By Alex Geddie
In some ways, the spring lockdown associated with the COVID-19 pandemic came as a boon to the Canadian state, which, over the winter of 2019-2020, saw a series of increasingly successful examples of resistance to its colonial projects explode into unprecedented large-scale demonstrations of solidarity in nearly every major city.
The loud calls to respect Indigenous sovereignty and account for the ongoing effects of colonization found common voice with a sweeping international movement to address anti-Black racism, police violence and the consequences of racism, historical and ongoing. These actions, growing from a fertile history of struggle (more recently Idle No More and Black Lives Matter) and driven by egregious new attacks, seriously challenged the ability of federal and provincial governments to continue portraying themselves as caring patriarchs or partners in the development of either group.
But in the media, the sudden arrival of the global pandemic and resulting lockdown provided distraction from the constant attacks on territorial rights, and cover for disputed resource extraction activities to be resumed with renewed intensity (and perhaps urgency, given the record low demand for petroleum products and oil prices briefly sinking into the negative).
In April, The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs called in an open letter for Wet’suwet’en Title and Rights to be respected over concerns that the resumption of resource infrastructure construction would quickly introduce COVID-19 to their communities. On March 26, not even a week into lockdown, BC’s NDP government declared ‘critical infrastructure service’ construction like the Coastal GasLink project an ‘essential activity’. Construction at an LNG site in Kitimat had already been allowed to proceed even after COVID infections were discovered. In fact, as early as 2014, Northern Health had stressed the threat that the rapidly growing presence of construction workers posed to the already at-capacity primary health facilities in the region.
This new threat only came on top of the risks that the development of extraction infrastructure and climate change already pose to the health and ecosystems of the many First Nations peoples in this region – they are committed to safeguarding both, and their right to do so is guaranteed by Treaty and Right. But this latest challenge must also be linked to the long-running disregard for the lives and health of Indigenous people everywhere in remote communities, on reserve and on unceded and stolen land. COVID-19 is hardly the first virus that has been spread to colonized people in this deliberate manner.
On July 19, Haudenosaunee land defenders moved to block the beginning of heavy construction on the ‘Mackenzie Meadows’ development on their unceded territory, renaming the disputed area 1492 Land Back Lane. The developer, Foxgate, and the County of Haldimand quickly sought and received injunction orders against the defenders’ camps, and another to remove the blockades of the surrounding routes. The OPP acted immediately, violently removing and arresting land defenders from their own land, even arresting journalist Karl Dockstader as he reported on these events.
This was only the latest encroachment in the Haldimand Tract by the never-ending sprawl of suburban settler real estate development – the OPP and courts guarantee the right of this financialized development to expand without limit outside the small reserve, while they ensure the strangling of development and flout the Treaty rights of the people inside.
The stress of the pandemic has exposed the depth of the housing crisis everywhere, and particularly the acute problem faced by First Nations people living in urban centres, who are so disproportionately represented in the encampments that have appeared to meet the desperate need for shelter. Though this emergency appears as a product of the pandemic, as above, it is only a symptom of a longer-running process of underdevelopment, consisting of a systematic and deliberate neglect of housing conditions, continual degradation of territorial rights and grabbing of land.
This October, lobster fishers from the Sipekne’katik Mi’kmaq First Nation asserted their right to sustain a moderate livelihood through fishing and hunting their traditional territory, as guaranteed by the 1752 Treaty of Peace. Settler commercial fishers in the area responded by blockading the bay, then ramming into and firing live ammunition at Mi’kmaq fishing boats. A facility used to process the lobster mysteriously burst into flames the same week.
The commercial fishers cry foul over the impact to fishery conservation the Mi’kmaq operation represents, even though it comprises less than 0.1% of the size of the total lobster operation in the area. The operation is in fact dominated by the Clearwater corporation (which owns licenses to extract 720 tons of lobster from the same waters annually, and still exceeds its quotas). As the settler terrorist attacks on Mi’kmaq treaty rights proceeded, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and RCMP were nowhere to be found.
As usual, Crown security forces like the OPP and RCMP seem to have their hands tied when it comes to defending Treaty Rights guaranteed to Indigenous peoples, but when the slightest challenge to the absolute authority of corporations and settlers to oversee the unlimited exploitation of resources everywhere is presented, they arrive ready to use force. This was precisely the job given to these armed forces by the state at their foundation.
The subversion of the sovereignty, self-determination, and social and economic well-being of Indigenous peoples in the name of Canadian economic necessity began long before the outbreak of COVID-19 – in fact, this ‘necessity’ has expressed itself consistently from the arrival of the first European colonizers to the present. Accompanying this process of subversion is the closing of all doors to development or recovery from this constant abuse that do not involve capitulation to Crown legal authority over land and resources.
The ‘choice’ presented here to colonized people, by the combined forces of Canadian and international finance capital and the Canadian government/’Crown’ representing them, is always made under powerful duress. The alternative is to be exposed to a never-ending series of social crises like the one currently being engendered by the pandemic, whose deadly consequences are clearly never felt equally by colonizer and colonized. But it is presented as fair dealing.
Canada can pretend that a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic emerges from the unpredictability of nature, even as an ‘act of God’ – when in reality it knows full well how its hand is strengthened, and wastes no time taking full advantage.
The theory of underdevelopment advanced by Marxists gives us a clear view of the process by which the development of one society is fueled by the underdevelopment, exploitation and immiseration of other societies. In this respect, we must consider the ongoing genocidal mistreatment of Indigenous peoples at the hands of colonizers not as an unfortunate side effect of Canadian development, but as one of its most powerful drivers.
Because this drive is so relentless, colonized people have not had the luxury of stepping away from struggle during lockdown. Every force allied with them must now renew and redouble its solidarity, and finally put an end to this centuries-long process.
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