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Cultural Supremacy Undermines First Nations Land Claims

Publié le 1 septembre, 2007 | 1 commentaire

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Claiming land was one of the central motivations for European settlement of Canada. For centuries, Europeans took possession of territory occupied by First Nations under the pretext of possessing superior cultural institutions. Recently, an Algonquin First Nations cultural centre in Quebec was vandalized with white supremacist insignia. The act, as well as societal reaction to it, serves as a reminder that colonial legacies, despite pleas from the international community, continue to frame First Nations struggles.

Eagle and clam
backpackphotography, Eagle and clam, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

In June 2007, a cultural centre belonging to the Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg Algonquin First Nation in Quebec was spray-painted with swastikas and racist graffiti. The white-supremacist attack came only days after the federal government proposed a new bill to expedite land claims. Online postings on the Globe and Mail’s Comments section responding to the vandalism showed that a number of Canadians viewed the act as an inevitability, given the recent surge in First Nations protests across the country. How should this hate crime against a First Nations community be contextualized in contemporary society? What is the relationship between history, land claims, cultural claims, and hate crimes?The claiming of First Nations land is a cornerstone of the “Two Founding Nations” understanding of Canada. Claiming land was one of the central motivations for the European settlement of Canada. For centuries, Europeans took possession of territory occupied by First Nations under the pretext of possessing superior cultural institutions. The Canadian government continues to defend its entitlement to the territory. Witness, for instance, its refusal to support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a refusal stemming in large part from concerns over the declaration’s implications for the land claims process.

There are currently over a thousand outstanding First Nations land claims in Canada, valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars. But outside of the more contested claims where First Nations have erected roadblocks, such as in Caledonia, Ontario, many Canadians are unaware of the number and extent of claims being brought forth. Is the general disregard for First Nations demands due to the fact that the current Canadian government, like its historical predecessors, is doing a sufficient job of keeping these land claims away from the profit centres of individual landowners and developers? What happens when the Canadian Government shows signs of acquiescing to First Nations demands?

Land Claims and the United Nations

In 2006, Canada was one of two nations to vote against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (1). The Declaration establishes essential standards for respecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples’ jurisdiction and responsibility over their lands, peoples and right to govern themselves as Nations.

The Canadian UN representatives opposing the Declaration expressed particular concern regarding the sections dealing with land claims and ownership.

“[The Declaration] could be interpreted to support claims to broad ownership rights over traditional territories, even where rights to such territories were lawfully ceded through treaty. These provisions could also hinder our land claims processes in Canada […](2)”

Canada also felt that the interest of “States” weren’t given adequate consideration and that the Declaration was drafted by and for indigenous peoples.

Canada’s rejection of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – especially as it relates to land claim issues – is a contemporary example of a longstanding historical politic centred on Eurocentric notions of the Canadian “State” and its right to hold ultimate decision-making power over First Nations people.

Claiming Land in Canada

It is often said that the French had better relations with the First Nations than the English in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, particularly during the Seven Years War when the French allied with First Nations. Given the lack of attention France paid to populating and defending the overseas colony, it is true that the French in Canada relied more heavily on the support of their native allies than did the British. But in looking at the seventeenth-century writings of the Ursuline nun, Marie de l’Incarnation, we can see that their “respect” for the people and the land they occupied did not extend to the powerful Iroquois nations that were their enemies.

Historical writing in Quebec amply documents the vilification of the Iroquois Confederacy and the acts of terror they wreaked upon the French settlers. But very little has been written about the brutal decades of war waged by French soldiers against the Iroquois that eventually led to the seizure of their fertile lands and settlements. Contemporaries, including Marie de l’Incarnation, saw no need to extend their Christian sympathies to a group that threatened French hegemony in the St. Lawrence Valley for much of the seventeenth century. In 1665, she writes that the soldiers were animated by the holy battle they were undertaking (3). The following year saw the near-complete destruction of the “enemy” through the claiming of Iroquois land.

“…ils prirent la fuite, en sorte que leurs quatre Bourgs demeurèrent vides d’hommes, mais si remplis de vivres, d’utensiles, et de toutes sortes de commoditez et de meubles… les 4 Ecclésiastiques qui accompagnent l’armée, dirent la Sainte Messe; après quoi l’on planta par tout la Sainte Croix avec les armes de France pour prendre possession de toutes ces contrées pour sa Majesté(4).”

