JI Newsletter 2020-11-01
Welcome to the November issue of the JI newsletter. This month, we have articles on various facets of the Mi’kmaw fishing conflict by two first-time contributors: Ccarla and Jeffers. We also have the usual inchoate Trot ramblings of Jonkle, Yogthos and Loljapes.
On October 17 Global News published an article titled “Massive fire destroys lobster pound in southern Nova Scotia”. While the passive voice used in this headline suggests that the cause of the fire is unknown, the article later states that the burnt-down lobster pound is “the same one that was swarmed, vandalized and ransacked by a large crowd of non-Indigenous commercial fishers” earlier that week. This information, along with Canada’s long history of violence against Indigenous people, makes it pretty clear that racism is the motivating factor behind these attacks. However, the word racism isn’t used once throughout the article.
With the exception of a singular use of “angry mob” in a caption under a video, the perpetrators, who we can safely assume are white, are labelled “non-indigenous fishermen”. Of course, it’s possible that there may be a person of colour among them, but they’re probably a token minority, “one of the good ones” granted conditional access into the old boys’ club. By refusing to identify the “angry mob” or “non-indigenous fishermen” as white and failing to mention racism, this article gives white Canadians plausible deniability. It transforms the issue of racism into a fight over resources despite the fact that the “non-indigenous fishermen” outnumber the Mi’kmaw fishermen by a ridiculous amount.
This conflict isn’t about resources; it’s about white fishermen feeling so entitled to those resources that they are willing to harass and threaten another group of people for acting within their rights. Very few news sources address this. Most article headlines use passive language that focuses on the victimization of the Mi’kmaw people rather than the violence of the white perpetrators. Examples include “Indigenous people in Nova Scotia exercised their right to catch lobster. Now they’re under attack”, "‘Terrorizing our people’: N.S. Mi’kmaw fishers have property vandalized, lobsters destroyed”, and “RCMP investigating incidents in relation to Mi’kmaq fishery dispute”. The language used in these headlines minimizes the culpability of white society by refusing to identify the white fishermen and erases the generations of racism that settlers have inflicted on Indigenous people.
Although these articles hint at racism, their headlines continue the trend of mainstream media framing the experiences of Indigenous people through a white lens. This is significant because, in our culture of internet scrolling, most people only read the headline and skim through the rest of the article. The headline of an article prompts the reader to look for specific information, and these headlines conform to a narrative of Indigenous victimization rather than settler victimizing. This lets most readers easily avoid having to recognize the reality that racism does exist and that they are complicit in a system that entitles white people to react with violence when confronted with having to respect another group’s autonomy.
The difference between the Mi’kmaq protecting their rights and settlers attempting to stop them is that only one group knows their history. The Mi’kmaq and their allies have always made it clear that they controlled their land and had the right to use it. Canadians—as treaty people—should understand the origins of this conflict and what is at stake.
Shortly after the British captured Fort Royal (now Annapolis Royal) in 1710, officials at the fort sent a delegation to inform members of the Wabanaki confederacy (a loose coalition of Indigenous nations in what is now northern Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) that a new imperial force controlled the region. The Indigenous response was predictable and firm. A Penobscot sachem stated “I am the only master of this land given me by God, and I depend on no one.”
Inside the crumbling sodden walls of Annapolis Royal, the British knew they had no control over Mi’kma’ki. In 1720, a full decade after capturing the fort, Nova Scotia’s governor complained that his authority did not extend “beyond cannon reach of this fort.” Five years later, the British negotiated their first treaty with the Mi’kmaq and other members of the Wabanaki. At a 1725 conference between English administrators from Boston and Wabanaki representatives, the Indigenous delegates promised not to disturb settlers on lands they currently inhabited. But the treaty also guaranteed these nations “and their Natural descendants…all their lands, liberties, and properties” and “the privilege of fishing, hunting, and fowling as formerly.” The 1725 agreement was not a land surrender, but rather a treaty of peace and friendship. Afterwards, when the English claimed that the treaty secured their right to expand and control territory, an Abenaki delegate, Panaouamskeyen, responded: “do not hence infer that I acknowledge thy King as my King, and King of my lands…God hath willed that I have no King, and that I be master of my lands in common.” The Mi’kmaq signed an exact copy of the 1725 treaty with the British government at Annapolis Royal. They understood their rights, and they would defend them.
