Cultural-National Autonomy: Marxism and the National Question

by Joseph Stalin

We spoke above of the formal aspect of the Austrian national programme and of the methodological grounds which make it impossible for the Russian Marxists simply to adopt the example of Austrian Social-Democracy and make the latter’s programme their own.

Let us now examine the essence of the programme itself

What then is the national programme of the Austrian Social-Democrats?

Nations and Nationalities of Austria-Hungary

It is expressed in two words: cultural-national autonomy.

This means, firstly, that autonomy would be granted, let us say, not to Bohemia or Poland, which are inhabited mainly by Czechs and Poles, but to Czechs and Poles generally, irrespective of territory, no matter what part of Austria they inhabit.

That is why this autonomy is called national and not territorial. Continue reading

Communists Condemn Austerity Budget in Ontario

People’s Voice

The Communist Party of Canada (Ontario) has condemned the Ontario Budget, delivered March 27, as a massive attack on working people and the poor that will destroy tens of thousands of jobs, drive down wages, pensions, incomes and living standards. Combined with the austerity measures in the federal budget, it could push the province into another deep economic recession.

Communist Party of Canada (Ontario) leader Elizabeth Rowley

The Executive of the CPC (Ontario) also warned that the threat of legislated wage controls is a dangerous attack on free collective bargaining and on civil and democratic rights.

“There’s not much air between the Liberals and Tories when it comes to bashing workers and the poor, and restricting their rights. They both unerringly deliver the goods to Big Business, the banks and financial sector, and transnational corporations like Vale, US Steel, Caterpillar, Rio Tinto ‑ the source of the crisis in Ontario” said CPC (Ontario) leader Elizabeth Rowley. “Everything that falls in the way of bigger and bigger corporate profits is under acute attack.” Continue reading

The Case for Self-Defense

by William Richardson

What we have seen with the Trayvon Martin case is a community watchman who is socially white (his actual race is half Hispanic) shoot an unarmed black teen, the police not arrest him and the federal government not step in to even consult on the case until there were hundreds of protests and millions of people calling for justice. All the while this was going on the same police who were supposed to investigate this case are shooting up unarmed black teens, men, and women in our communities across America. Let’s also mention for coverage that the feds was allowing our military to murder US citizens and kill foreign civilians in the many countries where they have deployed troops.

Yet Trayvon’s family (total respect to them) and our black “leaders” wanted to bring Zimmerman to justice through the proper authorities. What is wrong with this picture? We are asking people who kill us and hate us (and kill and hate other people too) to protect us from people who hate us and kill us. This is my argument against trusting the police or any authority to achieve justice for the African community when they are part of the system that created the conditions that led to Trayvon’s death in the first place. Continue reading

Poll: Arizonans Oppose Right-Wing Agenda

special to peoplesworld.org

PHOENIX – A new statewide poll released today shows Arizonans, including self-identified Republicans, overwhelmingly oppose the extreme legislative agenda being pushed by lawmakers at the Statehouse, particularly measures attacking teachers, nurses and other public service workers who keep our communities safe and strong.

The poll showed Arizonans overwhelmingly want legislators to focus on creating jobs and improving education.  The poll – which had a majority of respondents self-identifying as Republicans – also found that only 29 percent of Arizonans approve of the job legislators are doing for them, a finding that shows voters see their lawmakers as extreme and out of touch.

“This poll confirms what we already knew: Arizonans are tired of partisan political games that only benefit special interests like the Goldwater Institute and Arizona’s 1 percent,” said John Loredo, who is working with the Arizona Working Families Coalition and is the former Arizona House Minority Leader.  “Legislators can either focus on job creation and improving education or face the wrath of voters in November by continuing to push these unpopular, overreaching policies that hurt working families and our communities.”

The release of the poll comes a day after Arizonans delivered over 20,000 petitions, postcards and letters to Senators opposing a bill that destroys personnel protections and institutes political cronyism, and other measures that do nothing to create jobs and only put families and communities at risk.  Though the poll shows job creation is the number one priority for Arizonans, reports from earlier this month show that the Senate Economic Development and Jobs Creation Committee had only met once since January and heard only three bills.

“Since the beginning of the year, extreme lawmakers have ignored the issues Arizonans elected them to work on and, instead, pushed an all-out assault on Arizona working families,” said Mike Covert, an elementary school special education teacher with the Cave Creek Unified School District for the past seven years, and a registered independent voter. “With tens of thousands of Arizonans looking for work, it is disheartening to see some legislators focused on bills that create no jobs but open the door to cronyism in government and hurt teachers, nurses and others who provide vital services to our communities.”

Lake Research Partners conducted the statewide telephone survey among a representative cross section of 400 registered Arizona voters on March 26-28, 2012. The poll has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.

