Category Archives: Indigenous Issues

Visitors and Guests: A Canadian Hey Rube

While I’ve been gone in the United States I have been missing out on an extraordinary incident in Canada that involves many of the things I have been blogging about, and want to blog about going forward. Terrible timing on my part.

As I understand it, Coastal GasLink has obtained legal permits to construct a pipeline in British Columbia. It claims to have the legal right to build that pipeline in accordance with that permit. It has entered into agreements with various parties, including 5 out of 6 Wet’suwet’en  Chief’s and Councils of First Nations that it claims are affected by the pipeline. Yet some Wet’suwet’en, led by Hereditary, or Traditional leaders, object to it. So the Wet’suwet’en people themselves are divided about it. Some of them have tried to stop the development by means of peaceful protest and blockades.

Meanwhile across the country, other First Nations and allies have objected to the development in support of the Wet’suwet’en people and have even blockaded railway lines in other parts of the country. This has resulted in serious hardship to many people in Canada who depend on the railway to deliver supplies to them. At the same time, many businesses and their employees are unable to carry on their businesses or occupations as a result of the blockades, which they say are contrary to law. The say everyone must obey the law. That is what the rule of law means. Everyone must respect the law. After all Canada claims to be a country of laws.

The dispute has generated startling heat from people far from the melee. I think that is because the case involves many issues. And many of those issues are far from resolved and far from simple. It is a genuine Canadian ‘Hey Rube.’

Many are asking who are these Wet’suwet’en and why are they doing these things to us?  Why don’t they obey the law? Don’t they realize the rule of law is the basis of our society? They themselves are divided so how can the rest of us come to an agreement with them, for they are a divided people. Why don’t they get over what happened centuries ago? We all suffered injustice so why don’t they get over it? How can they hold up development that will benefit the entire country and none more so than their own poor communities? Why doesn’t the federal government led by that milksop Justin Trudeau not just enforce the law? Isn’t it really that simple?

I hope to comment on all of these issues and few others besides. I hope in that way to throw some light on the issues.

There are some confusing issues here. 5 out of 6 Wet’suwet’en First Nations have signed “benefit agreements” with Coastal GasLink, the developers of the pipeline. Is that not good enough? Who speaks for the Wet’suwet’en?

To begin with, like other Indigenous groups in Canada, the Wet’suwet’en, like many Indigenous groups in Canada, are governed by both a traditional governance system and elected Chiefs and Councils. That is not as crazy as it may sound to some. Remember, in Canada we traditionally have 3 levels of government: the national government of Canada, the provincial government in which we reside, like Manitoba in my case. As well, we have municipal governments such as the City of Steinbach or village of Plum Coulee, depending on where we live.

As if that is not enough, now, in some cases, we have to add 2 more additional levels of “government.”  First, there is the band Chief and Council system, that was created by federal legislation– the Indian Act.  Although I intend to comment on many features of this law, I just want to point out at this time that this statute was created by the federal government of Canada, more than 100 years ago. It imposed a law on the First Nations of Canada without their consent. They had no input to its formation. In addition many First Nations have traditional or hereditary chiefs who govern in accordance with traditional laws of aboriginal people in those territories not governed by a Chief and Council under the Indian Act. Yes its confusing.

The first question is what gave Canada the right to do that? Then some of the Indigenous people have their own traditional (often but not always hereditary) chiefs.

After all we must all remember that immigrants from Europe (many were invaders from Europe) came to a country that was not empty. Many Indigenous people lived here and they had their own civilizations and even, laws. Many of us try hard to forget that. But this is an uncomfortable fact and it must be acknowledged. The Europeans were a bit like a guest in someone else’s house. Do the guests have the right to take over and impose their system on those who live there? This actually happened to an uncle of mine. A cousin of his visited him in his home in Vancouver for a few weeks and one day my uncle came home from work and found his cousin had torn down a wall in my uncle’s house and was building an addition to the house for himself. I kid you not. It happened. My uncle was not very happy about it, but what could he do?  How would you feel if this happened to you? Perhaps this is just plain Canadian.

Jordan’s Principle: Health Care for Indigenous Children


On the first day of our trip to the south we listened to CBC radio, as we usually do. We heard Cindy Blackstock talking about Jordan’s Principle.

Jordan River Anderson was a young indigenous boy from the Norway House Cree Nation who suffered from Carey Fineman Ziter syndrome, a rare muscular disorder. As a result of his illness he required years of treatment in a Winnipeg Hospital. He spent the first two years of his life in a hospital.

If you have ever been in a hospital you know you want to be there if you are very sick, but the shorter your stay the better. It is a horrible place to live. After 2 years in the hospital his physicians agreed that he could live in a family home near the hospital in Winnipeg.