By mid-century, Britain was eager to increase its presence in Nova Scotia. The planned military town of Halifax (1749) was to be one of five settlements on the peninsula. Set onto the side of a steep hill at Chebucto harbour, the town of Halifax was built on stolen land. According to the 1725 treaty, any new settlements would have to be negotiated with the Mi’kmaq. A letter written on behalf of the Mi’kmaq to Edward Cornwallis, the new governor of Nova Scotia, made their position perfectly clear: “the place where you live, the place where you are building a fortification, the place where you want now to establish yourself…this place belongs to me.” While Cornwallis did not halt construction on the new town, Mi’kmaw territorial strength prevented the construction of the remaining four settlements. By 1752, after sporadic violence with the Mi’kmaq, the British attempted yet another treaty. Jean-Baptiste Cope, who claimed to be a chief of the Shubenacadie Mi’kmaq, arrived at Halifax to treat with the new governor, Peregrine Hopson. After negotiations, a new treaty—one based on the 1726 agreement—was struck. It was a weak agreement, however, because Cope spoke only on behalf of a small group of Mi’kmaq. The following years witnessed renewed settler-Indigenous violence as the Mi’kmaq used force to protect their homelands.
When a new imperial war erupted in 1754—the Seven Years’ War, the first world-war, in its literal sense—the Mi’kmaq once again had to defend their territory. But they also protected their European allies. Nova Scotia was home to thousands of French inhabitants, the Acadians who called the region l’Acadie, and they quickly found themselves the target of British imperial policy. The Acadians had enjoyed better relations with the Mi’kmaq. Since their arrival in 1604, Acadians developed a system of dykes to reclaim marshlands from the Bay of Fundy’s tides, thus encroaching less on traditional homelands. The French and Mi’kmaq also intermarried and, in time, shared religious affinities as the Mi’kmaq increasingly converted to Catholicism. Starting in 1755, British soldiers rounded up French settlers, put them on ships, and dispatched them throughout the Atlantic world. The Mi’kmaq rescued Acadians who fled and took refuge in Mi’kma’ki. It was possible for settlers and the Mi’kmaq to co-exist, but those relationships were born of shared cultural understandings and mutual respect.
At the end of the Seven Years’ War, the British emerged victorious against the French and claimed (but didn’t control) nearly half of the North American continent. But they hadn’t defeated the Mi’kmaq or their allies, and therefore new treaties were negotiated in 1761. The lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, Jonathan Belcher, invigorated by the British victories, met with Mi’kmaw delegates and referred to the English as “your merciful conqueror.” In an attempt to dictate to the Mi’kmaq their new relationship with the King, Belcher used a metaphor that revealed what the British hoped to achieve in Nova Scotia: private property. Belcher explained that English laws “will be like a great hedge about your rights and properties.” But there was a flip side to this metaphor that suggested the English weren’t as powerful as Belcher might have hoped. “I must demand,” he continued, “that you build a wall to secure our rights from being trodden down by the feet of your people.” The British believed they now controlled the entirety of Mi’kma’ki, but a Mi’kmaw chief described something much closer to the reality on the ground. “You were before these acquisitions a very great people, but we now acknowledge you to be much more powerful” he replied to Belcher, “tho’ less great in the extensiveness of your possessions than in the uprightness of your heart.” The Mi’kmaq understood the 1761 agreement as an extension of the treaties struck in 1726 and 1752. They understood the British were increasingly powerful, but they also knew that Mi’kma’ki remained unceded, and their rights to hunt and fish had never been surrendered. Not in 1761, and not in 2020.
Canadians are treaty people. Treaty making is a form of international diplomacy, and all Canadians should worry when the government ignores its previous agreements, or attempts to reimagine the terms simply because one nation is now reduced in strength and lives within the imposed borders of the settler state. Remembering 1726, 1752, and 1761 should not fall solely on the Mi’kmaq, but rather be a national project that can reinvigorate Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous partners.
Back in 1992, Los Angeles rioted over police brutality against Rodney King. At the time there were a few solidarity marches—500 students at MIT plus a hundred from Harvard is about all I can find. When the police murdered George Floyd in 2020, protests sprung up everywhere—all across the United States, and even in most Canadian provinces.
At first it sounds so very Canadian for us to protest racist murder-cops in the United States when we have plenty of racist murder-cops of our own, but I think there’s a more interesting reason as to why we got so involved in our southern neighbour’s business: COVID-19.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs puts food, water, and shelter as people’s base priorities, with personal security and employment just above. When the pandemic started, many people in the United States lost employment, and thus food, water and shelter. Others, who had essential jobs, lost personal security each time they had to face the invisible threat of infection. Those two groups—which statistically are poorer and far more likely to be black, indigenous, or people of colour—were under a huge amount of stress from all sides. Of course seeing something as terrible as the death of George Floyd made them snap all across the States. And of course the protests stretched on for so long, considering how the American government decided to speedrun the plague.
