Land and Justice

Art Manuel’s Reconciliation Manifesto

© Lynn Gehl

The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering the Land, Rebuilding the Economy is a crucial read for all people interested in decolonization and in ending colonial genocide in Canada. Arthur Manuel relies on family history, experiential knowledge, legal training, and his love for his family and the land to share with the public insights he gained as a son, father, grandfather, First Nation Chief, and as an international advocate. His Manifesto is 312 pages. Grand Chief Ronald Derrickson wrote the introduction and afterword; Naomi Klein wrote the preface. Through the storytelling approach, chapters are short and void of the technicalities of references. In this review I share four crucial lessons to reflect on.

Colonial foundations

First, Manuel ensures readers understand Canada’s constitutional history, explaining the British North American Act was invented in 1867 by the British Parliament. Under section 91, subsection 24, the federal government gained complete power over, and the responsibilities over Indians and the land reserved for Indians. Through section 92, provincial authorities seized control of land resources, gaining the right to grant it to settlers, harvest trees, and exploit it through mining. Manuel is clear: the wealth of Canada is based on the dispossession, dependency, and oppression of Indigenous people.

In the 1980s Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau acted to patriate the BNA Act. At the time Manuel’s father George Manuel launched a massive lobbying effort to ensure Indigenous rights were protected as a third order of government. George organized the Constitutional Express, a train from Vancouver to Ottawa. Largely due to his effort, section 35, which recognizes and affirms Aboriginal and Treaty Rights inclusive of the right to self-government, became a part of Canada’s 1982 Constitution, where section 37 codified the process Canada and Indigenous Peoples would take to define Aboriginal rights. Unfortunately, four subsequent conferences failed to produce an understanding beyond municipal-style government powers which was rejected by Indigenous leaders. In the end settler politicians left it up to their courts to settle.

Canada ignores its own courts

Second, Manuel addresses Canada’s refusal to implement Aboriginal rights that the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) has affirmed. In case after case the SCC has decided in favour of Indigenous rights, beginning with the 1973 Calder decision where judges were split on Aboriginal rights, a clear indication that they existed. The 1997 Delgamuukw decision recognized Aboriginal title as a right to land itself and a form of ownership inclusive of economic rights. The 2004 Haida decision established the crown’s duty to consult and accommodate Aboriginal rights and title. Manuel also explains the 2014 Tsilhqot’in decision established Aboriginal title on the ground, inclusive of proprietary interests. Collectively these decisions mean Canada’s approach to “modern treaty making,” to extinguish Indigenous claims to their land and resources, better known as the comprehensive land claim process (CLCP), must be pushed aside.

Regardless, Manuel continues, SCC judges, who make up the judiciary branch of Canada’s parliament, continue to hold racist understandings that assume Indigenous rights are merely a burden on the Crown that needs to be resolved. He adds while Indigenous people have fought hard for court victories, Canada’s executive and legislative branches remain in denial and the CLCP continues to impose extinguishment. Manuel argues that while Canada is able to accept the SCC decisions on matters such as same-sex marriage and the need for safe injection sites, it holds firmly to its colonial principles regarding Indigenous rights. His point is clear – decolonizing Canada is beyond the domestic capacity of Canada because Canada will not listen to its own courts.

The view from outside

After the second world war, the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a cornerstone of international law in which nine basic human rights treaties were agreed upon to protect the rights of people of all nations. Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states all people have a right to self-determination; this interacts with Article 3 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which states Indigenous people have the right to self-determination, free from settler interference. Manuel discusses UNDRIP further, reminding us that Canada was one of the countries that voted against it at the 2007 UN General Assembly. He explains he was indeed suspicious when Justin Trudeau campaigned on the promise to adopt it if elected as Prime Minister. In October 2015 he was elected, and in May 2016 Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett pledged to fully implement UNDRIP. Regardless, in July 2016 Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, an Indigenous woman, announced it was impossible for Canada to adopt it into Canadian law because it was “unworkable.”

Manuel further explains Canada downplays the importance of international processes for domestic audiences, yet in the international arena a different picture emerges – one where Canada works hard to hide what is going on. Manuel urges Indigenous people to testify at UN meetings because the UN listens. He further explains there are additional international bodies where Indigenous people can take their concerns. When he took his concerns regarding the potential surrender of Secwepemc land through the CLCP to the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the committee concluded the process does not meet the standard of fairness, and also stated that the practice whereby Indigenous nations are expected to borrow funds to ultimately extinguish their own rights was unacceptable.

The struggle for economic justice

Fourth, Manuel offers economic insights. He begins with arguing the poverty of Indigenous people is the result of settler people living on our land enjoying almost 100% of our natural wealth and resources.

Manuel is also clear that the funding sources Indigenous leaders rely on place limits on what a person can say and do, offering he was unemployed since 1988 and while poor he was free to say what he needed to say. He argues there is the need to value leaders who are operating outside of government funding, since changes will only come from outside the system – and Canada will only pay people who are willing to extinguish Indigenous rights. Unfortunately the Assembly of First Nation (AFN) leaders, he explains, are sell-outs because First Nation Chiefs know when leaders with decolonized mindsets are elected, government funding quickly evaporates.

Manuel argues Indigenous people are in a struggle for economic justice. Canada’s practice of refusing to recognize Indigenous proprietary interests results in international trade subsidies because they are not included in costs. In 2017, British Columbia’s forest industry exported $2.5 billion of softwood lumber to the United States. He suggests Indigenous people launch a boycott of Canadian forest products and, for example, meet with Home Depot executives and ask them to stop purchasing BC lumber. He further suggests taking the matter up with the World Trade Organization, letting them know that Canada is plundering Indigenous lands without Indigenous people receiving a share.

Within this discussion Manuel explains the economic implications of the Crown’s uncertainty over Indigenous lands, meaning the loss Canada endures because potential investors walk away from the situation. He explains there is a $600 billion loss and he urges Indigenous people to leverage this in their effort. It is also important to understand provinces are bound to international accounting practices, and it is within these balance sheets where Canada’s liability to Indigenous nations is recorded. This liability is the result of Canada not addressing Indigenous proprietary interests. He reminds us that at the international level, auditors examine Canada’s balance sheets – scrutinizing them for the lies they contain. He laments we must not let Canada resolve its legal uncertainty through extinguishing our rights.

Finally, it is Arthur Manuel’s contention that Prime Minister Trudeau committed the greatest betrayal in all of Canada’s history when he promised he would implement UNDRIP. He lied.

The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering the Land, Rebuilding the Economy
Arthur Manuel
James Lorimer & Company Ltd, 2017
ISBN: 9781459409613






Lynn Gehl, PhD, is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe, an advocate, artist, outspoken critic of colonial law and policies, and author of Claiming Anishinaabe: Decolonizing the Human Spirit.


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