Today I had the privilege of attending a workshop put on by Climate Justice Montreal at McGill University on the issues of land, resistance, and climate change. The workshop facilitated active participation to draw out the participants own ideas of their own name, lineage and family history, and encouraged them to compare that history with the narrative structures “Canadian History” is given in the state school system. The power of narrative was stressed – the idea that society is not made up of matter or even institutions but primarily of stories which we tell ourselves, tell our children, and are told by those who have something to gain by our believing them. The framework of narrative power enabled the group to criticize their own ideas of their own history, and reclaim a more genuine grasp on the relationship between their personal history and the social narratives which structure the way that history is expressed in dominant social stories.
To give a specific example, the idea of the “hard working farmers who came here because they wanted to” was critiqued. The example of Irish immigration to make this case is particularly poignant: Ireland was depopulated in the 19th century through a purposeful genocide, in order to encourage immigration to North America. In other words – many Irish immigrants did not come “to seek a better life in a new land”, but because their old life had been strategically destroyed by a colonialist power. Ireland itself was a feudal state where the British had installed Ulster-Scots as the ruling people – to dominate and oppress the Irish while themselves being second-class compared to their English masters. The Irish who then arrived in Canada were largely directed towards the United States, because social darwinist theory of the time asserted that Eastern Europeans were harder workers – and Canadian colonial services preferred to install Polish and German immigrants as prairie farmers.
We were then encouraged to think about how Western society uses land, and sections off some land as “preserves” (i.e. Parks). What narratives are supported by the preservation of these spaces? What emotional attachments do they satisfy, and what is the political goal satisfied by the creation of those feelings? It was suggested that all of the ways in which colonialist powers use land contributes in one way or another (including mitigation by the way of allowing for the continuation of catastrophes elsewhere) is destructive to the environment – and almost entirely contribute to climate change. So, in our attempts to resist climate change, we should become more aware of the role of narrative power in defining the value of land, certainly when all the ways that land is defined as valuable contribute to destructive expansion. Moreover, it was suggested that essential to this destructive way of consuming land is our alienated ability to care deeply about land at a distance (i.e. National Parks, etc…) and yet have no relationship to the land we reside on. And it is certainly true that, for the most part, we know little about the stories of even the settler history of the land on which we live, let alone the first nations histories which extend far back beyond European domination of these lands.
The idea of “landed resistance” was then expressed in a double sense: it can mean both “struggle over land” or “landed resistance”. Examples of struggles over land include Ducks Unlimited’s political efforts to have wetlands preserved, a political party’s attempt to establish a provincial park, or a struggle between different nations over a piece of disputed territory (i.e. the Falkland Islands). Struggles over land are constituted by disputes where different parties, none of which have a special or historical connection with the land in question, are engaged in a conflict about how a piece of land is to be used, who is to control it, who will benefit from its exploitation etc… Landed resistance, on the other hand, are instances where a people or a community which does have a special relationship with a piece of land engages in a struggle to maintain control over it – or to gain control over it if it does not already have legal title. Examples of landed resistance include the Oka crisis, UBC Golf Course dispute, perhaps even the halting of the Spadina Express way (insofar as those resisting actually were the inhabitants or allies of inhabitants of the communities which would have been affected). The key thing which I think differentiates struggles over land and landed resistance is whose end is being served by pursuing the struggle – if the end pursued in the struggle is the community which itself has the connection to the land, then it is landed resistance, whereas if the end is some benefit for a community which is actually alienated from the land, then it is only a struggle over land. Perhaps the very notion of “resistance” in landed resistance is referring to the natural right of those with a special relationship to a piece of land to maintain that relationship – a right sometimes recognized in law under the rubric of “squatters rights”. It’s important to remember that during the de-population of Stanley Park, the law used to evict First Nations people living in the park evicted them on the basis that they had not lived there for a sufficient timespan to be eligible for squatters rights.
It was then suggested that climate change will not be solved in a board room or by the UN – the failures we’ve seen recently show no sign of turning. If the burning of all carbon is stopped, it was stated, this will not happen due to the decision of a president or a business owner, but due to successful struggles on the ground by communities protecting their lands. It was also asserted that we will not stop climate change, rather the best we can do is prevent the planet from exceeding a tipping point, and beginning to deal with the mass migrations which climate change will cause.
It is our decision not only whether or not we will involve ourselves politically with the needs to mitigate climate disaster – but also how we choose to engage in that struggle, which people’s rights we will fight for, and who can be dispensed with. It seems to me quite strange that those who wish to stop coal mining and oil sands expansion would not engage in the difficult work of being strong allies to landed resistance struggles which do stand a chance of stopping oil sands or mining expansion, and crucially stopping the oil pipelines which are required for oil sands expansion. The water pollution and wildlife poisoning that affected communities experience today are like tiny examples of the future devastation and destruction of arable land which the continued burning of fossil fuels will only worsen.