Had Jordan been white, it is likely that none of this would have been a problem and Manitoba Health would probably have covered him. Unfortunately, the federal and Manitoba wrangled about who would pay. Manitoba took the position that as an aboriginal child the federal government was responsible. The federal government was not so sure. For more than 2 years the two governments fought over who would be responsible for his considerable medical bills. During that additional 2 years Jordan continued to live in the hospital. In fact he actually never got to live in a family home, because he died at the age of 5 before that ever happened. It was a case of horrendous abuse perpetrated by the two levels of government. It was a dark day for Canada and Manitoba when he died.

It is true that in Canada there is some ambiguity about which level of government is responsible for government services for First Nations children even when those services are ordinarily available to other children living off reserve. As a result it is common for the governments to wrangle over the bills while the services to the children are delayed. Often the services are denied until the dispute is resolved.


According to Jordan’s principle, that was agreed to by the federal and provincial governments after the bad publicity as a result of the case of Jordan River Anderson, the governmental agency that is first contacted will pay, without delay or disruption and then if the government that paid feels the other government ought to have paid, it can refer the dispute to an impartial dispute authority for binding resolution if the two governments cannot agree which should pay. The idea was to help the children immediately and let the governments work it out later. This was a great idea. Jordan’s principle was unanimously adopted by the House of Commons of Canada on December 12, 2007

Sadly according, to Cindy Blackstock, an indigenous activist, the government had interpreted the principle so narrowly that hardly any children get to benefit from it and the stark injustice continues.  As a result she helped First Nations file a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (‘CHRT’) and independent adjudicative body. In January 2016 the CHRT held in favor of the First Nations complainants and found that the Government of Canada improperly implemented the principle which Parliament had unanimously adopted. As a result according to CHRT Canada discriminated again First Nations Children  and youth on the basis of race and ethnic origin contrary to Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It also ordered the government to stop applying that principle in a discriminatory manner and to apply the principle fully.

Since that ruling in 2016 nearly 4 years ago, the CHRT has issued 7 non-compliance orders against Canada for failing to abide by its rulings. The 3rd of its non-compliance orders was issued by the CHRT in May of 2017 after the it had found that Canada continued to repeat is pattern of conduct and narrow focus with respect to Jordan’s principle. At the same time the CHRT issued 22 additional orders. The Liberal government under Justin Trudeau says it agrees with the decision but want to think carefully about how it implements the rule. That sounds sensible, but in the meantime Indigenous children continue to be discriminated against.


As part of a much broader claim against the federal Government by Indigenous children, in September 2019, the CHRT issued a ruling related to compensation. It ruled that the federal government should pay $40,000 to each child who was in child and family services care on reserve at any point from Jan. 1, 2006, to a date to be determined by the tribunal. It even included payment to some of the parents and grand children of the children involved. That amount is the maximum allowed under the Canadian Human Rights Act. In other words, the tribunal might have awarded even more if it had the authority to do so. Clearly, the CHRT saw the conduct of the Canadian government as egregious.

It is arguable about whether or not such a cash award is the right way to solve such a problem. After all it may seem like throwing money at a problem.  Yet it shows how serious the problem is and how badly the Canadian government is failing indigenous children, thus continuing a pattern of neglect and abuse that is more than a century old. It is time for a change. Indigenous children should be treated equally with non-indigenous children whether they live on or off-reserve.  Anything less is a disgrace. And they should not have to wait until the federal government is ready to do what it has been ordered to do.

Wayfarers of the South Pacific

European explorers invariably believed they were superior to every group they encountered. This is well known. Some of the examples of the ignorance of feelings of superiority include European encounters with the Wayfarers of the South Pacific.

The first European to see the Pacific Ocean was the 16th century Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa who had crossed the isthmus of Panama in 1513.

When the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan made his epic journey round the horn at the southern tip of South America he missed some important things.  The voyage was indeed impressive, but it was also impressive in the things that ideological blinkers prevented the explorers from noticing or seriously considering.

When Magellan turned around the corner of the Horn and began to head north he feared he was entering a void. That was how ignorant Europeans were about what could be found in the South Pacific. By that time half his men were already dead from the hazards of the voyage. He sailed for another 4 months in the southern Pacific and astonishingly he managed to miss every populated island group in the Pacific. Finally, on April 7, 1521 he landed on the island of Cebu.  Now we call the island group the Philippines.

Magellan was a brave explorer. It took guts to venture forth into the Pacific, because it was an ocean of the unknown in 1521. Yet he plunged on bravely. He named it “Pacific” because when he saw it the ocean was very calm. Nonetheless, although we acknowledge the bravery we also notice the blindness. As Wade Davis said, in his magnificent book, The Wayfarers,  “In his desperation and blindness he had by circumstance bypassed an entire civilization that might have taught him a great deal about the open water.”

