Marxism & Indigenous Peoples

The Canadian struggle

23 June 2022


Audio of a talk based on this article at an online meeting on 5 June 2022:

Of the many lies promoted by the Canadian ruling class and its political representatives, one of the more perverse is the carefully crafted narrative of a “renewed relationship” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. “Reconciliation” is a public-relations ploy designed to rehabilitate the image of the Canadian state and spare it taking any true responsibility for ethnic cleansing of the Indigenous population.

The truth is that Canada was founded on the attempted destruction of the pre-existing societies of the original inhabitants of North America. The special oppression of Indigenous peoples—additional to, yet intimately connected with, the “normal” exploitation of the working class—is rooted in the historical genesis of Canadian capitalism. Today, the oppression of Indigenous peoples is a significant feature of a decaying social system built on a legacy of oppression, inequality and exclusion.

Indigenous Oppression Today

The horrific discovery of the remains of over 1,000 children at former residential schools last year was a graphic illustration of the oppression of Indigenous people. The federally funded residential schools were administered by religious organizations, chiefly the Catholic Church, and became compulsory in 1894, ending only in the 1990s. They uprooted some 150,000 Indigenous youth from their communities, many forcibly removed at the hands of the RCMP (the federal police service).

At the time of the discoveries, we noted:

“The impact of the residential school system and the wider program of ethnic cleansing on Canada’s current 1.7 million Indigenous residents has been profound: their life expectancy is 15 years less than the national average; infant mortality rates are two to three times that of non-Indigenous people; child poverty rates approach 50 percent, two-and-a-half times the national rate; and a third of federal prisoners are Indigenous, though they represent less than 5 percent of the Canadian population. Indigenous people, grappling with generations of trauma, also suffer from higher rates of drug and alcohol addiction for which, in an additional act of humiliation, they are often personally blamed and stigmatized. The suicide rate of Indigenous Canadians is three times higher than it is for the non-Indigenous population.”
—“Canada’s Dirty Secret: Residential schools & ethnic cleansing,” 1917 No.44

Canada’s Indigenous population includes three distinct groups of peoples: 60 percent are First Nations (a broad category denoting the descendants of the first inhabitants of North America); 36 percent are Métis (of mixed Indigenous and European ancestry, primarily French, with origins dating to the fur-trade era); and 4 percent are Inuit (primarily inhabiting the sub-Arctic and Arctic regions). Indigenous people across the country are treated as second-class citizens (e.g., in the criminal justice system), but the situation on reserves—territories set aside for use by First Nations but held in trust by “the Crown”—is the most dire. The reserves have been under-funded and neglected by the Canadian state for generations. Four out of every five First Nations reserves have median incomes that fall below the poverty line of $22,133 per capita. Some 60 percent of children and 47 percent of women on reserves live in poverty.

The state of education is appalling. A 2011 “School Survey” conducted by the Assembly of First Nations (the collective body of band council chiefs) revealed that approximately 47 percent of reserves needed new schools, with many waiting a decade or more. Many First Nations schools are woefully outfitted and cannot therefore provide quality education. Nearly three-quarters need “major repairs” to plumbing, sewage, electrical, roofing, structure and foundation; a third lack access to clean drinking water; less than half have a fully-equipped gym and only a third a good playground; merely 18 percent have a complete science lab; and only 39 percent a well-stocked library (“A Portrait of First Nations and Education,” 2011).

Housing on reserves is often dilapidated, overcrowded and plagued by chronic shortages. Over one-third of those on reserves live in “unsuitable housing,” compared to 8.5 percent in the rest of Canada. Some 44 percent of homes on reserves are in need of “major repairs,” while four out of five people live in homes that require “significant repairs” and are below the standard for adequate housing. The Assembly of First Nations estimates that an additional 130,000 housing units are needed by 2030 (COVID-19, First Nations and Poor Housing, May 2020).

The housing crisis is compounded by the deplorable state of infrastructure on many reserves. Despite the fact that Canada contains 20 percent of the planet’s supply of fresh water, many First Nations reserves lack access to safe, clean drinking water. There are currently 34 “long-term drinking water advisories” warning that the water is not safe to drink in 29 First Nations communities country wide. According to the OECD (January 2020): “First Nations communities are 90 times more likely to be without piped water and half of the water systems on First Nations reserves pose a medium or high health risk to their users.”

One particularly odious example of Canadian capital’s disregard for Indigenous life can be found on the First Nations reserve of Grassy Narrows in Northwestern Ontario. During the 1960s and 1970s, in one of Canada’s worst environmental disasters, a chemical plant at a paper mill located upstream from the reserve dumped 9,000 kg of mercury into the water. As a result:

“Ninety per cent of the population in Grassy Narrows experiences symptoms of mercury poisoning, which include neurological problems ranging from numbness in fingers and toes to seizures and cognitive delays, according to a recent study by mercury specialists. Then there’s the psychological stress of seeing your friends and family stricken with these problems.
“But health services are limited to a small nursing station, and mental health counselling on the reserve is nearly non-existent.
“To this date, there is still no safe tap water in most homes at Grassy Narrows.”
—“Children of the poisoned river,” CBC, 30 April 2017

Not surprisingly, First Nations peoples living on reserves experience a host of heightened health-related problems. Rates of diabetes, asthma and respiratory tract infections are many times higher than those for non-Indigenous Canadians, while some First Nations communities have a 50 times higher prevalence of tuberculosis compared to the general population. Many reserves are located in isolated or remote areas, equipped only with small medical facilities that are inadequate to meet basic needs. It is not surprising that Covid-19 hit these communities hard.

