Since its inception, Canada has been stealing Indigenous lands — at the barrel of a gun, by starvation tactics & by tearing children from their families.
In our first video explainer, lawyer and professor Pam Palmater argues that symbolic gestures won’t amount to justice.
Over the last few years, we’ve begun hearing the cry of a powerful slogan in Canada: Land Back.
While the slogan is new, the demand is not. Native youth have elevated a truth that we’ve long understood: a just path forward is impossible without the return of stolen land.
Settler governments have always wanted our lands, and they’ve taken them by whatever means necessary.
In the Atlantic region, Governor Cornwallis issued a proclamation in 1749 offering a bounty on my ancestor’s lives. In the prairies, the Canadian government pushed us off our lands using the violence of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, by withholding food rations to starve us into submission, and by deliberately mistranslating treaties.
Attacking Native bodies and spirits was a central part of this process of dispossession. Residential schools, Christianity, patriarchal control and sexualized violence all functioned to attack our laws, relationships, and economies in order to break our connections to each other and to the land.
Vast Native territories that we managed according to our own governance systems were reduced to a tiny patchwork of reserves. Today, Indian reserves account for just 0.2 per cent of the land. Think Canada’s treatment of First Nations was far more humane than the United States? Consider this: the Navajo Nation’s reservation is larger than all of the reserves in Canada put together.
Nearly all of Canada is considered Crown land and technically owned by one foreign family: the Monarchs in Buckingham Palace. How did the Queen become the landlord? The racist legal fiction that no Indigenous laws existed in North America and that only the “Crown” could properly own land.
For generations, the government has rented, sold and leased this land, usually at bargain basement prices, to multinational companies who make enormous profits. So you can see, First Nation poverty isn’t an accident — it is an intentional and direct result of this dispossession.
We have never accepted Canada’s genocide of our peoples and its theft of our lands and for generations we’ve demanded our land rights be respected. The government’s own royal commissions have supported this call for land back. Even the Supreme Court of Canada has handed down several historic rulings that confirm Aboriginal Title. Which means First Nations own the lands, should be the ones governing the lands, and deciding who gets to benefit from those lands.
But the Canadian government has time and again refused to respect and implement these court decisions, breaking its own laws.
And land theft isn’t something of the past. It’s still happening today, driven by the endless drive for growth and profits and the racist denial of First Nation jurisdiction. When we go out into our territories to stop unwanted projects or hunt and fish, Canada pulls out the big guns. But who’s the thief, and who’s being robbed?
Canada pursues us relentlessly in fevered attempts to get us to extinguish the rights to our territories, rivers, forests, mountains, farmlands, and everything underneath, under the duress of poverty, forced removals or incarceration.
It’s long past time for a reset.
Would land back mean putting non-Native people on boats back to their countries of origin? No.
What we should be imagining is what Canada could look like if we started returning so-called Crown Lands back to First Nations. Who would you rather control these enormous areas? Corporations who only see in the land dollar signs over the next financial quarter?Or First Nations who have been taking care of the lands for generations?
Instead of getting a permit from the government to destroy the land companies would need a permit from our Nations to responsibly use the land. As the rightful caretakers of the lands, First Nations could insist on sustainable logging, eco-tourism, and responsible development. In place of dams, mines and pipelines, lands returned to First Nations could host solar and wind farms helping power a new post-carbon economy.
If First Nations lands were still used for sustainable and responsible resource extraction, then First Nations would be the ones to decide how and where, and who benefits. For the lands and resources that have been irreparably damaged or sold to third parties, they would pay us reparations for the loss of past and future use.
It’s worth remembering that even though Indigenous peoples make up less than 5% of the world’s population, we protect 80% of global biodiversity. More land in First Nations control means a safer climate for everyone.
This redistribution of resources and power would usher in a change in Canada’s outlook. First Nation jurisdiction over lands and waters would not only be a matter of justice, but a pathway for Canada to a more sustainable relationship to the natural world.
If Canada is interested in a real Nation to Nations relationship, Land Back is how we do it.