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Black Lives Matter: Australia

Protest in Australia; two signs are visible: one reads "lest we forget the frontier wars, black lives, white lies" and one shows a black and red image of Australia with the word "genocide" written on it

Our public discourse [is] full of blak [sic] bodies but curiously empty of people who put them there. Alison Whittaker

This weekend protestors for Black Lives Matter in Australia took to the streets in contravention of Covid-19 health warnings to join worldwide protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd to highlight police violence against people of color and to once again raise the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody.

The statistics and the stories of Black deaths in custody is a vexed issue in Australia, and a national disgrace. In the 30 years since a royal commission was conducted, successive governments have failed to implement many of its key recommendations; and in that time 432 Aboriginal Australians have died in police custody. Despite the manifest violence, negligence, and displays of overt racism around these deaths, charges against police are rarely brought, and there has never been a conviction for an Aboriginal death in custody in Australia. 

Indigenous activists and families of victims have been trying, with only incremental and limited success, to elevate the issue in the wider Australian public. Most of the names and stories of these people are not known to most Australians. 

In a piece for The Conversation, Alison Whittacker, law scholar, poet and Australian Indigenous activist, writes,

“Do you know about David Dungay Jr? He was a Dunghutti man, an uncle. He had a talent for poetry that made his family endlessly proud. He was held down by six corrections officers in a prone position until he died and twice injected with sedatives because he ate rice crackers in his cell. Dungay’s last words were also “I can’t breathe”. An officer replied ‘If you can talk, you can breathe.'”

The statistics for Aboriginal incarceration in Australia are mind-blowing. In some areas in the country, Aboriginal people are the most incarcerated people on earth; They make up roughly 3.3% of the overall population but account for 28% of the prison population. Aboriginal women represent 34% of the overall national female prison population.

The 460 deaths in custody since 1990 is a terrible number, and to each belongs a story – a life, and then a death of indignity, of violence, of neglect. As in the US, in Australia it belongs to an historical legacy of rapacious, brutal colonial expansion. 

May 27 to June 3 is Australia’s National Reconciliation Week. These dates mark two significant milestones for Aboriginal people. One is the 1967 referendum, which for the first time recognized Aboriginal Australians as citizens. The other is the High Court native title decision known as Mabo, which overturned the legal doctrine of ‘terra nullius’ – the principle by which the Crown acquired sovereignty of the continent in 1788, on the basis that the lands were lands ‘belonging to no one.’ 

But there is still a long way to go for Australians to come to terms with the history of frontier wars, which morphed into state maintained forms of oppression and violence, and then into official government policy of forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families. This history is not visible enough to, nor unflinchingly acknowledged by, wider Australia. Nor are the tendrils visible which reach through that history into the present, holding Aboriginal people in all sorts of disadvantage. Disadvantage that is reflected in the statistics. As the Uluru Statement from the Heart says:

“Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future. These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.” 

What, at this time, now, can be said and done about the work of reconciliation? In 2000, 300,000 people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge to show their support for reconciliation. This year, then, marks the twentieth anniversary of ‘the bridge walk’. Yet material change has been frustratingly slow, and in some indicators, things are going backwards. 

The 2018 Close the Gap report on Indigenous health and education targets and outcomes found child mortality at twice the rate for Aboriginal children, school attendance rates declining, and a persistent life-expectancy gap of almost a decade between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. 

Perhaps reconciliation has had its moment. It was maybe only the first word Australians have learned in the lexicon of change and of justice. Recognition of the nation’s shameful history is a starting point on the long road to equality and justice. But perhaps it has become a platitude, a way for white Australians to settle the ledger of their guilt, a way to paper over deep-seated systemic injustice that is thwarting real progress for Aboriginal lives and that continues to create privilege for settler Australians.  

The problem, as many voices have been saying (for a long time but) especially in the weeks since the BLM protests broke out in the US following the murder of George Floyd, is that white and settler oppression of Black and Indigenous people is thoroughly baked in to the system; baked into the system of colonial expansion– which included slavery and dispossession under terra nullius (both mechanisms used to dehumanize people for the purpose of wealth creation) – and it is baked into its neoliberal iterations. 