Here are some of the findings from the poll:

  • 76 percent of respondents said they support the current personnel law that says there must be a reason to fire public employees like teachers, police and firefighters.
  • 87 percent felt that police and firefighters should have a say in their own training and job procedures, which is part of the current personnel laws, while only 8 percent said politicians said have the final say on these procedures, a change that would come if the current personnel bill is passed.
  • An overwhelming majority of Arizonans – 73 percent – also oppose a law, currently before the legislature, to prohibit public employees from setting up their paychecks to automatically contribute money to a third party.
  • On legislative priorities Arizonans would like to see lawmakers work on, 40 percent ranked job creation their number one concern followed by improving education at 36 percent. Only 9 percent said legislators’ priority should be to change the current hiring and firing process for public employees.
  • Only 29 percent of respondents gave state legislators a positive approval rating. 35 percent rating their work as “just fair” and 34 percent said lawmakers were doing a “poor” job. This mirrors an earlier poll conducted in January by Behavior Research of Arizona that found only 26 percent of Arizonans with a positive approval of legislators but shows an increase in disapproval.
  • Gov. Brewer fared better but a majority of Arizonans polled – 52 percent – gave her a “just fair” or “poor” rating.
  • 50 percent of those polled self-identified as Republicans.

To see the full polling results, click on this link or go here.

*note: People’s Voice is the news website of the Communist Party USA. The original article can be found here

The Dubious Legacy of César Chávez

by Michael Yates

review of Randy Shaw’s Beyond the Fields: César Chávez, the UFW, and Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 347 pp., $24.95.

The thesis of this book is simple. Randy Shaw argues that most of the social movements of the contemporary U.S.—labor, immigrant rights, antiwar, worker and consumer health and safety, anti-sweatshop—are fundamentally the progeny of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) union. Shaw attempts to prove this by showing that UFW alumni have been critical leaders of these movements, and these causes have employed tactics pioneered by Chávez and the farm workers. Shaw’s argument is deeply flawed.

It is certainly true that thousands of young people, radical activists, trade unionists, clergy, and assorted other actors, politicians, writers, and artists worked for or with the UFW during its heyday from the mid-1960s until about 1980. I did, in the winter of 1977, when I worked at La Paz, the union’s headquarters in Keene, California. For most of us, our UFW experiences were exciting and meaningful. We carried them with us, and they informed our lives and actions.

But the same things could be said about the IWW before the First World War; the CIO or the Communist Party during the 1930s; or the SDS, the SWP, and the antiwar and the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Of course, there were historical continuities in all of these movements—a problem for Shaw’s arguments. The UFW didn’t spring full-blown from the body and mind of César Chávez and his mentor Fred Ross. There is history here, and Shaw, by and large, ignores it. Would the UFW have been possible without the radical Filipino farm workers who started the organizing? The Filipinos drew strength from struggles in their homeland and from the CIO upheavals of the Great Depression. The union used the boycott to good effect, at least in the beginning, and its use of volunteers to staff boycott offices in every major city in the United States and some in Canada was innovative. But the boycott built the AFL in the 1880s and 1890s. Similarly, the civil rights movement used boycotts, nonviolent demonstrations, and volunteers by the thousands, the sorts of tactics that Shaw attributes to Chávez’s genius. Certainly, someone could write a similar book using this movement as its template. The UFW was not unique.

Flaws up close

Consider three points, two small and one large.

First, Shaw says that, “During the 1950s, Chávez met Father Donald McDonnell, who introduced him …to a recent encyclical from Pope Leo XIII on the church’s support for workers who protested unfair labor conditions.” The encyclical, Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”), was written in 1891, which hardly made it recent. But Shaw doesn’t say that the Pope wrote it in response to the growing popularity of left-wing unions and politics among working people. It is an anti-socialist screed, aimed at Catholic workers. It is very much a defense of capitalism, and only goes so far as to suggest that capitalists must treat workers fairly.

Shaw makes much of the UFW’s alliance with religious groups and clergy, and there is no doubt that church support for the farmworkers’ struggles helped the union immensely. However, the close relationship the UFW and Chávez had with churches was a mixed blessing. The Catholic Church is a hierarchical, dogmatic, and sexist organization. The Church view is, at best, that the poor are worthy sinners who have to be looked after by the priests, who, like Christ, sacrifice for them.

Chávez imbibed this paternalistic ethic, and the ministers, who flocked to the union and were powerful within it, encouraged him. Chávez said that to sacrifice is to be a man. With the union’s successes, Chávez began to think of himself as a holy person, Christ-like and above reproach. Once in a community meeting at La Paz, César was criticized by some of us for making an incredibly sexist remark. He became enraged and said, “I work eighteen fucking hours a day for the union. Who of you can say the same?”

How do you challenge Christ?

Is it any wonder that when Chávez showed his disdain for rank-and-file power in the union, almost none of the clergy challenged him? Or many of his staff or board members either? Is it surprising that Chávez was a staunch anti-communist and engaged in vicious and mindless purges and red-baiting of those who challenged his authority?

Chávez had a history, and the social doctrines of the Catholic church were part of it. Unfortunately, Shaw ignores the seamier side of these. You would never know from this book that the Church did some evil deeds during the great CIO movement of the 1930s, even informing about left-wing labor leaders to the FBI.

The Game

The final chapter in the book contains a long list of UFW alumni who have continued to fight the good fight. It is a kind of “shout out” to these often unrecognized models of courage and social solidarity and an attempted empirical validation of Shaw’s thesis. There are some curious inclusions and omissions, and these raise a second point of criticism. Under the heading “Labor Organizer/Union Staff,” we find the name, Fred Hirsch. Fred is a communist plumber, and he was one of the first researchers to uncover the close relationship between certain unions and the CIA. He worked diligently in support of the UFW, beginning in the 1960s. Fred did not owe his politics or dedication to labor to Chávez or the UFW but to the communist movement.

