This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

May-June 2011

This45: Judy Rebick on indigenous rights network Defenders of the Land

Judy RebickWebsite

Indigenous Day of Action against the G20 in Toronto, June 2010. Photo by Velcrow Ripper.

Indigenous Day of Action against the G20 in Toronto, June 2010. Photo by Velcrow Ripper.

I am glad This has decided to celebrate this wonderful anniversary by looking at the organizations and individuals who are pointing the way to future change. It is time to stop talking about what went wrong with the left that was so effective in the 20th century and identify the forces who are leading change in the 21st century. Primary among these, in my view, are indigenous peoples and movements.

In Canada, the most important new group is one that many readers of This may not even have heard of: Defenders of the Land. I will let them tell you who they are, as they explain on their website:

“Defenders of the Land, a network of indigenous communities and activists in land struggle across Canada, including elders and youth, women and men, was founded at a historic meeting in Winnipeg from November 12–14, 2008. Defenders is the only organization of its kind in the territory known as Canada—indigenous-led, free of government or corporate funding, and dedicated to building a fundamental movement for indigenous rights.

“We reject the extinguishment of Aboriginal title through treaty, and any interpretations of historical treaties which falsely claim, against the united voices of our elders and ancestors, that we have extinguished title to our traditional territories. We reject any policy or process which aims at extinguishing Aboriginal title, including contemporary treaty and comprehensive land claims processes.

“The Indian Act is a fundamental injustice and the product of racism and colonialism. It has no basis in any treaty and has been imposed on our peoples by Canada without our consent. It imposes on us a foreign system of government in which accountability is to masters in Ottawa and not to our peoples. It denies us our freedom to define for ourselves who we are and who are the members of our nations. Only indigenous peoples have the right to make these determinations.

“We have the right to choose and practice our own systems of government, in accordance with our customs.”

While you may not know their name, you probably know some of their leadership, like veteran activist Arthur Manuel and youth leader Ben Powless. You will certainly know some of the 41 communities actively working together, including Barrière Lake, Ardoch Algonquin, Grassy Narrows, Haida, and Lubicon.

Defenders were also the central actors in the powerful Indigenous Day of Action against the G20 in June 2010. They also organize Indigenous Sovereignty Week, which was held in more than 10 cities across Canada in November 2010. At the sessions I attended, the majority of the audience were indigenous and they were discussing and debating strategies. I learned a lot.

Defenders are working across the numerous divisions created by colonialist structures to build strategies and solidarity among all indigenous peoples, using their wisdom and strength rather than trying to fit into a colonial system—whether it is created by corporations, government or left activists. They hold a gathering every year, bringing together indigenous leaders of land struggles from across Canada, including traditional and elected leaders, elders, women, youth, and non-native supporters. It is the only gathering of its kind in this country.

Defenders of the Land are slowly and carefully building a powerful grassroots movement of indigenous peoples to work together in defending their land and promoting their sovereignty. The primary work involved is indigenous-to-indigenous education on issues, movement strategy, and organizing skills. They are developing a very ambitious plan that needs lots of funding.

One of the central weaknesses of the left in Canada has been our failure to support indigenous struggles and our ignorance of their history and culture. As settlers on this land, we have responsibility to learn and offer support. Because they don’t take government or corporate money, Defenders need financial aid from those of us who support their approach.

But it is not a guilt trip. Canada is a key strategic place in the global ecosystem because of our wilderness, almost all of which is on indigenous lands. Not only is the indigenous struggle key to saving the planet, I cannot see how we have a true democracy in this country based on the exploitation and marginalization of indigenous peoples. For me, indigenous sovereignty is central to progressive politics in Canada.

Defenders of the Land is thus the most exciting organization in the country right now.

Judy Rebick Then: President, National Action Committee on the Status of Women, 1990-93, This Magazine contributor. Now: Canadian Auto Workers–Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University in Toronto. Co-founder,
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