Acknowledgement of occupations on occupied land is essential
I wish I could start with the ritual “I love you” which the Occupy Movement is supposed to inspire. To be honest, it has been a space of turmoil. But also, virulent optimism.
What I outline below are not criticisms of the Occupy movement. I am inspired that the dynamic of the movement thus far has been organic, so that all those who choose to participate are collectively responsible for its evolution and development. To all those participating — I offer my deepest gratitude and respect. I am writing today with Grace Lee Boggs on the forefront of my mind: “The coming struggle is a political struggle to take political power out of the hands of the few and put it into the hands of the many. But in order to get this power into the hands of the many, it will be necessary for the many not only to fight the powerful few but to fight and clash among themselves as well.” This may sound dramatic and counter-productive, but I find it a poignant reminder that, in our state of elation, we cannot underestimate the difficult terrain ahead and I look forward to the processes that will further these conversations.
Occupations on occupied land
One of the broad principles of unity of Occupy Vancouver thus far includes an acknowledgement of unceded Coast Salish territories. There has been some opposition to this as being “divisive” and as “focusing too much on First Nations issues.” I would argue that acknowledging Indigenous lands is a necessary and critical starting point for two primary reasons.
Firstly, the word Occupy has understandably ignited criticism from Indigenous people. While occupations are commonly associated with specific targets (such as occupying a government office or a bank), Occupy Vancouver (or any other city) has a deeply colonialist implication. Despite intentionality, it erases the brutal history of occupation and genocide of Indigenous peoples that settler societies have been built on. This is not simply a rhetorical or fringe point; it is a profound and indisputable matter of fact that this land is in fact already occupied. The province of B.C. in particular is still largely unceded land, which means that no treaties or agreements have been signed and the title holders of Vancouver are still the Squamish, Tseilwau-tuth, Musqueam people. As my Squamish friend Dustin Rivers joked, “Okay, so the premier and provincial government acknowledge and give thanks to the host territory, but Occupy Vancouver can’t?”
If we are to, in fact, represent the 99 per cent then heeding the voices of Indigenous peoples is critical to an inclusive process. Plus, supporting efforts towards decolonization is not only an Indigenous issue. It is also about us, as non-natives, learning the history of this land and locating ourselves and our responsibilities within the context of colonization. Acknowledging the territory we are on is the first step towards this and other occupations such as those in Boston and Denver and New York have taken similar steps in deepening an anti-colonial analysis.
Secondly, we must understand that the tentacles of corporate control and the collusion of government and corporations have roots in the processes of colonization and enslavement. As written by the Owe Aku International Justice Project: “Corporate greed is the driving factor for the global oppression and suffering of Indigenous populations. It is the driving factor for the conquest and continued suffering for the Indigenous peoples on this continent. The effects of greed eventually spill over and negatively impact all peoples, everywhere. Indigenous peoples feel the pain first, but it eventually reaches all people.”
The Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada and the East India Trading Company in India, for example, were some of the first corporate entities established on the stock market. Both these companies were granted trading monopolies by the British Crown, and were able to extract resources and amass massive profits as a direct result of the subjugation of local communities through the use of the British Empire’s military and police forces. The attendant processes of corporate expansion and colonization continues today, most evident in this country with the Alberta tar sands. In the midst of an economic crisis, corporations’ ability to accumulate wealth is dependent on discovering new frontiers from which to extract resources. This disproportionately impacts Indigenous peoples and destroys the land base required to sustain their communities, while creating an ecological crisis for the planet as a whole.
Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist and writer trained in the law who is based in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories, who has been active in a range of social movements for over a decade. You can find her on Twitter here.