Category Archives: Environment

Humour – an unlikely weapon for Aboriginal Rights

by Barry Weisleder  

A review of “The Inconvenient Indian – A Curious Account of Native People in North America” by Thomas King, published by Anchor Canada, a division of Random House, 2013, 314 pages.
ThomasKingThomas King, best known as the creator and star of the hilarious CBC Radio One series “The Dead Dog Cafe Comedy Hour”, is the author of a funny book about the sad tragedy that is the situation of North American indigenous peoples. The book is a best-seller, proving again that a serious message can reach a huge readership through the medium of satire, without debasing the cause.
Born in Sacramento, California, Thomas King is of Cherokee, Greek and German-American descent. As an adult, he migrated to Australia, where he worked for years as a photojournalist. After moving to Canada in 1980, King taught Native Studies at the University of Lethbridge in the early 1980s. He also served as a faculty member of the University of Minnesota’s American Indian Studies Department. King is currently an English professor at the University of Guelph, about an hour west of Toronto. King was the NDP candidate for Guelph in the October 14, 2008 federal election, finishing fourth behind the Liberal, Conservative, and Green Party candidates.
“The Inconvenient Indian” is a short, post-modern version of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” King recounts the massacres inflicted by the European colonial powers, records many of the lies, broken land treaties, the physical displacement, and the cultural genocide that still masquerades as education. The author postures as the skeptic, and proceeds to eviscerate the skepticism that surrounds corporate media coverage of aboriginal issues.
Why does he use the antiquated word ‘Indian’ when First Nations is the term of choice in Canada, and Native Americans is preferred in the United States? King calls it “the North American default”. Then he amusingly disparages his decision to name the non-native population ‘Whites.’ “Well, I struggled with this one. A Japanese friend of mine likes to call Anglos ‘crazy Caucasoids,’ while another friend told me that if I was going to use the term ‘Indians’ I should call everyone else ‘cowboys.’”
King identifies three kinds of Indian: Dead Indians, Live Indians and Legal Indians. Dead are the ones that “are the stereotypes and cliches that North America has conjured up out of experience and out of its collective imaginings and fears.” Society sees “war bonnets, beaded shirts, fringed deerskin dresses, headbands.” “You can find Dead Indians everywhere. Rodeos, powwows, movies, television commercials.” They pose no threat to power.inconvenient_indian_366x549px2
Live Indians, on the other hand, were an “annoying part of life in the New World.” European diseases killed about 80 per cent of them. The American newspaper mogul Horace Greeley said in 1859, “The Indians are children… the very lowest and rudest of human existence… These people must die out – there is no help for them.” King sarcastically adds: “Problem was, Live Indians didn’t die out.”
The Canadian census of 2006 records the existence of 565,000 Status Indians. The total indigenous population in Canada then, including Indians, Metis and Inuit, was 1.2 million – not counting those living on at least 22 Indian reserves, overlooked according to Statistics Canada. In the United States, federal “recognition” is granted to tribes rather than individuals. In 2009 the U.S. Federal Register recognized 564 tribes, encompassing about 950,000 people. The total number of Indians in the U.S. is around 2.4 million, or a few hundred thousand more or less, given the vagaries of the census.
Legal Indians have certain rights and privileges – because of the treaties both countries signed with Native nations. About 40 per cent of Live Indians in North America are Legal Indians. King caustically observes that “while North America loves the Dead Indian and ignores the Live Indian, North America hates the Legal Indian. Savagely.” He acerbically describes the treaties as an error in judgement that the establishment has been trying to correct for the last 150 years.
Legal Indians are ‘inconvenient’. That’s because their legal rights stand in the way of Private Profit – er, I mean Progress. (Sorry, I’m starting to sound like the author.)
But why can’t indigenous people just melt into the population at large? Sure, they’ve been robbed, kidnapped, displaced, and much worse than decimated. But why can’t they just say let’s ‘let bye-gones be by-gones’, and just ‘get over it?’
Well, should Jews, gays and Roma people just ‘get over’ the Nazi holocaust? Ought Blacks just ‘get over’ the murderous Middle Passage and nearly three hundred years of slavery? Doesn’t the commitment to the idea of ‘Never again’ require an historical memory?
How about the question of Aboriginal self-reliance?
King writes: “I’ve been told any number of times that we have to learn to stand on our own two feet and develop the skills necessary to manage on our own, without relying on government generosities.
“In the same way that Air Canada, AIG, Bombardier, Halliburton, General Motors, and the good folks out in Alberta’s Tar Sand Project manage on their own, without relying on government handouts.
“I suppose I could have mentioned Enron, World Com, Bre-X, and Bear Stearns as well, but these disasters were more greed than incompetence. Weren’t they? Though I suppose the one does not preclude the other.
“So, if I’ve got it right, while North America is reluctant to support the economic “incompetence” of Native people, it is more than willing to throw money at the incompetence of corporations. And why not? After all, if we’ve learned nothing in the last century, we should have learned that government support of big business is capitalism’s only hope.”
That’s a surprisingly radical analysis for a one-time NDP candidate, even if it is not accompanied by a concrete programme for radical change.
Here’s another way to look at the self-reliance idea, as it’s posed under capitalism. Some workers belong to a union. That gives them strength lacked by workers who don’t. Some indigenous people have treaty rights, which gives them a toe-hold, and a bit of leverage on the capitalist state. In the absence of a cooperative commonwealth for all, does it make sense to give up the little they’ve got, however ‘inconvenient’ they may be to big business?
To be sure, “The issue has always been land” insists King. “It will always be land, until there isn’t a square foot of land left in North America that is controlled by Native people.” It’s a sensitive issue, as discovered by 13-year-old Tenelle Starr from the Star Blanket First Nation, 90 kilometres north-east of Regina, Saskatchewan. She was sent home from school in early January tenelle_starrbecause she was wearing a pink hoodie bearing the slogan ‘Got Land? Thank an Indian’. The good news is that now Tenelle’s friends are sporting the slogan, and the social media is all a-buzz.
In the meantime, indigenous land titles continue to stand in the way of corporate resource extraction, even of military training bases (like the one at Stoney Point Ojibway reserve in Ontario where provincial police shot and killed native protester Dudley George in 1995).
Fortunately, indigenous peoples’ opposition to pipeline construction has helped to forge an alliance of farmers, workers and environmentalists concerned about pollution and climate change. This convergence is reflected in the broad public support for the Idle No More movement that arose in late 2012.
The path that capitalists and their governments have taken to remove the native land obstacle to profit maximization is called ‘termination’. If the policy sounds deadly, it’s no accident.
Neither is it anything new. After centuries of dispossession and genocide, ‘modern’ governments stepped up to the plate. Duncan Campbell Scott, head of Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs from 1913-1932 put it bluntly: “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department…”
In 1953, the U.S. Congress passed the Termination Act and the Relocation Act concurrently. It allowed Congress to terminate all federal relations with tribes unilaterally, while Relocation “encouraged” Native people to quit their reservations and move to the cities.
In 1969, the Canadian government tried to do the same thing with its White Paper. Then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau suggested that there is no such thing as Indian entitlement to land or Native rights, and urged First Nations people to assimilate into Canadian society. The reaction was massively and fiercely negative. What do you suppose would happen if Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau advocated that today?
2013-01-02-idlenomorehuffpoWhile the Conservative government of Stephen Harper drags its feet, Tory ideologue Tom Flanagan openly campaigns for the termination of Native status, and for dispersal and privatization of aboriginal lands.
The interest of the working class lies in solidarity with Indigenous peoples. The reasons are clear. One is the practical need for unity between workers and all oppressed peoples against the bosses and their state. Another is based on recognition that the struggle of Indigenous people to preserve their collective land rights constitutes a powerful obstacle to the agenda of Capital – which is to turn all of nature into a commodity, for sale to the highest bidder, subject to ruthless despoliation.
Thomas King’s “The Inconvenient Indian – A Curious Account of Native People in North America” is remarkably witty, often hilarious, and a truthful companion for the important battles ahead. Read it, and use it well.