There was an entire civilization that could have taught him how to survive and thrive in the Pacific. Yet, as so often happened with the European explorers, he failed to take advantage of what could be learned from indigenous people. That is exactly what Davis’ book is about. That is what has inspired me to consider what could be learned from indigenous people. Like my friends who suggested we could go to  an Indian Reserve in Canada and build a house for people there and solve their problems for them. If only they would listen to us. Over and over again, Europeans, thinking they were the finest and best at everything neglected to learn from indigenous people and that failure has made all the difference. Europeans were not stupid. The achievements of European explorers were remarkable, but sometimes they also possessed remarkable arrogance that did not help their cause.

The South Pacific was an astounding place. Davis said that it was “the largest sphere ever brought into being by the human imagination. Polynesia: 25 million square kilometres, nearly a fifth of the surface of the planet, tens of thousands of islands flung like jewels upon the southern sea.” Davis described the “discovery” of Polynesia by the Europeans as encountering “a new planet.” It really was that strange.

We have to remember how vast the Pacific was. It is the largest thing on the planet. It dwarfed everything—absolutely everything—the Europeans had ever seen.

The first sustained contact between Polynesia and the Spanish occurred later in 1595, some 74 years later. This was when Alvaro de Mendaña de Neira reached the islands he called the Marquesas after his patron. This was the most isolated island group in the world. There were probably as many as 300,000 people living there at the time. Davis was right: “It was an extraordinary meeting of civilizations.” It was one of the most extraordinary such encounters of all times. It was every bit as amazing as the meeting between Europeans and North Americans.

The Marquesans considered their islands to be the end of the earth, much like the Europeans had believed about their own continent before Columbus sailed to the “New World.”  That is what it was to the Europeans when Columbus sailed. This was another New World. It was nothing less than that. The Marquesans considered it the last stop on a mythical journey made by their ancestors from the west.  They believed that every human being was a descendant from Tiki, the first human. Sounds a lot like Adam doesn’t it?

The Marquesans were not in awe of the Spaniards. Far from it.  They felt they were vastly superior to these ruffians from the east.  Davis described their attitudes to this historic encounter this way,

“Thus, to the Marquesans, the Spaniards were as demons, embodiments of depravity born beyond the reaches of the eastern sky. Carnal and deceitful, cruel beyond reason, the Spaniards offered nothing. They had no skills, no food or women, no knowledge of even the most elemental elements of the natural world. Their wealth lay only in what they possessed, curious metal objects that were not without interest. But they had no understanding that true wealth was found in prestige, and that status could only be conferred upon one capable of acquiring social debts and distributing surplus food to those in need, thus guaranteeing freedom from want. The white Atua—these strangers who came from beyond all shores—had no place in the order of life.  Such was their barbaric state that sorcery did not affect them, or even the power of the priests. So complete was their ignorance that they did not distinguish commoners from chiefs, even as they treated both with murderous disdain.”

The people of the South Seas of Polynesia believed that the people with real prestige were those who helped others. Those were people who should be honoured. Yet the Europeans were puzzled by the ignorance and barbarity of the Marquesans. They wondered how such ignorant people could have accomplished so much. These were two solitudes staring each other down. A little less superiority on both sides would have been a boon to both. Arrogance is seldom a helpful attitude.

There were serious things for the Spaniards to puzzle over. They wondered how had these people come to these islands that were more than 3 months sailing distant from the most western Spanish outpost.  They noticed that women were not allowed in canoes. That was taboo.  So the women swam towards the Spanish vessels. The Spanish also noticed that the Marquesans had no magnetic compass like the Spaniards did. As a result it seemed impossible that these people could have peopled these distant islands. It was a serious puzzle.

Remember at the time European sailors had not yet solved the problem of how to measure longitude. That meant that they had to hug shores when they explored. This was a serious deficiency. That was why the English government offered a reward of 20,000 pounds to the person who solved this puzzle. At a time when a mansion in London could be furnished for about 100 pounds, this reward was magnificent. Until the invention of the chronometer European navigators had to rely on dead reckoning. As a result sailing too far from land was extremely dangerous. Yet here in the Pacific Ocean, much more vast than the Atlantic Ocean the Europeans were more accustomed with dealing, the Spaniards found these strange people. How had they got here? How had they colonized these islands? How did they get their women there so they could bear children for their men?  These were deep mysteries to the Europeans.

Captain James Cook was to some the greatest navigator in the history of England’s Royal Navy the greatest Navy in the world. At least so the English thought. Cook was the first person to pay serious attention to this puzzle. When he arrived in Hawaii his ship was met by a flotilla of 3,000 natives. Cook had noticed at Tonga that local catamarans could travel 3 leagues in the time that his ship could only cover 2 leagues. He was also surprised that people from the Marquesas could understand the language of the Tahitians even though nearly 1,600 km of the Pacific Ocean separated the two.  How was this possible?