Fred’s daughter, Liza, who is not on Shaw’s list, began working with (and then for) the union from age twelve. I helped her develop a piece rate proposal for tomato pickers at a ranch near Oxnard, California. We shared a friendship with a volunteer at La Paz, a man who did carpentry and maintenance work for the union.

In the winter of 1977, Chávez hooked up with Charles Dederich, who ran a drug rehabilitation center called Synanon. (To his credit, Shaw discusses this in a chapter on the UFW’s decline). Dederich had concocted a psychological warfare scheme called the “Game,” in which addicts were subjected to relentless group attacks, the idea being to break down their psyches so they could start over again, without drugs. At the time of Chávez’s fascination with Synanon and the “Game,” Dederich was a megalomaniacal cult leader, abusing his clientele. A reporter who exposed the organization found a rattlesnake in his mailbox.

César took to the “game” like Stalin to the secret police, and he used it for the same purpose—to consolidate his power in the union. He took some trusted members of his inner circle to Synanon for training and began immediately to force the game upon the staff. On April 4, 1977, he incited a screaming mob of “Game” initiates to purge the union of “troublemakers.” All sorts of ridiculous charges were made against “enemies of the union,” including our carpenter friend. When our friend confronted Caesar and demanded to face his accusers in a hearing, as the union’s constitution stated was his right, Chávez called the Mojave police and had him arrested for trespassing.

The last time I saw him was at Fred Hirsch’s house in San Jose, after we bailed him out of jail. A few weeks later, Liza went to La Paz to attend the wedding of a friend. César, with whom she had been very close and in whose house she had once lived, summarily threw her off the property and expelled her from the union.

Wreckage

If the UFW positively changed some peoples’ lives, it harmed and wrecked others. Shaw certainly knows this; he just chose not to mention it. He devotes considerable space to the admirable parts of the life and work of famed UFW leader Dolores Huerta, who is also on his list. He uses her as a prime example of the importance of the UFW in training and nurturing social change activists. She has won every imaginable award given to women leaders and been in the forefront of many struggles.

But Huerta has never repudiated Chávez’s dictatorial, hateful, and ruinous behavior. She could have, and it might have made a difference. Instead, she was and still is a Chávez apologist. Shaw reports that she was unhappy with the treatment of women in the union. She says that women need to have power. She doesn’t say for what. Had she been union president, I doubt things would have turned out much different.

Also absent from Shaw’s list of UFW luminaries is Chávez’s son, Paul. The younger Chávez still lives at La Paz, from where he runs a group of interlinked union enterprises, including radio stations and housing companies. The union raises money from these and many other sources: mass mailing fund-raising, marketing the Chávez name to sell union trinkets and win public grants, political consulting, and managing union trust funds. The union has precious few members; a handful of members collect pensions or get health care from the trust funds (though they sit on tens of millions of dollars); and the union leadership seems little concerned about any of this. Paul Chávez is paid more than $125,000 for his “services” to farm workers.

A charitable description of today’s UFW is that it has become a quasi-racket. Another UFW legacy Shaw neglects to discuss. Chávez created an undemocratic union of migrant workers. He ran it as if it were his property. History tells us that such an organization is ripe for corruption. And so it was.

Legacy

The final and most serious flaw of Shaw’s analysis shows itself in the opening pages, where he says, “This legacy should not be based on the size of the UFW’s current membership rolls. Rather, it should be evaluated by the impact of its ideas and alumni on current social justice struggles.”

Let’s see now. The UFW managed, despite long odds, to organize farm workers, attract thousands of talented volunteers to its banner, build a feared grassroots political action machine, defeat the Teamsters and the sweetheart contracts it had signed with growers, and win passage of a farm workers’ labor law unmatched by any other such statute in the country. By 1977, the union was poised to achieve a mass membership that would have made it a power to be reckoned with in California, and maybe in the entire nation.

But then, under Chávez’s autocratic leadership, the union dissolved the boycott staff, firing its leader and accusing him of being a communist; purged its staff, using the most disgusting means imaginable; refused to entertain any local union autonomy and democracy; denied the election of actual farm workers to the union board; ruined the careers, and in some cases, the jobs, of rank-and-file union dissidents; lost almost all of its collective bargaining agreements, and began a long and ugly descent into corruption.

Today, farm workers in California are no better off than they were before the union came on the scene. They still don’t often live past fifty; they still suffer the same job-related injuries and illnesses; they still don’t have unions; they are still at the bottom of the labor market barrel. How is all of this not an important, indeed critical, legacy of the UFW? If we judge the union and Chávez in terms of the well-being of the workers they set out to organize, both must be judged utter failures. If we compare the UFW to any number of the CIO’s left-led unions, for example, the United Packinghouse Workers of America, the Farmworkers pale by comparison. The UPWA was not only a multiracial and democratic union. It also led the struggle to end segregation at work and in the workers’ communities, and it put the pay of the black and immigrant laborers who did the unenviable work of slaughtering the animals we eat on a par with those of steel and auto workers.

