Real Reconciliation Starts with Fair Economics

Mi'kmaq Artist Loretta Gould, "Wolf Spirits Within"

Editor’s Introduction 

This article is based on a public lecture delivered on October 16, 2016 by Mi’kmaq Professor, Amie Wolf, as part of the University of Winnipeg’s Weweni Indigenous Scholars Series. Shortly after the talk, Wolf was let go from her position at UBC, where she worked from 2015 to 2017 as an adjunct professor at the Sauder School of Business giving guest lectures across departments and an elective credit course about Indigenous rights and title in BC. 

On June 2, 2015, the day after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its 94 Calls to Action, Wolf emailed a letter to the Deans of her department. In the letter, she described the need for an Indigenous course requirement and suggested that restructuring would be required in order to reflect the Commission’s Calls to Action. She received no reply. Instead, her elective was discontinued for a supposed ‘lack of interest’ among students. Wolf continued with only her guest lectures. On June 25th, the Vancouver Sun published a celebratory article “UBC Adopts First Nations Curriculum: Sauder Ahead of the Curve Following the Truth and Reconciliation Report.” The article featured Wolf and cited her work, but she felt that the article was misleading given the response and direction that the institution was taking. 

In the fall of 2016, after Lakehead and the University of Winnipeg introduced mandatory Indigenous courses, Wolf was interviewed on CBC about whether or not she felt UBC should follow suit. She answered yes but was not supported by UBC leadership in her advocacy, including some Indigenous directors on campus. 

In a subsequent article, published in the Ubyssey on September 16, 2016, the former director of the UBC House of Learning, Linc Kesler, referred to an Indigenous course requirement as too much of a ‘burden,’ suggesting that public information about the history of the Indian Residential School System of Canada is sufficient. Daniel Heath Justice replied similarly, on behalf of the First Nations Studies Department, that mandatory courses were not being embraced.  

Shortly after giving the CBC interview, Wolf was contacted directly by a member of the UBC Board of Governors who told her to formally rescind and to apologize for her stance if she wanted to keep her job. Despite this pressure, Wolf decided to deliver the lecture at the University of Winnipeg about the situation at the school. About a month later, her position at UBC Sauder was posted without her being informed, despite her ranking in the top percentile of teaching excellence at the school. Wolf was not interviewed for her position, although she applied.

Amie Wolf’s treatment by the University is only one vivid illustration of what Angelique EagleWoman describes as a university system where “Indigenous women often face double standards, silencing, undermining, isolation, and disrespect as they attempt to perform the duties and responsibilities they were hired to take on, particularly in mainstream Canadian institutions. There are many Indigenous women professionals who have faced difficult and distressing employment situations that they left or were forced out of.” EagleWoman points to a number of high-profile terminations and demotions of Indigeous women in North American universities in recent years, and Wolf’s name can now regrettably be added to this list. 

Wolf’s firing is also a symptom of the current neoliberalization of the university system. Universities in BC are increasingly reliant on part-time, adjunct and sessional professors who work on a precarious contract-to-contract basis. Their lack of stable job security not only saves money for institutions in a context of austerity and funding cuts, it also prevents teachers and researchers from performing basic academic freedoms and rigours; many professors stay silent out of fear of being disciplined by termination and non-renewal of contract. 

Professor Wolf was caught at the intersection of neoliberalism and colonialism in post-secondary education. We must learn from her words and her experience. With that, we end with a passage from the closing of Wolf’s original talk: 

“It isn’t easy for me to speak out on this issue when I know my employer does not agree with my advocacy. But I am willing to do this because, in my own way, it is how I know to forgive. This is why it is so important to have those who have been the losers of colonialism, not its benefactors, in positions of policy making and higher education. We are the ones who are willing to give something up for change. We are the ones who will take the chance and that is what is required.”

Marcus Gosse, “Determined to Learn About My Tribe”

Real Reconciliation Starts with Fair Economics

By Amie Wolf 

Reconciliation is about building new relationships based on respect and sharing. But friendship follows fairness. Reconciliation cannot be real until the poverty in Indigenous communities, caused by colonial policies and land dispossession, is addressed. Economic reconciliation, I believe, is at the core of all reconciliation.

