Shiri Pasternak

Arthur Manuel’s battle against the 0.2 per cent Indigenous economy

Originally published by Ricochet, June 14, 2017.

Part 1 of 5: Resistance 150: Unsettling Canada’s Hidden Economic Apartheid


An introduction to the economic apartheid facing Indigenous communities in Canada

As the pageantry around Canada 150 begins, Ricochet and our Indigenous Reporting Fund present “Resistance 150: Unsettling Canada’s Hidden Economic Apartheid,” a series honouring and continuing the pathbreaking work of the late Arthur Manuel. The Secwepemc chief, long-time member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and indomitable activist and thinker played a key role in Indigenous land defence in Canada and globally.

“Resistance 150,” inspired by Manuel’s book Unsettling Canada, is a five-part series by Shiri Pasternak, an academic, writer and organizer who is active with Defenders of the Land and their new campaign, Unsettling 150. Before his passing, Manuel asked Pasternak to expand on his ideas and undertake this series for Ricochet’s Indigenous Reporting Fund. It is intended as an educational contribution, promoting dialogue and unsettling the colonial assumptions underlying the official Canada 150 celebrations.

The late Secwepemc leader Arthur Manuel never wavered in his certainty that land restitution was the foundation for Indigenous self-determination. Without a land base and economic rights over that base, he argued, Indigenous peoples would be destined for dependency forever.

In his book Unsettling Canada, he said the hardest thing about being a chief of the Neskonlith Indian Band for years was confronting the destitution of community members. There was nothing that one chief could do. “You know deep down that they are not going to get anywhere unless there is a major change in our society. Without outside change, they will never have the footing to climb out of the situation life has placed them in,” he wrote.

The kind of change Arthur advocated for was based on the fundamental fact that this country is built on Indigenous land, and Indigenous peoples have jurisdiction over their territories, land and resources.

For all the talk about First Nations’ economic development, the focus of governments and the public is only ever on what Arthur called “the 0.2 per cent economy.” That figure represents the total land base covered by Indian reserves in Canada. It is a tiny amount of space for more than 600 First Nations, especially given the enormous landmass of Canada.

The vast majority of this country is sparsely populated, so why have Indigenous peoples been denied jurisdiction over most of their lands?

According to Arthur, Indigenous people must rely on the 0.2 per cent economy because they have been denied rights to the 99.8 per cent economy, which is largely reserved for provinces to lease, permit and license forestry, mining and energy resources. Provincial governments promote resource development to accrue votes for job creation and to collect paltry revenues.

Governments also hoard the 99.8 per cent to retain control over thousands of miles of roads, highways and rail lines. To retain the right to develop more lands into transportation routes and other critical infrastructure like hydro power and pipelines. To maintain close to 400,000 square kilometres of national parks and national marine conservation areas in Canada to carve out “wilderness” for tourist consumption. Canada, the provinces, and the territories don’t want Indians interfering with this political economy.

But also — importantly — they want First Nations people reliant upon the 0.2 per cent economy.

If First Nations are reliant on the 0.2 per cent, then they may not interfere with this business-as-usual approach to settler capitalism.

A system of control

This is the context in which Arthur urged us to understand the 0.2 per cent economy: as a powerful form of control exercised over First Nations to constrain their assertions of jurisdiction to lands, territories and resources. The 0.2 per cent economy is meant to lock First Nations inside the daily struggles of being fed, clothed, educated and sheltered. It is meant to dehumanize them, so that Canadians can forget that First Nations poverty is made in Ottawa, so they can point fingers at systemic deprivation and call it “failing.”

The fact is too many Canadians are born on third base and are celebrating like they got home runs.

This series will explore Arthur Manuel’s concept of the 0.2 per cent economy.

The second part in this series — “Permanent Austerity and Fiscal Brutality: Federal Transfer Payments” — surveys the coercive use of federal transfer payments to keep First Nations in systemic poverty. A lot has been written on the funding disparities between First Nations living on reserve and Canadians. The basic structure of this disparity will be examined here.

The third part in this series — “Mercenary Colonialism: Third-Party Management” — explores the most extreme use of federal transfer payments. Third-party management is when a band’s federal transfer payments are handed over to external accountants, who are paid lucratively out of band funds but answerable only to Indian Affairs. There is almost no oversight or accountability by these accounting firms to First Nations bands, and it’s often a veritable pillage. The imposition of third-party management is a powerful tool in the federal government’s belt to gain control over bands that step out of line.

The fourth part in this series — “How Racism Frames First Nations’ Economic Rights Today” — will focus on the meaning of economic rights for First Nations through law and legislation. While most legislation focuses on the 0.2 per cent economy, and the courts have been reluctant to admit any commercial rights to First Nations, there are cracks where some hope can filter in.

These articles raise an important question: What does it mean to talk about the 99.8 per cent Indigenous economy? What is the nature of Canada’s economy, and how has the country’s reliance on natural resource extraction and exports conditioned settler colonialism in distinct ways? How has Canada sought to mitigate the risk of obstruction to its political economy by Indigenous assertions of jurisdiction over their territories? What happens when Indigenous peoples assert and exercise economic jurisdiction off reserve? And who are the communities at the forefront of this struggle to do so?

The fifth and final part in this series — “The Indigenous 99.8 Per Cent Economy: Shining a Light Ahead” — will conclude the series with examples of communities that are exercising economic jurisdiction over their national and local territories through sheer will, determination and often brutal contestation.