Let’s not quibble about whether they came across the Bering Strait or miraculously burst into being sui generis. Let’s just say that those who descended from those who could be found in the Western Hemisphere prior to 1492 shall be its ‘indigenous’ peoples, and those who descended from those who came thereafter, mostly from Europe, shall be the ‘colonizers’.
To be fair, by this definition many of these colonizers came here from Africa against their will. Well, some of the Europeans were brought here in shackles too. What of it?! That doesn’t make them any the less colonizers, at least from the perspective of the indigenous peoples. After all, many of the original white settlers of Australia were convicts.
Colonialism hasn’t always had the bad press given to it in contemporary post-colonial SJW rhetoric. The best preserved Greek temples are to be found in Paestum, just south of Salerno in Italy. The Romans colonized the entire Mediterranean, the Arabs from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
In Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, our hero, having learned that his father was a Roman centurion, asks his mother, “Was it rape?” “Well,” she answers, “at first.” So yes, colonization is invariably resisted. But that initial resistance can’t in itself provide any moral assessment. Why not? Because, Antarctica aside, there isn’t a square inch on this planet that hasn’t seen one people either exterminated or colonized by another. Human beings are animals, and animals compete for territory. If God exists, it’s the way He wanted it to be. And even if not, it’s the way it has to be. Why? Because if we got back on our boats we’d be colonizing Europe. If the sons and daughters of slaves did, they’d be colonizing Africa.
So quit your whinging about being colonized. If you don’t like the way you’re being treated, whinge about the way you’re being treated, not the skin colour of the people treating you that way. I’m pretty sure the victims of the Rwandan genocide took little comfort knowing that at least the hands wielding those machetes were black.
Here’s an uncomfortable truth about oppression. A brutalized people become brutal. What happened to the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto is being paid forward on the Palestinians in Gaza. But often a brutalized people turns on itself. So sure, but for Belgian colonialism the Rwandan genocide probably wouldn’t have happened. But for the residential schools First Nations self-governance might not be plagued with such rampant nepotism. And if I were a horse I’d prefer hay over a Big Mac.
I know I’m wasting my breath when I say, don’t get me wrong, but I’ll say it anyway. I’m not saying that colonizers can do no wrong, or that when they do there’s no call for reparations or even apology. The residential schools were a bad idea; and we’re all paying for it now. But this is probably one of those damages that can’t be repaired. And if any of its victims are consoled by some formulaic apology from some milk-toast politician on behalf of malefactors long-since dead, well then maybe I’ll ask Egyptian president el-Sisi to apologize for my ancestors having been slaves unto Pharaoh.
I’ll grant that there are individuals who have certain rights derived from their group membership, provided it’s understood that the only right granted by nature is that of conquest. All other rights come into being by being posited by those who are then expected to honor them. So by all means members of First Nations are entitled to what’s been – and let’s face it, will continue to be – honored more in the breach than the observance. But let’s not feign outrage and surprise. History has taught us well that the staying power of treaties between nations, not unlike that of laws within a nation, is dictated by the perdurance of mutual advantage. My cornfield is mine until you and your buddies need to run a power line over it. A native Reserve is ‘reserved’ until the rest of us need to bury a pipeline under it.
Neither private property in the first case, nor nationhood in the second, has anything to do with it. Sovereignty isn’t about what’s written on a You Are Now Entering sign, nor some chicken-scratches on a page. It’s about boots on the ground and the force of arms that keep them there. So if you don’t want me running my pipeline under your land, don’t run your power line across mine. But you can’t live without the electricity brought to your reservation any more than I can live without piping my oil south to market. So I say again, quit your feckless whinging!
I’m told – though I stand to be corrected – that most of my indigenous students have about as much native blood in their veins as I have Israelite blood in mine. The milkman always gets in there. But let’s be generous and say you’re fifty percent native. So whatever half of you owes the other half, it’s pretty much a wash, isn’t it?
Of course those of us who are 100% non-native could still owe your native dollop something, and I’ll pay up just as soon as you do to whomever you’ve wronged according to whatever theory of wrongdoing you’re invoking. After all, nature was red in tooth and claw long before the white man came to this continent.
