shawn Atleo when he met with Harper in January despite a boycott by many other Native leaders.
AFN leaders have also developed close relations with the RCMP and the Ontario and Quebec police. The Toronto Star (15 February) outlined how in 2007 AFN leaders colluded with the cops to undermine one of the largest Native protests in Canadian history, the June 29 national day of action. This included “a joint media relations strategy” and a cop placed in the AFN’s Ottawa office. Julian Fantino—then head of the Ontario police and today a Tory cabinet minister—threatened Mohawk activist Shawn Brant with “grave consequences” if he did not call off a blockade. As the Star noted, the AFN’s collaboration with the police “coincided with the start of a sweeping federal program of surveillance of aboriginal communities and individuals engaged in land rights activism that continues today.”
We Need a Revolutionary Workers Party!
The oppression of the Native population gives the true measure of this racist society. In the course of Spence’s hunger strike, Liberal and NDP politicians made their way to her camp for tear-jerking photo-ops. This should fool no one. The Liberal Party ran Canada for the better part of a century, overseeing untold state brutality and the systematic theft of both lands and peoples. As for the New Democrats, their record is plain. In B.C. in 1995, the NDP government organized what was then the largest RCMP/military operation in Canadian history to evict a handful of Native activists from a ranch at Gustafsen Lake. The RCMP and military created a war zone, and a bloodbath was averted only because the Native occupiers left the area.
Native people need access to jobs at union wages and massive education, health and housing programs, including the provision of clean water and electricity. This is not rocket science, but the bourgeoisie will never provide such necessities. Not far from Attawapiskat, where unemployment is 70 percent, a De Beers diamond mine generates over $400 million a year in revenue. De Beers pays a lousy $2 million a year in royalties to the Attawapiskat Cree, most of which is buried in stocks and bonds under a trust agreement—chump change for this immensely profitable and wealthy corporation. Attawapiskat protesters have blockaded the mine to press their demands for jobs, housing and environmental protections. De Beers responded with an injunction from the Timmins Superior Court accusing them of “extortion.”
There is a fundamental class divide in society between the capitalists—the tiny group of families that own industry and the banks—and the working class, whose labour is the source of the capitalists’ profits. The working class has the potential power and historic interest to sweep away the capitalist system and rebuild society based on a centralized, planned economy that serves human need, not profit. It is this social power to stop the flow of profits that must be mobilized in defense of Native rights.
A majority of the approximately 1.3 million aboriginal people in Canada live in the cities, where the working class is concentrated. Put simply, the future for Native rights lies with the class struggle. Labour’s struggles and those of the Native peoples will either go forward together or fall back separately. Trade unions including the Canadian Labour Congress declared their solidarity with Idle No More. But this is light years from what is necessary. The isolation of the Native protests from the social power of the working class is a direct reflection of the fact that the labour movement itself is quiescent and on the defensive. This sharply undercuts the possibility of any amelioration of the conditions facing aboriginal peoples.
A fighting labour movement would not only use its power to champion Native rights, but would take concrete steps such as aggressive union-run recruitment and training programs. Such programs would be a first step toward breaking the cycle of unemployment and social marginalization. Labour must also be mobilized against acts of racist state terror to make it clear that Native people do not stand alone in their struggles.
The fight against Native oppression provides a litmus test for those aspiring to lead the working class. A party that does not inscribe the defense of the most downtrodden high on its banner will never succeed in leading the proletariat against its class enemy. We seek to build a revolutionary workers party that champions the cause of all the oppressed in the struggle for socialist revolution. To open up a future for the Native peoples will take the establishment of an egalitarian socialist society under workers rule. As we state in our Programmatic Theses:
“Only the destruction of capitalism can hold out the possibility of voluntary integration, on the basis of full equality, for those aboriginal peoples who desire it and the fullest possible regional autonomy for those who do not. The Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste demands that whatever residual rights Native peoples have been able to maintain, whether through treaty agreements or otherwise, be respected.”
—“Who We Are, and What We Fight For” (1998)
The stark fact is that in this capitalist society—whether run by the Tory reactionaries or their Liberal and NDP rivals—Native people have no chance at a decent future. Only the destruction of the bourgeoisie’s barbaric profit system and the inauguration of the era of socialist development can redress centuries of crimes against the aboriginal peoples of this country.