Statement on the Passing of Indigenous Leader Arthur Manuel

Arthur Manuel was a beautiful soul and an intellectual giant. He helped generations of organizers and theorists to understand how Indigenous land rights, if truly respected, hold tremendous power to create a more caring and generous society — and they are our only hope of protecting the planet from ecocide.

I am so privileged to have been friends with Arthur for two decades. During that time, he changed the way I see this country and the world. We worked together on many projects and travelled together on numerous occasions, connecting most recently in December at Standing Rock. It is my great honour to have written the forward to Arthur’s brilliant book Unsettling Canada, which should be required reading by any serious student of this nation’s history.

The final months of Arthur’s life were focussed on furiously organizing to stop the reckless expansion of Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain pipeline, which crosses Secwepemc territory and imperils its water. He helped to lead our movements, and protect the land and water, until his final breath.

In the lives of his family and friends, Arthur’s tragic death leaves a hole that can never be filled. But his unfinished work and his transformational vision will live on in the countless people he has taught and forever changed.

Here is some of what I wrote about Arthur in This Changes Everything:

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The guy from Standard & Poor’s was leafing through the fat binder on the round table in the meeting room, brow furrowed, skimming and nodding.

It was 2004 and I found myself sitting in on a private meeting between two important First Nations leaders and a representative of one of the three most powerful credit rating agencies in the world. The meeting had been requested by Arthur Manuel, a former Neskonlith chief in the interior of British Columbia, now spokesperson for the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade.

Arthur Manuel, who comes from a long line of respected Native leaders, is an internationally recognized thinker on the question of how to force belligerent governments to respect Indigenous land rights, though you might not guess it from his plainspoken manner or his tendency to chuckle mid-sentence. His theory is that nothing will change until there is a credible threat that continuing to violate Native rights will carry serious financial costs, whether for governments or investors. So he has been looking for different ways to inflict those costs.

That’s why he had initiated a correspondence with Standard & Poor’s, which routinely blesses Canada with a AAA credit rating, a much coveted indicator to investors that the country is a safe and secure place in which to sink their money. In letters to the agency, Manuel had argued that Canada did not deserve such a high rating because it was failing to report a very important liability: a massive unpaid debt that takes the form of all the wealth that had been extracted from unceded Indigenous land, without consent— since 1846. He further explained the various Supreme Court cases that had affirmed that Aboriginal and Treaty Rights were still very much alive.

After much back-and-forth, Manuel had managed to get a meeting with Joydeep Mukherji, director of the Sovereign Ratings Group, and the man responsible for issuing Canada’s credit rating. The meeting took place at S&P’s headquarters, a towering building just off Wall Street. Manuel had invited Guujaaw, the charismatic president of the Haida Nation, to help him make the case about those unpaid debts, and at the last minute had asked me to come along as a witness. Unaware that, post-9/11, official ID is required to get into all major Manhattan office buildings, the Haida leader had left his passport in his hotel room; dressed in a short-sleeved checked shirt and with a long braid down his back, Guujaaw almost didn’t make it past security. But after some negotiation with security (and intervention from Manuel’s contact upstairs), we made it in.

At the meeting, Manuel presented the Okanagan writ of summons, and explained that similar writs had been filed by many other First Nations. These simple documents, asserting land title to large swaths of territory, put the Canadian government on notice that these bands had every intention of taking legal action to get the economic benefits of lands being used by resource companies without their consent. These writs, Manuel explained, represented trillions of dollars’ worth of unacknowledged liability being carried by the Canadian state.

Guujaaw then solemnly presented Mukherji with the Haida Nation’s registered statement of claim, a seven-page legal document that had been filed before the Supreme Court of British Columbia seeking damages and reparations from the provincial government for unlawfully exploiting and degrading lands and waters that are rightfully controlled by the Haida. Indeed, at that moment, the case was being argued before the Supreme Court of Canada, challenging both the logging giant Weyerhaeuser and the provincial government of British Columbia over a failure to consult before logging the forests on the Pacific island of Haida Gwaii. “Right now the Canadian and British Columbia governments are using our land and our resources—Aboriginal and Treaty Rights—as collateral for all the loans they get from Wall Street,” Manuel said. “We are in fact subsidizing the wealth of Canada and British Columbia with our impoverishment.”

Mukherji and an S&P colleague listened and silently skimmed Manuel’s documents. A polite question was asked about Canada’s recent federal elections and whether the new government was expected to change the enforcement of Indigenous land rights. It was clear that none of this was new to them—not the claims, not the court rulings, not the constitutional language. They did not dispute any of the facts. But Mukherji explained as nicely as he possibly could that the agency had come to the conclusion that Canada’s First Nations did not have the power to enforce their rights and therefore to collect on their enormous debts. Which meant, from S&P’s perspective, that those debts shouldn’t affect Canada’s stellar credit rating. The company would, however, continue to monitor the situation to see if the dynamics changed.

And with that we were back on the street, surrounded by New Yorkers clutching iced lattes and barking into cell phones. Manuel snapped a few pictures of Guujaaw underneath the Standard & Poor’s sign, flanked by security guards in body armor. The two men seemed undaunted by what had transpired; I, on the other hand, was reeling. Because what the men from S&P were really saying to these two representatives of my country’s original inhabitants was: “We know you never sold your land. But how are you going to make the Canadian government keep its word? You and what army?”

At the time, there did not seem to be a good answer to that question. Indigenous rights in North America did not have powerful forces marshaled behind them and they had plenty of powerful forces standing in opposition. Not just government, industry, and police, but also corporate-owned media that cast them as living in the past and enjoying undeserved special rights, while those same media outlets usually failed to do basic public education about the nature of the treaties our governments (or rather their British predecessors) had signed. Even most intelligent, progressive thinkers paid little heed: sure they supported Indigenous rights in theory, but usually as part of the broader multicultural mosaic, not as something they needed to actively defend.

However, in perhaps the most politically significant development of the rise of Blockadia-style resistance, this dynamic is changing rapidly—and an army of sorts is beginning to coalesce around the fight to turn Indigenous land rights into hard economic realities that neither government nor industry can ignore.

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Arthur Manuel, Hayden King, and Naomi Klein at the 2015 Toronto book launch of Unsettling Canada.