On Cook’s very first voyage in 1769 he met in Tahiti a navigator and priest who went by the name Tupaia who drew from memory a fairly accurate map of every major island group in Polynesia except for Hawaii and Aotearoa. He placed more than 120 stones in the sand each representing an island. The map spanned 4,000 km.  That is about the distance across North America . Who in Europe could draw such a map? Could these people not teach some things of value to Cook? The answer was obvious. But not to Cook.

Later Tupaia astonished Cook even more than that. As Davis described a future trip the two took together,

“Tupaia later sailed with Cook from Tahiti to New Zealand, a circuitous journey of nearly 13,000 kilometres that ranged between 48 degrees south latitude and 4 degrees north.  To his astonishment, Cook reported, the Polynesian navigator was able to indicate, at every moment of the voyage the precise direction back to Tahiti, though he had neither benefit of sextant nor knowledge of charts.”

Imagine what would have happened if both sides had more respect for the other. How much could they have learned?

The Big Pacific


Countless islands can be found around Papua New Guinea. From these islands our ancestors perfected the art of sailing. They honed skills that were of vital importance for the human journey.

The Pacific Ocean is vast. It is the largest feature on the planet.  It is 19,800 km wide from east to west at 5º N.  This is halfway around the world or 5 times the diameter of the moon. It is also 15,500 km long from north to south and covers 1/3 of the earth.

The Pacific Ocean contains the lowest point on the planet—the Mariana Trench, which is the deepest part of the ocean and the deepest location on Earth. It is 11,034 meters (36,201 feet) deep, which is almost 7 miles. If you placed Mount Everest at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the peak would still be 2,133 meters (7,000 feet) below sea level. The average depth of the Pacific ocean is 4,280 metres  putting the total water volume at 710,000,000 cubic kilometres.

Of course the Pacific Ocean was bigger when the Polynesians first crossed it. That is because of plate tectonics, which are causing the Pacific Ocean is to shrink at roughly 2.5 cm (0.98 in) per year on 3 sides roughly averaging 0.52 square km a year. The Atlantic Ocean is increasing in size.

The Pacific Ocean covers more than 30% of the earth’s surface. It is clearly the largest water mass on the planet with a surface area of 60 million sq. miles (155 million sq. km). The Pacific Ocean basin is larger than the landmass of all the continents combined. It has almost twice as much water as the Atlantic Ocean. It holds more than half the Earth’s open water supply. The conclusion is clear: the Pacific Ocean is BIG! It was a very big obstacle for ancient humans to cross, but somehow they did it.

As Niobe Thompson said in his television series, “its islands are like grains of sand scattered across a vast blue void.  They are impossibly remote. Yet eventually, humans reached every one. Yet how we came to settle the islands of our greatest ocean is a mystery that puzzled European sailors for centuries.” After all, they considered themselves the master sailors. How could these people have done it?

Around Papua New Guinea there are countless islands from which our ancestors—our wise ancestors—perfected the art of sailing. Those skills would prove invaluable on some amazing journeys. Journeys that astound us to this day. It is possible that we discovered those islands by accident. For a long time this is what Europeans believed. They could not comprehend the possibility that perhaps some people—well before them—had greater navigational skills than they did. This was another example of the familiar hubris.

In 1947 Thor Heyerdahl and his crew set themselves adrift on the Pacific Ocean on their raft Kon-tiki to establish the theory of accidental drift.  Ocean currents pushed them 7,000 miles from South America to Polynesia. He believed that natives gradually peopled the islands across the ocean island by island. On the other hand, Wulf Schiefenhövel said this is nothing but Eurocentric vision.   New research indicates a much different vision.

Geoff Irwin of New Zealand spent a lifetime trying to prove that the first explorers of the Pacific Islands were not drifting aimlessly, but were instead master sailors.

In the South Pacific, the trade winds blow from the east to the west.  Most people, like Thor Heyerdahl, thought that this was also the direction of human migration. It made sense didn’t it?  Well not completely.

Irwin believed people did not come with the prevailing winds. He believed that people set out in a direction that would most likely make it easy for them to return.  After all, who wants to set out with no chance of ever coming home? Sort of like these people who have signed up for space journeys with no hope of returning. Some people are this adventurous, but not many. Most people are too sensible to be that brave.

As a result of this analysis it actually makes more sense for people to migrate to the South Pacific Islands from the west so they can set off against the prevailing winds and come home with those winds. It is not easy to set off into prevailing winds, but sailors know how to do that. They were incredibly smart sailors.

Yet we need some hard evidence for this interesting theory. Where is that evidence?  At a wind tunnel at the University of Auckland they changed sailing in 1995 when New Zealand took the Americas Cup for the first time with a boat designed there. Even at 40º into the wind a canoe can still drive forward. Their experiments showed that upwind exploration was possible. This is still not proof, but it is evidence that it is possible for Irwin’s explanation to be right.

