Indigenous Sovereignty and Socialism

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A review of Valerie Lannon and Jesse McLaren, Indigenous Sovereignty and Socialism (Toronto: Resistance Press, 2018).

The epic struggle of Wet’suwet’en against the state and Coastal Gaslink playing out currently gives this title a special relevance. The Canadian state, like the New Zealand, has a wholly undeserved reputation for liberality and ‘generosity’ when it comes to the question of Indigenous rights. Justin Trudeau is happy to talk the language of rights, respect and reconciliation. The idea that Canada is a nicer, kinder society than the United States is important to its nationalism. But the reality, as Valerie Lannon and Jesse McLaren show in this important book, is the same as in every other settler-colonial capitalist society. Canada was built out of invasion, by the French and British empires, of Indigenous lands; and North American capitalism – in the fur trade, in forestry, and, later, in resource extraction – required the systematic degradation and attempted genocide of First Nations. Treaties were broken, or never signed; sovereign nations invaded; children taken from their families (a process ongoing to this day); and cultures degraded. This is the true history of liberal Canada, and it deserves to be more widely known. Lannon and McLaren, two socialist campaigners, outline the history of European colonisation and the capitalist state. And, crucially, they connect this history to the needs of capitalism. Canada’s leaders were motivated by a bitter racism, certainly, but their actions in dispossessing and oppressing Indigenous peoples were linked also to the needs of the profit system. They show how racism served to unite settler workers with the settler state against Indigenous resistance; and how tools of oppression, like the residential schools (state-run institutions now revealed to be rife with abuse, presented as ‘enlightened’ educational settings for Native children), tried to “instill passive acceptance of capitalist exploitation” while Indian Agents “helped recruit for employers”.

Just as importantly, Lannon and McLaren also document an interrupted history of resistance. Indigenous peoples, in this history, are not mere victims of colonialism, nor are they passive, virtuous saints waiting for enlightened saviours. Rather, there has been resistance to colonisation right from its beginning. Wars were fought to keep land; occupations, protests and delegations publicised land theft. This organisation drew, in turn, and sustained Canada’s emerging working class and class struggle. Lannon and McLaren document the efforts of Indigenous workers to form trade unions and fight for conditions on the job. This work sometimes overcame deep divisions in the working class. Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh wharfies, for example, formed the first union on the Vancouver waterfront in 1906. IWW branches brought Indigenous workers together with oppressed Chinese, Hawaiian and other migrant workers. Land struggles are a constant too. If #IdleNoMore and protests against the Trans-Canada Mountain Pipeline will be well known to New Zealand readers, Lannon and McLaren trace a whole range of resistance, some big, some small, that makes up a continuous tradition. Louis Riel led Métis people in armed rebellion against the state in the 1880s, as did members of the Cree nation. Louis Cameron and the Ojibway Warrior Society occupied Anicinabe Park in the early 1970s to try and reclaim what had been stolen. In the 1980s Haida Gwaii people blockaded a logging road in British Columbia, protesting both land theft and environmental degradation in the form of logging. When class struggle was at its height, these struggles found important allies: in the 1970s unionised oil workers voted against working on a pipeline on Dene land until the nation got a just land settlement.

These examples point to the other important aspect of this book. Lannon and McLaren emphasise “the dialogue between Indigenous sovereignty and socialism over the last 150 years.” We have much to learn from Indigenous traditions of resistance, and Marx and Engels took inspiration from what they read of Indigenous societies’ ways of organising. Indigenous socialists – Howard Adams, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Ron Bourgeault and Glen Coulthard, for example – have added rich histories and strategic and theoretical reflections to both traditions. Indigenous struggles for sovereignty are also fights over the crucial issues of our time: water rights, a liveable environment, a just transition away from the fossil-fuel-driven capitalism that is destroying our planet.

Indigenous Sovereignty and Socialism is a timely and valuable contribution for both documenting the genocidal cruelty of settler-capitalism in North America, and for introducing us to a rich tradition of resistance, revolt, and inspiration.