Early North American Indigenous Societies

The ongoing oppression of Indigenous peoples in Canada is a direct continuation of exploitation by the French and British colonial administrations from the 17th and 18th centuries onward. The historic expulsion and dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands was specifically designed to grab resources while destroying the pre-capitalist socio-economic relations of Indigenous societies and consolidating capitalist property forms on the occupied territory.

Prior to the arrival of European settlers, the population of what is now Canada numbered somewhere between 500,000 and 2 million. While concentrated in those areas most hospitable to human habitation (e.g., the Great Lakes region and St. Lawrence River basin), the entire continent was populated, contrary to the doctrine of terra nullius used by Europeans to lay claim to the land. Despite the wide-ranging diversity of culture, language, institutions and ways of living distinguishing the various communities of these first inhabitants, most of their societies were broadly characterized by what Marx and Engels called “primitive communism,” a mode of production based on a low level of development of the productive forces that had not yet developed class divisions.

In the context of North American Indigenous peoples, this original communism involved tribal societies living a nomadic or semi-nomadic existence, where subsistence was largely sustained by hunting, fishing and gathering (e.g., as was the case with the First Nations of the Great Plains and Prairies), though in some cases agriculture formed the basis of a sedentary tribal life (e.g., the Haudenosaunee, aka “People of the Longhouse,” of the Great Lakes region). These societies were shaped by communal forms of property in the means of production, a rudimentary division of labor and relative equality between the sexes.

Writing specifically about the Haudenosaunee (using the now obsolete name “Iroquois”) in his seminal work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Friedrich Engels noted:

“No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits—and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected.… [T]he household is maintained by a number of families in common, and is communistic, the land belongs to the tribe, only the small gardens are allotted provisionally to the households—yet there is no need for even a trace of our complicated administrative apparatus with all its ramifications.… There cannot be any poor or needy—the communal household and the gens [clan] know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free—the women included.
“That is what men and society were before the division into classes.”

The lack of a substantial and secure social surplus product did not allow for entrenched class divisions or a permanent repressive apparatus standing above society enforcing the interests of a ruling class (i.e., a state), although there were some deviations from the norm of classless social relations, e.g., a significant slave population on the west coast. Colonial conquest of North America forever altered the internal dynamics of these societies and the trajectory of their historical development. What remains today are the transformed fragments of the original communities.

Colonial Rivalries in the ‘New World’

European contact resulted in disease, death and devastation for Indigenous peoples. Between 1492 and 1900, approximately 95 percent of the Indigenous population in the Western hemisphere was wiped out in an estimated 175 million excess deaths. For some, like the Beothuk of present-day Newfoundland, contact led to complete eradication. While slaughter and military conquest account for some of this decline, by far the biggest killer were the diseases accompanying the arrival of European traders and settlers for which the Indigenous people had no acquired immunity. Never-before-seen pathogens such as smallpox, typhus, measles and influenza resulted in an unimaginable death toll.

Lured by the lucrative trade in beaver pelts and later driven to expand their colonial empires, France and England established rival outposts in North America. In seeking the allegiance of Indigenous trappers, the European colonial powers armed and equipped different groups and fomented divisions among the various tribes. This led to the “Beaver Wars” of the 17th century, a series of military conflicts pitting the Dutch and English, then allied with the Haudenosaunee, against the French and the Anishnaabe, for economic dominance in the strategic St. Lawrence River valley and Great Lakes region. By the late 1600s, with the Dutch in decline and the English ascendant, the Haudenosaunee would conquer the Northeast region, giving the British control of trade routes from their colonies to the interior.

The rise of the British paved the way for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) to become the dominant force in the fur trade. In 1670, an English “royal charter” granted the company the entire Hudson’s Bay drainage basin (then known as Rupert’s Land), comprising one-third of modern-day Canada—effectively stolen Indigenous territory. The HBC maintained a monopoly on the fur trade for nearly 200 years and functioned as the de facto government in large parts of the territory, which was incorporated into Canada after Confederation in 1867 without consultation or consent from the inhabitants of the region. The immense profits from the fur trade would go to finance the Industrial Revolution in Britain while also fostering the development of a domestic Canadian bourgeoisie.

In the late 17th century and for more than half of the 18th century, the French and English engaged in a series of direct and proxy conflicts (dubbed the “French and Indian Wars”) for control of the fur trade and interior territories of North America, with each arming their respective colonies and Indigenous allies. With Britain victorious in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), administration of the former French colonial possessions was transferred to the British Crown. Anxious to win over tribes previously allied with France, Britain issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which gave rhetorical support to Indigenous land claims. While the proclamation de jure recognized all lands as Indigenous unless ceded through treaty, it was de facto used by Britain to subdue resistance in their newly acquired territories and consolidate its position as the dominant power. To this day, the proclamation remains the legal basis for many ongoing Indigenous land disputes and title claims.

