Property and the BC Treaty Process: A Summer Reading List for Tom Fletcher

In a July 8th article that claims to explain the political history of the BC Treaty Process, Tom Fletcher argues that the process has been trying to settle treaties and “untangle the legal knot left by Canada and B.C.’s failure to complete historical treaties after 1900.” Yet, Fletcher’s article is devoid of any thoughtful historical perspective on the process. Rather, it reads as though BC has been trying in earnest for many years to address the question of Indigenous title and land rights.

Fletcher begins his article by claiming that Brett McGillivray’s book Geography in British Columbia: People and Landscapes in Transition is a “a good reference, except where it strays from geography into politics.” Here, Fletcher claims that “left-wing dogma” has obscured the ‘truth’ of the treaty process. That is, Fletcher’s truth – one which claims that politicians have always sought the just settlement of treaties in the province.

Although Fletcher mentions the Tsawwassen First Nation treaty signed in 2007, the reality is that the BC Treaty Process has had few results since it began in 1990. Fletcher would do well to read a few more books on Settler/Crown-Indigenous relations in British Columbia.

The failure of the BC Treaty Process is not an invented claim. For example, the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group  (HTG) has been negotiating for a treaty since 1993. For over twenty years the group, representing six First Nations on Vancouver Island, has been in negotiations. After two decades, the HTG are currently on Stage Four of a six stage process and millions of dollars in debt. While a couple of First Nations have been able to make the treaty process work for them, the results to date speak for themselves.

Given that Fletcher makes claims to having historical perspective, there is one paragraph in particular that is truly bizarre:

“What remains true today is that no society has made significant social and environmental progress without individual property rights. See the woeful state of most of Canada’s communally owned aboriginal reserves, where individually owned property isn’t permitted.”

Fletcher might want to be more clear about what he means here: No Western colonial state has made progress without individual property rights. A quick look at just about any book on Indigenous Peoples or property reveals that the concept of property Fletcher puts forward is one that belongs to Western philosophy. Universalizing a non-universal concept erases Indigenous ways of knowing and organizing relationships. On top of all this, Fletcher, in a not so-subtle effort, places the blame for conditions on reserve squarely on the concept of communal property. This is quite an interesting claim given that the reserve system was created by and for a colonial state founded on individual property rights.

Here, Fletcher echoes the thoughts of his publisher, David Black. In 1998, David Black (no relation to the author of this post) published an opinion piece in the Cowichan Newsleader titled Nisga’a Treaty will foster racism (October 28, 1998). In this op-ed Black argues that the Nisga’a Treaty “will establish apartheid throughout British Columbia forever. It will also set up 50 to 60 communistic territories within British Columbia forever…[which is] completely discredited as a workable system because most human beings need the motivation of private property.” Black’s comments present the idea of private, individual property as so normal that it should be desired by all as an obvious solution to the issue of “special rights” for Indigenous peoples. Indeed, the politics of ‘equal rights’ is central to maintaining Settler/Crown control over property and is a notion often espoused in liberal democracies.

Fletcher and Black argue that liberal (capitalist) property regimes are the only reasonable answer to the eventual settlement of the treaty process. Given that it is this very concept of property that is responsible for ongoing colonialism in North America, it seems an odd choice.

Fletcher and David Black might consider taking it upon themselves to read some more before they make any claims to historical truths or “social and environmental progress.” Below, I provide a cursory summer reading list for their consideration. I will keep reading Tom Fletcher’s articles, if only to see if he has learned anything.

-Kelly Black (Twitter: @K_elly_B)

Tom Fletcher’s Summer Reading List:

Alfred, T. (2010). “What is Radical Imagination? Indigenous Struggles in Canada,” Affinities: A Journal of Radical Theory, Culture, and Action 4 (2): 5-8.

Atleo, R. E. (2004). Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Barker, A.J. (2009). “The contemporary reality of Canadian imperialism, settler colonialism, and the hybrid colonial state.” The American Indian Quarterly, 33(3), 325-351.

Blackburn, C. (2005). Searching for Guarantees in the Midst of Uncertainty: Negotiating Aboriginal Rights and Title in British Columbia. American Anthropologist, 107 (4), 586-596.

Blomley, N., & Pratt, G. (2001). Canada and the political geographies of rights. The Canadian Geographer, 45 (1), 151-166.

Bryan, B. (2000). Property as Ontology: On Aboriginal and English Understandings of Property. Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, (13), 3-31.

Gray, L (2011). First Nations 101: Tons of Stuff You Need to Know about First Nations People. Adaawx Publishing.

Harris, C. (2002). Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Razack, S. (Ed). (2002). Race, Space and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society. Toronto: Between the Lines.

Rose, C. M. (1994). Property and Persuasion: Essays on the History, Theory, and Rhetoric of Ownership. Boulder: Westview Press.

Simpson, A. (2011) “Settlement’s Secret.” Cultural Anthropology 26 (2): 205-217.

Thom, B. (2005). Coast Salish Senses of Place: Dwelling, Meaning, Power, Property and Territory in the Coast Salish World. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). McGill University, Montreal.