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Never Idle: Gord Hill on Indigenous Resistance in Canada
March 18, 2013
[A condensed version of this article appeared in the March 2013 issue of The Portland Radicle.]
Radicle: Could you explain how indigenous power is apportioned in Canada and the Assembly of First Nations?
Gord Hill: The AFN is comprised of all the band council chiefs. We refer to them as the “Indian Act chiefs” because the Indian Act is federal legislation that was introduced in 1876 and it was through this act that the Canadian government imposed the reservation system and the band council system and status, like who is a Native. That’s the main thing about the Indian Act, so since then they imposed these band councils and chiefs onto all the reserves. The Assembly of First Nations was established in the early 1980s and it’s a national organization of these Indian Act chiefs. They’re basically a lobby group with the government. They’re a political organization of the Indian Act chiefs.
I understand you have a specific critique of the Idle No More movement.
Idle No More was started in mid-November , by four women. These are professional women: lawyers, university professors, business managers. So right off the bat, I have a critique of their class, because they’re a middle class elite trying to organize the grassroots people here. What Idle No More did was they coordinated with some Indian Act chiefs who have their own agenda within the Assembly of First Nations and in terms of their relationship with the federal government. Idle No More organizers were working with the Indian Act chiefs in mid-December. What the chiefs did is that there was a special assembly of the AFN in Ottawa, so some of these chiefs that Idle No More were working with went to the House of Commons and did a symbolic attempt to enter and had a little scuffle for 30 seconds with security guards. This became national news here in Canada. It was one of the main things that propelled Idle No More into the national consciousness. After that December 10 was their big national day of action. Most of it was organized by the Indian Act chiefs. That’s one of the main criticisms I had right off the bat. Not only are these professional, middle-class elites trying to organize grassroots people, but they’re working with the Indian Act chiefs. The whole thing about the Indian Act chiefs and the band councils is that one of the reasons we don’t have a very strong indigenous grassroots movement here is because of the Indian Act chiefs. One of their roles is to control Native people. One of the things they do is that they’ve always worked to suppress grassroots movement here. It’s a big problem when you have a supposedly grassroots movement arising. These Indian Act chiefs are Aboriginal businessmen, for the most part. There’s a term we have up here called “Aboriginal business elite,” because these are people involved in multi-million dollar corporations through the band council system and Indian Act system.
What happened with Idle No More is that as it progressed, they also revealed very, very reformist politics. They started out wanting to stop Bill C-45. They began imposing all kinds of codes of conduct on people people who were attending Idle No More rallies. They’re imposing a pacifist ideology on this grassroots movement and strict legalism. When the blockades started occurring, Idle No More organizers came out and said “We don’t support any illegal actions,” the blockades, which are civil disobedience acts. They’re not militant. These blockades are fairly routine here in Canada, carried out by Native peoples. Those are some of the main critiques I had of Idle No More.
That’s been borne out through the life of the protest, right?
The protests were strongest in December and there were a lot of temporary blockades of highways, border crossings, and trains at the high point of the movement. As it progressed, it began to decline more and more because Idle No More organizers are trying to put out all these little fires saying “No, that’s not Idle No More. That’s not what we do. This is strictly an educational movement.” That’s what they’ve evolved into now. They’re holding forums and educational circles in communities. That’s basically what they are now.
Can you talk about anti-capitalist and anti-colonial Native organization in Canada and what that’s looked like in the past?
One of the critiques that myself and other Native radicals had of Idle No More is that they’re very entitled. It’s more indicative of these middle class organizers, where they were. They were idle. They were sitting around, being idle and then they decided “We’re going to organize against Bill C-45, so therefore we’re Idle No More,” but in reality there’s a long history of indigenous resistance in this country, anti-colonial resistance. Even in the last 30-year period, you’ve got all kinds of grassroots movements. They’re localized, they’re trying to stop a particular project, something in their local area. There’s a long history of blockades. One of the highlights would be Oka, in 1990, a Mohawk community near Montreal, Quebec, who were resisting the expansion of a golf course and condominium complex and it escalated into a 77-day armed standoff. The Canadian government deployed 4,500 soldiers to contain this rebellion. Oka set the tone for indigenous resistance all throughout the 90s. There were a lot of militant blockades.
In 1995, in the summer, there was an occupation in Ipperwash Provincial Park in southern Ontario, which ended with the Ontario Provincial Police sending in the riot squad. The people defeated the riot squad and the police went back later in the night with a heavily-armed tactical unit that opened fire. They fired over 1,000 rounds at these unarmed protesters. They killed Dudley George. The same summer there was a standoff here in central B.C. at place called Gustafsen Lake. It’s in Secwepemc territory. It’s also known as Ts’peten. That was a Sun Dance camp that a white, American rancher wanted evicted from his property, so the B.C. Government sent in 450 heavily-armed Royal Canadian Mounted Police. There was a month-long standoff there. The RCMP opened fire. They fired tens of thousands of rounds, trying to kill these indigenous land defenders.
Up in New Brunswick in 1999 to 2001, there was a fishing conflict that involved hundreds of RCMP and Department of Fisheries and Oceans officers trying to enforce a ban on lobster fishing on the Mi’kmaq.
In 2006, there was the Six Nations land reclamations in Ontario, which involved hundreds of Six Nations members resisting the Provincial Police.
These struggles, which were militant and anti-colonial have been very successful. In Ipperwash, they reclaimed the land they were forcibly removed from prior to World War II. They got that land back and they’re still living on it. Six Nations stopped the development of a condominium project and they’re still occupying that site. This is six years later. There’s a rich history of indigenous struggles here and Idle No More comes in with their ahistorical analysis. It’s like they don’t know anything about this history. Right now in B.C. we have major struggles going on with pipelines. Enbridge pipeline is one of seven proposed pipeline projects running roughly from Prince George in the interior of the province to the coast at Prince Rupert and Kitimat. There’s other struggles going on against mining projects. There’s a lot of activity going on here. Idle No More just came in and seem to be just clueless about it.
