Indigenous peoples celebrate Haida Title Lands agreement, but warn of renewed land dispossession

PV staff  

Since 1996, the federal government has recognized June 21 as “National Indigenous Peoples Day” and, since 2009, the month of June as “National Indigenous History Month.”

But the origins of these designations lie much further back. The first “Indian Day” was affirmed on June 21, 1945 by Indigenous activist Jules Sioui who was a founder of the North American Indian Nations Government movement. The date corresponds with the summer solstice.

Almost four decades later in 1982, the Assembly of First Nations (then called the National Indian Brotherhood) called for a National Aboriginal Solidarity Day on 21 June. In 1995, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended that this day be officially designated National First Peoples Day. The following year, the federal government finally acted.

This year, as we approach June 21, Indigenous peoples and their allies are celebrating another instance in which government has finally acted. In this case, it involves the Gaayhllxid/Gíihlagalgang “Rising Tide” Haida Title Lands Agreement. This agreement, which covers the land and waters of Haida Gwaii (“Queen Charlotte Islands”), was signed by the Haida Nation and the Province of British Columbia in April, with the provincial government subsequently passing the Haida Nation Recognition Amendment Act in May.

Historic legislation on title rights

The legislation is described as “monumental” by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. “For the first time a Crown government has recognized Aboriginal title through legislation, protecting fee-simple interests while affirming the inherent and constitutionally protected title, rights and jurisdiction of the Haida Nation.”

The Haida Nation says the legislation “provides for a staged transition to Haida jurisdiction, while protecting and maintaining private property rights and existing government services and infrastructure on Haida Gwaii.”

Speaking to the BC legislature on the day the bill passed, President of the Haida Nation Gaagwiis Jason Alsop said, “We have always upheld our inherent title to Haida Gwaii and surrounding waters in the face of resistance from Crown governments. But today, with recognition of our title to Haida Gwaii – in provincial law – we take another step toward peaceful coexistence with British Columbia. Once this legislation is passed we can work toward implementing our vision for Haida Gwaii without conflict, based on yahguudang/yahgudáng respect. For years, we’ve envisioned and worked towards re-establishing an economy that aligns with our values and traditions – one that sustains rather than exploits the land and sea. We can now take hold of that vision and create a future where the land and sea will nurture us for generations to come.”

The BC Federation of Labour endorsed the Rising Tide agreement and welcomed the Haida Nation Recognition Amendment Act as an important step toward justice for Indigenous peoples, and one which addressed the needs of working people in Haida Gwaii. “The Rising Tide agreement is a crucial piece of BC’s Reconciliation work. And it will mean long-needed stability and certainty for workers and their families in Haida Gwaii…stability for the municipal and provincial services they rely on,” said BC Fed President Sussanne Skidmore.

But the agreement and legislation faced plenty of opposition. In an effort to spread fear and division among non-Indigenous people, Conservative Party of BC leader John Rustad said that “landowners on Haida Gwaii are at the mercy of future Haida Indigenous law” and that private homes were at risk.

Similarly, BC United party leader Kevin Falcon warned that recognition of Haida Aboriginal Title proceeding too quickly, even though it began in 2002 when the Haida Nation first filed litigation, and called on the government “to hold off on its rushed enactment and ensure broader consultation.”

In response, the First Nations Leadership Council (FNLC) – comprised of the BC Assembly of First Nations, First Nations Summit and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs – called out the two right-wing parties for their “fear-instilling rhetoric, which politicizes the basic human rights of the Haida and serves only to incite racist backlash towards the Haida and Indigenous peoples.”

To Falcon’s complaint that recognition of Haida Aboriginal Title was rushed, the FNLC was blunt: “A quarter century is not too fast – it is actually painfully slow.”

Land dispossession a renewed concern

But while land rights are being recognized in Haida Gwaii, they are at risk in other parts of the country.

In their report “Agriculture in the North: A New Strategy of Indigenous Land Dispossession?” released by the Yellowhead Institute on May 7, researchers Sarah Rotz and Daniel Rück warn that climate change is spawning a new drive for theft of Indigenous land. Specifically, the authors argue that “as climate change brings warmer weather and longer summers, and as land prices continue to rise, there is a growing push to expand agriculture to previously non-agricultural communities in the boreal forest regions of Canada.”

Singling out Ontario, Rotz and Rück note that the “Great Clay Belt” – a 180,000 square kilometre region stretching 1000 kilometres from Hearst, Ontario to Senneterre, Quebec – is presently targeted by both government and agri-business for large-scale agricultural expansion. In the process, huge tracts of land will be swept away from Indigenous peoples and delivered to private corporate interests.

The project is eerily similar to the land dispossession which occurred during the process of colonization in the 18th and 19th centuries, albeit in a more advanced stage of capitalist development:

“One key goal of land assembly is financialization. That is, to bring financial institutions, actors, markets and operations into the purview of the land in question – in this case, through the prospect of land transformation for agricultural development. With the goal of converting land from scattered forest lots into larger agricultural plots, organizations including the Northeast Community Network (with support from local and provincial governments) plan to promote land to financial actors as a higher-value asset capable of generating attractive revenues. If investors buy into the agricultural expansion program, financial operations gain importance across the region, meaning that profit-making activity may increasingly occur in the realm of finance rather than in farming or forestry itself. Financialization, then, is a system and strategy of economic accumulation, and land assembly is a means of getting there.”

Need to move beyond capitalism

Situating the current drive for agricultural expansion within the parameters of capitalism, while acknowledging that “Food growing and gathering are essential to human life, but are becoming increasingly unpredictable as climate change intensifies,” Rotz and Rück point to the need for a different model of development.

“The industrial model of agricultural expansion, by design, makes it nearly impossible for the sustainable co-existence of other habitats (especially habitats that can maintain the complex web of other-than-human relations native to those regions), and in turn, destroying the livelihoods and practices of peoples that rely on them. As a result, industrialized agricultural expansion and world-building has meant dispossession and disaster for many Indigenous peoples, the land, and all those striving to rebuild and nurture vital habitat. This, in addition to the impending destruction of climate change, might lead us to seek a different distribution of decision-making, power, and jurisdiction to avoid repeating past mistakes. Rather than further investment into colonial agri-food industrialization, how can we support Indigenous designed and led models of food growing and gathering?”

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