The next question was if people from Papua New Guinea used their boats to sail across the ocean how they did they navigate? Lisa Mattisoo-Smith used genetics to reconstruct the settlement of the South Pacific. She is Professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of Otago focusing on identifying the origins of Pacific peoples and their plants and animals in order to better understand the settlement, history, and prehistory of the Pacific and New Zealand.

As a result of her investigations she concluded, “the navigational skills and knowledge of course are not preservedarchaeologically, but it is indicated archeologically.” The fact that their exploration was almost instant is good evidence that they possessed the skills and had an exploration strategy. There was almost instantaneous dispersal from Papua New Guinea. Not only that, but they were continually successful at their settlements and that tells us “these people knew what they were doing. These people were prepared. They knew where they were going, and they knew what they needed to survive when they got there.” In other words, their explorations were far from accidental. They knew exactly what they were up to.

These ancient travellers crossed the islands near Oceania to remote Oceania about 3,000 years ago.  That was about 2,500 years before Columbus “discovered” North America or about 1,500 years before Vikings came here. We have to remember how far the Polynesians  traveled over the vast Pacific Ocean. These were astonishing voyages all made without western navigational instruments and with just tiny islands in the vast Pacific to be discovered.  As a result the Eurocentric view has been exploded. Within 300 years they did it.

Lisa Mattisoo-Smith makes it clear: “the whole settlement of the Pacific is under-celebrated and under-valued in terms of representing the capabilities of people thousands of years ago. They did amazing things.” These ancient people demonstrated clearly that ancient people were wise. We have to respect that wisdom.

As Schiefenhövel said, “Homo sapiens is a crazy animal. They do things which you don’t believe are possible and the migration into the Pacific is one of those things.” They traveled against strong prevailing winds, yet that is exactly what they did. It seemed impossible, yet they did it.

Incredible Sea Voyages: The Outrigger

We know about some fantastic voyages—Columbus “discovering” North America, though of course, it was already filled with people when he got there. Then there was Captain Cook and his amazing “discoveries” of island in the Pacific Ocean. Again, he found people that got there before him. How did they do it?

There is evidence of more than one incredible prehistoric sea voyage that suggest our ancient ancestors did not travel and discover new continents by accident. Even though humans evolved with feet on the ground they made truly amazing sea voyages that are difficult for us to comprehend.  They did not stay in Africa forever. How did this happen?  When did some humans become water people? How did we learn to live on oceans? Episode 3 of the series The Great Human Odyssey tried to answer these questions.

When early humans crossed Asia from Africa, South East Asia should have been the end of the line. The vast Pacific Ocean really should have stopped our ancestors. But our ancestors were not easily stopped. To any rational human being the enormous Pacific Ocean would have seemed an impassable barrier to any further colonization of our planet.  Really the Pacific Ocean was the largest barrier on the planet.

However as Niobe Thompson said, “instead it was nota  barrier, it was an opportunity, a life giving gift…our ancestors found ways to live with the sea and soon they found ways of crossing it.”

Wulf Schiefenhövel from the Max Planck Institute also made an interesting comment: “Our sea water had been frozen to such an extent that the sea was about 120 metres lower than it is now. That means people could walk from Sumatra to East Java and then there were channels of water around 30-40 km. wide.”

The first sea voyages happened so long ago that we don’t have much evidence of how they did it. We can only speculate. It is very difficult to understand how early humans could have made it. It seems so difficult that it seem impossible. But our human ancestors had determination.

There is no archaeological evidence of the first human boats. Yet, there is some interesting evidence in Papua New Guinea, the world’s biggest tropical island. Humans reached it at least 50,000 years ago. As Thompson said, “It is a rich culture today that opens a window on its past.”

In the wilderness of Papua New Guinea there is a ceremony that is very old and rare.  Few outsiders have ever seen it. There is an initiation ceremony where boys are transformed into men.  There is a ritual that mimics the snaky movement of the crocodile the most dangerous creature in the area. There is a secret space of the warrior society—i.e. the “spirit house.” Here families say good-bye to their children some 15 years old. To survive a boy must become a man by learning the secrets of the river. The boy must become part human and part crocodile.   Boys are cut in an extremely painful ritual. The object of the ritual is become “water people.” The crocodile people give a hint of what life was like on the water. The earliest kind of god is still used—i.e. a dugout canoe!

Over time, the people of Papua New Guinea tool dugout canoes to amazing extremes. Their war canoes are very long and fast. As Schiefenhövel said, “as every sailor knows, the longer your boat the faster your travel.” I didn’t know that. The people of Papua New Guinea, as far as we know, never had sailing boats because they never ventured into the sea.

The ingenious invention that allowed them to cross the waves of the ocean was the outrigger. This made the boat very stable on the ocean. These vessels  are very simple often made of hollowed out mangrove.  “The outrigger triggered a revolutionary new phase in our human journey—harvesting the winds of the sea.” This was the start of some astounding voyages.