Canadian Capitalism & the Subjugation of Indigenous Peoples

The decline of the fur trade saw the triumph of industrial capitalist interests over the mercantilist system, solidified by the British North America Act of 1867, which unified the British provinces into the Dominion of Canada and secured the future course of the country. The Dominion covered a fraction of what we know today as Canada, but eastern Canadian industrialists, allied with British financial interests, quickly sought to extend their empire westward across the prairies, where Indigenous peoples remained a majority of the population.

The communal/tribal mode of life of these Indigenous peoples was fundamentally incompatible with this industrial capitalist development, which included large-scale agricultural production, construction of a trans-continental rail line and extraction of natural resources. Those Indigenous peoples who had survived the pre-industrial phase of mercantilist capitalism were subject to an extreme form of special oppression with the rise of industrial capitalism and the Canadian bourgeois state—accompanied by anti-Indigenous racism as ideological justification for expropriating Indigenous land and continuing to disintegrate their societies.

While much land was simply seized, colonial administrations also signed treaties (many of which they later broke) offering the beleaguered Indigenous communities parcels of land and provision of services in exchange for control over large swathes of territory. However, the Crown and its legal heir, the Canadian government, have failed to hold up their treaty obligations and have therefore effectively stolen the land. The lack of proper health care and education on many First Nations reserves is living proof of this.

In addition, the colonial powers expressly pursued a strategy of ethnic cleansing to get rid of “the Indian problem” through forced assimilation and murder, of which the residential schools were a crucial part. The openly racist attitude of the Canadian state toward the country’s Indigenous population was summed up by the Indian Commissioner, J. Provencher, in 1873:

“There are two modes wherein the Government may treat the Indian nations who inhabit this territory. Treaties may be made with them simply with a view to the extinction of their rights, by agreeing to pay them a sum, and afterwards abandon them to themselves. On the other side, they may be instructed, civilized and led to a mode of life more in conformity with the new position of this country, and accordingly make them good, industrious and useful citizens.
“Under the first system the Indians will remain in their condition of ignorance and inferiority, and as soon as the facilities for hunting and fishing disappear, they will become mendicants, or be obliged to seek refuge in localities inaccessible to immigration or cultivation.
“Under the second system, on the contrary, they will learn sufficient for themselves, and to enable them to pass from a state of tutelage, and to do without assistance from the Government.”
—“Report of the Department of the Interior for the Year Ended 30 June 1874”

These “modes” were codified in the apartheid-like Indian Act (1876), which gave the Canadian state incredible powers over all aspects of the lives of First Nations people, while explicitly disenfranchising them and cementing their standing as second-class citizens.

The Act offered First Nations people an impossible choice. To stay on something approximating their ancestral lands, they had to register with the federal government as “status Indian” and were forcibly confined to the reserves. Status Indians were denied Canadian citizenship and the right to vote in federal elections in return for some minimal concessions such as an extended hunting season, a less restrictive right to bear arms and exemption from federal and provincial taxes. First Nations people who opted for citizenship, along with all Métis and Inuit, had no “status” and were simply expected to assimilate into mainstream Canadian society (a process perversely referred to as “enfranchisement”).

The Act forbade Indigenous people from speaking their native languages and banned important governmental, cultural and religious practices such as: the potlatch (communal gift-giving ceremonies of the peoples of the Northwest Coast to redistribute wealth, confer status and rank, and determine hunting and fishing territories); powwows (celebrations showcasing Indigenous culture, music, dance, regalia, food and crafts); and the sun dance (an annual sacred ceremony reaffirming spiritual beliefs of First Nations of the Prairies). It also effectively prohibited any form of social and political organizing on reserves. Leaving a reserve required permission from the federal government’s “Indian agent” stationed on site and was limited to a maximum of 30 days upon penalty of losing “status.”

Indigenous women were specifically discriminated against by stripping them (and their children) of status for marrying non-Indigenous men, although Indigenous men could keep their status after marrying non-Indigenous women. The federal government was also empowered to enter the homes of First Nations people on reserves without permission or pretext, a power that facilitated the growth of the residential school system.

The Indian Act also broke up the traditional clan-based forms of First Nations governance and imposed the band council system as the basic unit of government on reserves. While formally semi-autonomous, these bodies essentially acted as adjuncts to the Indian agents. Band councils continue to this day and are the sole governing body legally recognized by the federal government, with the chiefs of the bands accountable to the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs (previously Indian Affairs).

Indigenous Resistance & Rebellion

As the Canadian state sought to geographically extend the capitalist economy and consolidate its control westward after Confederation, it encountered widespread Indigenous resistance, including the Red River Rebellion of 1869–1870 and the North-West Rebellion of 1885.

In 1869, Ottawa acquired Rupert’s Land from the HBC, bringing it under direct federal control. The Métis, who occupied part of the land and opposed the massive annexation of territory without consultation or consent, responded by allying with anglophone inhabitants of the region and forming a provisional government at Red River (present-day Winnipeg, Manitoba). Led by Louis Riel, a francophone Métis, the newly proclaimed Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia submitted terms for entry into Confederation, including guaranteeing the cultural and linguistic rights of both English and French speakers.

