Book Review: The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering The Land, Rebuilding The Economy

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Indigenous protests and anger over the way settler Canadians use lands and resources is a fixture in Canadian news even during COVID. Protests against the TransMountain X and Coastal GasLink pipelines in B.C. Mi’kmaq people exercising their lobster fishing rights in Nova Scotia. Opposition to hydro dams being built in the South Indian Lake lands in Manitoba. In previous decades, it was arguments over lobster fishing at Burnt Church in New Brunswick, hydro development in the James Bay area and expansion of a golf course at Oka in Quebec, diamond mining in the Northwest Territories, ranching at Gustafsen Lake in B.C., land reclamations at Ipperwash in Ontario and much more.

Most settler Canadians don’t understand why there’s so much Indigenous backlash against these things, much less what Indigenous opponents mean by asserting ‘legal title’ and ‘inherent rights’ in opposing them. Secwepemc thinker and writer Arthur Manuel (son of the late Secwepemc leader and thinker George Manuel) and Grand Chief Ronald Derrickson co-wrote The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering The Land, Rebuilding The Economy (James Lorimer and Company, 2017) partly to explain these issues to settler Canadians, and partly as a rallying call to Indigenous people.

Most of the book is in Manuel’s voice, and his brief, accessible writing style makes the content easy to access for non-Native audiences. Easy access doesn’t necessarily make for easy reading, though. Manuel succinctly describes what’s probably the single ugliest element of Canada’s history, all the way from the arrival of the first Europeans up to the present day, the abuse and oppression Indigenous people have experienced for centuries and still experience today. It’s not something that most settler Canadians will enjoy reading, but it’s an unfortunate necessity and a damning failure of how we as Canadians all too often fail to live up to the values we say we endorse as a country.

Reconciliation is impossible when Indigenous peoples are left in poverty both by their tiny landbases and their dependence on government spending, which undermines any real hope for them to run their own lives and communities.

Manuel’s summary doesn’t accuse or condemn settler Canadians, though. He mentions how more and more of us are realizing what Indigenous people went and still go through, and supporting their demands for change, and expresses hope that things might actually be changing for the better. He gives the reader a primer about what exactly Indigenous rights are, how they work in practice, and the long legal and political struggle many Indigenous people have fought to have their rights respected.

This legal and political background puts a lot of the modern land disputes and standoffs in context. In short, a lot of the standoffs and confrontations between settler Canadians and governments and Indigenous people over the decades and centuries has been over a persistent failure by non-Native government and society to respect Indigenous rights. Manuel shows how these rights have been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada and enshrined in the Constitution, and how the federal and many provincial governments are arguably violating their own laws by violating these rights. He describes the initial elation many Indigenous people felt at Justin Trudeau’s election and the hope they felt that things might finally be changing in government circles. He also describes their bitter disappointment when those hopes were dashed.

One of the book’s core arguments, as Manuel puts it, is that Indigenous people can’t prosper economically when so much of the land bases promised to them has been stripped away and they’re left with the reserves that make up only 0.2% of Canada’s land base. Reconciliation is impossible when Indigenous peoples are left in poverty both by their tiny land bases and their dependence on government spending, which undermines any real hope for them to run their own lives and communities.

Manuel’s words here are reminiscent of his father George, who wrote many similar things in The Fourth World: An Indian Reality back in 1973. They’re also many other Indigenous commentaries and explanations of why things need to change. These include the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Ovide Mercredi and Mary-Ellen Turpel’s 1991 book In The Rapids: Navigating The Future Of First Nations, the 1984 Penner Report, Harold Cardinal’s 1969 book The Unjust Society and many of the statements made earlier in the 20th and all the way back to the 19th centuries during the Treaty negotiations.

Many of these sources vary on the details, but the core message has always been the same: Indigenous people have always been happy to have the rest of us as friends and neighbours, and even in many cases to see themselves as Canadians, but that doesn’t mean they agreed to be assimilated as individual Canadians and abandon their national Native identities. They still have the right to determine their own ways of life, govern themselves according to their own laws, a right that’s confirmed in Canada’s own Constitution and court rulings.