Evolving Economies on the Plains

The Eastern woodlands of North America was home to Indigenous people for at least 10,000 years and maybe more. Although the first North Americans, eastern Paleo-Indians, who lived there used stone tools  they were not by and large hunters of big game.  They stuck close to the “river roads,” by which was meant the amazing rivers of North America.  They were nomadic, but usually travelled along those major rivers and systematically took advantage of the seasonal availability of grasses, fruits, nuts, fish, and game. Meandering you might say. This was wise. As Hurst Thomas said, “Their broad spectrum adaptation spread out the risk and buffered people against the failure of any particular plant or animal species. This generalized ecological adaptation was to gain them a head start toward the more intensive gathering economies evident in later periods. As their population increased, Eastern Woodland people became more efficient, intensifying their economic exchanges with others, and improving their ability to store food for the future. They learned to protect themselves against year-to-year fluctuations in resources.”

Unlike European farmers, they knew enough to avoid monocultures like they avoided plagues, at least until they came across a plague they could not stop.

According to David Hurst Thomas, “The earliest true pottery in North America appears about 2500 B.C. in coastal and riverine Georgia, unassociated with any archaeologically visible trace of agriculture.”

As always happens, some people are better at producing food in their environments than others. When this happened, inevitably, as if following the rules of Adam Smith, trade followed. With time it was noticed that in some North American indigenous societies that were often very egalitarian moved away from that to more rigid and unequal societies. Archaeologists have discovered this from examining graves. Status was reflected in the disparity of the goods kept in graves. Perfection is as hard to maintain as it is to achieve.

There was one famous archaeological site which I would love to visit. This is Poverty Point in northeastern Louisiana. I think I drove past it a couple of years ago without knowing what I was missing. As I keep saying, life is hard when you are stupid.

Around about 1300 B.C. Indigenous people there began to construct some spectacular earthworks. One in particular was very large and bird-shaped. It was about 75 feet high. Nearby were 6 huge concentric ridges that were likely used as dwelling sites. The outer perimeter extended about 2/3 of a mile. It was necessary for the people to move millions of cubic feet of earth to build the structures.

The people who lived there participated in far flung exchanges that were used to trade copper and other stones. Even though they lacked the stones that Indigenous people in California could use to heat up and drop into baskets for heating up the water,  they cleverly  “manufactured” artificial stones out of clay balls.

Although the people there probably cultivated small gardens, the site was eventually abandoned, like so many other sites in North America, and it took another 1,000 years before North America would again see such elaborate ceremonial spaces.

We have a lot to learn from Indigenous people.  It is very unfair to call them savages, as Canadians at one time routinely did.

The Bread Basket of the World is not quite what you think

After decades of working with famers there is one thing I have learned: farmers are smart.  There is no denying that. On our way home from British Columbia this past summer, we naturally had to cross the Great Plains. This of course is my home. I’m a prairie guy. And the prairies now are the home of farming. The breadbasket of the world they like to say. And, of course, Canadian and American farmers take the credit for this and they certainly deserve some of the credit (and blame) for this. But this history of farming on the plains is not as simple as I was always thought. This is what David Hurst Thomas said in the book The Native Americans,


“Pick up any traditional textbook on “Western Civilization,” and it will tell you that agriculture originated independently in three places: wheat farming in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East, rice cultivation in Southeast Asia, and domestication of maize in highland Mexico. It would be remarkable, indeed, if farming had been invented independently at three different times, in three different places.

However, the textbooks have it wrong. Archaeologists have just discovered a fourth localized centre of plant domestication, entirely separate from the others. It is in northeastern America.  Although early explorers recorded extensive maize agriculture through the Eastern Woodlands, full-blown maize agriculture developed there only five centuries before the Europeans arrived.

The agricultural roots of native American society runs much deeper. We now understand that over the past four thousand years, the transition from foraging to farming along the rivers of the Eastern woodlands involved three key steps. First came the domestication of native North American seed plants about 2,000 B.C. Then, between 250 B.C. and A.D. 100, food production economies emerged based on these local crops. Finally, maize was introduced, and, between about A.D. 800 and 1,100, the role of maize changed from minor to major crop.

This still-unfolding story is yet another example of Native American ingenuity and enterprise.”


We have a lot to learn from Indigenous people of North America. Its time we started to appreciate that.


In the year 2001 our son Patrick was involved in the Katimavik program. As a result he spent about 3 to 4  months in 3 different parts of Canada. One was Newfoundland, one was Quebec, and the last was British Columbia. The way it operated was that he was part of a group of young people who worked usually for a non-profit company of some sort living together in a house where they lived communally with minimal adult supervision, but strict rules, and then a couple of weeks or so with a local family. This was repeated in each of the 3 towns. Specifically, he stayed in St. John’s Newfoundland, a small town in Quebec not far from Montreal, and New Hazelton in northern British Columbia.