Ottawa agreed to some of the rebels’ demands, but at the same time prepared to suppress the provisional government and crush the rebellion. On 13 December 1869, prime minister John A. Macdonald wrote: “[S]hould these miserable half-breeds not disband, they must be put down … I shall be very glad to give Colonel Wolsely the chance and glory and the risk of the scalping knife!”

A military expedition composed of British and Canadian forces, under the command of Colonel Wolsely, was sent in to enforce the authority of the federal government and restore order in August 1870:

“[W]ith the campaign complete and Red River occupied by federal troops, Ottawa installed its dominion over Manitoba. The people’s democratic government was crushed and the Hudson’s Bay Company was revised from its earlier feudal operation and brought into line with capitalist development. A reign of terror against the halfbreeds followed in the wake of Colonel Wolsely and his troops.
“In 1873, Ottawa established a permanent occupation force of Mounted Police in the Northwest that could immediately crush any people’s movement that might arise or threaten the Ottawa regime and served as a constant reminder of Ottawa’s absolute power.”
A Prison of Grass: Canada from a Native Point of View, Howard Adams

The Métis-majority Red River Colony was converted into the then-tiny province of Manitoba within Canadian Confederation in July 1870. In the decade after the conquest of the Red River Colony, the Canadian government signed seven “Numbered Treaties” with Indigenous peoples that covered much of the land in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The loss of vast areas through fraudulent treaties and military conquests further cemented Indigenous subjugation and allowed the Anglo-Canadian ruling class to appropriate the huge central territory of Canada, paving the way for capitalist development.

Unresolved Métis grievances against Ottawa again erupted into open insurrection with the North-West Rebellion of 1885. With the decline of the fur trade, decimation of the buffalo and an influx of land-hungry settlers encouraged by Ottawa, large numbers of Métis had been forced out of Manitoba and west to the Northwest Territories (parts of present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta). In what is today Saskatchewan, an alliance of Métis and First Nations, along with local merchants, farmers, settlers and workers, eventually coalesced around demands for “responsible” (i.e., bourgeois-democratic) government and economic and land reforms.

In March 1885, a Provisional Government of Saskatchewan was established with Riel as president, the Métis leader having returned from exile in the United States. In an effort to weaken the resolve of some of the white settlers and split the ranks of the rebels, the ruling class whipped up a campaign of anti-Indigenous hysteria while the federal government mobilized some 5,000 troops to put down the uprising. By June, with the Métis defeated and Riel having surrendered, the North-West Rebellion was over.

Riel was executed for treason in November 1885, along with eight Cree fighters, in the largest mass hanging in Canadian history. At the time of the executions, prime minister Macdonald, the venerated “father of Confederation” and “nation builder,” wrote to the commissioner of Indian Affairs: “The executions of the Indians … ought to convince the Red Man that the White Man governs” (National Post, 28 August 2018).

White Paper, Red Power

By the mid-20th century, with much of the Indigenous population legally disenfranchised and confined to reserves, the Canadian state, now firmly exercising authority across the country, sought to “modernize” its image by lifting some of the more egregious and openly discriminatory policies. In the 1940s, the “pass system” enforced on reserves was ended. In 1951, the Indian Act was amended to remove bans on the potlatch, while measures were put in place to merge some social services for First Nations peoples (previously separately funded) with services for all Canadians and partially phase out the residential school system. In 1960, a Canadian Bill of Rights was enacted, finally granting First Nations the right to vote in federal elections without giving up their status.

In 1969, Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau issued the “Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy” (aka the “White Paper”), which aimed to overhaul Ottawa’s relationship with the Indigenous population. It sought to repeal the Indian Act and dismantle the Department of Indian Affairs. It proposed eliminating the special legal “status” for First Nations and any associated rights, abolishing the reserve system and converting the existing reserve lands into private property owned by the band or Indigenous landholders. Indigenous people were to be “integrated” into provincial government responsibilities such as health care, education, social and welfare services, thereby terminating special federal programs or considerations that had previously applied to them.

Although couched in terms of Trudeau’s vision of a “just society” and ending “discriminatory legislation,” the 1969 White Paper was primarily designed to absolve the federal government of its obligation to the country’s Indigenous peoples by dumping the responsibility onto the provinces. The revision to the Indian Act almost two decades before had itself expanded the jurisdiction of the provinces over Indigenous people, leading to what came to be known as the “Sixties Scoop,” whereby provincial child welfare agencies removed thousands of Indigenous children from their families and adopted them out to white parents. Unsurprisingly, the 1969 White Paper sparked widespread opposition among First Nations, who saw it as the final step in their forcible assimilation into Canadian society, and it was withdrawn in 1970.

The backlash contributed to the emergence of the so-called Red Power movement of the 1960s and 70s at a time of rising radicalization and heightened social struggle across North America (e.g., the anti-war, civil rights and Black Power movements). Indigenous activists organized sit-ins, occupations and marches throughout Canada and the US. Opposition to Trudeau’s plans catalyzed the formation of a number of pan-Indigenous organizations such as the American Indian Movement in the US and, in Canada, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and the National Indian Brotherhood. The latter would dissolve in the late 1970s and eventually re-emerge as the Assembly of First Nations in 1982 at the time of the patriation of the Canadian Constitution.