UN climate talks stall on taking action

Dec.-2013-Climate-582x297

By CHRISTINE FRANK, Socialist Action U.S.A.

 Another two weeks of international climate talks were held last month, and it’s the same old story. The United Nations’ 19th Conference of the Parties (COP 19) failed to take concrete action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent catastrophic climate change. After nearly 20 years of pointless deliberations, the world is no closer to a solution to the global warming caused by fossil-fuel combustion.

The Polish government hosted the event at Warsaw’s national sports stadium, terming it a “Coal and Climate Summit” at which the coal industry played a prominent role, promoting the myth of “clean coal” and continued subsidies for the filthiest of fossil fuels.

Poland has significant coal deposits and is committed to not only mining and burning it well into the future but fracking extreme shale gas as well, making it clear that it’s going to be business as usual and to hell with the fate of the planet. This is the case even though 89% of the Polish people favor increasing renewable energy, according to a Greenpeace poll. The presence of the coal industry angered the NGOs, which staged a walkout of 800 delegates in protest as thousands demonstrated outside the stadium.

This ludicrous farce was played out in the wake of the strongest and deadliest storm on record in the Pacific, Super Typhoon Haiyan, which had struck the Philippines. Yeb Sano, that devastated country’s chief climate negotiator, launched a hunger strike, pledging not to eat until a meaningful outcome was reached in Warsaw. He did not have much luck. Despite the wake-up call Haiyan presented to the delegates, they were still asleep at the wheel even though carbon emissions continue to climb at a record pace.

Recently, big polluters such as Australia, Canada, Japan, and the United States have scrapped their pledges to reduce emissions. In addition, no one has put money in the kitty for the Green Climate Fund, for which $100 billion was to be raised by 2020 to aid poor countries in coping with the effects of extreme weather and adapting to climate change with clean technologies. This justifiably raises the crucial issue of climate justice for those parts of the world most heavily suffering from the effects of the accumulated emissions of countries that launched the Industrial Revolution.