A union is supposed to organize workers and improve their lives. Chávez and the UFW had their chances, and they threw them away. Imagine that Martin Luther King had sought and taken advice from Chuck Dederich after his “I Have a Dream” speech. And after that, imagine that he had forced the Memphis garbagemen to play the “Game.” Surely historians would count that as a major part of his legacy.

Alumni

And if we follow Shaw’s lead and look to the “impact of ideas and alumni on current social justice struggles,” we are still left with serious problems. Consider two outstanding alumni, Marshall Ganz and Eliseo Medina.

Ganz was a master organizer, of both union and political campaigns, and he has put this skill, which he learned in the UFW, to use after he left the union. He has led election campaigns for former U.S. senator Alan Cranston, and he was a key organizer in getting Nancy Pelosi elected to Congress. He now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Shaw makes much of the get-out-the-vote techniques Ganz has mastered. However, these were not new when he used them. The AFL-CIO employed them, and most of the tactics Shaw traces to the UFW, in a 1977 campaign to defeat a right-to-work ballot measure in Missouri. I don’t find Ganz’s work for the Democratic Party to be particularly progressive either. Nancy Pelosi? An old-line political hack trained in the art of politics by the king of pork, John Murtha?

With Medina, we can make a similar criticism. He did many good things with the UFW and after he left. But he was the one person who could have mounted a challenge to Chávez. He chose not to, and he has, to my knowledge, never repudiated the reprehensible tactics Chávez used with the “Game.”

There may be good reason for this. Today, Medina is a senior vice-president of SEIU, a union that has used somewhat similar tactics, but in a situation where the union is loaded with money. The SEIU hires scads of young nonmember organizers, puts them though a cult-like training (the same seems to be true of another union, HERE, which also has many former UFW people on it staff, and which even uses a variant of the “Game” to train new staffers), works them to death, gives them no power inside the union, brooks no criticism, and confines their education to the technocratic mechanics of organizing. They learn little about the labor movement, economics, and the many other things that would help them develop a radical, worker-centered ideology.

The same was true in the UFW; César even sent a spy to monitor a labor history class I had begun to teach interested staff. The SEIU is completely staff-dominated—and staff make a great deal of money—Medina is a long way from his UFW penury. His total compensation in 2006: $194,336. SEIU leadership is as fearful and intolerant of union democracy and rank-and-file power as the UFW. If local workers assert themselves, there is a good chance that their local will be put in trusteeship by the national union—exactly what happened recently to a large local of healthcare workers in California. It has been trusteed, and Medina is at the center of the whole sordid episode. [Randy Shaw himself, on the civil war within SEIU, is here; a more radical view, from Steve Early, here.]

SEIU is not above threatening to sue its critics, just like the UFW threatened to sue The Nation magazine in 1977 after it published an article I wrote critical of the union. Also, like the UFW, the SEIU has witnessed serious incidents of corruption, involving theft of money and shady dealings with third parties. There is a separate heading for SEIU in Shaw’s table of UFW notables. It is certainly debatable whether this legacy of the UFW is a positive one.

The problem with Shaw is that he simply assumes that the various movements and causes UFW alumni have either led or worked in are good. He doesn’t ask whether what they are doing is what needs to be done to build a better society. Get out the vote for what? Boycott for what? Organize workers for what? Teach people to organize for what?

I enjoyed the parts of Shaw’s book that recount the UFW’s epic battles. But I did not find the rest of it credible or penetrating. An objective history of César Chávez, the UFW, and the union’s legacy has yet to be written.

*note: This article is original to the Left Business Observer website and can be found here. (c) Copyright 2009, Michael Yates. All rights reserved. Michael Yates is Associate Editor of Monthly Review. A new edition of his book, Why Unions Matter, is just out. His blog is here.

Canada’s Colonial Present

by Zainab Amadahy

First Nations people are the original inhabit­ants/caretakers of the land we refer to as Turtle Island, which includes all of North America. Our languages, cultures and very identity are intimately connected to/rooted in this land. To separate us from the land either ideologically or physically is an act of genocide. The very concepts of Canada, Mexico and the US (not to mention every so-called nation in the Americas) are premised on this geno­cide and the concurrent seizure of land and the resources within the land. The standard of living we enjoy in North America (some of us more than others) is founded on genocide, stolen land, stolen resources and stolen African and indigenous people who were enslaved (stolen labour). These original thefts were committed in the past but their legacy impacts us all in the present.

This does not mean that indigenous people don’t recognize other forms of oppression on which capi­talism depends. We want and need to make alli­ances. But we need allies who recognize and take responsibility for their history as settlers on this land (albeit we do not generalize about the settler experience and settler power in Canadian society; we know that not all settlers enjoy the stolen wealth of this land equally.) We need allies who wrestle with the implications of being a settler on anoth­er’s land while they wrestle with the fact that set­tlers are not equally empowered due, in large part, to Canada’s historic and current role in displacing people globally.

Though the relationship between First Nations and European settlers has a longer history, we can only briefly review some of that here in an effort to demonstrate how the colonial past has shaped our colonial present.

The Indian Act

In 1876 Canada passed the Indian Act which imposed the band council system of government on the indigenous people of Turtle Island (North America). Among other things, this law:

• Deposed already existing leadership to estab­lish band councils and the areas over which they had jurisdiction. The Indian Act was passed without consultation with any indigenous leader, usurped the treaty process (nation to nation agreements) and made First Nations (FN) governments null and void, despite the fact that these governments had served our ancestors for millennia before Europe­ans arrived on Turtle Island. This is akin to the US government passing a law that disbanded the cur­rent Canadian government, determined what type of government Canada must have and designated the limitations of its power.

