The past months have signified an important turning point for the Indigenous struggle in Canada. For the first time ever, public opinion lies firmly on the side of Indigenous people, and awareness of Indigenous issues have reached a record high. The constant discovery of new unmarked graves at former residential schools have prompted fury across the country.
This anger has led to direct confrontations against Canada’s colonial history. In Toronto, a statue of Egerton Ryerson, a founder of the residential school system, was toppled by an angry crowd. Protesters in Manitoba destroyed statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II in front of the provincial legislature. Across the country, churches have been defaced, vandalized, and even set ablaze in protest of the Catholic Church’s role in running residential schools.
In response, the Canadian ruling class has scrambled to calm things down. While in the past the Canadian state chose to use repression and genocide against Indigenous peoples, they have now shifted tack and are seeking to divert the Indigenous struggle into a tokenistic project to create an Indigenous bourgeoisie.
It’s not a coincidence that in this context, Justin Trudeau has appointed Mary Simon, an Indigenous woman, to the post of governor general. As we’ve previously explained, this does absolutely nothing to liberate Indigenous people. This is a completely cynical move to try and create the impression that the government supports Indigenous people.
This is particularly hypocritical when it comes to the governor general. The governor general is a direct carry-over from Canada’s colonial history. The federal government has never acted in the interests of Indigenous people, and Simon’s appointment as the representative of the British Queen doesn’t change that. The real purpose of appointments like this is to act as a smokescreen for the real policy of the liberal capitalist establishment.
Being loyal to Canadian capitalism, the Trudeau administration has viciously attacked any Indigenous people who dare to stand up for their rights. This was obvious when they sent the RCMP to destroy the Unist’ot’en Camp, or spent $3.2 million of public funds to obstruct compensation for residential school survivors. The hypocrisy of the very same government shedding crocodile tears for Indigenous peoples could not be more striking. The Canadian state will continue to oppress Indigenous peoples regardless of there being an Indigenous governor general.
While timely, Simon is just the latest example of an ongoing trend by the Liberal establishment to elevate well-to-do Indigenous people to positions of power in the capitalist state. Recently, the government appointed Michèle Audete, an Indigenous woman who was previously a commissioner on the inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, to the role of senator. This is following calls to “Indigenize the senate.”
When Jody Wilson-Rabould was appointed attorney general back in 2015, it was hailed as a win for Indigenous women. But this didn’t stop Wilson-Raybould from announcing that the Liberal government would be going back on their promise to “embrace” the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Indeed, the Trudeau Liberals used her to tell the Indigenous community that implementing it would be “unworkable.” Wilson-Raybould is in fact the best example of the tokenism of the Canadian capitalist establishment. She proved useful when she gave an “Indigenous” face to the Liberal government—but was tossed aside in a move to cover up party corruption.
There’s clear political motivation behind all this. The point is to co-opt Indigenous leaders, while at the same time giving the appearance of change. In fact this is only one example of a wave of tokenistic appointments to try to aesthetically reform the system without changing its essence.
Creating an Indigenous bourgeoisie
In addition to appointments of Indigenous people to company boards and governmental bodies across the country, there is a clear attempt to create an Indigenous bourgeoisie. Historically, Indigenous capitalists have been very rare in Canada. Private property and production for profit were concepts entirely alien to native societies prior to colonization, and the colonial regime had no interest in bringing Indigenous people into the ranks of the ruling class. However, over the years there has arisen a layer of individual bosses from an Indigenous background. In addition to this, there is a small petty bourgeois layer of Indigenous bureaucrats, lawyers, and state officials, etc.
Today, the absence of a strong layer of Indigenous capitalists presents a pressing political problem for the ruling class. The methods of bourgeois rule are generally quite foreign to Indigenous people. Native people have always had very little faith in the Canadian government, which has made them one of the most militant segments of the population. This explains why we’ve seen a virtually uninterrupted series of blockades, occupations, and protests from Indigenous people since the 1970’s. This has been a constant thorn in the side of Canada’s ruling elite, so now they are trying to curb the movement by creating a privileged layer of Indigenous people as a way to control the struggle.