This text is one of the earliest examples of European claiming of First Nations land. But the pattern continued in Canada into the nineteenth-century when the British crown sought to settle the most arable plots in Ontario and the West at the expense of First Nations communities. The discourse surrounding the claims centered, as before, on cultural superiority and entitlement.

Celia Haig-Brown documented the struggle of the Ojibwa woman Nahnebahwequa to obtain title for her land from provincial authorities in Ontario in the years preceding Confederation. Ultimately, Nahnebahwequa was defeated, but her struggle stands as a pertinent example of the way Eurocentric power bases have operated to dispossess First Nations communities.

On Nahnebahwequa’s trip to London to plead the crown for justice, she made a speech wherein she highlighted her belonging to British-Christian Canada. She sought to establish that in many ways she had assimilated to the British way of life to gain credibility for her claim. But she also spoke out against the injustice of “the poor Indian” working to clear his land only to have it taken by the white man once it was made valuable (5). The methods of dispossession may have turned to more rhetorical means than in the seventeenth century, but the result was the same. First Nations communities were being pushed to the margins of a dominant Canadian society.

Haig-Brown supports Donald B. Smith’s attempts to revise the “Two Founding Nations” theory of Canada, referring instead to the “The Three Canadas”, in order to better represent the history of the land. “A more imaginative understanding of Canadian identity […] begins by acknowledging whose traditional land we (that is, self-identified Canadians) occupy(6)”. To prevent further acts of violence by dominant Canadians against First Nations, it will be necessary to rethink historical entitlement to the land.

Reaction to the Vandalizing of Algonquin Cultural Centre

The vandalizing of the Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg cultural centre in June 2007 coincided with First Nations’ demands for increased public attention to outstanding land claims. The severity of this sort of hate crime perpetrated by one group of Canadians against another cannot be ignored, nor can it be dismissed as a random act. Several days prior to the white supremacist act, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a land claims settlement legislation that was received by Phil Fontaine, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, as a step towards “correcting” history. The proposed bill was announced just several weeks before a nationwide Day of Action by First Nations. The centre itself was preparing for 150th anniversary celebrations.

Contributors to the comments section linked to a Globe and Mail article on the vandalizing of the cultural centre (12 commentators in total) (7) raised a number of issues that frame the popular discourse on First Nations restitution for historical wrongs. Two-thirds of respondents felt that the victims of the crime were at least partially to blame for the incident, associating them with “terrorism” in blockades such as the one in Caledonia. One respondent wrote: “The First Nations people have chosen militant action, blockades and confrontation as their form of negotiating for the summer. There will be some who respond in kind(8)”. Less combative respondents stated that they were not looking forward to a summer of disrupted holidays due to blockades and other protests.

The white supremacist vandalizing of a First Nations cultural centre in Quebec was not a random and personal crime. It must be situated as part of a larger historical and political framework that has operated for centuries to dispossess First Nations people of their land. The treaties and the laws that created and upheld them were brought about using intimidation and force. Can Canada as a contemporary nation under international pressure acknowledge past wrongdoings? Can it do this even when restitution may necessitate scrapping development contracts, reclaiming the ‘second homes’ of some to provide basic living conditions for others, and ruining the odd holiday drive? A good starting point is to acknowledge and take responsibility for the systemic nature of what happened to the Kitigan Zibi Anishanabeg community.


(1) The Russian Federation also voted against the Declaration.
(2) Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. “Canada’s Position: United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – June 29, 2006”.<http://www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/nr/spch/unp/06/ddr_e.html>
(3) Marie de l’Incarnation. Correspondance. Ed. Dom Guy Oury. Solesmes: Abbaye Saint-Pierre, 1971. p. 740.
(4) Ibid., p. 745.
(5) Haig-Brown, Celia. “Seeking Honest Justice in a Land of Strangers: Nahnebahwequa’s Struggle for Land” in Journal of Canadian Studies. Winter 2002. Vol. 36 (4), pg.143-171. p. 151
(6) Ibid., p. 144.
(7) The Globe and Mail online comments on “Aboriginal Day Marred for Quebec
Community after White Supremacist Vandalism”. The Canadian Press. Jun 21, 2007. Retrieved June 24, 2007.
(8) Ibid.

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One Response to “Cultural Supremacy Undermines First Nations Land Claims”

  1. greg
    novembre 23rd, 2010 @ 14:39

    interesting, the contrast between your article and the one on the torontosun website concerning the same issue: land claims. toronto sun comment is characterizing land claims as first nations whining, yet again with their hand out for free money…..the problem of racism in canada is an interesting one, to be sure.