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For all our relations: Solidarity toward social justice

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Following is the text of a speech I delivered to Carleton University's Institute of Political Economy on April 11, 2013.

My sincere thanks to Elder Skanks for his wise words of welcome. 

Thank you to Teresa Healy and the Institute of Political Economy for the invitation to be here, and to all of you for coming.

And my thanks to the Algonquin people for allowing us to meet here on their unceded territory.

I was asked if I could speak about solidarity between labour and Indigenous peoples.

Some of you may find this a more political and less academic speech than you are normally accustomed to hearing at a university, but solidarity is fundamentally a political act.

And I can supply a lifetime of footnotes later if you’d like.

I would like to begin with two quotes.

“There can be no peace or harmony unless there is justice.”

"Universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice.

The first quote is from the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

And the second is from the constitution of the International Labour Organization.

This shared vision of peace through social justice points to the common aspirations of labour and Indigenous peoples.

To borrow from the Elder’s words, with one mind they are agreed.

Recognition of such common interests is the very foundation of solidarity.

But this shared vision has not been reflected in our shared history.

While it is now commonplace to see labour leaders in Canada make statements in support of Indigenous rights – I can think of many such instances over the past few months where union presidents have issued declarations of solidarity with Idle No More protests for example – this has not always been the case.

And conversely, Indigenous leadership has not always been positively disposed toward the labour movement.

I will not enumerate instances of grievance for one side against the other because, frankly, the details don’t help us to understand.

They are just symptoms of a deeper struggle.

Both the Indigenous rights movement and the labour movement are made up of ordinary people who sometimes cannot see that they have inherited a completely dysfunctional relationship built on a history of mutual ignorance, deliberate disinformation and fear.

Mutual ignorance due to an education system that taught us that North American history began in 1492 and where workers are just part of the nameless masses. 

There is deliberate disinformation designed to increase our misunderstanding because it keeps us ignorant of each other and divided.

Think of how either group is portrayed on the nightly news, always making demands, complaining, and contributing nothing.

Takers, not makers.

And fear of the other, of anyone and everyone outside the most narrowly construed definition of “us”. 

The creation of this “us and them” dynamic is not an accident. 

Nor is this thesis any less true for being – I hope – entirely familiar.

The “us and them” dynamic ensures that those with other cultures, languages, religions, skin colours and backgrounds, will be mistakenly identified as the other.

“They” are the threat.

If those who are fearful and angry can be kept in the dark as to their situation, then they will be caught up fighting amongst themselves, fruitlessly wasting their energies.

Most importantly, in their confusion, the fearful and the angry will not identify the real power, the threat, the true bully.

And so, I pause to thank Stephen Harper.

For years, Canadian governments paid just enough attention to workers to make them feel part of a growing middle class.

They allowed just enough freedom and power to the labour movement that progress was seen to be made, on wages, benefits, safe workplaces, the rights to organize and bargain collectively.

Even among Indigenous peoples, there was a perception of progress. 

Residential schools closed and Indigenous people started getting university degrees, empowering leaders like Dr. Harold Cardinal, whose writings helped defeat the Trudeau-Chretien White Paper in 1969.

The repatriation of Canada’s constitution included the recognition and affirmation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit rights.

We were far, far away from justice, but the possibility lurked at the edges of our future.

In this possibility, we could see that effort led to results – not perfection by any means – but progress.

And this meant there was hope.

Hope that little by little, with enough effort, with reliance on evidence-based arguments and a commitment to the rule of law, that vision of justice might one day be attainable.

Personally, I believe these were false hopes.

I don’t think that any Canadian government ever actually meant for labour to have political power equivalent to that wielded by capital.

And I am certain that no government in Canada has ever meant for Indigenous peoples to realize self-government and the nation-to-nation relationship codified in the treaties. 

They were just waiting for the policy of assimilation to finally win out.

All of this could have continued for quite some time, with the illusion of progress.

But that illusion has faded.

In the last seven years, we have seen the brutal reality exposed and the tools of domination are clear.

3 of those tools are denial, subversion and blame.

Deny the very existence of the problem.

Deny fundamental rights, as the Government of Canada did in September 2007 when it voted against the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Deny the policy of assimilation, as the Prime Minister did in June of 2008, when he made his insincere apology.

Deny colonialism, as Stephen Harper did at a meeting of the G-8 in September of 2009, when he said “Canada has no history of colonialism”.

Or deny income inequality, the right to collective bargaining and unfair labour practices.

And while we’re at it, deny climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and the hazards of pollution. 

Subvert the organizations that represent the people. 

Treat Indigenous governments as delegated authorities, administrative agents of the Government of Canada rather than as governments.

Treat unions as out-dated and anachronistic, standing in the way of economic progress.

Choke off capacity and incentivize assimilation by incrementally decreasing funding so that Indigenous leaders are left to manage ever-increasing levels of poverty. 

Legislate contracts for the public sector as a demonstration to private sector employers of how to undermine collective bargaining while calling the difference between public and private sector wages an indication that the public sector is earning too much, not that private sector workers are earning too little.

And do this during the period of greatest income disparity since the depression.

Smear the leadership by portraying Indigenous governments as incompetent, corrupt and malevolent.

And do pretty much exactly the same with unions.

In fact, if you look at Bill C-27, the recently passed First Nations Accountability Act, and Bill C-377, amending the Income Tax Act with disclosure requirements for labour organizations, you can see that they are using much the same legislative tool for this purpose.

And while demanding more transparency from others, lead the least transparent government in the last 50 years.

Muzzle the Parliamentary Budget Officer and government scientists.

Get rid of the long-form census so there is no reliable information about what is happening to Indigenous citizens.

Kill off environmental assessment so we have no idea what is happening to the land.

Replace that information with ideology. 

And blame the victim.

Blame unions for job losses.

Blame radical environmentalists for standing in the way of progress.

Blame First Nations for the third world conditions on reserve and unrest among the people.

And so, I say thank you to Stephen Harper.

I thank him because we are not fooled any more.

In his impatience, in his arrogance, in his complete lack of human compassion, he has revealed the truth.

And now people can see clearly who is and is not an ally.

Our struggle is not with each other, no matter how our history has led us to distrust the other, no matter how little we may understand the other, and no matter whether we can see the benefit to us in supporting each other’s goals.

Our struggle is for social justice. 

And without it, there can be no peace.

I’d like to say a few words about how we can join our struggles; how we can be useful allies on all sides.

For a framework, I’d like to return to the report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples with which I started.

The Commission spelled out 4 principles for a renewed relationship between Indigenous peoples and the rest of Canada: recognition, respect, sharing, and responsibility.

To be allies, we must recognize our shared humanity, our common values, our mutual interest, and the rights of others.

We must respect our diversity and how a history over which none of us had control has put us in this circumstance.

We must show respect for others by listening first, and by adding our voices in support for their struggle without trying to speak for them.

We must share the burden of informing and educating others who have yet to join the struggle.

We must share the risks of speaking truth to power and share with each other our experience gained in organizing, protesting and negotiating. 

And we must be prepared to share with others any benefits that come to us in this fight.

We must take responsibility for learning what we do not understand.

We must accept the responsibilities that come with the rights we each hold.

And we must take responsibility for the privileges that have resulted from the oppression of others. 

One final quote for all of you.

In the words of Justice Linden who wrote a report on Ipperwash and the killing of Dudley George, “We are all treaty people.”

If we are to have justice, we must start acting like we understand what that means.

Because, as anyone who has been to a protest march knows….no justice, no peace.

Wela’lin, merci, thank you. 

Thank you for reading this story…

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