Monday, May 14, 2007

Railways and Colonialism

CBC reports that CN Rail is jumping on the police bandwagon and targeting Shawn Brant and the rest of the residents of the Tyendinaga Territory of the Mohawk Nation: they are launching civil suits against Brant, against the Tyendinaga band council, and against others involved in the recent blockade of their rail line that was mounted in response to the foot-dragging by the Canadian state in settling a local land claim, part of the long-term settler state strategy of consolidating past theft by obstructing justice around land issues at every turn. Though rail blockades have been sporadically used by strategically placed First Nations in the past, this is the first time that CN has taken such a step.

As Brant is quoted as saying, "We've sort of looked at this as being a warning to other First Nations communities across the country as well as ourselves that they're quite willing to make our miserable lives more miserable." This is especially in light of that a national day of action has been called for June 29, and "many First Nations are already planning [blockades], with talk of a co-ordinated targeting of key infrastructure, from rails to roads," according to this column

There are a number of things worth noting about this. For one thing, it is yet another indicator of the fact that it both capital and the state are integral to colonialism. This seems to me to be kind of an obvious point, but I mention it because on more than one occasion I have heard ways of talking about colonial oppression that foreground the role of the settler state but have little critical to say about the class relations or relations of production with which it is integrated. This is one small sample of overlap between the drive of a segment of private capital to safeguard its profit and the drive of the nation state to eradicate anything it sees as competition for legitimacy and sovereignty within the boundaries it claims.

The second is the historical resonance of the entity choosing to contribute to the enforcement of colonial relations being a railroad, because railroads were central to the original colonization of much of Canada. The particular area where Tyendinaga is located was, as far as I understand it, initially colonized in an era before rail transportation played much of a role, but it was vital in the colonial transformation of the huge stretch of the country between northwestern Ontario and the already-existing small British colonies in the lower mainland of what is now British Columbia and on Vancouver Island. I actually haven't read much of this history recently or in any critical form, but anyone who has taken Grade 10 history in Ontario can probably remember the big deal made of railroads in the unit covering Canada in the late 19th century. A little strategic reframing can reveal a lot even from partially forgotten remnants of the completely uncritical mythology that is high school history. It was the promise of a rail connection that brought the colony of British Columbia into the Canadian confederation. The railroad cemented Canadian/British claims to the territory in the face of dreams of Manifest Destiny in Washington. After the first Riel Rebellion, in which Metis people with Cree allies rose up against the encroaching settler state, there was an additional imperative to be able to get troops out there easily. And of course it was railroads that transported land-hungry settlers -- a population carefully and deliberately kept almost entirely white by Canadian immigration policy -- that were integral to the state's plan to make their colonial control of the land a practical fact by transforming it from "the land" as understood by its indigenous inhabitants and into "property" as understood in the context of the common law and capitalist social relations. As a consequence, large sums of government money were used to subsidize private corporations in building and running several transcontinental railroads. I forget the details, but I know that it resulted in far more rail capacity than anyone had any use for, and one government fell because of a corruption scandal related to the process.

All of which is to say that the railroads were a BIG DEAL in that era because of their importance, both material and symbolic, in early Canadian state formation -- state formation that of course was entirely dependent on land theft and cultural genocide.

Incidentally, from what I understand the companies that eventually formed CN were not directly involved in creating the original transcontinental lines -- that was mostly Canadian Pacific -- but at least one element was central to creating the system of branch lines used to reinforce colonial control of the province of Manitoba and was heavily subsidized by the provincial government.

It is also worth understanding the history that lies underneath the naming of the band council in the lawsuit. Band council government was created by the racist federal legislation called the Indian Act and more or less forced on most First Nations, sometimes at the point of a gun, sometimes through deception, and sometimes through other forms of bullying. I don't know the specific history in Tyendinaga, but it seems clear that naming the band council (which had nothing to do with the blockade) in the lawsuit is a way of fostering the old colonial strategy of divide and rule -- push the segment of the colonized people over which you have some leverage to act as your enforcers against the segment of the population over which you have little and who are therefore more militant.

The final thing that occurs to me is to wonder about why now was chosen by CN to take this step. The obvious answer is the one given in the quotation above, as a warning against others planning similar actions on the upcoming day of action or at other times. But I also wonder if this is part of a larger tactical shift by the settler state, as part of the push by Harper and Co. to shift things from straight neoliberalism to a more blatantly Bush-like model. The state has been perfectly willing to use uniformed people with guns against indigenous resistance in the last few decades, but by and large it has preferred, when possible, to put a liberal face on cooptation and delay and keep it all as invisible as possible. One good example of this shift is the residential schools issue. The Liberal strategy seemed to be to hemm and haw and concede it was an awful situation but do the absolute minimum materially and symbolically to continue seeming progressive to a poorly-informed white-dominated liberal base. The Conservative Minister of Indian Affairs, Jim Prentice, seems to have opted for a reversion to a denial of the problem so blatant that it would be laughable were it not for its pro-genocide implcations.

He said,

I've said quite clearly that the residential school chapter of our history is one that was a difficult chapter. Many things happened that we need to close the door on as part of Canadian history, but fundamentally, the underlying objective had been to try and provide an education to aboriginal children and I think the circumstances are completely different from Maher Arar or also from the Chinese head tax. [emphasis added]

A senior official from the Department of Indian Affairs in the early twentieth century was much more honest.

The department's purpose was clear enough: as enunciated by [long-time deputy superintendent-general Duncan Campbell] Scott, it was 'to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.' In other words, as one observer put it, the extinction of Indians as Indians. [Olive Patricia Dickason, Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times, Third Edition. Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2002. p. 308]

That was specifically with reference to a short-lived power to deliberately remove "Indian status" from indigenous people at the Minister's discretion, but its matter-of-factness is telling of the department's historical orientation more broadly.

In any makes me wonder if perhaps there is some backroom coordination going on. The shifts under Harper are certainly not fundamental, as the goals of the settler state have never really wavered when it comes to indigenous people. but it would not surprise me to learn at some point down the road that CN got a go-ahead or even a nudge on this point, given that the Canadian settler state seems to be resuffling its tactical options with open repression closer to the top of the deck.

This is just off the top of my own head, and does not come from an active solidarity group let alone from the people most directly affected, so act with caution. But I can't help but think that perhaps a good practical approach to solidarity for people living in cities that have CN corporate offices -- their national headquarters is in Montreal, and unfortunatley their northern Ontario office appears to be in Saul Ste. Marie rather than Sudbury -- might be to pay them a collective visit of some sort. They should hear from people, including and perhaps especially settlers, that they should drop the civil suits and that they are pressuring the wrong party around the blockades. If they want to avoid any future risk of lost revenue they should pressure their buddies on Parliament Hill to act quickly and decisively to create a just settlement of land claims in Tyendinaga and across the nation.

Personally, I think direct action is called for, but for those of us at a distance, letters can be sent to:

President's Office
CN Headquarters
935 de La Gauchetière Street West
Montreal, Quebec
H3B 2M9