The cause of Indigenous poverty is not a lack of money but a lack of justice. This lack of justice is created by government policies of assimilation designed to undermine and erase Indigenous cultures, identities, and economies for over 150 years. Indigenous peoples have resisted assimilation and have shown incredible resiliency. We have refused and continue to refuse to merge into the economic mainstream of Canada because this requires us to surrender our values of stewardship – caring for the earth and sharing with one another. This is part of our traditional holistic worldview, and the capitalistic worldview does not reflect these values. We’ve shown that as Indigenous people we will not commit cultural suicide for money. We cannot be bought.

Among the many possible forms of reconciliation, economic reconciliation is perhaps the most difficult. Economic reconciliation is fundamental, and is a necessary path to take in order for other acts of reconciliation to be authentic. Economic reconciliation is the place where we look, directly in the eye, the ugly, living reality of how the injustice of assimilation inflicts a cycle of Indigenous poverty. The question posed by economic reconciliation is this: How can a nation-to-nation relationship be built with the federal government when so many Indigenous communities still do not have control over their land? How can Indigenous sovereignty be built without rebuilding an economy to support Indigenous government? 

Real economic reconciliation is what cuts petty promises, nice-sounding accords, and hollow resolutions in half to reveal that they are empty. 

Economic reconciliation would show itself in measurable, quantifiable parity, where Indigenous peoples are no longer rated by the United Nations as third world citizens living in impoverished conditions as they are today but as first world citizens of developed nations. Until we see this change, until this is actually reflected by the numbers on the page, until Indigenous people are no longer poor, we have not achieved reconciliation. Economic reconciliation is the end of policies of assimilation that make it impossible for Indigenous individuals to both be and work in the economy. 

I would like to tell you a story about my friend Eagle. Eagle is a descendant of Indian Residential School survivors. He lives in East Vancouver in a Native Housing complex. He could work painting houses in Vancouver but, in his words, “I don’t want to paint the houses of rich people in this city when my mom should be living in one of those houses.” He’s right to feel that way. 

Eagle’s family was displaced from their land and forced onto a tiny reserve, which the federal government didn’t bother to develop as promised. As a result, they are poor. Eagle is thirty-six years old. He is a healthy and strong Indigenous man who remains unemployed in the city because he does not want to participate in an urban economy that is an ongoing form of injustice to his own family. The poverty he endures is not a result of the fact that he can’t make money. He doesn’t want to make money serving the comforts of a society uninterested in economic reconciliation. 

When Eagle suffers racial profiling and is told to ‘just get a job’, he gets angry. He’s been in fights and has served time in prison. As the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples says, “There can be no peace or harmony unless there is justice.” I think Eagle’s story is an all too common portrait of this fact.

The Royal Commission’s Report on Aboriginal Peoples was written in response to the 1990 Oka crisis. Released in 1996, it brought greater attention to the reasons for poverty in Aboriginal communities and the need for deep-rooted solutions. 

Amie Wolf

In 1990, I had just turned eighteen and was about to start my Education Degree at the University of Alberta. I was adopted in 1972 and told only once of my Mi’kmaq ancestry. The knowledge came with a warning: don’t tell anyone who you are because they won’t want to be your friend or to work with you. 

I was educated at a Catholic elementary school and worked very hard to do well at school to fulfill my adopted family’s expectations of me. As a result, I did well. At age twenty-one, I was teaching at the Athabasca Delta Community School in Fort Chipewyan, a fly-in reserve now located in the Alberta tar sands. I lasted a year, but most teachers lasted only a few weeks.

