Canada, Politics

Canada’s Epic Rail Crisis Offers the World a Cautionary Tale on Indigenous Mantras

Speaking at the Oscars earlier this month, Māori director and writer Taika Waititi told his audience they were “gathered on the ancestral lands of the Tongva, Tataviam and the Chumash”—Native American groups who lived in and around modern Los Angeles. “We acknowledge them as the first people of this land on which our motion picture community lives and works.”

This may have struck many American viewers as unusual. But such “land acknowledgments” have been common for years in Australia, New Zealand and my own country, Canada. Originally intended as a tribute to the legacy and rights of Indigenous peoples, they quickly became assimilated into the rote protocols of public life, from school assemblies to town-council meetings. Some university professors now post them on their office doors, much like a secular mezuzah.

The practice is rooted in good intentions, and originally had real educational value. Indigenous lands in what is now Canada often were seized through a mixture of brutality and theft. In many cases, the reserves on which Indigenous peoples now live don’t even correspond with traditional territories: Tribes typically were expelled from fertile lands for the benefit of white farmers, and often were left to languish in remote flood planes with little economic value. As Canada urbanized, these communities and their histories became invisible to most Canadians. Land acknowledgments were conceived, in part, as a means to remedy this ignorance. As Toronto officials put it, the goal is to remind us “of the enduring presence and resilience of Indigenous peoples.”

Predictably, many conservatives have criticized land acknowledgments as a form of institutionalized progressive activism—especially when it comes to the more elaborate variants, which urge us to be “mindful of broken covenants” and the need to “strive to make right with all our relations.” But even some progressives rightly complain that such pronouncements burnish the bona fides of white orators without actually benefiting Indigenous peoples in any direct way. In a 2019 performance by the comedy troupe Baroness Von Sketch, a theatre emcee’s land acknowledgment prompts an audience member to ask “Should we go?…If we’re on someone else’s land, shouldn’t we leave.” To which the emcee responds, “Oh no, the theatre is here now. We’d just like to acknowledge whose land it is.”

This joke gets to the root of the issue, which is that the functionality of modern societies (Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike) depends on some predictable and unified understanding of property rights. While Waititi’s acknowledgment at the Oscars was concise and understated, the more ambitious land-acknowledgment rituals that have become fashionable in Canada present a much broader message. In many cases, they convey the idea that Indigenous peoples retain a real—if vaguely defined—moral ownership over the entire country, not just the areas that they control through treaties or other legal instruments.

Sometimes, the soaring language used in acknowledgment ceremonies can blur into a sort of religious ritual, through which audience members are invited to cleanse “Turtle Island” (i.e., Canada) of settler contamination. During the prelude to one conference I attended, an Indigenous elder instructed participants to rise from their seats, turn to face the four cardinal directions in sequence, and then bend down to touch the ground as an homage to natural spirits.

These are cast as purely symbolic acts. But as this week’s chaos in Canada indicates, the associated ideas have real consequences. Having spent years solemnly acceding to Indigenous moral authority over every field and tree, and repeating a liturgy of white predation within “unceded” lands, politicians now find themselves paralyzed by groups of Indigenous-led or -inspired protestors who are invading rail lines, bridges, legislatures and highways in opposition to pipeline development. This includes Justin Trudeau, whose Liberal government is urging a resolution to the growing crisis, but seems to have already ruled out any use of force.

We are now witnessing the largest service disruption in the modern history of the Canadian National Railway, with the tally of blocked cargo already well into the billions. Yet Canada’s largest newspaper, the Toronto Star, tells us we’re not even supposed to use the term “protestor” to refer to the activists blocking the rails, despite court injunctions to the contrary. According to “experts,” the Star informs us, “land defenders” is the preferred team. How can government enforce the rule of law once we have conceded the idea that formal property rights are a fiction, and that protestors of a certain bloodline are always to be regarded as the land’s true “defenders”?

The victims here include not just millions of affected Canadian commuters and businesses, but also Indigenous groups themselves. The current round of protests was initiated in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en, one of more than a dozen First Nations whose traditional lands will be traversed by a new gas pipeline in British Columbia. But the construction process was preceded by lengthy consultations, through which the elected Wet’suwet’en leadership formally approved the project (and its associated economic benefits). By contrast, the pipeline opponents are hereditary Wet’suwet’en dissidents who, having had their views rejected within their own community, are playing to an audience of white environmentalists and like-minded Indigenous protestors in other parts of Canada. Since the easiest way for the federal and provincial governments to appease these protestors will be through negotiated dividends and payouts of some kind, the likely effect will be to weaken band governance: The spectacle proves that any Indigenous dissident now can bypass elected local leaders, and even become celebrities in the leftist Toronto press, simply by mobilizing a mob.