Perhaps the problem, rather, is that we have been reconciled to these things, to the reality of Indigenous disadvantage and risk of police violence and incarceration, for too long. 

How, then, can we reimagine and re-engage the concept, the work of reconciliation, or do we need to move beyond it to another stage? The national conversation in Australia has been painfully slow to get going. 

National Sorry Day is marked on May 26th, began in 2007 when the Australian Government, following the release of the Bringing Them Home report, formally apologized to Aboriginal people who were forcibly removed as children from their parents in a government assimilation policy. 

Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita writes that the findings of the report “[were] a source of deep shame for many Australians, and for some a source of guilt” ( A Common Humanity, 1999, pg. 87). While, as Gaita observes, many people feel shame and guilt, many also resisted such feelings, and felt that they were being asked to take responsibility for past wrongs they felt no part of. 

The refusal of shame sometimes takes the form of national pride, in which being proud of one’s nation is mutually exclusive with acknowledging its brutal history and recognizing the remnants of that history. 

Those who hold this conception of national pride take the view that history in which racial injustice is afforded a more central place in our story and our journey to self-understanding is overly bleak. It is known by its detractors as the ‘black armband view of history’ and they argue that we should be focusing on trying to fix the current inequalities rather than looking backwards into a troubled past. This obviously ignores the fact that these current inequalities, created by that past, are able to continue because it has never been reckoned with. 

Therefore the corrupted, shallow conception of national pride can never do anything other than let the deep national wounds fester. To be authentic in our attempts to reconcile, we should not contrast our national truth telling with our national interest, and reconciliation cannot be about ‘moving on’ until the appalling statistical gaps between white and black Australia are well and truly closed. 

But the injustice is not just expressed in the material conditions (by these gaps), or even the systemic problems. Simply moving forward means that there is no proper acknowledgement that those who suffered —  and continue to suffer these injustices — are wronged, and that to be wronged, is itself a distinctive and irreducible form of harm. 

Jacqueline Rose, on the 2018 conference on ‘Recognition, Reparation and Reconciliation’ in Stellenbosch, South Africa, wrote: “thinking was not enough. Not that ‘feeling’ will do it either, in a context where expressions of empathy – ‘I feel your pain’ – are so often a pretext for doing nothing.”

Guilt and shame are part of a pained acknowledgement of wrongs we have committed or in which we are in other ways implicated. But they must also be part of what forces us to change the system and ourselves. 

As protests in response to George Floyd’s murder and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement against systemic racialized violence and oppression raged across the US last week, a Sydney police officer was filmed handcuffing and then sweeping the legs out from under a sixteen-year-old Aboriginal boy who had just issued a vulgar verbal threat; the officer slammed the boy’s face into the pavement. 

Shortly afterwards the New South Wales police minister defended the officer, saying he was provoked and threatened. The minister, in public remarks, expressed far more outrage at the verbal abuse from the teenager than at the officer’s brutal response. 

How can reconciliation occur if such blatant power differentials cannot even be recognized, if the historical weight of wrongs done to a people and the humiliation and disadvantage they continue to suffer is totally invisible? Nothing, then, has been reckoned with. 

The worst thing about this story from Sydney is the grim, horrific moral equivalence being drawn between a lippy teenager and an officer of the law, whose duty is to ‘protect and serve’ using brutal and retributive force.  

When a teenager can be face-slammed for giving a mouthful of foul language to a police officer and this act can be defended by his superiors as a response to a threat, we are nowhere. 

Collective Responsibility and the MMIWG Report

photograph of bead art piece

Note: for immediate emotional assistance relating to Indigenous survivor and family experiences, please call 1-844-413-6649, a 24/7, toll-free national hotline in Canada.

Canada has long had a crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.  The number of Indigenous women and girls who were killed between 1980 and 2012 alone is estimated to be close to 4,000. Indigenous women are six times likelier to be murdered than non-Indigenous women, experience intimate partner violence at a rate three times greater than that of non-Indigenous women, and compared with non-Indigenous women, are three times likelier to be killed by a stranger.

 On June 4, Canada’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released its long-awaited analysis. The two-volume report (available in full and as an executive summary) aimed at a cohesive account of the causes and remedies to the violence enacted against First Nations women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual people).  