• Made First Nations Communities economi­cally dependent on Ottawa. The federal govern­ment controls the only sources of revenue for social programs, economic development projects or job creation in FN communities. Ottawa determines through a variety of legal and financing mecha­nisms what band councils can and cannot do for their communities. Even the process of pursuing a land claim is legislated by Ottawa, funded (or not) by Ottawa and decided ultimately in Canadian courts. Land usage on FN territories is determined by Ottawa. There are many examples in history when the federal government leased or sold First Nations lands or resources and consequently reaped huge profits that did not accrue to the community. Clearly, the poverty that exists in First Nations communities is, and always has been, by Ottawa’s design.

• Blatantly discriminated against women by recognizing Native descent through the male line so that First Nations citizenship rights for women were recognized only through their fathers’ lineage and husbands’ status, and by prohibiting them from voting or running for office in band elections. This was in complete contradiction to traditional First Nations practices, in which descent for many com­munities was reckoned along the female line, and where women had significant authorities in politi­cal, economic and social life. While there were many nations and many practices, it is safe to generalize and say that women held positions of leadership di­rectly and/or appointed male leaders and held them accountable. This was completely overturned by the Indian Act.

Although women now have the right to vote and run for band office, almost a century of being excluded from political, economic and social deci­sion-making has left First Nations women on and off reserve in very vulnerable situations. Women are among the poorest in First Nations commu­nities. They have been targeted through various amendments to the Indian Act and thousands were stripped of their status along with their homes, benefits and any treaty rights they may have had. The hundreds of women who are missing from our communities, dead and murdered, is a direct result of a deliberate and calculated attack on the rights and authorities of First Nations women by the Ca­nadian government.

• Determined who could call themselves an “Indian” and live in First Nations communities. The Indian Act established an Indian registry and with subsequent amendments there has emerged a com­plex set of legal categories (status and non-status Indians, Treaty Indians, Bill C-31 Indians, etc.) designed to divide and disempower First Nations families and communities. Non-status Indians are those who are not recognized by Ottawa as First Nations. They cannot live in their communities, do not enjoy benefits or treaty rights and are not permitted to participate in band council elections. Again, this is akin to the US determining who could be a Canadian and who could not, as well as who could live here and vote in Canadian elec­tions.

Initially through the use of Indian agents with sweeping powers and more recently through purse strings, Ottawa has controlled band councils, band chiefs and the Assembly of First Nations. Whether this current control is perceived of as friendly or hostile is irrelevant and sidesteps the basic assump­tion that First Nations people are children who cannot manage their own affairs. To recognize that some band councils, their chiefs and police are sin­cerely interested in serving their communities while others are corrupt may be true but fails to recognize that the band council system is itself inherently cor­rupt, paternalistic and racist.

Establishmenof Reserves iCanada

To provide more insight into some aspects of Canada’s colonial foundations, the following is excerpted from a presentation I made on the “Es­tablishment of Reserves in Canada” (delivered on February 3, 2006 during Anti-Apartheid Week at the University of Toronto, organized by the Arab Students Collective and edited and updated on January 17, 2007)

It is important to address the establishment of reserves in the context of the overall genocide proj­ect on Turtle Island.

Today we estimate that about half of all status Indians in Canada live off reserve. So “status In­dians” are people who are actually registered and recognized by the federal government as “Indians” under the Indian Act. When you include non sta­tus Indians, you see that the vast majority of indig­enous peoples in Canada live off reserve and have been living off territory for some generations.

Despite the stereotype that Native people live on reserves or come from a reserve, the reserve experi­ence is only one part of the North American in­digenous experience and it’s a minority experience among indigenous peoples. Even so, it is still inte­gral to understanding the larger picture of where we find ourselves today as indigenous people and it’s important to understanding the history and strug­gles of First Nations communities because they are of course linked to all of our other struggles as in­digenous peoples.

By the way, the politically correct way of refer­ring to reserves these days is First Nations commu­nities, which is the term I’m going to be using from here on.

There are so many legal terms and categories of indigenous people in Canada its mind boggling. To name a few we have status, non status, treaty Indi­ans, Bill C31 Indians, and many, many more.

The way one got registered initially under the Indian Act was to line up in front of the govern­ment-appointed Indian agent’s table whenever he came to your community and register with him. So if you were off hunting the day he was there or you were sick or injured or had just given birth or you were too elderly to make what might be a long trip or you didn’t give a shit about registering or what­ever, and you didn’t make it to register, you and all of your descendants to this day are not “status In­dians,” regardless of your ancestry or how long your ancestors have lived on Turtle Island.

This is important because it is only status Indi­ans who were originally supposed to live in First Nations communities. There were mechanisms, through amendments to the Indian Act, by which indigenous people who had status – and the benefits that came with it – lost status over the years. (One must understand that the so-called benefits were – and are – only available to the extent the govern­ment lived up to the terms of its own legislation or negotiated treaties and provided benefits.) We can’t talk about that much because it’s not the topic. But the benefits on paper include health care, hous­ing, education and so on. But these commitments weren’t kept in whole or in part – or the services were carried out in such a way that they did more harm than good – and today we still find attempts by the feds to extinguish these benefits completely.