But, you might rightly object, what makes an African American black rather than white, and accounts for his being treated as such, isn’t percentage but appearance. You’re black in America just in case the rest of Americans read black features into you. Aboriginality isn’t quite so easy to spot. But as with blacks in America, in my town you’ll be treated as an ‘Injun’ if you look like an ‘Injun’, and if you don’t you won’t. Unless, as some do, you insist on it.
Well, I’m Jewish. Apart from last names like Cohen and Shapiro, Jews are hardly recognizable at all. But if we’re going to play identity politics – and I play my J-card as shamelessly as you play your treaty card – we need to agree on the rules of the game.
Membership in a group requires two things: uptake to your membership from other members of that group, and uptake from those who are not members of your group to there being a group to which you can claim to belong. So section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives me my J-card and you your treaty card, but for not being able to roll her tongue one’s shit out of luck.
Being personally able to roll my tongue, I have no problem with that. But I’m not insensitive to disadvantages I happen not to suffer. Notwithstanding the events of 1933 to 1945 in Europe, anti-Semitism is rare in North America – in fact between Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon, we’re pretty much the master race – whereas the detritus of racism against our indigenous peoples remains ubiquitous. But it’s not their history that entitles them to a leg up. It’s their disadvantage. They’d be entitled to a leg up even if their disadvantage was an act of God, like a plague that targeted those and only those with some indigenous allelic marker.
Whatever it is to be a people does not nullify what it is to be a person. And sometimes the two conflict. Some years ago the men of the untreatied Lubicon of northern Alberta were screaming for self-government, while their women were screaming hell no! Why? Because self-government would have meant replacing the RCMP with a tribal police force, which meant that the police called to arrest the man who’d just beaten his wife half to death would more likely than not be his brother. ‘Tis always thus. One person’s occupier is another’s liberator. Why should we expect anything different among indigenous peoples?
What it is to be a people is, among other things, to be the hero of its own autobiography. In this respect Nietzsche had us exactly right. We needed something to save ourselves (and our God) from our (and His) constant humiliation. So we assigned ourselves the role of His having chosen us to go forth and be an example unto the nations, not as victors, which we almost never were, but as victims, at which we’d become quite expert. That’s why the Steven Spielberg version of the Holocaust is now as central to our foundation myth as the Exodus. Saul of Tarsus used the same motif – victimization followed by redemption – in inventing Christianity.
What matters in all of this is less history than spin. And indigenous people have been no strangers to these time-honored tropes. They once lived in harmony with their environment and each other. Then the white man came and fouled their land with his plows and his drill bits, and their bodies with his alcohol and diseases. All of which is true, I suppose, except the part about it being whites against natives rather than one tribe allying with the newcomers against another tribe, just as in Europe for thousands of years whites have been allying with other whites against still other whites.
And the part about it being their land in the first place.
It’s one thing to acknowledge, as our feckless administration asks us to do, that “the land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Blackfoot, Stoney, and Tsuut’ina nations.” It’s also the traditional grazing grounds of the North American Bison. But that doesn’t mean they owned the land on which they grazed. Ownership is a moral and/or political claim, to which people are no more entitled than bison without something called an argument.
Well, that’s just the problem – isn’t it? – with allowing a philosopher into the room when the speaker’s sharing his most heartfelt moral convictions, and his listeners are virtue-signaling along with him because they dare not not to. As long as we don’t ask what makes it their land in the first place, we can feign our gratitude at being welcomed by our indigenous hosts to share their land with us. And this notwithstanding they didn’t. We just took it!
They once occupied it; now we do. But their occupying it didn’t make it theirs then any more than our occupying it makes it ours now. To decide who owns what requires a theory of property entitlement, and that’s something that can’t be provided by anyone’s mere heartfelt moral convictions. So let’s see how it can be decided.