The report documents the testimony of 2,380 survivors, family members, Knowledge Keepers and experts. The participants shed light on more than facts: sharing the experience, context, and recurring stories of families torn apart by Canada’s recent colonialist history, including the impact of residential schools, the “Sixties Scoop”, and the extractive industries which are particularly fraught with risk for Indigenous women as well as challenges to Indigenous autonomy.  

The inquiry confronted structural issues, defining the Canadian government’s systematic treatment of Indigenous peoples and the resulting deaths of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA persons as genocide. Its analysis takes intergenerational consequences of forced assimilation into account. While the accusation of genocide has caused some controversy in Canadian media (see here, here, and here), others note that Canadians’ reaction to the term is revealing of the colonial structures that are maintained in the present day.

Genocide was defined by the UN in 1948 to encompass more than immediate wholesale slaughter, but also the intent to eliminate the group through “killing members of the group; causing serious mental or bodily harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” The MMIWG inquiry appended a 46-page legal analysis defending their use of the term, both with regard to the mens rea (the intention to destroy) and the actions as listed above in the UN’s definition.

What is the collective responsibility of Canadians for the violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA members?

While speaking in terms of settler ‘privilege’ is an established way of framing the positionality of non-Indigenous peoples in the Americas, Beenash Jafri proposes ‘complicity’ with colonialism as a framework that removes the lens from the complexities of individual privilege and oppression (which can derail into comparing the personal experiences of inhabitants). Instead, the model of ‘complicity’ can help non-Indigenous people and their descendants comprehend the larger structures that were designed to decimate Indigenous sovereignty, cultures, and peoples.   

The notion of ‘complicity’ encourages a forensic approach to this Canadian genocide, which maps easily onto the findings of the MMIWG investigation. Grandmother Leslie (or Giizhigooweyaabikwe) recounts the linguistic apparatuses of colonialism in blaming missing and murdered women for their own disappearance:

“There’s always the polite terminology, which is coded, racially coded, like ‘at-risk,’ or those kinds of things. There’s ways of people washing their hands as if to say, ‘Well… that has really nothing to do with us.’ (…) They’ve contributed to their own disappearances, and/or rapes, and/or murders, by their personal behaviours – by the way that they are dressed, by what they were doing, by being Indigenous, and by being women. Many people don’t see the system as violence. But in fact, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is the result of imposed poverty, legal and individual racism, discrimination and the patriarchy.”

Another such assumption wielded against First Nations communities is the popular statistic, first voiced in 2015 by Harper-appointed Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, that 70% of murdered Indigenous women are killed by Indigenous men, a claim that is not linked to measurable data. Valcourt has elsewhere displayed his penchant for reducing Indigenous issues to intra-family  problems by dismissing the suicides of Indigenous youths as being the concern of their parents, and was tepid concerning a nation-wide inquiry into the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Lack of data does not prevent Valcourt’s claim from being used as a rhetorical derailment against conversations on national responsibility for Indigenous deaths and disappearances. While there are de-colonizing approaches for discussing family violence in the context of intergenerational trauma, this is not the conversation which immediately involves all Canadians, except insofar as reparations for centuries of violence can contribute to support for Indigenous families.

The violated freedoms of Indigenous women which result in inadequate options and the genocidal context of their murders and disappearances do immediately implicate us as a nation. Certain patterns are known in these cases: Men appear to be the primary perpetrators of violence on Indigenous women (to the tune of 92 percent, according to one study). Offenders often prey on Indigenous women because the latter lack safe housing and safe transportation. Killers of Indigenous women are treated less severely than those who kill non-Indigenous women, revealing that Indigenous women are devalued in the justice system. The Chief Commissioner of the MMIWG report, Marion Buller, proposed an automatic charge of first-degree murder when the victim is an Indigenous woman, girl, or LGTBQ member to correct this imbalance. We could look for new legal categories to apply to crimes where the victim is an Indigenous woman, girl, or 2SLGBTQQIA member (adopting a lesson from Columbia, for example, which in 2015 defined “feminicide” as a hate crime carrying its own minimum penalty).

All Canadians can take it upon themselves to be informed, to condemn, and cease to tolerate abuses of and violence against First Nations women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA members. It is also crucial to educate ourselves concerning the historical and contemporary factors leading to this crisis. A combination of legal, cultural, and political structures resulted in systematic genocide of Canada’s first peoples – a legacy reflected in the histories of survivors.