One day Pat phoned up Chris and I and said we should come up to see him and beautiful northern B.C. I had never thought about going to northern BC, but it did not take long for us to agree. Being travel sluts we were soon eager to go. This trip opened us up to experiences we had never had before.


One of the first places we saw was Kispiox where they had some fine totem poles.

I must admit that one    One of the things I had never considered or thought about before to any significant extent was indigenous people. It seems unbelievable now, but after 7 years of university, I had never really thought much about Canada’s indigenous people, until, in Hazelton, we visited Ksan an historical village and museum just outside of the town at the confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley rivers


‘Ksan Historical Village and Museum (‘Ksan) is located near the ancient village of Gitanmaax,  at the confluence of the Bulkley and Skeena Rivers in the community of Hazelton, British Columbia.

As a replicated ancient village, ‘Ksan illustrates many features of a Gitxsan village from the distant past. For example, like its predecessors, ‘Ksan’s houses form a single line with each building facing the river. From this position, the large decorated house fronts and totem poles of the village are visible from the water. In conjunction with other features, such as the smoke house and food cache, ‘Ksan illustrates characteristics typical of a past Gitxsan village.

Found within Gitxsan Territory, Ksan Historical Village stands where the village of Gitanmaax has existed for centuries. It is the desire of Ksan to preserve and truthfully portray the lifestyle of the people who have always lived here.

This is not a great photo but there is an Indigenous fisherman fishing it the traditional manner on the rock to the left. For centuries and possibly millennia, Gitxsan’s have maintained communities at important canyons and junctions on the Skeena River. This location was an important fishing site and transportation hub.



On the way we saw some lovely mountains. Pat had convinced us to come here by telling us it was as beautiful as Banff and Jasper without all the people. He was not lying.


We also drove from Hazelton to Alaska only about 3 hours away. Near Hyder in Alaska we saw a glacier from above it. I will never forget that day.

Many years later when I actually started to read a little about our Indigenous people in Canada, I was surprised, very surprised to read in the history book I was reading, that this First Nation was mentioned on the very first page of their book, A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations.  According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging, “The west coast Gitksan people maintain that the Upper Skeena River Valley, in the northwest part of the land that came to be called the Americas, is their Garden of Eden.” From my experience of this area nearly 20 years ago I can’t say that they exaggerated.

Years later I also realized that this area we visited with our son was the location of some historic cases on Aboriginal rights and titles and a modern treaty that has been a landmark precedent for relations between the Crown and Indigenous people, that I want to comment about in this blog at a later date. First I want to set the background for first contact with Europeans.

It is easy to see why Indigenous people loved the land and maintained a strong connection to it. This glacier was right beside the highway. I have Pat to thank for opening my eyes. I am grateful.

A New Treaty


I heard Pamela Palmater speak at the recent Climate First Tour. Like Anthony Hall, one of my favorite writers on Indigenous issues, Palmater has connected ecocide with genocide. In my view, they both have the same source—in European settlers’ original sin of disrespecting non-whites, non-men, and non-humans. As Palmater said, “We can no longer deny the ecocide of life on the planet than we can deny the genocide of Indigenous people. Ecocide and genocide go hand in hand.” They are both the poison fruit of the same contaminated source.

Palmater also pointed out, “Chemical valley is always on Indigenous Land.” This happens for the same reason that in the US toxic chemical plants are usually found near or on land belonging to African-Americans, Indians, or poor people. Poor people everywhere have little power, so frequently get shafted. The connection between injustice and pollution is perversely intimate. According to Palmater, “Indigenous people are the first to feel the dysfunctionality of the land.” Indigenous People are the canary in the mine. And to paraphrase that great but unheeded Canadian philosopher, Al Boily from Labroquerie Manitoba, my former boss when I had a summer job at Manitoba Hydro during my first two summers of University: “What’s bad for Indigenous People is bad for the rest of us too.”

Many of us now realize that Indigenous people the world over, are at the forefront of the fight against environmental contamination and destruction. You can see this at Standing Rock, you can see this in B.C. in the fight against the Trans-mountain pipeline, you can see this in the South American Rainforest, you can see it at the UN, and you can see it in many other places. We have to learn the truth of what Palmater said, “the planet cannot survive without Indigenous People.”

I thought Palmater said many very interesting things, but none more interesting than her statement “What we need is a new Treaty relationship. We need a treaty relationship for our mutual protection. We must revitalize it by including all living beings, not just humans.  We have to ban ecocide along with genocide. This would be a true modern treaty—a real coming together. This treaty should combine social justice with earth justice. This will require a revolution—that would change everything! It would require a massive transfer of wealth, power, and decision making.” It sounds radical, but frankly, we need radical. Our climate crisis has progressed too far for modest solutions. We have wasted too much time.