All countries must do right by their own Indigenous populations in their own way. But insofar as Canada’s experience can be generalized, it shows that national projects aimed at providing Indigenous peoples with reconciliation and social justice must not be expanded to such point that the country as a whole is stripped of the moral authority to rule itself. While land acknowledgments and other symbolic forms of outreach to Indigenous peoples have a place in public life, the appeal to historical grievance should be balanced with a productive focus on common values and projects. For those who prefer to recite fashionable boilerplate that undermines property rights and national sovereignty, the current situation in Canada shows where this leads.


Jonathan Kay is Canadian Editor of Quillette. He Tweets at @jonkay.  

Featured image: Youtube screen shot of protestors at Tyendinaga rail blockade.


  1. Whenever some wanker starts off on an acknowldgement of some aboriginal tribe, I shout out ‘‘God save the Queen!’’ After all she is the traditonal owner of the whole country.

    As for Canada, I’m often reminded of Anthony Powell’s comment about a tedious character. ‘‘He’s so wet you could shoot snipe off him.’’

    Canada seems to be the wettest and wimpiest nation these days

  2. If indigenous people are entitled to preference based upon earlier occupancy wouldn’t logical consistency require that native born people be given priority over persons immigrating illegally?

  3. “ Tribes typically were expelled from fertile lands for the benefit of white farmers, and often were left to languish in remote flood planes with little economic value.”

    Not quite. In most of the country, the native bands were hunter gatherers, and not farmers. They chose good hunting land which usually meant bad farm land. If the author knew of what he spoke - and he does not - he would know at least this. A few bands attempted agriculture but failed terribly. There is, after all, no case in history of a Stone Age people transitioning to an agrarian lifestyle in 2 or 3 generations. It was another well intentioned dream that failed.

    Nor is it true that the land was taken by theft. The land was taken by right of conquest, a right which no society ever disputed until modern times. How can any society claim not to have been built on this right? Must we return England to the Briton’s, and expel the Anglo-Saxons? Do we return France to the Gauls and make Franks acknowledge that their institutions lie on ancestral Druid lands? What about Rome? It is abundantly well documented that Italy was brutally conquered by the Latins at the expense of the Etruscans and Sabines. Clearly the Latins should go back, but where exactly is that?

    My family has only been here 11 generations, and my wife is part Native, so what do we do?

    No, this latest fashion is based, like so much other of our divisive politics, on Marxist polemics. This is the program of the Tides Foundation and Joel Solomon. They are ideas that are meant to divide and destroy, and not build. The economic chill is descending over Canada with remarkable speed and it will undermine a great deal of economic progress among the majority of bands that support economic development. When it does, neither Tides nor Solomon will stand up and take credit for the mayhem they have caused. One thing I have learned is that progressives are universally incapable of personal responsibility. It is always someone else’s fault.

  4. The problem with discussing indigenous people issues is the truth is verboten and only sentimentality is permitted. First one must consider the time period and state of the world in which indigenous people began encountering Western Europeans, namely the 17th and 18th centuries, not the 20th and 21st centuries. Second what was the most likely outcome when subsistence primitive peoples, some of whom had no written language or use of the wheel or definable property rights, sitting on a rich abundance of natural resources encounter 17 and 18th century Western Europeans in search of areas to settle? Third one must asked would these indigenous people had faired better if their lands had been settled by 17 and 18th century Asians, Russians or Muslims? The point being what happened to indigenous primitive people was inevitable given the time frame and world situation at the time. To expect that any 17 and 18th century persons in search of lands to settle would have backed off and recognized a superior claim by indigenous people is not only unrealistic but naive. So under whose inevitable settlement would primitive indigenous people have best faired?

  5. In the US, there is a tendency to pretend natives were all one people rather than rival tribes that went to war with each other. White people displacing a tribe is bad but no thought is given to one tribe displacing another. Any claim one tribe can make to land would be suspect if that tribe took the land from another tribe. How far back does one go to find the “true” owner?

    This is further complicated by the fact that tribal membership is not based purely on ancestry. As the Elizabeth Warren DNA test showed, tribes don’t like DNA tests. A classmate of mine attended university on a scholarship for Native Americans. She was 1/8 Native American.

    Whenever a Native American activist refers to “my people”, this is a claim based, at least in part, on a myth.