Indigenous women have been marginalized since the earliest days of Canada’s colonization. While First Nations cultures traditionally held women in high regard, this norm was threatening to the patriarchal social organization of European colonists.  The consequences of the 1876 Indian Act, which stripped Indigenous women of their status if they married outside their tribe, continue to the present day.

Forced assimilation and genocide in Canada is often trained on Indigenous women’s bodies. Coercive sterilization is one instance. Disasters like long-standing water emergencies within Indigenous communities often burden women most heavily.

Reading the MMIWG report, one gets a glimpse of the power and agency of Indigenous women, their families, and their communities. As a nation, we need to listen to and support Indigenous women when they lead.

What would stopping this genocide look like in practice?  The report issued 231 specific recommendations addressed to the government, Canadians at large, healthcare professionals, police, lawyers, educators, media influencers, and extractive industries. It must be a collective effort, not a one-stop measure. There have been 98 calls-to-action on Indigenous well-being in the past that have not yet wrought widespread change. At the same time, the MMIWG report, a key part of the successful 2015 Liberal election campaign, marks the first nation-scale inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. It represents an imperative to change.

The report should awaken us to the need for systemic shifts – to increase the presence of First Nations’ women in legislation, in budgeting, in the regulation of services. We also need radical rethinking of our institutions. Canadian political and legal institutions are shaped by colonialism and patriarchy and marginalize First Nations’ peoples by design. We need to address the interlocking functions of patriarchy, colonialism, and racism. Finally, we need to be informed of and support the inherent prior rights of Indigenous peoples and to value the lives and leadership of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA members.

First Nations in Canada and the ‘Duty to Consult’

Photograph of First Nation people in Vancouver protesting

On Thursday, October 11, Canada’s Supreme Court issued a judgment which, some argue, has turned back the clock on First Nations’ rights to pre-1982. The Mikisew Cree Nation of Alberta contended against the federal government that Canada’s enshrined ”duty to consult’ with First Nations peoples should apply to the legislative process in constructing bills that impinge on Aboriginal or treaty rights. In a majority 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court decided against the Mikisew Cree First Nation’s claim, citing in their decision the separation of judiciary from legislative powers.

This lengthy legal conflict began in 2012, when Stephen Harper’s Conservative administration passed controversial omnibus bills C-38 and C-45. While omnibus bills are not unusual in Canadian legislature, these bills were contested for their extraordinary length and scope. They radically reshaped Canadian environmental policies. Among other things, bills C-38 and C-45 withdrew Kyoto protocol commitments, removed protections on ninety-nine percent of Canadian waterways, ransacked the existing Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and struck down existing rules to preserve fisheries and endangered species. This removal of protections applies to resources in First Nations’ territories, directly impinging on Aboriginal and treaty rights.

These two omnibus bills triggered in their wake a nation-wide protest and environmental movement begun by Indigenous, Métis, Inuit, and allies called ”Idle No More”. Massive cuts to environmental regulation moved the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Alberta to take the federal government to court. The Mikisew argued that the “duty to consult” should include the legislative process (applying to the passing of bills like Harper’s unwieldy omnibuses), and not just the executive and implementation stage of projects.

The Mikisew First Nation had the weight of international standards on their side, as the foundation of the “duty to consult and accommodate with Aboriginal peoples” is upheld in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. (As an aside, Canada was initially one of only four nations that objected to this declaration, citing concerns that First Nations would be acknowledged veto power in decisions that affected natural resources within First Nations territories, though Canada has since got on board with the declaration as of May 2016).

Despite this reluctance from the federal government to endorse international norms on Indigenous rights, the overall direction of Canadian jurisprudence has been to uphold the principle of duty to consult in both federal and provincial contexts. This ”duty to consult” itself was a sign of progress in an otherwise oppressive settler-colonialist history. By dint of diligent interrogations by First Nations reacting to Canada’s assimilationist policies, Canadian jurisprudence has steadily moved towards the acknowledgement of First Nations’ inherent prior rights and treaty rights.  Indigenous rights were officially recognized in Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution Act of 1982.

