Tag Archives: First Nations

In support of Chief Theresa Spence and #IdleNoMore

Chief Theresa Spence (detail). Photo by Regina Notarsandsnobelomonte Southwind

Chief Theresa Spence (detail). Photo by Regina Notarsandsnobelomonte Southwind

From The Guardian: “The grassroots IdleNoMore movement of aboriginal people offers a more sustainable future for all Canadians. Canada’s placid winter surface has been broken by unprecedented protests by its aboriginal peoples. In just a few weeks, a small campaign launched against the Conservative government’s budget bill by four aboriginal women has expanded and transformed into a season of discontent: a cultural and political resurgence.”

“I won’t soon forget this clash between these two very different kinds of resolve, one so sealed off, closed in; the other cracked wide open, a conduit for the pain of the world.”

“Termination in this context means the ending of First Nations pre-existing sovereign status through federal coercion of First Nations into Land Claims and Self-Government Final Agreements that convert First Nations into municipalities, their reserves into fee simple lands and extinguishment of their Inherent, Aboriginal and Treaty Rights. To do this the Harper government announced three new policy measures…”

“@PMHarper has been completely silent about Chief Spence and Idle No More, while cracking jokes about everything from the CBC to Chinchillas. (Update: Just after 4p.m. EST today, @PMHarper Tweeted “mmm… bacon,” accompanied by a video clip from the Simpsons. No, seriously.)”

“First Nations officially put Prime Minister Harper on notice. They plan to file a legal injunction to stop him from ratifying FIPA, the secretive and extreme Canada-China investors’ deal.”

It’s worth noting that, unlike former PM Paul Martin (quoted in the Guardian article), PM Harper is on record denying colonialism in Canada: “We are one of the most stable regimes in history. There are very few countries that can say for nearly 150 years they’ve had the same political system without any social breakdown, political upheaval or invasion. We are unique in that regard. We also have no history of colonialism.” He made the comment at a press conference at the G20 Pittsburgh Summit in September 2009; it’s quoted in Colonial Reckoning, National Reconciliation, a special 2009 issue of English Studies in Canada 35.1 (2009).

(Emphasis added; thanks to WG for this reference.)

The line, the skyline, between then and now

Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. – Walter Benjamin

NYC skyline (from the ferry), Feb. 2001

In a hugely absorbing (but disappointingly under-attended) session on Imperialism and Culture at the 2008 Socialist Studies conference, I suggested that the attacks of September 11, 2001, marked a line between past and present that feels uncannily like the kind of line described in science fiction, a line that sharply divides one’s lived and felt experience of time in its unfolding. (Think of Lionel Verney’s reflections on life before and after the plague in The Last Man, or Offred’s reflections on life before and under Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale…or Cayce’s reflections on life after September 11 in Pattern Recognition.) The session presenters suggested (and rightly so, I think) that to represent the attacks of September 11, 2001, in this way is to reproduce the kind of cultural imperialist ideology that has driven not only a lot of popular culture since, but also a lot of dubious-to-disastrous foreign policy decisions.

Point taken, and a fair enough one at that.

Lines of tragedy and trauma divide and sometimes dismember everyone’s lives, whether on the personal scale or the sociopolitical. Walter Benjamin observed that the state of emergency is not the exception but the rule. As witnessed by the helpless and horrified hindsight of Benjamin’s hypothetical angel, history is illuminated as a grim palimpsest of such lines, like a whip-scarred back: West African nations after slavery, the First Nations after colonization, Japan after August 1945, Rwanda after 1994. (This isn’t to homogenize different traumas and tragedies, only to suggest how they mar and mark time.)

Memorial mural, NYC, Apr. 2002

So it is perhaps not despite but because of this knowledge — knowledge of history’s lacerated hide, and of the military-entertainment complex that feeds greedily on it –that one still feels so keenly this line, this skyline, cut down through the lived experience of time in its unfolding.

Or its collapsing.

Such a strong storm buffets the angel of history, it’s impossible to tell which.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations (1940). Trans. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969. Rpt. in Simon Fraser U http://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html

Forsyth, Scott and John McCullough. “Imperialism and Culture.” Society for Socialist Studies annual conference, U of British Columbia, 4 Jun. 2008.

Casino capital’s frontier forays

Discussion with students in this term’s grad course on theory has been educational for instructor and students alike: for the former, in developing a critical vocabulary for contemporary capitalism that foregrounds its postcolonial contexts.