  6. I’m not one of the Australians who would say that NZ’s race relations are worse than ours. The fact is that 99.99% of Australians will go throughout their whole lives and never meet an aboriginal. Our race relations are so bad that the powers that be have to pretend that aboriginals are all around and a vital part of our society that is still completely different to the rest of us. So we have the silly spectacle of the Aboriginal flag being flown on public buildings. Nevermind the fact that there was no one aboriginal country and the indigenous people didn’t have the cotton to make flags before the British came. We still have to see this made up symbol fluttering alongside our state and national flags.

    And yet, the conditions that aboriginals live in are so dreadful that it beggars belief. The left have taken over the policy in this area in the last 50 years and they have spent billions on making things really awful for aboriginal people. But if anyone points this out, the lefty tossers all shout ‘‘raaaccccissst’’ and call for the offender to be cancelled. I often wish that we could put these lefties in gaol for crimes against humanity.

    EDIT: In the interest of fariness, I should point out that the right deserves some condemnation too for letting the left get away with this whole stupidity about racism.

  7. IMO, the hypocrisy and condescension of land acknowledgements is amusing - a brief and satisfying virtue-signalling exercise for white people that really don’t have the time to unravel the hopelessly tangled ball of conflicting narratives regarding Canada’s aboriginal history although they’re pretty sure they’re supposed to feel guilty about something.
    As the comedy sketch that Kay cited eludes to:
    Aboriginals were located in areas of the country until a stronger tribe (Europeans) replaced them.
    Land deals were made ( often bad deals for aboriginals) but three conditions are predominant.
    If your house sits on former aboriginal land then that land was either obtained by treaty, purchased or stolen.
    So if it was obtained in a business deal what’s the acknowledgement for?
    Is it standard practice when you sit down to family dinner to acknowledge the former owner of your house?
    And if the land was stolen (the most popular narrative) do you solemnly admit to the crime and ask someone to please pass the potatoes?
    Oh gee, we feel better about things now.

  8. This is one of the plainest examples of the hyprocisy of the anti-Western movement. I generally don’t support imperialism, but there are better and worse kinds, and British imperialism was about as mild as can be imagined. Meanwhile, the Zulus organized a militaristic state that completely destroyed other black societies and incorporated them into itself, yet no one ever criticizes the Zulus for being imperialistic. Okay, the Zulus were already in Africa…so? Is it better to be conquered by a near neighbour than by someone from over the ocean, irrespective of how you will be treated? The real difference is that the Zulus were black, and anything that happens among black Africans is fine because it is somehow more organic change. This line of argument, of course, is fundamentally racist.

    I’m not aware of any analogue to Zulu militarism north of the Rio Grande (the Aztecs are an obvious point of comparison, but they don’t have any direct relevance to Canada or the U.S.) but surely on a small scale the same kind of thing – war, conquest, dislocation – happened continually. European settlers were more disruptive because their technology was far more advanced and their population density much higher, but those are things that they can hardly be blamed for. The fundamental facts of war and conquest were no different, and no less (or more) laudable, when they involved Europeans.

  9. I think the First Peoples should acknowledge that they hunted Mammoths, Mastodons, and other North American megafauna to extinction during the early Holocene, and what a crime against nature this was.

  10. You are right that the standard of living is poor on many reserves. What do you propose is done about it? The high rates of rape, murder and physical assaults are perpetrated mostly by aboriginals on the reserve ie their own people.

    When there is a crime, no one will help the police and if a criminal is caught and convicted they receive lenient sentences like healing circles and lodges, because, you know, colonisation.

    Aboriginals are very well funded currently but in many cases the chiefs appoint relatives and friends to the council, allocate housing to their allies and plunder the money taxpayers give them in a way that would make an African dictator blush.

    What would you do to improve their lot?

  11. As a young leftist leading a Pagan Club at an affluent college in Montreal, we had this deep veneration for Native people, a Disney’s Pocahontas perspective on their society. Land acknowledgements similarly seem to come from wealthy white people with little contact with Natives and romanticized perspectives.

    It was jarring to move to Alberta and see how Natives treat their own land, the garbage everywhere. When a Native man, drunk at 8AM, confronted me as I was setting up for a Pagan event for having a sage smudge stick, I realized how mythologized my attitude towards Native people had been. The sad truth is that there is no such thing as the Noble Savage, and whatever custodianship Natives may or may not have had over the land simply doesn’t exist anymore. They are now a deeply scarred people, desperately in need of getting their own house in order before trying to change the world.

