Veldon Coburn teaches Indigenous Studies at Carleton University and is a PhD candidate in the department of political studies at Queen’s University. His research and writing focuses on Indigenous politics and policy.
One might be forgiven for believing that the death of Indigenous communities is unavoidable. It is a familiar trope in Canadian national mythology: Indigenous people are expected to inevitably blend into settler society, one way or another. Recently, Maclean’s columnist Scott Gilmore suggested that the “fundamental laws of economics” that has prompted the death of small-town Canada is also coming for Indigenous communities, dying not through coercive state measures but rather at the hands of economic influences and trends.
It’s a calculus of community survival that draws a straight causal line from the economy to life. And based on what we know about impoverished conditions in many First Nations, Inuit hamlets, and Métis settlements, we should then resign ourselves to their imminent death and move to a city.
But Gilmore’s account overlooks significantly greater forces at work in the demise of Indigenous communities—namely, the iron fist of the colonial state. Indeed, the market-driven thesis of dying towns, juxtaposed against thriving cities, ignores how economic conditions of Indigenous communities has been—and continues to be—the outcome of colonial policy.
The fundamental laws of economics, after all, do not apply in the relations between the colonizer and the colonized. The poverty of Indigenous communities is contrived by the colonial state, not the neat market-clearing results expected from neoclassical economic theory. In fact, it is difficult to identify the necessary conditions of laissez-faire markets that underwrite Gilmore’s view in these internal colonies, because—to use the economic vernacular—the colonial Crown controls a near-monopoly over the economic conditions on reserves and other Indigenous communities, and it’s often done hand-in-hand with private industry.
Furthermore, when mainstream commercial interests clash with Indigenous title and rights, the Crown has frequently sided with the former, despite the fiduciary duty owed to the latter.
In 2014, for instance, the Crown granted licenses to foreign corporations based out of the United States and Norway to undertake seismic testing for oil and gas exploration in Nunavut, ignoring Inuit concerns about the negative impact this development would have on their internal economies. But after a legal challenge mounted by the tiny Inuit hamlet of Clyde River, its mayor Jerry Natanine, and the Nammautaq Hunters & Trappers Organization, the Supreme Court of Canada sided with the Inuit and put a stop to the project. In its decision last year, the SCC noted that the Crown had failed to observe and respect Aboriginal rights and Inuit treaty rights.
Crown corporations also have a history of pursuing economic activities that meet the consumption demands of cities, but leave rural and remote Indigenous communities to bear much of the costs. On the west coast, a number of Treaty 8 First Nations have filed a civil suit as well as an application for an injunction against BC Hydro, the province, and the federal government to stop the Site C dam construction project. The BC First Nations that are party to the suit argue that the Site C project violates their treaty rights to their internal economic activities, including rights to fish, hunt, and trap as they did before entering the treaty with the Crown.
On the east coast, a similar Crown corporation has drawn the ire of Indigenous peoples. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Innu and Inuit have protested Nalcor Energy’s development of the Lower Churchill Project, especially the expansion at Muskrat Falls. Innu and Inuit communities adjacent to the massive hydroelectric project are resisting the expansion, arguing that the Crown corporation will flood over 40 square kilometres of their territory and that their land and water will be contaminated by methylmercury. For the Indigenous people of the region, the land and the Churchill River have sustained the resources and activities of their own economies for thousands of years—yet the survival of their communities has seemed to be a distant priority compared to Nalcor’s industrial growth.
In sharp contrast, however, when Indigenous peoples engage in their own economic trade and exchange—the sort of practices undertaken since time immemorial—the Crown is often quick to intervene and dash those efforts. First Nations in British Columbia have won a number of court battles with the Department of Fisheries and Ocean over their rights to commercial fishing, even though earlier this month, officials from the same department were quick to come down on the First Nations sockeye salmon fishery opening on the Fraser River. In a media blitz, authorities from DFO warned the public that it would prosecute anyone selling or buying fish caught by the Indigenous fishery; in the same public outreach, the DFO officials were keen to note that a legitimate fishery would open a mere three days later.
What’s more, the Crown has shored up its economic monopoly over Indigenous communities with its monopoly on inflicting pain on these communities. Speaking at a meeting of the Alberta Enterprise Group, a business-sector advocacy body, then-natural resources minister Jim Carr remarked that the government would consider the use of its military to ensure the completion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which was purchased by the federal government for $4.5 billion, and which would impact approximately 120 First Nations.
Meanwhile, the government is picking up Giant Mine’s $900-million remediation bill while refusing to compensate for the adverse health effects that the mine has caused for the Dene. And the damage of the Mount Polley mine disaster has yet to be tallied, but the provincial government has already indicated it will not pursue environmental charges and the clock on the federal statutory limitation period for similar charges has waned to less than a year. And these stories are familiar to the good people of Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation (Grassy Narrows) and Aamjiwnaang First Nation (situated right next door to Sarnia’s Chemical Valley), who have been ignored by environmental ministries and borne the costs of government and industry in their drive for private profit despite urgings from Indigenous people and their communities that their fight is about survival.
Yes, some government and private-business initiatives, have received formal support from some Indigenous communities; the purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline and its expansion, for instance, has been supported by more than 40 First Nation band councils and the Métis Nation of Alberta. Still, it would be a mistake to view Indigenous-led environmental protests that are going on—the sort alluded to by Carr, seen in recent years in Elsipogtog, and within some of the communities that have endorsed the pipeline—as resistance to economic prosperity. These actions are instead protesting the burden shouldered by First Nations for the economic externalities and negative spillovers that subsidize industry.
When it comes to the life or death of Indigenous communities, the colonial state has long influenced matters. Indigenous communities have long had to beg for the crumbs from the table, after non-Indigenous industry—abetted by federal, provincial, and even city governments—has feasted on the wealth extracted from the Indigenous hinterland.
It is not merely neutral economic forces that are causing these communities to have to consider the difficult question of leaving. It is difficult to conclude that the death of any Indigenous community is by truly natural causes.