The Red Power movement largely centered around demands for “self-determination,” honoring treaties, “decolonization,” ending police brutality and compensation for corporate and governmental exploitation of Indigenous territories. At times able to win small victories, such as forcing the withdrawal of the White Paper, and combining confrontational mass action with militant-sounding rhetoric, the Red Power movement nonetheless boiled down to a defensive embrace of Indigenous tribal/community identity politics. While entirely understandable, such opposition did not advance a political program capable of fundamentally addressing the special oppression of Indigenous people. As the once-revolutionary Spartacist League noted at the time about what was then widely referred to as the “Indian question” in the US:

“The despair of lumpen ghetto life, the pervasive culture shock of relocation and the deracination of young Indian intellectuals have combined to lead numerous Indians back to their ‘roots’ and to dreams of a refuge where the virtues of idealized traditional life can be emulated without the agonies of capitalism.
“Implicit in the retrogressive turn toward the reservations is an acceptance of American class society and the economically marginal, socially isolated position of Indians. But the fact that an independent nation-state and separate Indian economy objectively cannot be realized gives the Indian movement its peculiarly utopian quality.”
—“Marxism & the American Indian Question,” Young Spartacus No.31, April 1975

Although the Red Power movement would largely fizzle out by the 1980s, along with many of the social movements of the preceding two decades, Indigenous resistance continued. Notable examples are the Oka Crisis in Quebec in 1990, stand-offs at Gustafsen Lake, BC and Ipperwash, Ontario in 1995 and the nation-wide Idle No More protests in 2012. Marxists stand alongside such movements in struggle against Indigenous oppression, while pointing out the insufficiency of approaches that are not based on united class struggle against the Canadian ruling class and the capitalist state.

‘Reconciliation’ Fraud Covers Violent Resource Grab

Still attempting to bolster its “progressive” liberal image, the Canadian ruling class has of late been forced to issue a number of apologies and promote a series of superficial reforms on the supposed “path to reconciliation” with Indigenous people such as land acknowledgements, renaming public institutions and celebrating National Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Although such concessions may be of symbolic importance, they are largely designed to defuse popular anger over the most abominable acts of ethnic cleansing and discrimination by the Canadian state. On their own, they can only ever amount to cosmetic changes under capitalism while leaving untouched the material foundations of Indigenous oppression.

Prior to becoming prime minister in 2015, Justin Trudeau cynically sought to portray himself and the Liberal Party as defenders of Indigenous rights. He vowed to end boil-water advisories on First Nations reserves by 2020 and gave speeches about Canada’s shameful history with Indigenous peoples. He promised to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) 94 “Calls to Action” and pledged to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), including respecting the right of First Nations to control their traditional lands—all accompanied by chatter about a “renewed nation-to-nation relationship” between the Canadian state and Indigenous peoples.

Since coming to power, the Trudeau government has, however, done nothing to fundamentally address the ongoing oppression of Indigenous peoples. In 2019, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found the federal government guilty of discriminating against First Nations youth on reserves by underfunding and denying social services, which frequently led to youth being removed from the reserves and placed in child services. The Liberals responded by appealing the ruling in order to avoid paying compensation. The federal government was eventually forced to sign a $40 billion agreement with Indigenous leaders to cover the over 215,000 children impacted and to overhaul the First Nations family services program.

In the midst of the residential school discoveries in 2021, Trudeau sought to shift blame from the government onto the Catholic Church, despite the fact that 90 percent of Canadians hold the federal government responsible. At the time, only eight of the TRC’s 94 “Calls to Action” to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance reconciliation had actually been implemented.

One of the TRC’s calls is for all levels of the Canadian government to “fully adopt and implement” UNDRIP. The UN declaration recognizes the right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, autonomy or self-government, and emphasizes the concept of “free, prior and informed consent” from Indigenous groups before approving any activities affecting their lands or resources. Because of this clause, the Canadian ruling class has been cool toward UNDRIP, fearing it could lead to a flood of land claims and that it could grant veto power to Indigenous groups over major projects in natural resources extraction (oil, gas, mining, forestry)—a key and highly profitable sector in the Canadian economy.

In June 2021, the federal government finally passed Bill C-15, which many thought would clear the way for Canada to implement UNDRIP. However, the legislation seeks to merely “align Canadian law” with UNDRIP and uses the UN declaration on Indigenous rights as a “framework for implementation” on the supposed “path to reconciliation,” i.e., it is not legally binding. While officially paying lip service to UNDRIP, the ruling class and its political representatives will simply water down its key elements and discard them when inconvenient. Trudeau has already gone on record saying as much. When asked if First Nations have the right to block economic projects in their territories, he said: “No, they don’t have a veto” (Financial Post, 21 December 2016).

Canada is already one of the largest global exporters of fossil fuels and is only deepening its reliance on natural resource extraction while trampling on Indigenous rights. Since 2018 the federal and provincial governments have funneled over $23 billion in loans and subsidies to three major pipeline projects that pass through disputed First Nations territories: Trans Mountain, Coastal GasLink and the now-defunct Keystone XL.