Palmater is a student and teacher of the treaty making between Canada and its First Nations people. She knows a lot about it. But she wants to go farther than that. As she said, “the original treaty vision was that we would work together. Such an attitude can protect the ecosystems on Turtle Island too, as long as the sun shines and the rivers flow.”

Palmater urged us to consider “The Indigenous People survived genocide: Take that strength and resilience and allow it to transform you. We can come together to rise up and change the world so that this generation can lead us back to balance. We can unite under a New Treaty.” These were powerful words and the group gave her a standing ovation. I stood up too.

Before Pamela Palmater talked I did not know her at all. Now I think I Now a little about her.

Hard Truths: Climate Change and Indigenous People


The second speaker at the Climate First Tour rally in Winnipeg was new to me. Apparently she is a frequent commentator on TV. I guess I either don’t watch enough or watch the wrong programs. She was Dr. Dr. Pamela D. Palmater a Mi’kmaw citizen and member of the Eel River Bar First Nation in northern New Brunswick.

Today I learned that she was a passionate speaker and ardent advocate for those urging us to do something significant about climate change. She said that she was pleased to be sharing the stage today with 2 of Canada’s Warrior Grandfathers,” as she called David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis  Well, that might be true, but she fit right except that she is obviously much younger than her partners today. Later when I did a little research about her, I saw a picture of her with a shirt that read, “She Warrior.”

Today she told us, “I need to talk about hard truth.” The truth she wanted to convey was this: “Canada is killing its own people and the planet and we must do something to stop it.” I think she meant to refer to the conclusions of the recent Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. That report concluded that there were reasonable grounds for concluding that Canada was guilty of genocide against Indigenous women and girls (it did not actually say Canada was guilty because such a statement is legally significant and ought only to be made, it is thought, by a court of law). That is a hard truth. Many Canadians, including many of my friends resist that conclusion. It is hard for me to accept. Secondly, her comment refers to the fact that Canada is participating in the active destruction of human life and many other species on the planet by permitting greenhouse gas emissions to rise unchecked. This is another hard truth though not as difficult for many of us to accept. It is still a harsh indictment of Canadians, though we are far from the only ones facing such indictments.

Palmater also said that these are “the only two issues we should be talking about in this election are ecocide and genocide!” Everything else pales into insignificance. I accept that too.

Palmater also argued, “the pain of climate change is felt first in the north and first there, to indigenous people.” I think that is difficult to dispute as well. Even though indigenous people are the first and perhaps worst affected, this is rarely discussed when climate change is discussed. Just like the unfortunate fact that the people first affected by climate change, around the world, are often the ones who have done the least to cause climate change, it is true this climate injustice is seldom faced with any rigour or sincerity. Our attitude really can be summed up by the expression, ‘It sucks to be you.’ Hardly the most rational response.

According to Palmater, it is time we also faced the ugly truth that “We can’t live without the planet, but the planet can easily live without us.” As a consequence of this uncomfortable truth, we must face the fact that if we are facing a climate emergency, we must change our ways to save not just our descendants, but our species. If we think our species is worth saving.

To really face up to this challenge we have change our system of exploitation of the natural resources of the planet, and convert to working with nature, rather than against it. The colonizing system of which we are an integral part shapes transforms all human systems, and all human interactions with others. That system is so totalitarian it cannot be escaped.

We have to realize, Palmater said, “the planet is crying too.” I always think that if the planet could talk it would speak like the broadcaster in the film Network, “I am mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” This really should be the motto for the earth rather than the populists.

According to Palmater, we also have to realize that the issues of genocide and ecocide are closely. This is the same position taken by others such as Anthony Hall in his magisterial  2 volume history of the relationship between European invaders, Native Americans (in the broad sense) and the natural world in the western hemisphere. I will return to this subject later. As Palmater succinctly put it, “Damage to Indigenous Women and Girls is damage to the planet too.”

All of the three speakers tonight agreed that we are much past the time when we need to debate policies.” It is too late for that. We have to act and we have to act with speed. We can’t allow debate to slow us down though we have to think critically about what we are doing. We can’t plunge ahead blindly. I wish we had more time to debate policies, but we have been dithering around for two many decades. Partly those delays were caused by the energy sector’s very successful decades long policy of spreading doubt about the science. Now we have to live with the consequences of that delay. It sucks to be us!

The problem with emergencies is that they often require a quick action. They leave little time for reflection. You can’t mull your way through an emergency. Or as Palmater said, “Best intentions don’t matter anymore—only action.” At this stage I was beginning to feel uncomfortable with her hard truths. But she wasn’t finished delivering them. She was just starting. This is precisely what Greta Thunberg has been saying. We need action. We have to treat an emergency like it is an emergency. Canada has said this is an emergency but it has not acted like it. If it did it wouldn’t spend $4.5 billion on a pipeline. It would spend $4.5 billion or even more, on transitioning away from fossil fuels. As Palmater bluntly put it, “In the end we either do or we die.”