Pamela Palmater, Mi`kmaw lawyer and Indigenous governance professor, sees the October 11 decision as a major reversal of this hard-won progress. While the majority decision cited the separation of judicial from legislative powers in their decision, she writes: “Isn’t the whole purpose of reconciliation—at least from Canada’s perspective—supposed to balance constitutional rights and principles and find a way to make them work together?” Dialogue and reconciliation are, after all, core foundations of Aboriginal and Canadian culture.

Dwight Newman, law professor and expert on Indigenous rights in law, notes that the decision is not conclusive. While it is true that 7-2 judges on the Supreme Court ruled against the Mikisew, their legal reasoning differed. Three of the majority ruling, Justices Andromache Karakatsanis, Richard Wagner, and Clément Gascon, deferred to the ”honour of the Crown” – a principle underlying the duty to consult – that could invite future litigation and re-negotiation.  Dissenting justices Rosalie Abella and Sheilah Martin asserted that the ”honour of the Crown” permeated all relationships between the government and Indigenous peoples, entailing the duty to consult at the legislative as well as executive levels.

Mikisew First Nation representative and director of Government Industry Relations, Melody Lepine, expressed trepidation at the Court’s consignment of Indigenous rights to ambiguity: ”In my several years of working with the federal government and with the provincial government to try to force them to consult, there is no honour, there is no willingness, and it has been a complete struggle… I have no faith that the government will do the right thing.” This sense of betrayal was echoed by Mikisew lead council Robert Janes, who noted that the SCC ruling displayed a missed opportunity for Canada to engage First Nations as committed partners. As it stands, this decision means that First Nations will have little resort but to litigate unilateral legislation that has already been passed, ensuring the continuation of an adversarial, burdensome, and costly model of feedback.

The Mikisew ruling is a setback for all First Nations in the process of reconciliation, but it should also be a wake-up call for Canadians. The political and legal struggles of First Nations in Canada recurrently show that real, meaningful, decision-making power comes from obtaining a place at the table. They exemplify the key importance of what John Rawls called “procedural justice,” the ability to participate in governance processes as a means of ensuring fair outcomes.  Procedural justice also satisfies a fundamental principle of recognition, in allowing concerned parties to have a say in their fate. It is time for Canadians to campaign for legislative mechanisms that reconcile procedural justice for First Nations communities, i.e. processes which meaningfully include First Nations’ peoples at every level of decision-making that impacts them.

Canada’s Indigenous Water Crisis

Photograph of mountains and trees framing a lake

Canada is one of the world’s most water-rich countries. The Great Lakes, shared between Ontario and the US, account for eighteen percent of the world’s fresh surface water. And yet, many First Nations communities within Canada suffer from lack of access to clean water. There are currently 72 long-term boiling water advisories in effect on First Nations’ reserves. Justin Trudeau’s 2015 election platform included ending all such advisories by 2021. As of July 17, 2018, 67 such advisories had been lifted, while 34 had been added. At the same time, residents of the communities whose advisories have been lifted are concerned that lack of overhauling local infrastructure may endanger long-term prospects for clean water. Continue reading “Canada’s Indigenous Water Crisis”

ANWR, the Alaska Permanent Fund and Eminent Domain

photograph of stream and mountain range in Alaska

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge sits on the northern coast of Alaska, covering over 19 million acres of what is considered the last example of pure wilderness left in the world. Home to iconic species, such as the polar bear, porcupine caribou, and the gray wolf, ANWR is a symbol to many of the undisturbed landscape that once spanned Alaska and North America. The Coastal Plain of ANWR is considered especially important, since it not only provides critical habitat to endangered species like polar bears, but is considered a sacred place for the Gwich’in people of Alaska.

Continue reading “ANWR, the Alaska Permanent Fund and Eminent Domain”

A Clash of Cultures Atop New Zealand’s Mount Taranaki

A New Zealand Playboy model and popular Instagrammer is in hot water for offending her own country earlier this month. 25-year-old Jaylene Cook recently posted a controversial picture on her personal Instagram page, capturing her in a precarious position: standing nude atop New Zealand’s Mount Taranaki. While many of her Instagram followers seemed to enjoy her picture, locals did not.

Continue reading “A Clash of Cultures Atop New Zealand’s Mount Taranaki”