Editor’s Note: At the beginning of 2017, the Indigenous community, in particular the Manuel family and the Secwepemc Nation, lost a tremendous leader in the passing of Art Manuel. A giant who stood on the shoulders of giants, Manuel never stood down from his position that Indigenous rights are non-negotiable. His relentless pursuit of justice continues to inspire and drive a nationhood movement that will forever be changed by Manuel’s presence. In a generous gesture, Manuel transcends boundaries to offer us new work that is as contemporary and urgent as it has ever been.
“Art Manuel followed the way of our [ancestors] that insisted if you could not find a path through the woods, you made one yourself” – Chief Ron Derrickson
By: Hayden King (@Hayden_King)
Near the end of Art Manuel’s first book (2015), Unsettling Canada: A National Wake-Up Call, he wrote that “one thing is for certain: the flood waters of colonialism are, at long last, receding.” Manuel was neither extoling “sunny ways” nor convinced reconciliation offered long delayed justice. No, Manuel, perhaps more than any thinker in Canada, understood the dynamics and strategies of violent and “demented” contemporary colonialism. Rather, Manuel saw that our collective resistance, as Indigenous peoples and those in genuine solidarity, was becoming effective.
At this critical moment, Manuel’s (posthumous) second book, The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering the Land and Rebuilding the Economy (2017) arrives. At forty-three chapters (forty- four if including the insightful “Letters to Friends and Enemies”) and over 300 pages, the book is comprehensive. The first half identifies the sources and contours of “the triad of colonialism” (dispossession, dependency and oppression) and the latter half focuses on “simple and difficult” solutions. The Reconciliation Manifesto picks up where his last book left off to offer clarity and hope to those committed to the struggle.
A PRE-MEDITATED CRIME
Like many political texts on Indigenous-state relations, Manuel starts with that historic overview. A key distinction though, is his ability to make connections between early and late articulations of colonial policy that others miss. This novel analysis of seemingly disparate settler strategies, and the philosophical underpinning reproduced through time, creates an image of the colonizer we can actually see. Not a small feat considering that much of this policy is designed and implemented by faceless lawyers and bureaucrats.
From Papal Bulls to the British North Act, the White Paper to comprehensive claims, Manuel starts with a sketch of dispossession (the first in the triad of colonialism): how each strategy has aimed to “break the link between Indigenous peoples and their ownership and jurisdiction over their lands” (115). These legal fictions – all rooted in white supremacy – flow one into the next, successive articulations of the same dispossessive push. And they have been remarkably effective – at least in law – leaving First Nations with just 0.02 per cent of their former lands.
Second in the triad is dependency. Here, Manuel offers some sympathy for First Nation leaders trying their best in a suffocating system. But in a stinging censure, he also illustrates how our leadership has betrayed us. This is a systemic problem in the sense that the Indian Act has organized Chiefs to “represent two masters who are in direct conflict with one another. And one of those masters, the federal government, pays their salaries.” This line of critique is delivered most forcefully against national leaders, from Phil Fontaine to Perry Bellegarde, chiefs who have gone from “hanging around the Liberal fort [to] disappearing into it.”
For Manuel, this leads to the third element of colonization, oppression, which is especially cunning considering the Canadian system results in “our poverty and misery [being] administered by our own people.” The leadership accepts meagre programs and services, and have been conditioned to withdraw from conflict in cases where the scraps might be threatened. This grim calculation is the result of a history of violence. When First Nations do rise up, they are more often than not met with criminalization, discipline and coercion.
The Continuity of Colonialism
Offering ample evidence to validate his framework, the critical contribution in the Reconciling Manifesto is the revelation that contemporary reconciliation discourse maintains the trend. Like the White Paper used the civil rights discourse of a “just society” to sell the extinguishment of Aboriginal rights and title, reconciliation is used in similar ways. Yes, there are more
resources for programs and services to help “close the gap”. But these are “measures that are designed – as they always have been since the first missionaries arrived and through the residential school experience and the fitful Liberal bursts into nothingness like the Kelowna accord – to fix Indigenous peoples” (56). Or put another way, to help us assimilate.
For Canadians today, this reconciliation framework’s discourse has reached dangerous levels of saturation. Manuel writes that “Everything is reconciliation. When they join a round dance, they call that reconciliation. When their eyes tear up in discussing our poverty, that is reconciliation. At the same time, when they are denying our constitutional rights, they call that reconciliation of Aboriginal title with Crown title. In fact, every new plan to steal from us is called reconciliation.” While other academics debate the meaning and scope of reconciliation, Manuel shows how its already been co-opted and weaponized.
In a review of Unsettling Canada I wrote that Manuel is like a tall old cedar. He seems to have a view of the landscape in its entirety, and before the rest of us. His analysis from above effectively puts the current conversation around reconciliation into the rightful context.
More than that, and the focus really of the latter half of the book, is what we’re going to do about it all. Bypassing the nihilism of much of the settler colonial frameworks and the structural or strictly internal prescriptions of many critical Indigenous writers, Manuel is refreshingly pro- active, creative, and importantly, persuasive (not to mention witty).
When asked by non-Indigenous peoples, how to get past colonialism, Manuel would say the answer is simple: “Canada needs to fully recognize our Aboriginal and treaty rights and our absolute right to self-determination. At the same time, we will recognize the fundamental human right of Canadians, after hundreds of years of settlement, to live here.”
But he also knew that Canadians (and it should be noted that this book is addressed in large part to Canadians) would prefer the difficult path, because ultimately our interests diverge. So, Indigenous people must cultivate a sophisticated and committed grassroots movement with those in solidarity – environmentalists and racialized Canadians in particular – to force justice. Now, there is much more: strategies for investor risk analyses, land management plans, the deployment of international legal instruments, pipeline subversion plans, even a six-step program for decolonization. These myriad of tactics are designed to fundamentally challenge the legitimacy of the settler state and force and an alternative arrangement.
Central to this new arrangement, and a latent theme throughout, is the land. Not just how we’ve been dispossessed of it or how to exercise jurisdiction over it, but our obligations to it. While Manuel advocates for the rebuilding of Indigenous economies (as well as non-Indigenous economies for that matter), he insists they must be rooted in a deference to the land and includes a section of the book reminding us of our near apocalyptic circumstances to drive the point.
Despite this foreboding, the tone is generally hopeful. In that spirit, the writing is accessible. The Reconciliation Manifesto can be read as an introductory text for Canadians who have little understanding of colonialism; or, as an intervention into counter-hegemonic theorizing. For me, having studied and taught Indigenous politics for a decade now, Manuel re-frames my thinking on issues I long considered straightforward. While there are elements that require elaboration here and nuance there, this is nonetheless a tremendously important book for multiple audiences.
While Art Manuel is irreplaceable, he does leave an inheritance. Among those gifts is the Reconciliation Manifesto, in which Manuel finds a path for us. Now it’s our task to clear it.