The Trans Mountain Pipeline is a long-distance conduit carrying crude and refined oil from Alberta’s tar sands to the Pacific coast of British Columbia. When Houston-based oil and gas giant Kinder Morgan announced plans to expand the network in 2013, the First Nations Secwépemc community began organizing to block the extension, which crosses over 500 km of their territory and poses serious environmental concerns. In 2018, after Kinder Morgan finally decided to scrap the pipeline due to rising costs, Indigenous opposition and legal uncertainty, Trudeau’s Liberals swept in and bought the project for $4.5 billion. Today, the federal government-owned Trans Mountain Corporation is financing and building the pipeline despite ongoing Indigenous resistance.

The Coastal GasLink (CGL), which is partly owned by Canadian company TC Energy (formerly TransCanada), is a $6 billion pipeline that will transport natural gas 670 km from British Columbia’s land-locked interior to the Pacific coast and on to Asian markets. The CGL pipeline is a key component of LNG Canada, a $40 billion industrial energy project led by a consortium of international oil and gas companies (Shell, Petronas, PetroChina, Mitsubishi and Korea Gas Corporation). In 2019, the Liberals announced their support for LNG Canada and kicked in a subsidy of $275 million for what they claim is “the largest single private sector investment in the history of the country” and one that will “lead to billions of dollars in direct government revenues and hundreds of millions of dollars in construction contracts for Indigenous businesses” (Government of Canada, 24 June 2019).

While the CGL pipeline route bypasses First Nations reserve lands, where the band councils exercise authority, it does run through the traditional territories of the Wet’suwet’en , where the hereditary chiefs, who claim jurisdiction on approximately 22,000 km2 of unceded ancestral land, oppose the project. Given the absence of treaties over most of British Columbia’s territory, much of the entire province is de facto confiscated and occupied land. A 1997 Supreme Court of Canada ruling determined that the Wet’suwet’en had in fact not ceded their traditional territories and did indeed have Aboriginal title (i.e., right to the land itself), but deferred defining these rights and title to future court cases. CGL and LNG Canada fear that a resolution in favor of the Wet’suwet’en will jeopardize the project.

In an effort to divide First Nations communities and buy off the more compliant leadership on the band councils, CGL and LNG Canada negotiated lucrative “agreements and partnerships with Indigenous groups” (canadianlnga.ca). To date, the companies have managed to successfully co-opt all 20 First Nations band councils adjacent to the pipeline route, which have signed agreements in support of the project, including five of the six band councils of the Wet’suwet’en nation in British Columbia.

The corporations also promoted outfits like the First Nations LNG Alliance, purportedly “a collective of First Nations who are participating in, and supportive of, sustainable and responsible LNG development in BC.” When TransCanada awarded a $620 million contract to “benefit Aboriginal businesses” in exchange for Indigenous approval of the CGL pipeline, CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance and former chief of the Wet’suwet’en, Karen Ogen-Toews, declared: “This is terrific news.” After the agreement was announced, Wet’suwet’en band council Chief Vivian Tom cynically boasted that: “It shows the world how well First Nations and industry can work together to achieve significant economic benefits, protect the environment and preserve cultural values.… We look forward to the ongoing work with Coastal GasLink to maintain our mutually beneficial relationship” (Interior News, 28 June 2018).

In March 2022, TC Energy deepened this “mutually beneficial relationship” by signing equity agreements with two First Nations coalitions. The deal will make 16 of the 20 First Nations communities along the pipeline route 10 percent part-owners of CGL upon completion of the project.

The provincial and federal governments, which of course back the pipeline, are using agreements such as these as a pretext to claim “free, prior, and informed consent” from the “representative institutions” of Indigenous peoples, as enshrined in UNDRIP. Despite the opposition of many Indigenous people living on or claiming title to the affected land, the state seeks to simply ram through the venture with no real consultation or consent.

When the thin veneer of so-called “reconciliation” proves ineffective at achieving its interests, the ruling class is quite willing to resort to state repression. In December 2018, after Wet’suwet’en and environmentalists who were opposed to the project blocked access to the pipeline’s construction zones, the BC courts granted an injunction to CGL, and the RCMP was sent in to dismantle the blockade and evict the protesters. It was later revealed that RCMP commanders had instructed officers to arrest everyone on site—children, grandparents, “aboriginal extremists”—and to deploy “lethal overwatch,” i.e., deadly force, including the positioning of snipers. They also threatened to use social services to apprehend Indigenous children and dump them in the child welfare system in an odious attempt to intimidate those protesting (Guardian, 20 December 2019).

After renewed talks between the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, CGL and the British Columbia government broke down in February 2020, the RCMP was once again sent in to enforce a court injunction against the blockades. As the RCMP was setting up checkpoints on Wet’suwet’en territory, BC Premier John Horgan held a news conference at which he declared: “All the permits are in place for this project to proceed. This project is proceeding and the rule of law needs to prevail in B.C.” When asked about the ongoing Wet’suwet’en land claims and British Columbia’s presumed obligation to abide by UNDRIP (which the province officially began implementing in 2019), Horgan simply dismissed concerns and said they did not apply: “Our document, our legislation, our declaration is forward looking.… It’s not retrospective. We believe [CGL] will open up opportunities not just for Indigenous people but for all British Columbians” (National Post, 14 January 2020). In November 2021, the RCMP was yet again sent in and arrested more than 30 land defenders and journalists under the authority of a BC Supreme Court injunction against anyone attempting to impede the project.