In the last part of the book, Manuel lays out a process where Canadian society can recognize this right and achieve reconciliation. The first step is to ditch the “Doctrine of Discovery” by which European countries declared that any new lands they discovered were “terra nullius” and were open to European colonization. The Doctrine has been denounced and rejected even by the churches that originated it, and doesn’t cut it as a legal basis for settlement. This was one of the main recommendations of both the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and the more recent 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Again, Manuel’s message reflects a lot of what his predecessors have written.

After denouncing the Doctrine, the rest of Canada would formally acknowledge the Indigenous right to self-determination and land titles, according to international rights standards. Indigenous people and settler Canadians could then work out the details of jurisdiction, land sharing, economic and cultural needs. These would be worked out on a ‘nation to nation’ basis, with free, prior and informed Native consent. Section 35 of the Constitution, the section enshrining Indigenous Treaty rights, would be revised and expanded to comply with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

I can’t help but think there’d be a lot less protest and backlash against Canadian patriotism and symbols of Canada if a lot of these issues were really dealt with.

As Manuel puts it, this process would turn Canada into one of the most politically enlightened countries in the world, as we finally put the disastrous results of colonialism behind us. When Indigenous people are finally exercising their right to self-determination, Canada would be fully decolonized.

That said, “decolonized” doesn’t mean “destroyed” or “dismantled”. Manuel repeats at several points that the Indigenous goal isn’t separating from or breaking up Canada. He emphasizes that the rest of us have a right to live here too, and that can be recognized along with the Indigenous rights. Indigenous land bases would still be part of Canada, and Canada itself would still be Canada, but it would be based on the principles of justice and human rights we say we support as Canadians, rather than the Doctrine of Discovery. Again, Manuel isn’t alone in saying this, as other thinkers like Mohawk chief Serge Simon and Mi’kmaq academic Pam Palmater have discussed how Indigenous land title and rights don’t nullify non-Native Canadians’ own rights to the lands that form Canada home. Even last year’s “Cancel Canada Day” was, in the words of speakers like Wet’suwet’en Molly Wickham and Mohawk Ellen Gabriel, not about a hatred of Canada or settler Canadians, but protesting the racism and violence too many Indigenous people still experience in Canada.

I can’t help but think there’d be a lot less protest and backlash against Canadian patriotism and symbols of Canada if a lot of these issues were really dealt with.

Manuel and Derrickson build on the message their predecessors have spoken for centuries and that’s been remarkably consistent throughout Canadian history. Their presentation of it is both deep and accessible at the same time. That said, a few questions come to mind for me.

One of the big issues that would need resolving in the discussion Manuel outlines would be the overlap between Indigenous and settler Canadian jurisdiction. How would/could Indigenous people participate as individuals in non-Native institutions? I’ve seen criticism of the lack of Indigenous judges in Canadian courts, but would it compromise their nationhood to become judges in court cases where they themselves are the only Native participants? How do family and criminal justice issues get resolved if one party is Indigenous and the other is settler Canadian?

What kind of economic development can take place in this revised Canada? Manuel writes about wanting to wind down the Canadian oil and gas industry. Won’t we still need fuel to transport people and goods to and from outlying parts of the country, including parts with primarily Indigenous populations? Are minerals like oil and lithium still needed to manufacture things like computer plastics and high-tech batteries for green energy? If these are still necessary, how and when can we be involved in them, especially when some Indigenous nations rely on them for a large part of their income?

In their previous book Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-Up Call, Manuel and Derrickson discussed what might happen with the lumber industry, including suggestions that Indigenous nations might charge lower stumpage fees than provincial governments. What will other kinds of resource developments look like?

There are probably answers to all these questions. The conversation Manuel describes won’t be an easy one, but it’s necessary if we ever hope to have true reconciliation. It doesn’t have to be painful, though, and Manuel and Derrickson’s message in The Reconciliation Manifesto reflects that. They offer a clear, thoughtful path on how we can get there, one that’s hard and blunt about the message it needs to deliver but that also offers hope for a better future.

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