Day 6

Ryan McMahon's 12-step guide to decolonization: why land matters

In the third part of his series on decolonization, the comedian, writer and filmmaker argues there can be no real progress until we talk about land.
Band councillor Rex Daniels stands beside his teepee at a hunting camp on the Eden Valley Reserve, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)
Listen6:18

By Ryan McMahon

Paramount in the conversation about decolonization in Canada is LAND.

There will be no reconciliation without land. 

Decolonization isn't possible without land.

Canada was built on stolen, appropriated, bought, decommissioned, de-listed, traded, abandoned, sold and gifted Indian land.

My obvious contention this week is that through time, Canada has done a good job, purposely or otherwise, at erasing Indigenous people from the land.

The reserve system? Put them on a postage stamp sized area of land, defined by boundaries that are too small.

Today, if you drive from coast to coast to coast along Canada's crown jewel, the Trans-Canada Highway, you have virtually no clue whose traditional territory or what treaty territory you are travelling through.

We are invisible in our own homelands.

I know, heavy-handed. It's not easy to say either.

Canadian art skips over Indigenous lives

So, let's take a music break.

Let's play some good ol' Canadian music.

There are plenty of famous songs in Canada that are about land — like "This Land Is My Land."

Okay, here are some songs about land that I like. 

So, they're a bit different, ya?

Some of Canada's most beloved songs have told you since your days in kindergarten that, "this land is your land," that your home is "on Native land" and that you'll go "burning down the white water, but you'd lose the girl completely."

What Canada's music or art or literature or movies all fail to tell you, is that we, Indigenous people, live here too.

It's part of the settler myth in Canada — few Indians were here and those that were here were roaming savages without language, culture, law or economy.

We know this to be completely untrue. Indigenous law predates the existence of Canada or the United States. In fact, the American democratic system was modelled after the Six Nations Confederacy and its various forms of governance.

Members of the Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation established a traditional hide tanning camp on the shores of Great Slave Lake in the boreal forest of Canada's Northwest Territories. (Sheldon Alberts/Handout via Canadian Press)

We can look at the way my people lived — in camps and familial, kinship-based relationships that centred around land.

We had camps for specific seasons. In short, we went where the food was.

We had wild rice camps, fishing and hunting camps, winter camps and spring camps. We farmed, not commercially though, because as anyone on the prairies can tell you, IT'S NOT SUSTAINABLE.

Our relationship with land

We lived in close relationship to the land, through our governance systems and our understanding of Manito Aki Inakonigaawi​n, which is the sum of the Anishinaabemowin words: Manito, or Spirit; Aki, or Land; and Inakonigaawin or Law.

Manito Aki Inakonigaawin is my people's understanding of life — an intimate relationship to land that generally says, "what goes around comes around."

I owe a lot of my understanding of this concept to the incredible Sara Mainville of Couchiching First Nation and the many Elders in Treaty 3, my home territory, who taught me about this way of life.

Programs and services will not  decolonize  this country. The only answer left to me, is land.- Ryan McMahon

Our inherent understanding of spirit, land and law informs our ways of life through millennia.

We can connect the traumas of the past and our dispossession from our home territories to our current state of affairs in Canada. If Indigenous people can't access all that keeps us well — medicine, food, water and our cultural and religious freedoms — via the land, how healthy and well can we possibly be?

This proves my point that programs and services will not bring us reconciliation. Programs and services will not decolonize this country. The only answer left to me is land.

But ... Indians are in the way.

We've always been in the way

Currently, in northern Ontario, a take-it-or-leave-it deal is on the table with the Ring of Fire.

Move out to B.C. and look at the Site C Dam proposal — Indigenous peoples are in the way.

Despite their overwhelming success in Saskatchewan, the prospect of urban reserves is fought tooth-and-nail in urban centres (let's talk about how ugly it got in Winnipeg) as Canadians' racist assumptions creep in to the conversation at the simple drop of the word "reserve."

CEO of Four Horse Development, Mayor Fougere, Sakimay First Nation Chief Lynn Acoose and others, break ground on first phase of development on Sakimay First Nation urban reserve in Saskatchewan. (Katie Raskina )

Paramount in the conversation about decolonization in Canada is LAND.

There will be NO reconciliation without land. Decolonization isn't possible without land. 

And Canada was built on stolen, appropriated, bought, decommissioned, de-listed, traded, abandoned, sold and gifted Indian land.

Is it time to return land?

Whose land is your summer house on?

Can I come over for a barbecue? I'll sleep in a tent next to your cabin and I'll use the outhouse.


This copy may vary slightly from the broadcast version.

Ryan McMahon is an Anishinaabe filmmaker, writer, podcast host and comedian.  

To hear Ryan McMahon's commentary, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page. Click the links for part onepart two and part three of his guide to decolonizing Canada. Ryan returns with the final instalment next week.