It would seem like the politics being expressed and promoted are not really in line with the actions you just mentioned.
Not at all. It’s similar to Occupy. Our experience with Occupy up here is that we had a lot of naïve, inexperienced people come in and try to organize social movements and they have no experience, but they think they’ve reinvented the wheel and that this is how things are supposed to be done. With Idle No More, we had these middle class people come in thinking this is how you organize social movements based on their vague understanding of the history of social movements, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King and what the state promotes as “good forms of protest”. This will be a recurring problem, I think, in this age of social media, which really helped organize the Occupy and Idle No More campaigns.
What are some barriers or blocks people may experience when considering more militant activity? Do you think it’s possible for more people to adopt that?
At Oka, you had the Mohawk Warriors, an armed group and they resisted. There was a policeman shot and killed in the initial raid the Provincial Police did on a small blockade in the pines, this area that they wanted to protect, on a road that was hardly used at all. [The police] sent in this tactical unit. Some Mohawks opened fire. They defended their position and the police abandoned their vehicles and fled. After Oka, in 1990, there was a lot of discussion in the Native movement about “What can we learn from this? How can we resist?” One of the analyses that came out is that what should be adopted is a more low-level, less lethal conflict, similar to the Palestinian Intifada, which had been ongoing for a couple years at that point. So Six Nations in 2006 demonstrated that method of struggle and the success you can have with it. It’s not a small group of armed people. It’s a community that’s mobilized and it has its militant, front-line aspect, the Warriors. A lot of communities have this potential, but what are the main ones?
One of the main ones are the Indian Act chiefs and the band councils who will work with the government and the police to undermine, isolate and marginalize these more militant struggles. At Gustafsen Lake in 1995, the band councils in the area around Gustafsen Lake, at 100 Mile House in central B.C. worked with the police and government and issued statements condemning the land defenders, saying that they were just squatters and renegades. They work with police in their psychological operations and their media smear campaigns and paint any land defender as being basically a terrorist. That’s a big obstacle right there.
Other obstacles you have are police repression a lot of these blockades experience. One thing people should know is that these band council chiefs also carry out blockades. A lot of them are just civil disobedience actions. It’s no different than the Keystone XL blockades that we’ve seen, for example. A lot of these Indian Act band councils do their own blockades and, with [the councils’] rhetoric, people get confused and think that these chiefs are really fighting for the people and land, but they’re not. They use the militant resistance as more leverage against the government to get more concessions from the state.
Has there ever been any push-back against the Indian Act chiefs? Have there been attempts at alternative organization and rejecting their claim to leadership?
That’s basically a defining characteristic of the grassroots [indigenous] movements that have existed in the last 30 years, that they’re outside of the band council system. A lot of times they’re in opposition to the band council system. This opposition is intensified because of the band councils’ collaboration with the police and the government against them, so it’s very common that most grassroots movements that are wise are opposed to the band council system. Autonomously, without the band councils, without the government funding. In Kanesatake [Quebec], which is [near] Oka, in 2005 the band council chief was bringing in police to repress the political opposition on the reserve, so the people gathered and they forced the police out of the reserve and they burned the chief’s house down. That’s a strong example, but it is an example that there’s a lot of animosity between grassroots people and the band councils. The band councils control everything on the reserve, the housing, education, social assistance care and if you’re a grassroots person that is on the reserve, you suffer as a result. You’re not going to get your housing, you’re not going to get money for education. They’re all these things that the band council controls and that’s by design. The government imposed the band councils and they’re supposed to be in control of all this infrastructure on the reserve and that’s one way they control the population.
What else is going on in B.C. right now?
The main struggle going on right now is against these pipelines, because of the major threat they represent. They’re crossing thousands of kilometers, coming from the Tar Sands in Alberta and coming across a lot of salmon-bearing rivers and streams, to the coast. When they get to the coast there are these massive super-tankers to transport this oil and gas through this treacherous channel to the ocean, where [it will] be transported to Asia or the United States. That’s the main struggle and you’ll actually see a lot of band councils up north are opposed to the Enbridge pipeline, but they’re also working with other companies for other pipelines right now.
One of the [other] ones is the Unis’tot’en camp which is opposed to the Pacific Trails natural gas pipeline. They’ve built a cabin in the path of the proposed pipeline and they’ve been stopping surveyors from coming into their territory. They’re a real grassroots movement. They’re not being funded by [non-government-organizations] or anything like that.
We’ve got a lot of campaigns against mining. The government in the early 2000s streamlined the permitting process so they’ve opened up the land to new mining projects.
In the northeast of the province, this is where the natural gas is being drilled [for], and a lot of it’s [obtained] through fracking.
There’s also the missing and murdered women issue on Highway 16 that’s running from Prince George to Prince Rupert. There’s a lot of missing and murdered women out there. Most of them are Aboriginal.
In Vancouver, of course, the missing and murdered women case is an international issue. They’ve arrested and imprisoned Robert Pickton. He’s been convicted in six of these killings. He’s suspected of many more. This is a problem across the country. In every major city, they have the same situation of missing and murdered women.
There are lot of different issues, but those are two that come to mind. The protection of territories against resource exploitation and the violence against indigenous women.
[Gord Hill is from the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation and has been involved in indigenous resistance movements since 1990. He maintains the Warrior Publications blog and has published two comics with Arsenal Pulp Press: The 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance Comic Book and The Anti-Capitalist Resistance Comic Book.]