But for us in Canada, we were doing decently. Nothing to boast about, but well enough. A significant amount of people could get by without work, since the CERB covered basic necessities and provided personal security by replacing employment. That opened a lot of Canadians up to pursuing the next rung of Maslow’s Hierarchy—friendship, intimacy, and a sense of connection. Usually this takes emotional labour, which is hard to maintain or develop when most of our energy goes towards wage labour. But take away jobs, and suddenly we’re able to care about a topic we’ve been ignoring ever since the police were created. Who woulda thunk?
I think when we say to focus on material conditions, a lot of us go straight for the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid and forget to look at the higher rungs as well. Because the reality of the mainstream Canadian is that while one’s very basic physical needs are met, their emotional needs are not. Whether or not they realize it, most Canadians are too tired to make friends and build communities. But if we build that social infrastructure around them, and invite them in, we will make it far easier for mainstream Canadians to care about those they’d otherwise be too tired to help.
Jagmeet Singh recently proposed a super-wealth tax that would raise $5.6 billion in the first year, and around $70 billion over the next decade. This money would help offset the current recession providing an alternative path to austerity.
The proposal was met with enthusiasm by most Canadians, and similar measures have been proven to work in the past. However, some argue against the proposal stating that it punishes success, and will lead to successful entrepreneurs leaving Canada for greener pastures.
To determine if this is a legitimate concern we have to consider the factors that lead to success. One popular idea is that success is the result of hard work, skill, and determination. This idea is otherwise known as meritocracy. The individuals who do the work become successful, and thus deserve to reap the rewards of their success.
However, mounting evidence suggests that the dominant factor in success is actually luck as opposed to hard work. It turns out that being born into a rich family, having the freedom to pursue your interests, being provided with business connections, etc., creates the opportunities necessary for success.
The concept of meritocracy relies on a false narrative of who becomes successful and why. Meritocracy implies that successful people have done something extraordinary that can’t be accomplished by a majority of people as opposed to having simply gotten lucky. In fact, Michael Young originally coined the term to ridicule the idea of such a society.
The reality of the situation is that most people work hard all their lives, but only a few people see the opportunities for success. The merits of the individual are eclipsed by factors that are largely out of their control. People born into money have a head start in life by having more doors open for them. An average person has to spend the majority of their week working hard just to put food on the table and have a roof over their head. Meanwhile, a rich person is free to pursue their interests and passions without having to worry how they’re going to sustain themselves.
Unfortunately, successful people themselves often suffer the effects of self-attribution fallacy where they see their success as the product of their hard work. In fact, there is an entire cottage industry peddling self-help miracles guaranteed to unlock the path to success by following the same steps that the lucky few followed.
The notion of meritocracy helps perpetuate an unfair system where most people are not able to realize their full potential. Meanwhile, a small number of successful individuals are placed on a pedestal. We must reject this idea and look at success holistically, considering the individual along with the opportunities they were afforded on their way to becoming successful.
Therefore, the fear that successful individuals will leave Canada due to higher taxes is fundamentally misplaced. Instead of viewing the departure of these people as a loss, we should see it as an opportunity. A wealth tax will create a way to filter out businesses that do not want to pay their fair share, and cultivate the ones that do.
Furthermore, given the dominant role that luck plays in success, it’s only logical to distribute the wealth of the country fairly as opposed to allowing it to concentrate in the hands of the lucky few. We’d be much better off with a system that empowers the majority of individuals to pursue their interests instead of having to play a lottery to chase success. This system is socialism.
In last month’s newsletter I argued that the decisions society has to make around how it manages the COVID pandemic are unavoidably political. I also argued that a lot of the frustration and anger we’ve seen from members of the public is due to the lack of democratic input into pandemic management decisions. Of course, finding fault is always easier than finding a fix, and criticizing quadrennial elections conducted under a first-past-the-post system is hardly a radical position to take in a socialist newsletter. So I think it’s worth having a think about pragmatic ways a society could democratize its crisis management processes.
The first big problem with citizens’ assemblies is their name. While I think CAs are generally a good idea, the name ‘citizens’ assembly’ invokes images of grey bureaucracy (at least, it does in my mind). I think the name ‘people’s parliament’ would be better as it gives some idea of what the institution is and how it would operate; but, at least for now, we’re stuck with the terrible name.
For the uninitiated; CAs are bodies made up of a random selection of citizens, picked using a method similar to picking jurors*. The selection process can be weighted to give a CA with demographics that are representative of the citizenry as a whole. CAs are usually convened to address particularly thorny political questions. For example, in BC and Ontario they have been used to give recommendations on electoral reform. To date, when CAs have been convened they have usually only been given the power to make recommendations, either to an elected body or directly to the people in the form of a referendum vote. However, there’s no reason in principle why CAs couldn’t be given the power to make decisions directly. In fact, this has been tried in Gdansk, Poland, where CAs consisting of 60 citizen’s are empowered to make binding decisions about how the city manages flood defense and other issues.