    Disproportionate murder and rape rates of Native women are accounted for by much higher rates of alcoholism and prostitution. What is the government supposed to do to stop that? They tried mandatory education, but that backfired. Government can’t reach into the home and make parents parent better. For all the causes of Native misery, there can be only one solution: as individuals they must do their very best to live a virtuous life and provide the best possible start to their children.

    Being lied to about their place in society, patronized as some sort of spiritual leaders by virtue solely of their race, is frankly disgusting. Not only will it not help Natives, it will further externalize their problems and breed resentment and a sense of moral superiority, isolating them from broader society and making it harder for them to succeed.

    All so white leftists can make pious noises that reek of hypocrisy if you scratch the surface. At a Melbourne conference last year, a German gave the land acknowledgement and said the land belongs to the Aboriginals. Why did he move here, then? He chose to settle what he considers stolen land because the colonial invaders offered him money they made raping the land for its natural resources against the will of its true owners: is that not a damning indictment on his own character? Much more so than those who were born here and have done nothing but lived their lives.

  12. When debating the causes of plight of aboriginals one might wis to consult the 1776 article next door. The same reasoning applies.

    “Bob pointed out that the thesis underlying many 1619 Project essays—and, arguably, most arguments on the identitarian Left—can be summed up as “You do not control your own life.” This claim might be dismissed as an exaggeration, but it is not: in what sense can one be said to have free will, if the true cause of (say) the individual decision to father a child out of wedlock was a lost race war back in 1856? Modern ideas of miasmatic racism make the radical argument seem stronger and more tempting: If the REAL reason young brothers struggle with the SAT is “the subtle institutional structural racism of the white gaze,” and not the fact that we study a bit less for the exam, then why ever bother to study more?”

    “And during one insightful exchange, he noted the obvious—the upper-middle class black and white protesters promoting amoral po-mo ideas in the hood don’t have to live there: “The activists do not have to stay in the conditions they are causing.”

    “Very often, those responsible for promoting hip, new, brave ideas never stick around to watch them fail.”

    Supporting other’s excuses to fail is one of the most malicious nonviolent things that can be done to them. Additionally such pandering reeks of superiority and is patronizing.

  13. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I’ve met many people who have immigrated to Canada after having gone through horrors (genocide, concentration camps, gulags…). No help was given to them yet they’ve all succeeded in building a good life for themselves and their kids, because they had no choice but to pull themselves together. I’m not sure they would have fared as well had they been paid to stay out of society and the workforce, which is effectively what’s happening with First Nations and Inuits in Canada.

  14. I think it’s a lot worse than “You cannot control the circumstances of your birth.” Let me see if I can articulate a train of thought I’ve been on for a few days.

    I’ve been employed for 16 years at the academy in a position tangentially related to elementary age education research. A couple of takeaways from my tenure in this position related to your comment: 1) there are virtually NO conservative thinkers within education, and 2) all children have an excuse.

    Liberals have owned education for decades and they have emasculated it at every level. This is especially true in early childhood education. Likewise, liberals have owned psychotherapy for decades and its professionals reliably tell parents and educators that discipline is cruel, that an alarming percentage of young boys have ADHD, anger management issues, or depression, and that drugs are the answer to learning deficiencies. This effectively gives kids a victim card and a crutch to use with great effect to avoid hard work and responsibilities throughout life regardless of the circumstances of their birth. There’s no nobility in this especially when the path to success in rich, developed countries is abundantly clear: stop enabling excuse driven behavior, learn to work hard, and get good at something…anything.

    I’m not a conspiracy theorist, hell, I’m not even really a conservative, but a rational individual could be excused for wondering why subsets of the community owned by liberals are routinely made powerless and dependent.

  15. “Your basic black kid in the US expects to join a gang, earn his status by killing members of rival gangs, and then he dreams of fighting his way to the top of his own gang which gives him status, money and girls.”

    No no no! Your basic or average black kid in America is a nice kid. He/she attends school, graduates and works earning a honest living. There are 2 Americas. One that we all live in and the other that is a media created fiction. Do blacks have higher incidences of single parenthood, drug use, gang membership, crime perpetration and crime victimhood and other pathologies than other members of American society? Yes. But please do not attribute those unfortunate statistics to the majority of blacks. Where I live blacks are our neighbors, students at our school and members of our community and churches. The fact that blacks are over represented in the criminal element of our community should not taint the other law abiding blacks. Don’t let a few bad dolphins spoil the whole pod.

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