'There are alternatives to what Canada tells us is possible': Hayden King on Indigenous land reclamation

“Maybe the loudest demand in our relationship with Canadians has been for land restitution, for honoring treaties, for getting the land back,” said Hayden King, who is the executive director of the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nation-led research centre based at Ryerson University.
(Nicolas Haddad/CBC)

"Maybe the loudest demand in our relationship with Canadians has been for land restitution, for honouring treaties, for getting the land back," said Hayden King, who is the executive director of the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nation-led research centre based at Ryerson University. 

King, who is Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation, spoke to Unreserved host Falen Johnson about 'Land Back,' an in-depth report published by the Yellowhead Institute about the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous lands in Canada, and about what Indigenous people are doing to get land back. Here's part of that conversation.

When we're talking about colonization in Canada, do you think it ultimately is a conversation about land? 

Colonization has many facets. It's wide-reaching and affects every aspect of our lives as Indigenous people. But, I think, you trace all the policy areas, or all of the areas of life in the relationship between Canadians and Indigenous people, and they all go back to the same place, which is back to the theft of land and the dispossession of Indigenous people from the land. And all the socioeconomic challenges that we see in contemporary Canada, I think they all go back to that point. 

There's this naturalization that the land is already gone and there's nothing that can be done about it. And we know that that's not true.- Hayden King

There are instances of communities actually getting land back, and you point to those in the [Land Back] report. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

There has been this concerted effort over the past century or two to shape a narrative that land dispossession is natural. And I think that there's this naturalization that the land is already gone, and there's nothing that can be done about it. And we know that that's not true. Historically, we know that our ancestors fought for the land. We know the people in our communities are fighting for the land. And so it's not a foregone conclusion. 

Hayden King is the executive director of the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nation-led research centre based at Ryerson University. (Submitted by Hayden King)

An integral part of the Land Back report was to really show that there are communities out there, across the country, that are actually asserting jurisdiction to the land, and enforcing their jurisdiction. It's really important to talk about those cases and to show other communities that ... the narrative that Canada is spinning that 'the land is gone and you're never going to get it back' is wrong, it's false, it's a lie, it's a myth. 

There are all these communities out there that are actually getting [land] back. Highlighting those stories, I think, is important to show communities that they can do that, too. And, there are alternatives to what Canada tells us is possible.

In Land Back you write: "There is a stubborn insistence by Canada, the provinces and territories, that they own the land." What do you mean by this? 

There's this long history of Canada and Canadians mythologizing the emergence of the country. I think there's this narrative that settlers came here and they met Indigenous people and there was a fur trade, and treaties were made and everyone got along well. And out of those treaties, Indigenous people agreed to give all the land to Canadians. And next thing you know, there's this country and all these provinces and that's that. But that's not the story that indigenous people know. The story that Indigenous people know is settlers coming and tricking Indigenous people, negotiating treaties and then writing down versions that weren't agreed to. And this has created a sort of architecture of theft whereby Canadians … authorize themselves to take up all this land. 

The Tiny House Warriors in Secwepemc territory, explained King, are one of many examples of how Indigenous communities are reclaiming land. (Stephanie Cram/CBC)

And there hasn't really been an effort by Canadians to grapple with this deceit that was really the origin of the relationship. And we have mountains of evidence, whether it's the recorded versions of the oral negotiations of treaties or written versions of treaties that were written at the time of treaty negotiation that tell us that the Indigenous people never accepted this deal. 

We have this country that wrote itself a constitution, that empowered itself to expand westward and empowered itself to create legislatures and courts and multiple entire legal systems without actually getting the permission or even negotiating with Indigenous people. And I think that that's a huge gap in Canada's legitimacy, the legitimacy to claim that it's a sovereign state, that it has this exclusive authority over all of this territory, when Indigenous people still very much contest it. All of the powers that the Crown claims that it has are built on this fabrication. 

Can you explain to us what an injunction is? And why should we be paying attention to this term? 

An injunction's really, in simple, basic terms, are an order. The injunction is a tool, 'the legal billy club', as has been stated by Art Manuel, to get Native people off of the land. 

Let's take an example of a natural gas pipeline going through the province of British Columbia. A First Nation that may not agree with that pipeline going through their territory, they take issue with that and decide the only way to enforce their laws is to stand in front of that pipeline. Well, the injunction is a way to break the impasse. It's the tool that Canada has empowered itself to use against Indigenous people to get them off of the land. 

It's a really problematic extension of colonization in contemporary Canada.- Hayden King

Judges grant injunctions to companies who "have a rightful claim" to mine or harvest timber or build pipelines. And then the police have to enforce that order. And we see the use of injunctions increasing in the Canadian context because disputes over land are increasing and the failure of negotiation is increasing. It's a really problematic extension of colonization in contemporary Canada. 

Injunctions are proliferating and they're criminalizing Indigenous people at rates greater than than we've actually seen in the past. 

You write that the [Land Back] report is ultimately about Indigenous consent. What role does consent play in these conversations? 

I think for a really long time in Canada, there has been this debate about how do we define Aboriginal rights, what is self-government, how do we define self-government? And we've just been wringing our hands, and particularly Canadian officials have been wringing their hands about how to solve these issues and find some form of reconciliation, if you will. And all of those efforts have effectively ended in failure. But, more recently, we've seen the principle of free prior and informed consent, or consent generally, emerge in Indigenous policy circles and on the ground as the real solution, as the framework for how we can relate to each other in ways that are reciprocal and just. 

The argument that we're making, and the argument that has been made by others, is if you're going to go into Indigenous territories, whether it's a treaty or non-treaty area, let's just work to get the consent of the Indigenous people affected. And those communities can define what consent means to them. 

If we use that principle of consent, we sort of unlock the conversation around self-government and we unlock the conversation around Aboriginal rights and we move towards something that resembles maybe on one spectrum shared decision-making and on another spectrum Indigenous jurisdiction. Here is a form of relationship that can really lead to, hopefully, that reciprocity that we've been seeking for so long. 

You spent a lot of time looking at how indigenous communities are getting their land back. What are some of those ways? 

There are a lot of different ways. I think that the strategy that we most often hear about, because it gets the reporters to go to the community, is the blockade or the re-occupation. And I think that that is a legitimate and powerful tool that communities have deployed to get the land back. 

The Unist’ot’en Healing Center is highlighted in the Yellowhead Institute’s Land Back report as an example of Indigenous land reclamation. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

In the report, we look at the Tiny House Warriors, Unist'ot'en Healing Center, Nimkii Aazhibikong. All of these are case studies that point to this one particular strategy of just basically reoccupying the land. 

But there are others, too, that may be less provocative, and those include things like environmental assessment and monitoring. There are all these examples where communities are actually getting out on the land -- they know the land, they know how the land is being affected by development, and they're using that in court and negotiation to assert their jurisdiction. 

There's also cases where communities are coming up with their own consent protocols or their own permitting protocols. And we see more and more examples of this across the country, and we see more and more of those examples being effective. 

Q&A edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our interview with Hayden King.

Produced and written by Zoe Tennant.