Living in Fort Chipewyan was like living in a war zone. Every weekend in this tiny community of three thousand there was a tragedy. A house burned down with people in it. Someone shot and killed a family member. A ski-doo fell through the ice and 5 little kids lost their parents. A child was eaten by wild dogs. A suicide. A car crash. A murder. My kindergarten student sat on the carpet at circle time with silent tears raining down her face. I discovered her knees were like dark purple balloons. She’d been thrown down the stairs. Little Levi, 5 years old, appeared outside the classroom at 10am on Monday morning in minus forty degrees, wearing only a T-shirt. In the summer, after track and field day, I came into my classroom to the words HELP ME! written from top to bottom across the length of the board. These things were normal

I was left to try to make sense of this situation in the context of my own assimilation and denial of who I was. I didn’t understand my own assimilation, let alone the context of what my students were living. 

This was 1994. Despite having an intercultural minor specializing in Aboriginal education, I had never learned about the Indian Residential School System in Canada.

I have come a long, long way to be here today. To write this and to be able to say who I am: I am Mi’kmaq and Polish ancestry, and I have a doctorate degree in philosophy. This is something I really never thought would happen. It is, to me, nothing short of a miracle. And an enormous responsibility. I want to be part of the movement to shape a new future for the next generation of Indigenous peoples. We are sowing the seeds of deep, systemic change and shifting a national consciousness to ultimately renew a nation to nation relationship. 

Our ancestors, my ancestors – the generations before – were not as lucky as me. I want to remember them now, those warriors who died for the struggle of acknowledgement for their rights and title to the land. Those who died of starvation and disease. The thousands and thousands of children who died at Indian Residential Schools and whose bodies are still buried in the ground somewhere, unmarked.

In 2015, I was at SFU Woodwards for the live announcement of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s recommendations. I remember being so excited and emotional. I sat in the auditorium with my pen on fire, weeping and recording the words. One recommendation was for a mandatory course on Indigenous nations for every student in Canada, at every level, in every institution. I was overjoyed. Then I saw the faces of two survivors in the audience. One, with his long, neat braids, was a friend of mine. I knew some of his stories of the abuse he’d suffered attending St. Michael’s Residential School. As he listened to Senator Murray Sinclair talk, his body looked still as a heron’s while standing in the water watching for a fish. When I saw my friend like this, motionless and expressionless in reaction to the recommendations being announced, my elation fell as I realized what he was likely thinking: “This is probably never going to happen.”

British Columbia is a totally unique province when it comes to Indigenous nations. There are 206 nations and very few treaties. Our first colonial governor refused to make treaties because Indigenous nations did not want money in exchange for their territories. As a result, most of the land we call British Columbia is unceded. That means no compensation or money has been exchanged for title. This is called the Indian Land Claim Question of B.C., and it is unique to this province.

British Columbia also has the smallest and poorest reserves, especially in the North. This is because the first premier, Joseph Trutch, used the lack of treaties to justify the madness of a belief called Terra Nullius, meaning empty land or ‘nobody’s land’. “See?” he said. “There are few treaties, so it’s obvious: no Indigenous people were here to deal with in the first place.” All land was declared property of the Queen and Indigenous nations were detained on small reserves – land set aside for us to use, but not to own.

Reserves in British Columbia account for less than 0.2% of all land. Although the British North America Act of 1867 committed the government to providing housing, services, and infrastructure on reserves, this fiduciary duty was not fulfilled and remains unfulfilled. Many reserves are without an electricity grid, adequate roads, schools, houses, and medical facilities. One reserve in northern B.C. has been under a boil water advisory for sixteen years.

Today, the pressure to culturally assimilate through economic necessity, imposed through systemic collusion and pressure, is as powerful as it has ever been. In 2011, B.C.’s then-premier, Christy Clark, in collaboration with the LNG industry, issued the Skills for Jobs Blueprint: Re-engineering Education and Training. The Blueprint states that ‘difficult-to-place populations,’ like Aboriginal and other at-risk youth, will find employment in the oil and gas sector, identified as the future of British Columbia. The document outlines a detailed plan for redirecting funds from existing public education to create trades training programs targeted at Indigenous youth. Clark also advocates ‘hands-on learning opportunities’ for Indigenous students, starting as early as Grade 2, in the form of on-site, pipeline building practicums.