The first thing I want to address is where re­serves come from. They were made possible under legislation enacted in 1850 to set aside tracts of land reserved for indigenous communities. There­after, specific reserve territories were negotiated in treaties. So it’s important to understand that not all First Nations signed treaties with the government, particularly on the west coast or in the far north, which means that not all “status Indians” or First Nations bands recognized by the feds have reserves or territories that the settler government recognizes. Even though they may have lived on, cared for and held ceremonies on that land for millennia before European arrival it doesn’t give them legal right to it. That’s why we have, for example, disputes in BC where a corporation has the support of the police and the courts to bulldoze over people’s homes and sweat lodges so it can expand a ski resort.

In addition, there are examples of people whose leaders signed treaties that allocated land to the community but the community never moved onto those lands and thus their descendants fell from the band rolls and never had status. One example, which I learned about when I was helping someone with research for a publication, is a community of Algonquins in the Ottawa valley who were urged by one of their chiefs not to move off territories their ancestors had lived on for generations in favor of relocating onto Golden Lake Reserve. So to this day we have people who live on these territories, carry Algonquin names, still do the ceremonies, still hunt and fish, still care for the wild rice beds but do not have status and do not want status (as they have said in their interviews) and in recent years have issued their own Algonquin identity documents, hunting licenses, fishing licenses, selected their own leaders, established councils to address their com­munity’s needs and so on. Sometimes local officials try to curtail their inherent rights by challenging them in court over the hunting and fishing licenses, or they’ve tried to sell off the wild rice beds to cor­porations or whatever, but to this day the non-sta­tus Algonquin have prevailed.

Back to reserves. So, treaties created reserves. And keep in mind that indigenous leaders who signed treaties did so under duress of one kind or another. In some cases, they signed treaties in return for protection from the Americans or be­cause settler incursion on their lands had resulted in dwindling food supplies and they were facing starvation or whatever. Nevertheless, no indigenous leader ever surrendered their nation’s sovereignty; never gave up their right to self government. Trea­ties were nation to nation agreements.

Then the Indian Act came along in 1876, which usurped the treaty negotiation processes and made the assumption that the settler government had an inherent right to make laws and govern people who already had fully functioning governments of their own. And those governments, by the way, were far more democratic than anything the Euro-Canadi­ans insisted they adopt.

While the traditional governments of the many hundreds of indigenous nations differed from each other in various ways, we can still generalize about some things. For example, we never voted but had consensus decision making processes that involved everyone in the community. Decision making and leadership didn’t exclude women. In fact, we didn’t even exclude children from decision-making.

Basically it’s the Indian Act that to this day gov­erns every aspect of life on reserves and has certainly impacted as well on off reserve indigenous people. The Indian Act decided who was an “Indian” and who wasn’t – who could live in First Nations com­munities. It laid the basis for the residential school system, it completely undermined indigenous sys­tems of governance and imposed a band council system which was modeled on the parliamentary system, it blatantly discriminated against women by denying them the right to vote or run for band council office, and, because it is still an active law, affects us in many, many other ways.

The Indian Act completely contradicted and un­dermined the authorities that indigenous women had in their communities prior to European arrival. While, as I mentioned, practices varied across Tur­tle Island, we can generalize and say that women had significant political roles and responsibilities: in some cases they directly assumed positions of leadership, in other cases they appointed and held leadership accountable. In some cases it was a bit of both of these. But whatever the system, women held significant authorities in government as well as economic, family and community life. This was completely overturned by the Indian act.

Recent scholars like Kim Anderson and Bonita Lawrence have demonstrated that this wasn’t just the result of patriarchal attitudes that coincidental­ly undermined women’s authorities, but that these measures were deliberate, premeditated strategies to disempower indigenous women in order to satisfy the objectives firstly, of causing such disruption to indigenous social organizations that settlers could more easily access the land and the resources within and secondly, satisfied the objective of assimilat­ing indigenous peoples – i.e. cultural genocide. So women were very specifically and deliberately tar­geted in legislation and other repressive measures.

Under the Indian Act, the settler government as­sumed what are called “fiduciary responsibilities” for Indigenous peoples. They could hold land “in trust” for indigenous people and were supposed to make decisions regarding the resources of First Nations communities that were in the best interest of those communities. So we were looked on as children who were incapable of managing our own financial affairs. But of course, we have numerous examples of First Nations lands being sold and leased and so on where the extraordinary profits that resulted did not accrue to the First Nations communities at all but lined the pockets of settlers.

For example, the Whitefish Lake band just re­cently received $37 million in compensation for a deal in 1886 where the band was paid only $399 for their timber rights and a year later the feds sold those rights for $43,000, a huge profit that never accrued to the community. That’s a somewhat hap­py ending but there are many bands still awaiting some form of justice in Canadian courts or haven’t gotten to Canadian courts.

