What does it mean to live on ‘stolen land’?

(Neon Lilith Photography/Shutterstock)

A year ago, before Canada was turned upside down by the coronavirus, many Canadians’ attention was held by the angry blockades and protests Indigenous people across the country held against the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline on the traditional territories of the Wetsu’wet’en Nation in B.C. A common theme in those protests was that pipelines shouldn’t be built on ‘stolen land’.

I’ve heard the notion that Canada ‘s stolen land’ more and more these days. So what are the notion’s bigger implications? What does it mean for people who aren’t Indigenous but live in Canada, and their lives and identities as Canadians?

What does it mean for all the times I’ve bonded with friends and loved ones, ranging from family gatherings to cultural experiences? What about larger expressions of Canadian culture, ranging from the music of the Tragically Hip, The Red Green Show, the paintings of the Group of Seven, the Log Driver’s Waltz or the literature of Margaret Atwood? What about all the other ways we’ve impacted the world, ranging from the money Terry Fox runs raise for cancer research, to our helping to free Europe from fascism in World War II, to inventions such as the Canadarm and insulin?

Are all those things morally tainted because the lands they happened on are supposedly not mine to call home, or because marginalized people were oppressed while they happened?

Do we have a right to take pride in our history and heritage on these lands, and to call them our home?

The thing is that for me, and probably a lot of other non-Native Canadians, these lands are the only ones I feel I can call home. I’m of mixed English, Irish, Scottish and German ancestry, but the UK, Ireland and Germany mean about as much to me as China, Angola or Uruguay. I don’t feel I can claim the histories and heritages of my ‘ancestral’ countries, whether it be the Battle of Bannockburn, the works of William Shakespeare, Riverdance, the Glorious Revolution, Germany’s unifications, or anything else. More and more black and brown people live in those countries now, and they have more of a right and claim to those histories and heritages than I do.

If Canada’s not my nation, then what is my nation?

The Inuk singer Susan Aglukark’s song ‘Ghost Of Cain’ reflects a lot of what I’m thinking about right now. I’m all for providing restitution to Indigenous nations, but what becomes of *my* nation? How does it impact my sense of who I am?

Rationally, I realize that even many of the critics who say these things might say my fears are overblown or that I’m attacking a strawman. That said, it’s something that’s constantly on my mind. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of other non-Native people jump to the same conclusion. While the blockades were happening, Jonathan Kay wrote about how some Canadian elites now seem to be attacking the idea of feeling any sort of positive Canadian identity. I also noticed the dangers of this during the controversy over the statues of historical figures.

Unfortunately, when cultural or political entities are criticized, there’s a tendency these days for people who support these things to get defensive about them. There’s a sense that the criticism implies that the entity’s supporters are somehow morally judged for being associated with it.

I’m definitely not immune to that.

So what do we do about it?

Well, we could start by listening to what Indigenous people have been saying for a century and more about ‘sharing’ the land. From the original Treaty negotiations to books like The Unjust Society and The Fourth World in the ’60s and ’70s to the more recent Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the ’90s and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission today, they’ve all talked about ensuring Indigenous people have the land bases and governance rights to make decisions about their own lives.

They might differ on the details, but they’ve had a core message that Indigenous people have a unique place in Canada, with their own unique legal and economic traditions. They never consented to be confined to tiny reserves or to have their lives micromanaged by unaccountable bureaucrats.

So how did it happen?

The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools described how Europeans claimed the right to rule other lands through the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’. The doctrine claimed that those lands were ‘terra nullius’ and belonged to whichever country could claim them. Britain and France used the doctrine to justify governing the lands they settled that became Canada, and to justify ‘civilizing’ Indigenous people by forcibly controlling their lives through things like the residential schools and the band council system. The results, such as the alcoholism, violence and dysfunction in many Indigenous communities today, are obvious.

Unfortunately, the Doctrine of Discovery doesn’t cut it as a basis for European settlement. The TRC’s report noted that many of the world’s most prominent Christian churches have repudiated it. Multiple court cases have also confirmed that it didn’t abolish the Indigenous land rights that still exist in Canada, enshrined in Section 35 of the 1982 Constitution Act.

The Secwepemc activist and thinker Arthur Manuel wrote about how rejecting the Doctrine of Discovery and following the spirit of the Treaties would benefit Canada. It would move the country towards a much more solid foundation based on human rights law rather than the racist Doctrine. The Indigenous territories that would result would still be part of Canada.

Canada itself would still be Canada.

Obviously, we’d have to figure out a lot of details in recognizing Indigenous and Treaty rights. Issues like resolving conflicts between Indigenous and settler jurisdictions on things like criminal justice, and Indigenous representation in the federal government. But there are lots of ideas out there, ideas rooted in our history that might help us get to a better place.

The cultural and economic benefits of such a change would be obvious to Indigenous people. They’d also benefit settler Canadians too by resolving the issue of ‘stolen land’. As Canadians, we often talk about supporting justice and human rights, and accepting difference. This is a great opportunity to live up to our rhetoric.

It would also be something we could truly take pride in as a country.

Passionately devoted to Canadian unity. Fascinated by Canadian politics and history. Striving to understand the mysteries of Canada.