Sure enough, in the context of these priorities, I was laid off in 2013 along with hundreds of other teachers in the Vancouver School Board Adult Basic Education system. Our once free and funded education centers, including two serving the most marginalized people in Vancouver – Downtown East and Gathering Place – were closed. 

On my job search, I could not find one posting for teaching Aboriginal Studio Arts and First Nations Studies as I had been in the public education system, but there were tens upon tens of trades training programs.

Further, in 2013, BC Hydro (with permits from the provincial government) built the Northwest Transmission Line (NTL). A 400 kilometer, multi-million dollar, environmentally destructive eyesore, the NTL is a massive extension cord running into Northwestern British Columbia, an area rich in untapped natural resources including copper, and gold, all on unceded traditional territory. 

In 2015, B.C. Hydro (again with government permits) began construction on the Site C dam, which would flood one of the few areas of treaty land in British Columbia. The Treaty 8 people’s attempt to block this massive, nine billion dollar development was crushed by police on the basis of a court order disregarding their treaty-established and constitutionally protected Indigenous rights and title. This is how the RCMP work as a military wing enforcing unjust court rulings, including on Wet’suwet’en territory

In 2016, the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations each filed appeals to delay the Site C dam project, but both the Federal Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the appeals in 2017. In 2018 – after a failed injunction application by the West Moberly First Nations and six months of discussions with the B.C. government and B.C. Hydro – the Nations filed a civil action to stop construction of the dam, arguing that the project and other dam projects on the Peace River infringe their treaty rights. A trial is expected to proceed in 2022. In the meantime, the mega-project continues, flying in the face of a declared human rights violation by the United Nations. 

Why, many wonder, is the Site C dam being built in the first place when British Columbia doesn’t need the energy for its residents? 

The energy generated by Site C is going to light up the North and run through the Northwest Transmission Line to power over fifty proposed industrial projects, all of which rely on the unsustainable exploitation of non-renewable natural resources, such as mines, fracking, pipelines, etc. Thanks to the BC government, Indigenous peoples in the North will be ripe and ready, products of a re-engineered school system that has them prepared to take advantage of great new economic opportunities, working as tradespeople to destroy their traditional territory and undermine their own constitutional rights to hunting, fishing, gathering, and trapping. And we wonder why enrollment in trades programs for Indigenous youth is low and completion rates abysmal.

This is an emergency. The history of BC’s colonial relations has been a fight for the land – our right to subsistence practices versus the right of industry to natural resource extraction and exploitation. 

One of the first Indian Wars, the War of 1864, fought during the Gold Rush, saw six chiefs kill eighteen settlers who were encroaching upon and developing their land without permission, deliberately spreading smallpox. The chiefs were killed and buried in an unmarked grave near Quesnel hospital, a crime the provincial government of BC apologized for in 1996. However, the conflict leading to the War of 1864 has been in orbit ever since and continues to hurtle forward with increasing speed. If the Moberly and Prophet Nations are unsuccessful in their fight against the Site C dam, there will be little land in Northern BC to fight for in the future. I see tailings ponds full of deep rounds of toxic waste, oil slicked riverbeds, poisoned water devoid of fish, and treeless landscapes uninhabitable for birds and animals. 

On September 22nd 2016, fifty First Nations from across North America met at Musqueam reserve. They signed an agreement declaring their communities would not allow oil and gas development to destroy their lands and waters any further. Mother Earth, one chief declared, has had enough.

As this happens, at the very school where this agreement was signed – UBC, basically next door to the Musqueam reserve and operating on the Nation’s unceded territory – we have no mandatory course on Indigenous rights and title. Instead of an Indigenous Business Education Department, we have a Strategic Mine Management program at Sauder, with its first cohort scheduled to run in 2017. As Site C Dam is built and the Northwest Transmission Line powers up dozens of destructive developments in Northern BC, the natives in their hard hats with shovels ready to go and kiss it all good-bye, will be met with fresh faced, shiny-haired Sauder Strategic Mine Management graduates, eager to make their fortune in the lucrative industry of mining. 

That picture is so backward as to be simply unbelievable, yet it is precisely the direction we’re going in British Columbia.

