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

All countries must do right by their own Indigenous populations in their own way.

· 5 min read
Canada's Epic Rail Crisis Offers the World a Cautionary Tale on Indigenous Mantras
Youtube screen shot of protestors at Tyendinaga rail blockade.

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.”

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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

Jonathan Kay is a Quillette editor, podcaster, and advisor to The Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism. His books include Among the Truthers, Legacy, Panics & Persecutions, and Magic in the Dark.

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