In a small book entitled Patriarcha published in 1680, one Sir Robert Filmer read the Book of Genesis as reporting that God gave the world to a particular man named Adam, full stop, which was thenceforth his to do with as he pleased. From this Filmer derived – don’t ask him how – the divine right of kings. So what’s mine is whatever was passed on to me by Adam, which for most of us means we get absolutely nothing.
A generation later John Locke reread Genesis as reporting that God gave the world not to Adam, not even a single share of it, but to Adam and all his descendants in common. Since each of us owns all the world, no one of us can appropriate any part of it to his exclusive use without deferring to everyone else. But since there’s always some dog-in-the-manger who’ll withhold his consent, God’s gift turns out to be no gift at all. So to transcend this difficulty Locke proposed that God implanted in us an intuitive recognition of an exclusion-conferring principle, namely that one can appropriate from the commons that to which his labor adds value, provided he leaves as much and as good for others. And the rest, as they say, is history. Well, at least American history.
But what Locke failed to explain is how the world belonged to God in the first place. What it is for me to own something is for others to be excluded from its use without my leave, and that requires that there be others to be so excluded. So since there were no others prior to His creation of Adam, God couldn’t have owned the world. He could have owned it once He brought Adam into it. But by what exclusion-conferring principle?
Either the world belonged to neither of them or to both of them in common. Adam could have appropriated a part of it by improving it by his labor, which he did, leaving as much and as good for God to do likewise. But giving the world to Adam, rather than sharing it, implies that it was God’s to give, which clearly, by Locke’s own logic, it wasn’t.
One can save Locke’s account by supposing all this talk of God giving the world to Adam and his descendants was just a sop to his Christian readers, whereas his real argument was simply an anticipation of Adam Smith’s invisible hand of selfishness, which is a purely instrumental argument for assigning property to those who could make the most from its possession. This is the argument that was standardly deployed in justifying the appropriation of the lands which, after all, the native people of the Americas were obviously not using. It’s the same argument the Israelis used in expropriating Palestinian land. And it’s the same argument used by the Spanish and Portuguese to justify the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of South America, whose bodies were obviously being underutilized.
A less unpalatable but likewise instrumentalist argument was advanced in the next century by David Hume, who observed that coercive redistribution of property discouraged its improvement. So he favored longevity of possession, from which we get our pithy “possession is nine tenths of the law”. We can see this intuition in play in Israel’s settler policy in the Occupied Territories. If Jewish settlers can claim three or four generations of occupation, and three or four generations hence the Palestinians no longer can, then the settlers can claim the same right to remain as can fifth or sixth generation Canadians against those natives who we’ve displaced.
This isn’t rocket science. In some jurisdictions it’s called estoppal, in others squatters’ rights. If you don’t like it you can always appeal to Heaven, which was the euphemism by which the Spanish referred to the Reconquest. A reversal of the Naqba is possible but unlikely. But for the indigenous peoples of North America, that ship has long since sailed.
So who can lay claim to the correct theory of property entitlement? Hobbes. Hobbes argued that who gets what is a function of both what we can offer to improve the other’s condition, and what we can threaten to worsen it. Who owns what is a report on some relatively stable equilibrium in that dialectic of forces. Today women in Canada own their own bodies. Thirty years ago they didn’t. Tomorrow who knows?
I’ve been arguing for decades now that the plight of the indigenous peoples of Canada is a collective action problem, and not unlike every other collective action problem, they’ve egregiously underplayed their hand. That’s why the next on my books-to-write list is entitled How to be a More Effective Terrorist.
But that’s not the intended takeaway from this rant. The intended takeaway is that the entitlement of the indigenous peoples to a leg up has nothing to do with the mythology of the history of Contact. It has to do with their disadvantage, full stop, a disadvantage which – unlike patriarchy, for example – accrues to no one’s benefit.
But that’s not how it’s going to be read. It’s going to be read as a typical hate-filled alt-right white supremacist tirade. I can live with that. If I can live with being labeled an anti-Semitic Semite for being critical of the State of Israel, I can sure as hell handle your resentment for calling out your rhetoric on colonialism. That’s because push come to shove, I can always play my J-card.