There are a lot of attractive features of CAs, but one of the biggest is that its possible for a CA to be truly a representative sample of the population it is seeking to make decisions for. It’s been recognized across the political spectrum for a long time that elected parliaments are (often comically) unrepresentative of the countries they govern. There’s been some work done by political parties to correct these imbalances, but the focus has usually been on correcting gender and racial imbalances. This is admirable in isolation, but it does leave class somewhat out in the cold. In essentially every democratic country, before you’re allowed to play the election game, you have to win the fundraising game, and this is always going to systemically disadvantage political movements of the poor and working class**. CAs offer a way to short-circuit this deficiency of representative democracy.
Could CAs serve a role during pandemic management? I think they probably could. One of the big issues during the COVID crisis has been that decisions are being made by civil servants, politicians and health officials who all work in offices, and have jobs that can all be done remotely which they probably won’t lose no matter how bad the economy gets. This isn’t the fault of those people, but it does mean that, essentially by definition, if you’re a COVID decision-maker, you are highly isolated from the consequences of those decisions. If a CA was calling the shots, then the demographic balancing that takes place when members are selected would mean that alternative perspectives would at least have a seat at the table.
Referendums seem to have a pretty bad reputation at the moment. I think this is probably because of the Brexit referendum, which seems to have traumatized everyone (even some of the politicians who originally claimed to want Brexit). However, I think we should bear in mind that the Brexit referendum was somewhat atypical. Usually referenda have clearly defined options with outcomes that everyone understands, but this wasn’t the case with Brexit. In fact, even three years after the vote, its not clear what ‘Brexit’ will mean for Britain (Canada-style deal? WTO terms? red-white-and-blue Brexit? who can tell?). There are a lot of reasons why this happened, but there’s no reason why it has to be a feature of a referendum vote.
I actually think referenda could be very useful democratic tools for pandemic management. It’s common for governments to generate a number of policy proposals before deciding on a course of action. If the proposals are all well-defined, why not just let people vote on them instead of letting politicians make the decision? Of course, there’s a myriad of Yes Minister-style shenanigans that would go on amongst the people empowered to develop the policy proposals, but this is already the case with policy making. In a case where all options are one-or-another flavor of bad, politicians might even welcome the ability to say that they’re just carrying out a decision made by the electorate, instead of having to take responsibility for the decision themselves. There would obviously be some technical obstacles to overcome, we don’t currently have the infrastructure to run regular nation- or region-wide votes on a weekly or monthly basis. But if these were addressed I think referenda could give people a sense of control over decision-making that is currently lacking.
It’s natural to look to already-existing practices when trying to think of ways to democratize pandemic response. But, it’s possible that the democratic tools we need for this type of crisis management simply don’t exist yet. In this piece I’ve mostly focused on the COVID crisis, but we are also in the midst of a climate crisis. The types of government intervention in society necessary to avoid the climate crisis are likely to be much more dramatic than those required for COVID, and the COVID measures have already been colossal compared to what we’ve been accustomed to.
It seems clear to me that if we constrain ‘democracy’ to the act of having general elections every four years or so, democratic societies are going to lack both the policy flexibility to respond to emergencies and the persuasive power necessary to actually get the population to follow whatever policy is decided on. Democratic societies haven’t covered themselves in glory during the COVID crisis, and this has naturally led people to wonder whether we should emulate more authoritarian regimes who seemed much better at getting things under control. This is silly, partly because it ignores the underlying fragility that often exists in authoritarian states, even when they have a surface appearance of solidity, and partly because it wasn’t the democracy that was at fault in our response to the crisis. Decisions were made without democratic input, and emergency decrees were sometimes implemented without even the traditional democratic ratification of a parliamentary vote. That meant that the concerns and imagination of the greater part of society went unaddressed and untapped. To avoid an endless repetition of this cycle we need to start experimenting today with the democratic institutions of tomorrow.
* The technical term for this is ‘sortition’.
** And, of course, even if a working class movement gets some of its members elected, once they start drawing their MP’s salary and enjoying their new social position they stop being a member of the working class in some sense, meaning it might be impossible to ever have truly working class representation in parliament.
- Passive Media is Actively Racist - ccarla
- The Treaties of Today - jefffers
- COVID Made Canada Care About George Floyd - jonkle
- Let Them Leave - yogthos
- COVID and Democracy: Part 2 - loljapes
- Web support - snoe, yogthos
- Typesetting - loljapes
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