1. Frontiers and futures
In discussing the documentary The Corporation, two students wrote:

As opposed to traditional colonialism … corporate colonizers no longer require the local population to give up their beliefs in order to change their loyalty. They simply have to spend their dollars, pesos, euros etc., and with no value system outside of a growing bottom line, corporations are free to change their identity to adapt to the culture and beliefs of any market. … advancing capitalism pays a special eye to frontier thought, behaviour, and organization as these spaces create new areas to be exploited and appropriated by the system. (my emphasis)

In comparing corporate business to colonialism, the students referred to the work of Andrew Potter, who with Joseph Heath wrote The Rebel Sell, which investigates the frontier prospecting of capitalism, its ability to commoditize even the most resistant counter-cultural forms (e.g. Adbusters): “there is, even amongst the most acute critics of consumerism, a deep-seated misunderstanding of the forces that drive consumerism. Most people think it’s driven by advertising and the corporations … In actual fact it’s driven by competitive consumption amongst consumers.” (Potter qtd. in MacLean)

Potter and Heath’s argument relates to Fisher’s idea of SF capital, mentioned in my last post, in which futuristic speculation in culture becomes a renewable resource for economic exploitation by capital. But if the “rebel sell” thesis reproduces something of the core-periphery model of capitalist growth, in which the imperial core co-opts the “authentic” periphery, it also problematizes this model by assigning some responsibility for co-optation to consumers — the co-opted — themselves.

2. Casino capitalism: wheel of misfortune
After I mentioned “casino capitalism” with reference to a student’s commentary on Max Weber’s idea of the “spirit of capitalism,” the student asked, understandably, what I meant. Which made me realize I didn’t, actually, know precisely what I meant; so I did a bit of digging, then replied:

It’s something I’ve been hearing a lot over the past two years with reference to the US sub-prime mortgage bubble and the ensuing global financial chaos, and it made sense, on a broader historical view, as a characterization of the postwar global economic dispensation of postmodernity … a dispensation characterized by rapidly changing IT in the service of increasingly mobile, flexible, and “financialized” capitalism.
Turns out it dates from 1986, in a book of the same title by Susan Strange:
“The instability and volatility of active markets can devalue the economic base of real lives, or in more macro-scenarios can lead to the collapse of national and regional economies. Susan Strange (1986) calls this instability ‘casino capitalism,’ a phenomenon she links to five trends: innovations in the way in which financial markets work; the sheer size of markets; commercial banks turned into investment banks; the emergence of Asian nations as players; and the shift to self-regulation by banks (pp.9-10). (“Shifting”)
Maybe the term’s been re-circulating with a vengeance in the wake of the global economic turmoil, evoking not just the infrastructural features of the postwar global economy but also, now, the widespread sense that postmodern capital has indeed been running like a casino — meaning that most who go there to play will lose.

In addition to the scholarly literature on the casino capital thesis, it recurs from time to time in popular discourse, like editorials, about actual casinos. A decade ago, Toronto playwright and former Globe & Mail columnist Rick Salutin shared a problematic, provocative postcolonial angle on “lotteries and gambling” as a “sign of the times,”

a symptom of despair over ever improving your lot in life’s normal course. The gambling instinct may be eternal, but we’re seeing its spread as a way of life — and hope. The perfect wedding of these despondent impulses comes in native-run casinos such as Ontario’s Casino Rama, as if to say: The desperation of everyone in this ever more desperate society will help us, most desperate of all, to overcome our centuries of despair. (“Who owes”)

Salutin was writing of casinos as a then-recently legitimized socioeconomic institution; since then casinos have moved from legitimacy to centrality as a staple source of government revenue, and an ever more symptomatic “sign” of neoliberal hegemony’s dominion). Gambling and casinos fund all kinds of public programs in Alberta, and it’s money many see as ill-got from the exploitation of people with addictive disorders. In 2005, Salutin followed up:

Governments of all stripes are hip-deep in promoting and advertising gambling and in effect encouraging addiction to it. Of course, not all gamblers are addicted, though addicts are central, since a huge cut of the revenue comes from a small tranche of heavy gamblers. But the real addiction problem belongs to governments, who’ve grown addicted to the returns, and turned into pimps and pushers. … the job of an institution like government should be to increase the odds — if you’ll pardon the expression — of hard work receiving a fair return, rather than reinforcing the message that you have to be rich or lucky to succeed. (“My gambling problem”)

3. The weirdest Western?
These critical models of late capital, with their disjunctive postcolonial contexts, together start to make the interlocking institutions of global capital seem a lot like a weird Western. As one film critic argues, the globalized culture industry of Hollywood has not shown itself to know how to make this kind of movie well. When it does, in films like Serenity — to say nothing of non-weird, ultra-naturalist Westerns like Deadwood, for that matter — what I’d suggest we encounter is an image of late global capital, in all its frontier freewheeling and monopolizing machinations: “The best Weird Westerns allow the sprawling frontier to organically give up its secrets … in the dark, your mind builds entire cyclopean empires; there’s something out there, but chances are it doesn’t care about the laws which begin and end with your wagon train.”

Just the laws of infinite growth and the bottom line.