Multi-billion-dollar ventures like CGL and LNG Canada illustrate precisely how Canadian capitalism, backed by the armed fist of the state, tramples on Indigenous “rights” whenever they threaten profit-making. The Canadian state routinely intervenes on behalf of corporations to protect their investments. According to a Yellowhead Institute study: “76 percent of injunctions filed against First Nations by corporations were granted, while 81 percent of injunctions filed against corporations by First Nations were denied. Perhaps most tellingly, 82 percent of injunctions filed by First Nations against the government were denied” (“Land Back,” October 2019).

Indigenous Peoples & National Rights

According to the 2016 census, around 1.7 million people identify as Aboriginal (i.e., Indigenous) in Canada, roughly 5 percent of the country’s total population. Combined, they speak over 70 different languages, represent more than 50 distinct peoples and have many unique histories, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs. In most parts of Canada, they are a relatively small segment of the population, though this differs from region to region. Ontario contains the largest number of Aboriginal people, 374,000 (or 22.4 percent of the country’s entire Indigenous population), but this figure represents only 2.8 percent of all Ontarians. In the less-populous prairie provinces a significant minority are Indigenous: 18 percent in Manitoba and 16.3 percent in Saskatchewan are either First Nations or Métis. The tiny province of Prince Edward Island has fewer than 3,000 who identify as Aboriginal, while over half of the inhabitants of the Northwest Territories (some 20,000 people) are Indigenous and 85 percent (30,000) of those in the territory of Nunavut are Inuit.

Roughly 20 percent of Canada’s Indigenous population reside on over 3,000 First Nations reserves spread throughout the country. Often composed of small groups of people, reserves can vary greatly in size: many consist of mere hundreds of members living on tiny tracts of land, while the largest in the country, the Six Nations of the Grand River in southwestern Ontario, has some 13,000 residents and spans over 180 km2. Together the reserves make up over 630 First Nations communities, some in larger blocks of contiguous territory, but overall forming a complex pattern of Indigenous settlement scattered across the country. While the reserves are formally autonomous and administered by the band councils (some of which control multiple reserves), the federal government continues to retain ultimate decision-making authority through the now heavily amended Indian Act.

Many First Nations retain a traditional system of government of clan-based hereditary chiefs who claim jurisdiction over unceded territories and disputed lands that fall outside of band-controlled reserves. In some cases, the two systems have come to an accommodation and work in tandem, while in others they are clearly in conflict (e.g., the Wet’suwet’en ). Although not recognized by the federal government as the legal representatives of First Nations, the hereditary chiefs and traditional system of governance continue to wield considerable influence.

Despite the term “nation” being widely applied to Canada’s Indigenous peoples, they are in fact not fully formed “nations” in a materialist sense (i.e., stable communities of people with a common language, culture, history, territory and political economy). Unlike “classic” cases of national oppression involving nations capable of seceding and creating a viable political-economic unit, such as Quebec, the oppression of Indigenous peoples involves less compact sub-national groupings that lack sufficient size, contiguous territory and an economic basis for building a separate state. Instead, Indigenous peoples constitute a specially oppressed layer within Canada that encompasses a spectrum of peoples geographically dispersed throughout the country and separated by multiple differences such as clan/tribal affiliation and language.

Yet the Indigenous peoples of Canada are not simply one strand of a multicultural tapestry within Canadian society. They form a distinct population with their own social and cultural fabric and history. Despite the impracticality of forming a separate country, Leninists recognize the right of Indigenous peoples to the fullest possible political autonomy over life on their territories, including over infrastructure projects impinging on their land or exploitation of their natural resources. We defend their right to exercise sovereignty on their territories free from interference from the capitalist state and the colonial-era governing bodies. This includes, if they so choose, establishing separate political institutions, democratically electing their own representatives directly accountable to their constituents, exercising full power of decision-making pertaining to their internal affairs and receiving education and government services in their own languages. We recognize, however, that under capitalism this limited sovereignty would necessarily be a very deformed and inadequate expression of the right to self-government.

Canadian capitalism and the state are the main instruments of Indigenous oppression. We demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Indigenous land of all Canadian armed forces, the RCMP and any other agents acting on behalf of the state and ruling-class interests. Revolutionaries defend Indigenous communities targeted by state repression, without giving political support to the existing leadership of these struggles. Indigenous peoples are socially stratified (i.e., class-divided) and we stand with the vast majority of impoverished proletarian/semi-proletarian Indigenous people. Their interests are counterposed to the tiny layer of leaders who often derive real, albeit relatively meager, material benefits from their role as “junior partners” in maintaining the status quo.