We have seen this recently in Nova Scotia, with the Clearwater deal, which sold the fishing giant to various Mi’kmaq groups in coalition with the BC company Premium Brands. The federal government loaned the capital and facilitated negotiations to make this deal possible. Then there’s the Calgary-based group “Project Reconciliation” which seeks “Indigenous ownership” over the Trans Mountain pipeline. You also have figures like Harold Calla, the executive chair of the First Nations Financial Management Board and member of board of directors of Trans Mountain, and the late millionaire cigarette tycoon Ken Hill, who have both been elevated as models for Indigenous people to aspire to.
None of these things have actually done anything to better conditions for working-class and poor Indigenous people. The employees of Clearwater are going to be exploited regardless of whether or not their bosses are Indigenous. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishery workers are going to continue to have their livelihoods threatened by the commercial giant. Trans Mountain pipeline can only be built in complete violation of the rights and consent of dozens of First Nations, and no amount of “Indigenous ownership” is going to change that. And Ken Hill, supposedly “an advocate for Indigenous rights and generous philanthropist,” lived a life of nearly unbelievable excess while his community suffered in poverty. While he enjoyed $25,000-a-night stays at Los Vegas suites and his $5.58 million car collection, most of his reserve still doesn’t even have access to clean running water.
The bourgeois existence of these Indigenous people affects their politics and they often use Indigenous sovereignty or Indigenous culture as a way to justify right-wing politics. This can be seen in the example of Great Blue Heron Casino, run by the Mississaugas of Scugog First Nations. In 2003, 1,000 Indigenous workers at the casino filed for unionization. The band council responded by claiming Ontario’s labour regulations don’t apply to businesses that operate on reserve. They instead instituted their own labour code that banned strikes and required employees to pay a $12,000 fee in order to file official labour complaints. We saw a similar situation when the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority fought with the Canadian Union of Autoworkers for two years to try to prevent casino workers from unionizing. So no, an Indigenous bourgeoisie will not save us.
This attempt to create an Indigenous bourgeoisie should not be surprising. Creating a layer of rich Indigenous people creates a stable group of “leaders” who can be useful to rein in the more militant layers of the movement. For the past decades, the Canadian government has set up a multitude of different bodies specifically for Indigenous people to make them feel as though they have a voice in government. In reality, though, we have no voice. These bodies aren’t controlled by working-class or poor natives, but by privileged bureaucrats and bourgeois natives dependent on the federal government. The purpose of these organizations isn’t to give Indigenous people control, but to direct the struggle away from radical protest and towards channels that don’t present a threat to the state and the capitalist system. Metis Marxist Howard Adams explained this in his work Prison of Grass:
“Native organizations are the ‘hidden hand’ of the government’s bureaucratic oppression. These organizations have become more effective in controlling and suppressing the Indian and Metis masses than any government agency. Governments have found that these organizations are exceedingly cooperative, although at times, for the sake of their credibility with the native masses, these organizations stage professional civil-rights actions, such as sit-ins. All in all, these native organizations are for the most part opportunistic and elitist, serving to keep the native masses oppressed and at the same time giving the governments a liberal, democratic image, as if they were seriously concerned about the situation of the Indian and Metis people.”
This is what the government really means when they speak of “reconciliation”. They don’t mean reconciliation with Indigenous people as a whole, but reconciliation with a thin layer of upper-class natives who have an active interest in keeping working and poor natives downtrodden and exploited.
Lessons from the Black struggle
We need to look at the history of the Black struggle in the United States to better understand what’s going on. While obviously not an exact analogy, an essentially similar process has taken place among Black Americans.
The height of the Civil Rights movement in the mid to late 1960s began to threaten the political establishment. Many of its biggest leaders—most notably Malcolm X and the Black Panthers—were openly moving towards the idea that it was impossible to abolish racism without also overturning capitalism, and were embracing socialist conclusions. Being among one of the poorest layers of the working class, black workers were wide open to Marxist ideas and, with charismatic leaders like Fred Hampton of the Black Panther party, tens of thousands joined the struggle.