The feds even today control how First Nations lands are developed, which is the main reason why unemployment rates in First Nations communities is and always has been high. Today unemployment rates are between 50 and 80 percent (Assembly of First Nations’ website: hyyp://www.afn.ca/). There are few jobs, many seasonal, because there is no commercial or industrial activity unless the feds make it possible and when they do make it possible there are often conditions or situations that result in jobs going to people outside the community, to non-Natives. There’s a lot of disparity among re­serves but, by and large, we’re certainly not talk­ing about wealthy communities. So the impover­ishment of those communities was created and is maintained by design (as is most poverty).

Early on, life on reserves was very much characterized by the arbitrary abuses of power of Indian agents. Indian agents were appointed by the feds, assigned to each First Nations community and giv­en extraordinary powers to enforce the Indian Act and control every aspect of life. The Indian Agent:

• Could depose traditional leaders and replace them with band council chiefs.

• Was not elected but could overturn elected band council decisions and remove elected chiefs from office.

• Could withhold food rations or use them to coerce people to sign documents or whatever else was wanted. In fact they could force or coerce the signing of land treaties and other agreements with impunity.

• Were the arresting officer, prosecutor and judge in the community.

• Had the power to determine who qualified as a Status Indian. As I mentioned, they did the origi­nal count for the Indian registry that was basically a complete farce. They also interpreted the amend­ments to the Indian Act that further defined status, which I’ll speak to later.

• Upon the death of a band member, the Indian Agent dispersed property and valuables (that often ended up in their own pockets).

• Had the power to determine who could live on reserve and who could visit. So when a woman lost status due to the discriminatory aspects of the Indian Act, the Indian Agent could evict her and deny her the right to return to live or even visit her family and friends. An amendment addressing trespassing allowed for the Indian Agent to arrest anybody visiting a reserve after dark.

• Anyone who wanted to work for wages off re­serve had to obtain the permission of the Indian Agent who, if he approved, would issue a pass stat­ing where one could go and for how long.

• Was complicit in coercing or forcing par­ents to send their children to residential schools. And they weren’t above kidnapping children and handing them over to school officials. (Residential schools, contracted out by the feds to the churches, were places where children as young as four were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse; where they were forced to work in fields, shops and laundries; where some children, because of the treatment they received, ended up dead.) The last federally run school closed in 1988, so we’re not talking about ancient history here.

• Made decisions concerning the use of reserve lands. For example, he could decide to lease lands out to pulp and paper mills or mining companies. In Kahnawake in 1954, the Indian agent, without consultation, ceded a huge tract of territory for the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

In the passage below, Dan Ennis of the Tobique First Nation gives a first hand account of life under the Indian Agent’s authority (from Sharing our Wa­banaki Perspective by Dan Ennis, http://www.unb.edu/web/bruns/0001/issue5/oped/wabanaki.html).

“In 1940, when I was a child, I experienced the poison of the racist mindset firsthand. It was a trau­matic experience for a boy of three or four to watch as my dad was taken away from our small family to jail because he tried to keep his family warm. It was cold and we needed wood for heat so my dad went out to the woods to cut firewood for his family. He did it without asking permission from the Indian agent because the Indian agent was away on vaca­tion. As it was winter, my father could not wait to ask for permission. He knew he had to take care of his family and that wouldn’t wait for the return of the Indian agent. My dad did what had to be done.

“When the Indian agent returned from vaca­tion, he was immediately informed about my dad’s wood cutting. My father was summoned to the Indian agent’s office where he confirmed that he had, in fact, cut the wood for his family. The Indian agent tried him and found him guilty of an offence and imposed a sentence of five days in jail to teach him a lesson. Within the span of just a few minutes from leaving his home, my father was in jail for cut­ting wood to keep his family warm.

“In those days, the white Indian agent was god on the reserve. He was accountable to absolutely no one and certainly not in any way to the Indian people. The irony of this particular situation is that the wood cut by my father at that time was located on Indian reserve land and there was no such legis­lation to charge my father with this offense. It was simply the white Indian agent’s way of asserting his power, control and authority over my father and our people. My dad had to be made an example to en­sure no other Indians would get similar ideas about doing anything without the agent’s permission.”

So that gives us some taste of the kind of cor­ruption that was enshrined in the government and justice systems imposed on First Nations commu­nities. It really makes me laugh bitterly when I hear of Canadian officials these days charging First Na­tions bands or band members with being corrupt. The system itself is corrupt and settler authorities and Christian clergy over the years have hardly ever been role models of integrity and honesty.

Through various amendments to the Indian Act, we also saw over time an erosion in the total amount of territory allocated to First Nations communities. In some cases, reserves were dissolved or relocated to allow for the expansion of towns and municipali­ties, like Edmonton, for example. A 1911 amend­ment allowed portions of reserves to be seized by municipalities for roads, railways or other public purposes. A couple of amendments prohibited First Nations from contesting in court decisions where all or parts of their territories were taken. The law for a crucial time very blatantly prohibited Indian people from hiring lawyers, filing court papers and even raising money with the intent of contesting a land claim. In 1936 the Department of Indian Affairs was transferred from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Mines and Re­sources, which made it even clearer what the settler government was really concerned about.

As reserve territories were being stolen, exploit­ed or encroached on by settlers there were also In­dian Act amendments that were designed to strip people of their status (particularly women) and force them off reserves. The rationale for this was, as I mentioned, assimilation – or cultural genocide – another form of genocide.