Recognizing the right to self-government and sovereignty over land must not be seen as a cure-all panacea for undoing centuries of oppression or, conversely, as accepting the institutionalized isolation of Indigenous peoples. Many self-administered Indigenous territories are artificially created enclaves originally established by the British colonial and early Canadian administrations. They are often on the most marginal lands of the former communal holdings, which often do not fully correspond to the historic territory once occupied by the respective Indigenous people. On their own, these territories offer little prospect of real liberation.

Transition Demands & Indigenous Oppression

The genuine liberation of Canada’s Indigenous peoples requires a broad political program to confront their special oppression under capitalism and the wide range of interlocking issues facing the entire working class (e.g., housing, health care, employment, poverty, climate change). A series of immediate demands that address Indigenous oppression must therefore be integrated into a revolutionary transitional program which transcends the confines of bourgeois democracy and points toward workers’ power and the socialist transformation of society.

Marxists oppose all racist and discriminatory legislation and policies and we call to abolish laws that codify the dispossession and disenfranchisement of Indigenous people and entrench their subjugation as second-class citizens. We demand full rights for all Indigenous people and welcome the voluntary integration of all communities on the basis of complete equality. At the same time, we support any legal provisions or court rulings that confer real material benefits to, and/or recognize the special rights of, Indigenous groups (e.g., land rights, hunting and fishing rights, tax exemptions), and we demand the bourgeois state uphold its obligations as outlined in the treaties it has signed.

We demand massive funding for public works and infrastructure programs to address the appalling conditions on many Indigenous reserves. The implementation of such projects must be carried out in full and transparent collaboration with Indigenous communities, workers in the relevant industry and their democratically elected representatives.

Indigenous people are predominantly working class, many living in urban centers where they are often socially marginalized and intermittently excluded from the capitalist economy. We call for trade-union control of hiring and firing to combat discrimination, combined with active recruitment and training of the most oppressed layers to completely integrate them into the working class with full union wages and benefits.

We demand employment and decent living conditions for all by shortening the work week with no loss in pay. The answer to anti-Indigenous discrimination, unemployment, homelessness and poverty is integration, not into a stagnating capitalist economy, but into a democratic system of production and distribution. We call for workers’ control of the economy to implement a sliding scale of wages that will ensure an automatic rise in pay in response to increases in the price of consumer goods, along with a sliding scale of hours to guarantee the equitable sharing of work among the available workforce.

The ecological devastation of the planet is a manifestation of the profound irrationality of the capitalist mode of production and the destructive nature of a profit-driven system. The financial institutions and large industrial corporations polluting the Earth, encroaching on Indigenous territories and uprooting their traditional ways of life, must pay for the climate crisis, not working people and the oppressed. Only by expropriating the commanding heights of the economy under a world socialist government can we begin to overhaul manufacturing processes and develop alternative energy sources and technologies to reduce the harmful effects of climate change and, ultimately, protect the planet for future generations.

The fundamental task of communists is to convince the working class (particularly its strongest component, the industrial proletariat, which includes Indigenous people) of the need for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Leninists seek to build a single vanguard party uniting all layers of the oppressed around a common revolutionary program and leadership. A Marxist party would seek to build transitional organizations, led by revolutionaries from within those communities, to address the particular forms of special oppression suffered by Indigenous people. Such organizations would be organizationally independent of a Bolshevik-type party but politically guided by the revolutionary Marxist program and the strategic task of workers’ power.

Indigenous Liberation through Socialist Revolution!

An end to the special oppression of Canada’s Indigenous peoples can only come with the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of an association of workers’ states throughout the continent. A voluntary Socialist Federation of North America, led by a class-conscious proletariat rooted in the diverse national and ethnic communities, is the only political framework capable of laying the material foundations for realizing the genuine liberation of Indigenous people and all the oppressed.

The exact political configuration that Indigenous peoples may opt for under workers’ power can be determined democratically within the Indigenous territories themselves. The Bolshevik approach of flexibility in handling the various national and sub-national questions in former Tsarist Russia is particularly instructive:

“When the Soviet Union was established in December 1922, it included four independent socialist republics within a unitary state—Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia and Transcaucasia. The union was later expanded to 15 separate republics, 20 lesser status autonomous republics and 18 autonomous regions and national areas. The differing levels of autonomy were designed to accommodate the numerous aspirations for self-rule among the over one hundred nationalities within the USSR, while simultaneously binding them together through the Soviet state and its commitment to a planned and collectivized economy.”
—“Ukraine in Imperialist Vise,” 1917 No.44

Freed from the restrictions imposed by private property, a democratically planned economy under workers’ control could overcome the conflicts inherent in the present system of land and resource allocation under capitalism. A workers’ state would truly guarantee the rights of Indigenous peoples and actually arbitrate any disputes that do arise based on the “full, prior and informed consent” of the Indigenous peoples involved. It would give Indigenous peoples full authority of decision-making on all questions pertaining to their affairs along with a powerful voice in determining overall economic development in the areas they occupy, within the framework of workers’ power.

The development and vast expansion of the productive forces (i.e., human capacities in general) under a workers’ government is the material foundation for transcending class society and ending centuries of oppression suffered by Indigenous peoples. The liberation of Indigenous people will not come about through attempts to reconstruct the past but will instead be achieved as humanity as a whole moves forward to the (advanced) communist mode of production.