The American state used many methods to combat this growing threat. While most people know about the violent repression and killing of people like Hampton, fewer know of the more subtle plan to absorb the more moderate leaders of the movement into the status quo. This was essentially the strategy employed by the Democratic Party establishment who adopted racial integration and certain other civil rights into its platform. It is important to note that this was not done to nurture the movement, but to smother it. They wanted to co-opt the movement in order to keep it within the confines of capitalism—and this is precisely what they did.
The state offered prominent Black leaders positions in the state and gave them stakes within the economy. Civil rights leaders like John Lewis became Democratic senators. They liberated a very small layer of the movement and allowed them into the ruling class in order to give the impression that the system can work for Black people as long as they “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and cooperate. In the 1980s and 90s this was known as “The Cosby Show phenomenon”. The show featured a wealthy Black doctor and lawyer in a very nice house. This façade of the “non-threatening” and “acceptable” Black family was really the mask behind which hid the abuse and hypocrisy of the capitalist system.
The result of this is that, today, there’s a fairly sizable layer of Black capitalists who have a good deal of authority over the Black struggle. The growing cohort of Black billionaires in America is celebrated by mainstream media as an achievement for all Black people.
But has this worked to liberate Black people, end racism and police brutality? The answer is undoubtedly no. We should never forget that it was precisely under Barack Obama, the first Black president, that the Black Lives Matter movement exploded onto the scene.
This is because while there are more rich Black people now than ever before, it doesn’t mean things have improved for the average Black American. Black workers still live under massive inequality compared to the rest of the population. Statistics show that Black people have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 as racism and class oppression combine. As Blacks make up a disproportionate number of poor working-class people, the COVID numbers are higher among the Black community.
Black capitalists are just as rotten as any other capitalist. In the words of Malcolm X: “You show me a capitalist, and I’ll show you a bloodsucker.” This was most recently seen when pop musician Rihanna, the latest member of the Black billionaire club, came under fire for using child labour in mines in India to sustain her Fenty Beauty make-up brand. From the perspective of a worker, it doesn’t matter whether their boss is white, Black or Indigenous. They’re still being exploited for their labour regardless.
What the experience of the Black struggle shows is that we cannot have any faith in an Indigenous capitalism saving us. The most it can offer is to liberate a very small layer of Indigenous people and give them a seat at the table of capitalist oppression. It is for this reason that Fred Hampton said, “We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”
Socialism, not Indigenous capitalism
Canadian capitalism was born from the oppression and exploitation of Indigenous people. And this continues to this day. Indigenous communities are denied control over land and resources because capitalism can never allow barriers to resource extraction. The attempts by the capitalist system to promote a rich layer of bourgeois natives to give an Indigenous colouring to this process is cynical in the highest degree. The oppression of Indigenous people is an inherent trait of capitalism, it can’t be simply reformed away. Attempts to “Indigenize” capitalism, the Canadian state, the government and the boards of corporations does not make these things Indigenous—it makes a small number of Indigenous people bourgeois.
The fight for socialism is a fight to put all wealth and production under collective, democratic control. In some ways, this would signify a revival of Indigenous traditions of communal ownership and democratic control of resources, but on a higher level with modern technique at our disposal. Instead of changing the form of capitalism—we need to change the content of our society through a socialist revolution.
A government of working-class people, free from the profiteering and exploitation of capitalism, would have no interest in violating Indigenous lands but would instead immediately work to assist in eliminating the boil water advisories, food insecurity problems, problems of housing, etc., in addition to fully funding all manner of cultural and educational programs for Indigenous youth. In this sense, only under a workers’ democracy would we be able to genuinely begin healing the scars of colonization. Instead of creating a small layer of Indigenous bourgeois, we need to give power to Indigenous workers. In unity with the rest of the working class, Indigenous workers will build a society free from oppression and exploitation.
Say no Indigenous capitalism!
Revive the best traditions of Red Power!
Reconciliation is dead, revolution is alive!