This is a dark time. Our government issues construction permits to industrial projects, often by foreign-owned companies but also to homegrown corporations, that undermine Indigenous rights and title. Indigenous nations protest, but industry is defended by Canada’s courts; those unjust orders are carried out by our police, who in turn arrest treaty protesters defending their rights, and the mainstream media coverage of this is skewed or non-existent. 

All the while, our post-secondary business schools and public education system is busy training a trades-and mine-management workforce to do the daily dirty work. Unsurprisingly, programs like Sauder Strategic Mine Management are funded largely by the mining industry itself. Despite being hosted at a public university, this is not the initiative of professional educators and curriculum designers. Students graduating from this program will likely not receive an education about Aboriginal rights and title. And if they do, it will likely be from an unsympathetic perspective. 

How do we interrupt this cycle that perpetuates colonial genocide? 

Perhaps you’re wondering, if we do not have mines and industrial developments, if we do respect Indigenous nations’ rights and title, then how will we have an economy? The traditional Indigenous peoples, original to this place now commonly referred to as Canada, know how. Their view is that no one can actually own Mother Earth, or a piece of her. We are her stewards. Our duty is to care for her properly, even as we take what we need to live, and to refrain from any activity that might interfere with our yet to be born children’s right to derive the same benefit from the land that we enjoy. That is called seven generation thinking.

Traditional Indigenous peoples also know that all things are alive and deserve respect and love. We know how to share with one another because we had to, in order to survive. As our population explodes, as our climate changes, and as our unsustainable natural resources vanish, we can learn from the knowledge we may have previously disparaged or discarded as having no value, but that turns out to be invaluable. Like a child might say, “Mom, you don’t know anything!” we can mature into settler Canadians with the experience to finally ask, “Mother, please share with me what you know!”

Mother Earth is telling us what she knows, and it is jarring information in the eyes of a capitalistic perspective that values money above all else: Poverty is not about money, but a lack of wealth. Money comes and goes. It ebbs and flows. Economies crash, stocks fluctuate, and nonrenewable resources expire as they are mismanaged. But there is one kind of great wealth that we can rely on. It is worth more than all the money in the world because it is unfailing and that is the wealth of relationships of care with one another and with the environment. We always have the choice to take care of one another. In the words of Mi’kmaq Kji-keptin John Joe Sark:

“Our survival depended on our wise use of game and the protection of the environment. Hunting for pleasure was looked upon as wasteful and all hunters were encouraged to share food and skins. Sharing and caring for all members of the society, especially the old, the disabled, widows, and the young, were the important values of the Mi’kmaq people. Without these values, my people would not have survived for thousands of years.”[1]

To close, I attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s hearings at the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver in 2014. I was at the lighting of the sacred fire and I walked with the survivors into the stadium on the first day of the hearings. During the days of the TRC, I thought about my own inability to forgive the ongoing injustices that create Indigenous poverty. On the last day of the hearings, I sat by the sacred fire in its final hours. Beside me was an elder, the left side of his body crippled and his ears deformed from frostbite. He smiled gently at me. “You know,” he spoke quietly, “I could sleep here.” 

The sacred fire had been a home to him, a place of safety. He gave me some tobacco, and I threw it in the fire. Suddenly, in what felt like a timeless experience of understanding and grace, the fire taught me how to forgive. I realized my losses aren’t nothing but something flammable, like wood, something useful I could use. I realized my pain is like fire. It could destroy or, if I was strategic, it could burn on the fuel of my experiences to provide a hearth, a place to sleep, for someone who needs it.

I am promoting relationship-building that is focused on economic reconciliation: finding a way to do business that is not a pressure to assimilate but that allows Indigenous values to live and breathe, even in a modern economy. I believe we can do this, but we’re going to have to want to work together, and we are going to have to have a common space where we can meet and interact. 

May we care for our brave Indigenous ancestors and for the Indigenous people who have yet to be born. May we stick up for them. May we not fail them. All my relations.

 [1] Cited in Wanda Wuttunee, Living Rhythms: Lessons in Aboriginal Economic Resilience and Vision (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004) p. 15