In his book on the creation of Indian reserves in British Columbia, Making Native Space (2002), Cole Harris writes
colonialism is increasingly seen as a culture of domination, a set of values that infused European thought and letters; led Europeans confidently out into the world; stereotyped non-Europeans as the obverse, the negative counterpart, of civilized Europeans; and created moral justification for appropriating non-European lands and reshaping non-European cultures.
So, according to this observation, what would a colonialist in Canada sound like? Why, somebody who made an observation about Aboriginal people in Canada and then used it as a reason for appropriating their property.
For instance, here is prominent right-wing pundit Thomas Flanagan on Aboriginal rights:
The underlying theory was that the introduction of European methods of agriculture, which would increase the productivity of the soil and enlarge the population, justified the sovereigns’ requiring the natives to surrender their right to live off the land and to settle down in a way compatible with European-style agriculture….the Indians would have to renounce their right to roam at will over the land before agricultural civilization could develop. From the essay “Metis Aboriginal Rights”
Flanagan is using carefully coded language here. Aboriginal people didn’t roam over the land at all any more than commuters roam to work in the morning. There was nothing random or casual about their relationship to the land. They owned it. They used it. You know they owned it because if you tried to take it away from them, they asked you to give it back.
Flanagan is in fact attempting to sidestep the issue of ownership by invoking colonial era stereotypes of terra nullius, empty land, which was asserted on the basis that Aboriginal people could not own what they did not use. (Or, more correctly to this circumstance, didn’t use in the right way.)
The idea of ownership deriving from use, by the way, is clearly of colonial provenance, since it’s a legal principle that only applies to Aboriginal people. No one else has to surrender their property because people disapprove of the way they make use of it.
Think not? Let’s compare Aboriginal rights to the law of expropriation. If the government wants to expropriate your land, it has to have a specific project in mind and has to prove in a court of law that it needs your land to carry out that project. It can’t expropriate land on mere speculation, and when it does expropriate, and that expropriation is approved by a court, it is required to pay you market value. If your land is expropriated and is not used for the stated purpose within a reasonable period of time, the original owner can apply to a court to get their land back.
None of these rules apply when the government expropriates Aboriginal land.
See all that unused, unoccupied treaty land in the Prairies. Has anybody suggested giving it back to the treaty people?–Nope.
Then consider the idea of agricultural land use as a title to property, and take that idea and apply it to a map of Canada.
- Q. How much of that land is suitable for agriculture?
- Ans. Not much.
- Q. Did that stop Canada from taking it out of the hands of Aboriginal people anyways?
- Ans. No.
The argument just doesn’t add up, as fact or as legal principle. Of course, propaganda seldom does.
What does history say? Aboriginal rights in the context of Canadian law is merely a subset of the rights of conquered people worldwide. The actors were not just British. They were the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French, the Dutch and the American Colonies. Others got more involved in the Race for Africa—Germany, Belgium, Italy, as well as France and the British once again—relevant because legal cases deriving from colonies in Africa are part of the foundation of British and Canadian law in respect of Aboriginal rights.
This colonization effort involved all manner of people pursuing all manner of modes of life, from city dwellers and empires, to gardener-hunters, to complex hunter-gathers, to the civilizations of India, China, and many others. To parse this process and pretend that what happened in one place to a selectively defined group of people in the British context is somehow separate from what was happening all over the place to all manner of people is intellectual dishonesty.
The hunting and gathering peoples dispossessed by the British had one thing in common with all the other people dispossessed during the European age of colonization, and that one thing was the common driver of all the dispossession which took place during that long dark history. They didn’t have the resources to resist European power.
End of story.
My own working definition of Aboriginal rights is “what’s left after the Europeans have laid claim to the rest.”
Let’s not pretend that there were any principles behind the actions taken except those principles that say might makes right, the same principles that give a mugger with a pistol effective title to your wallet and watch.
The rest is propaganda, Thomas. And propaganda, that’s just official lying.