On the other hand, the five large developing nations with raging economies—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (members of the BRICS grouping)—produce carbon emissions on a par with industrialized nations; yet, they demand to be left off the hook in reducing emissions. And several oil-rich and coal-rich nations in the Global South are of a like mind, maintaining that the historical responsibility lies with those lands first to industrialize.

The major issue, however, is that the world needs to leave all hydrocarbons in the ground across the board and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero from all sources as soon as possible through crash programs of renewable energy if there is to be any chance of averting an ecological cataclysm. These great undertakings can be funded by re-utilizing the war budgets of the rich nations.

Going into overtime, conference participants finally agreed to a faint-hearted system of pledging emissions cuts. The U.S. chief negotiator, Todd Stern, placed his greatest hope in “peer pressure.” In other words, the pledges are to be voluntary, with no binding commitments, as usual. With the Obama administration held firmly in the back pocket of the Energy Giants, this comes as no surprise.

There was also general support for a new treaty mechanism to deal with the human costs of extreme weather, but nothing definite was decided upon. There are other meetings scheduled in Lima, Peru, next year and in Paris in 2015, where representatives are expected to replace the now defunct Kyoto Protocol, but they will very likely only continue to stall on taking significant action.

One should not hold one’s breath in anticipation of real results. Instead, the world needs a powerful mass movement that demands “System Change, Not Climate Change” to bring down the fossil-fuel based capitalist economy and the rotten ruling class, which profits from environmental destruction.

Photo: Climate justice activists from around the world march through Warsaw on Nov. 16, at start of UN conference. By Alik Kepliez / AP.

NDP Leader Attacks First Nations, Activists

fracking_elsi-e1383585549959
In a shameful move, the labour-based New Democratic Party in New Brunswick republished an aggressively titled op-ed article on its website, “Don’t Negotiate Till Threats End!”. The article was taken down and replaced by similarly problematic editorial, “Reality Check: The Law is the Law” written by the party leader in the province, Dominic Cardy.

The articles chastised activists who joined a highway blockade with members of Elsipogtog First Nations, trying to stop exploratory drilling on their lands. To Cardy’s credit, he recognizes the problem with relying on the government to safeguard the environment asking “why should we expect them to have the courage to use the law [against the shale gas industry]” (though it’s more likely a question of will rather than courage.)

But in the next paragraph, he puts on his policeman’s hat and gives the reader a stern tautological legal lesson, “Any blockade… must end… because the law is the law. [Activists] have an equal responsibility to stand up against law breaking and vandalism”. He didn’t mention whether he had a plan to crack down on the menace of littering or jay-walking.

Cardy attempts to resolve the cognitive dissonance of respecting the ‘rule of law that can’t be trusted’ by revealing his actual plan to stop shale gas: an NDP government led by him.  The environment is to be saved by electing him as premier, or not at all. Aside from opposing shale gas though, it is difficult to see how the party under his leadership would substantially differ from the current regime. Cardy is a proponent of the right wing “Third Way” movement within the Socialist International. He took the lead in pushing for a lesser role for labour in the federal party, and looks up to imperialist war criminal Tony Blair.

This ahistorical diatribe is especially disappointing, coming from an NDP leader because it betrays the party’s own history. Participants in the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, which brought the city to a grinding halt, likely wouldn’t have cared much for Cardy’s “the law is the law” attitude when they were savagely attacked by the police and thrown in prison. One of those participants, J.S. Woodsworth, later went on to become the first leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, predecessor of the modern day NDP.

This identity crisis is not new for the party, but it is accelerating at an alarming rate. As capitalism descends deeper into crisis, it’s contradictions, which are fundamental features of it’s political reality, are highlighted by statements such as this. At a time when workers and the growing underclass are losing more and more at the expense of big business, the platform and actions of the labour bureaucrats and ruling class politicians who purport to represent the workers’ interests are getting more and more watered down and lacklustre.

Ultimately, it is not solely the fault of these social democrats that the party agenda is more and more accommodating to the status quo. The demands of workers can be advanced only when workers themselves raise them. In building unions, activists have created institutions capable of fighting for their interests, but the task of leading that fight can not be successfully delegated.  Left to its own devices, the labour bureaucracy develops petty interests of its own, putting their jobs and privileges above all else.

The NDP can be a vehicle for change and a voice for radical populist movements like Idle No More and the campaign against environmental degradation — but not by trusting politicians to take care of business. The task of achieving basic change can be fulfilled only by applying continuous pressure from the bottom up — by the people whose lives are directly affected by the plunder of global capital. We need a radical labour movement driven by, and for workers! To move forward, are obliged to struggle against the alienating effects of bureaucracy, especially in the NDP and the labour movement.

Free PDF is available: Concessions No More! Fight to Defeat Austerity

Below is a copy of “Concessions No More! Fight to Defeat Austerity”, a collection of talks presented at Socialism 2013, the annual international educational conference hosted by Socialist Action / Ligue pour l’Action socialiste, held May 10-12, 2013 at the University of Toronto.

socialism conference book final