So women who married non-status men, wheth­er they were white or not, lost their status, benefits and treaty rights and had to leave their communi­ties and families. It was a completely discrimina­tory process, not in the least because, when men did the same thing, they were allowed to keep their status and, in fact, status would be granted to their white or non-status wives and even step children that pre-existed the marriage. So you had white set­tlers with status cards and the right to live in First Nations communities while there were full blooded indigenous women who couldn’t set foot on their territories. This was in complete contradiction to matrilineal indigenous practices where the mother’s nationality and clan membership determined the child’s.

Some men and their families as well lost status and the right to live in First Nations communities when they enlisted in the military or in some cases when they enrolled in secondary educational insti­tutions or, until 1960, when they wanted to vote in federal elections. Sometimes whole communities were declared non status so that their land could be taken, and that affected everyone. Blood quantum became an issue at various times and enabled the eviction of people from reserves because they were deemed to not have enough Indian blood (From “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Na­tive Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood by Bonita Lawrence. University of Nebraska Press. 2004). In 1951 an Indian Act amendment made provincial law applicable in First Nations communities to cov­er gaps in federal legislation and this paved the way for what we now call the “60s scoop” because it gave provincial child welfare agencies the power to seize hundreds of First Nations children and place them in non-indigenous foster homes, again furthering the genocide project.

There are many stories of the experiences of what happened to people after they were stripped of their status. The traumatic implications of having to leave your home and family for often urban set­tings where you may not have spoken the language, where there was no community, family, financial or emotional support of any kind are huge. Increas­ingly non-status communities have been organiz­ing. Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of time to discuss that now but Bonita Lawrence’s book, Real Indians and Others, speaks to the history of non-status, mixed race indigenous communities and some of the struggles people have faced over the generations.

According to some analyses, amendments to the Indian Act since 1951 are considered friendlier to indigenous peoples because they were made in consultation with indigenous organizations or were made in response indigenous activists who lobbied for the changes. Bill C31, another amendment to the Indian Act passed in 1985, falls into this cat­egory of being a “friendly amendment.” C31 ad­dressed the concerns of women who had lost their status, housing, benefits and access to their com­munities through marrying non-status men. C31 allowed them to apply for status and something like 120,000 women have had their status reinstat­ed. What is often not mentioned however is that 107,000 women did not have their status reinstated after applying. The federal government of course determined all the criteria and conditions regard­ing who could have their status reinstated.

The C31 amendment has been criticized about, among other things, the “second generation cut-off,” which prohibits reinstated women from pass­ing status on to their children. So it doesn’t address the genocide issue at all. Basically if we accept the definitions of status offered by the Indian Act, it’s been predicted that First Nations people will cease to exist in a few generations. Not because the actual people have ceased to exist but because the legally defined category of “Indians” (i.e., First Nations people) won’t exist and everybody will be unregis­tered, non status and assimilated. We’ll all be Cana­dians with no land rights and no recognition of our inherent rights as Aboriginal peoples generally.

Of course sovereigntists question the right of the Canadian parliament now or at any other time in history to make laws that govern our nations, in­cluding laws that define who is and is not a member of our nations, where our territorial boundaries lie and so on.

So, that’s a very brief synopsis of how reserves were established and it should give the reader in­sight into the history of some of the struggles be­ing waged today by First Nations people on Turtle Island. It should also help people question the myth commonly referred to as the “Canadian history.” The simple truth is that the land and resources of First Nations people have been subsidizing the Canadian economy for generations. The basis of the wealth and standard of living that we enjoy on Turtle Is­land is premised on the theft of land and resources from the First Peoples, a process that continues to this day.

While First Nations children were being abused in residential schools and foster care, the colonizers were reaping huge profits exploiting the resources of First Nations territories. While First Nations people were being jailed for hunting and fishing without a license or for working off their reserves without a pass from the Indian agent, the settlers passed laws that said, for example, that “Indians” could not sell their produce in Toronto’s St. Law­rence market (because white farmers didn’t want the competition).

Nevertheless our communities across Turtle Island continue to struggle with great courage for their very survival as well as the inherent rights of future generations. While most media like to focus on dramatic events like the Oka Crisis, the murder of activist Dudley George at Ipperwash Provincial Park or the current Six Nations land reclamation (all important struggles), anti-genocidal activities are practiced in all communities and include things as basic as cultural and language programs.

In this struggle, our Elders, cultural leaders and warriors talk about a paradigm shift that recognizes our relationship to the land on which we depend for life; recognizes our roles and responsibilities to each other in a community that includes other spe­cies besides human beings as well as those yet to be born. They speak of spiritual development, dig­nity and peace. In their wisdom we find a system of values that challenges political, economic and social institutions of Canada. In the wisdom of Elders we find encouragement to share, trade, learn, grow and create something new and wondrous.

Zainab Amadahy is a writer, activist, community worker and an active member of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. Her achievements include contributing to the anthology, Strong Women’s Stories: Native Vision & Community Activism, co-edited by Bonita Lawrence and Kim Anderson (2004, Sumach Press) as well as author­ing Moons of Palmares (1998, Sister Vision Press). Zainab is a founding member of the Coalition in Support of Indigenous Sovereignty, is a Board member of the Association of Native Development in the Performing & Visual arts and is the Executive Director of Community Arts Ontario.