Works Cited

Lamar, Cyriaque. “Dear Hollywood, you absolutely suck at making weird Westerns.” io9 19 Jun. 2010 http://io9.com/#!5567908/dear-hollywood-you-absolutely-suck-at-making-weird-westerns?comment=24778688

MacLean, C. “Tall Poppy Interview: Andrew Potter, Author of The Rebel Sell.” Torontoist Nov. 2006 http://torontoist.com/2006/11/tall_poppy_andr.php

MAIS 601 Group Two. “The Group TwoPoration” (group response to The Corporation). MAIS 601, Athabasca U, 23 Mar. 2011.

Salutin, Rick. “My gambling problem, and ours.” Globe & Mail 5 Aug. 2005: A15.

—. “Who owes what in a racist world?” Globe & Mail 24 Aug. 2001: A15.

“The shifting nature of capital: exhilaration and anxiety.” Representations of Global Capital. Lewis & Clark College of Arts & Sciences, Portland. n.d. http://legacy.lclark.edu/~soan370/global/casino.html

Congress 2010, day two

Half the fun of Congress: random reunions.


This morning’s plenary panel for ACCUTE featured three speakers on the complex relationships of First Nations students and scholars to the university in general and English literary studies in particular. Len Findlay moderated and I’m always amazed how eloquently he mixes vernacular and learned language: he described three “frames” of discourse now “re-confining” Canada’s First Nations as “mess up, dress up, and ‘fess up” (referring to the continuing crisis of FNU and the truth & reconciliation procedures taking up the legacy of residental schools, for a couple of examples). Author Warren Cariou advocated “more comprehensive, embodied attention to orality in university literary curriculum” as a means to foster “more genuinely intercultural analysis.” Film-maker and scholar Tasha Hubbard reflected on the complex lived ironies of “indigenous grad students as pioneers” in academia, and very usefully detailed the responsibilities, priorities, and anxieties that First Nations grad students — most of whom come to grad school later in life — must work through while navigating an academic environment too often rife with misunderstanding and racism. Daniel Heath Justice made an impassioned case against chronically “low expectations” for First Nations students: “when you expect the best of people,” and establish a setting in which they can succeed, he said, “they rarely disappoint.” He also gave one of the most plain-speaking rationales of English literary studies I think I’ve ever heard:

Books saved my life. … Literature has changed my life. It initiated my cultural recovery. It didn’t start at home. It started in the academy and it brought me home.

Had lunch with Ben Lefebvre, a grad-school peer from Guelph, now a leading L. M. Montgomery scholar. Then I visited the people at AU Press to find out about open-access publishing: that is, releasing a free electronic edition alongside the for-purchase print edition. U of Ottawa P and maybe WLU P also do this, though AUP introduced OA publishing to Canada.

Paying more attention to Congress-wide events, I went to Ed Broadbent’s talk this afternoon. Watch an archived video of his talk here.

Ed Broadbent addresses Congress. Photo courtesy of Boundry.


He compared the “Golden age of the common man” — the thirty years after World War Two — with the “new barbarism” that began its ascendancy in the hard right turn of the 1980s. Broadbent stressed that social and economic rights (materialized in policies like universal health care, old-age pensions, and other “social safety-net” policies) are legally required in Canada, under section 36 of the 1982 Constitution Act and under Canada’s commitments to the UN (whose foundational 1948 declaration of human rights, he reminded us, was drafted by a Canadian, John Humphrey).

Amidst his more pragmatic, policy-oriented criticisms, Broadbent also supplied a useful interpretive tool for decoding the claims and arguments of neoconservative politicians and ideologues: “when a party advocates slashing housing, health and other benefits, they are assaulting our social and economic rights.” And he made a plug for reading too, encouraging everyone to read The Spirit Level. The authors studied dozens of countries to conclude that more equal societies (those that deliver social services to honour UN and constitutional commitments to social and economic rights) are more stable, just, healthy — better off in every way. Significantly, the USA and the UK ranked at the bottom of the authors’ scale; as Broadbent put it, “unequal societies are not only unfair, they’re dysfunctional.” And he noted that Canada’s ranking somewhere around the middle, but “is becoming more unequal more rapidly than other developed countries.” “It’s time to reverse the trend to growing inequality,” he declared, and cited a survey from the Manning Institute, of all places, showing that 82% of Canadians believe government should play a role in reducing poverty and inequality.

Makes me wish 82% of Canadians would turn out to vote.

The Q&A was feisty, as it kicked off with an NDP hater who seemed keener to rant than query; Broadbent gave just as feisty a retort about the quesitoner’s premises. Nice to see some crackin’, heckle-filled, hot-blooded debate, a welcome change from all the “I’m wondering about…” that’s more typical in my area.

Broadbent's Congress audience. Photo courtesy of Boundry.