Building a house together

By Amy Reiswig, July/August 2015

Two books expand the conversation on how, together, indigenous and settler people can create a new story.

When summer thoughts turn to books for the beach, cottage or exotic destinations, most readers don’t instinctively reach for academic authors. But like any other genre of good writing, scholarly texts take you places you wouldn’t otherwise go. 

In On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada (University of Toronto Press), winner of the 2015 Canada Prize in Social Sciences, political anthropologist Michael Asch takes us back to the voices of treaty negotiation in the 1800s, then forward to a reoriented concept of reconciliation. Similarly, in Islands’ Spirit Rising: Reclaiming the Forests of Haida Gwaii (UBC Press) POLIS Project research affiliate Louise Takeda transports us to Haida Gwaii and into the history of Haida resistance, resilience, self-determination and a journey of new beginnings. As in great fiction, both books offer powerful stories of possibility—of what can happen when established narratives are challenged and thoughts reshaped. 

Asch’s title comes from a statement by Chief Justice Lamer in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia: “Let us face it, we are all here to stay.” I read Asch’s book while flying across the country, and from the air you realize two things about the land—how big it is and how utterly carved and covered by settlers and their descendants. Here to stay indeed. But Asch asks: on what basis? At the centre of his question is treaty.

Retired from the University of Alberta but still directing students at UVic, Asch has served as senior research associate for anthropology on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and is the author of Home and Native Land: Aboriginal Rights and the Canadian Constitution. 

He has also worked extensively with the Dene during their comprehensive land claim process and recalls a transformative moment at a 1990 gathering in Yellowknife when someone said: “We want to build a house with the White Man. The treaty is our foundation…But all the government wants to do is destroy our house and remake us in their image.” Seeing the community split and suffering, Asch was, he tells me, changed forever as an anthropologist. “I was reborn as something else. Why were we putting people through this? What are the stories we’re telling ourselves that allow us to do this?” 

Asch’s book examines the dominant government story that First Nations gave up ownership of the land—the interpretation that treaties extinguished title—and the arguments around that story. But he was driven to explore, in the words exchanged between indigenous and settler negotiators, treaties’ language and intent. What did indigenous people, then and now, see as the terms of treaties made with the Crown? What is the story from their perspective? Asch believes that story of relationship, at the centre of Canada’s history, has been largely ignored or, worse, deliberately distorted.

The son of Folkways Records founder Moses Asch, his anthropologist’s interest in recovering excluded voices is, perhaps, not surprising. But what he presents is a remarkable alternate story of an agreement to share the land, grounded in the discourse of family and caring—from both sides—and promises that settler presence would be beneficial, not harmful. For instance, when Kanooses, a spokesperson for the Cree, asks “Is it true that my child will not be troubled for what you are bringing him?” negotiator Alexander Morris replies: “The Queen’s power will be around him.” Morris represents it as adoption into each other’s families, that they will “live together like brothers.” Obviously, governments have not kept that word. Asch urges all of us, not just government, to return to original treaty principles and promises of sharing the land, providing help in times of need, and bringing no harm. 

A gentle, funny man with no time for BS, Asch tells me the basics of what he wants people to understand about treaties. “One is that we didn’t get sovereignty. We need to accept that, but we can’t relax with it. Two, we asked to share the land, but for us sharing meant dividing. Three, we promised to treat people with kindness, and we need to fulfill our obligations.” 

A passionate advocate for First Nations, Asch here zones in on another voice in this narrative: “I’m worried about people who learned that we acted really badly and then feel disempowered, who are struggling to say, ‘Is there a way to figure out and address this?’ and begin a conversation. I’ve been a warrior,” he tells me. “My war is with the state. Now in my seventies, what can I do to be helpful to people who share my concerns?”

Given the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recent heart-shaking report, whose recommendations call primarily on governments for action, the book’s message is timely. Asch wants us to find new possibilities in an old but central story that should shape everyone’s individual actions as we work towards reconciliation. As he writes, to honour the treaties’ promises and principles “is not merely to discharge an obligation. It is a step towards building a house together.” 

That notion of building a house collaboratively, based on partnership and equality rather than hierarchy, is precisely what Louise Takeda shows the Haida Nation fighting to accomplish outside the treaty process in Islands’ Spirit Rising. She chronicles decades of determined advocacy, education, litigation, collective action and alliance-building, leading to the Council of the Haida Nation signing, in 2009, the historic Kunst’aa Guu–Kunst’aayah Reconciliation Protocol, whose title means “the beginning.” Perhaps it can be seen as a freshly poured foundation of a renewed relationship with the provincial government—one upon which to keep building. 

As Takeda shows, that relationship was hard-won, and it’s quite the change from the very symbolic example she recounts of the Haida building a longhouse on the site of a traditional village slated for logging, and the province threatening to destroy it. On Haida Gwaii, forestry and land use management became the fulcrum for a larger fight around title and, basically, power—as Takeda puts it: “How relations of domination and oppression can be changed.”

Takeda, who grew up in Alberta, discovered the Haida Gwaii story during her PhD at the Research Center on Development and International Relations at Aalborg University in Denmark. Interested in how resource extraction offers a concrete point for talking about inequality, she wanted to learn more. “I’ve been looking at the problems of the world for a long time,” she tells me. “It was time to look at solutions, at who is doing it right.” 

What the Haida Nation was doing, through every means available, was taking back control of their land, gaining recognition that it is their land and that settler government and industry have a duty to consult and accommodate. 

Thus, Takeda traces two main plot lines—provincial forestry history on Haida Gwaii and the evolution of the islands’ indigenous governance body, one of the first to step outside the Indian Act. 

Through detailed research and extensive interviews with members of the Haida Nation, as well as other community members of Haida Gwaii, Takeda gives both a scholarly and personal perspective on, yes, conflicts, but also on meaningful dialogues. Landmark agreements, ecological protections, and innovative co-management approaches seek to balance environmental integrity with indigenous cultural and spiritual values, sustainable jobs, and long-term community stability for both Haida and non-Haida islanders. It’s an order as tall as the old-growth forests now protected in this biodiverse “Galapagos of the north,” but as Takeda shows, it can be done. 

While the title, Islands’ Spirit Rising, looks back to the well-known 2005 blockade known as the Islands’ Spirit Uprising, it also looks forward, to an ongoing, unfolding process. As carver Robert Davidson said of the blockade, it wasn’t about winning but about who the Haida were becoming. It’s an exciting, paradigm-shifting narrative that Takeda hopes will inspire what she calls “the emancipatory imagination” of people everywhere.

Takeda and Asch both show that creating social shift relies on the stories we tell, on building alternate interpretations. Thus, what Takeda says of her book’s message applies to all of us seeking more just ways of living, here to stay, together: “Engage in the struggle with patience and endurance, because change is possible.”

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig wishes everyone good book-facilitated mind travels this summer.