Political Tensions

Capitalism, Colonization and Reconciliation

The broader political tension within which we fight for healthy, sustainable, and culturally appropriate food is neoliberal capitalism and its history through European colonization and globalization, now being challenged by a resurgence and reconciliation process led by Indigenous Peoples defending their land and culture, and joined by a growing number of non-Indigenous allies.

When we began this writing (December 2019), the political tensions resulting from over 500 years of European colonization, Western imperialism, and neoliberal globalization were reaching a boiling point in a cauldron of conflicts over resources and protests of authoritarian austerity policies and human rights abuses.

Mass protests in the streets of Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, echoed by social and environmental justice activists in the Global North, are connecting the dots between the struggles for political democracy and what Vandana Shiva has called “Earth Democracy.” The uprisings in Chile precipitated the last minute moving of COP 15, the most recent international gathering to deal with the climate crisis, from Santiago to Madrid, Spain.

In Canada, in February 2020, the cauldron boiled over….with country-wide protests by Indigenous peoples and their non-Indigenous allies supporting the Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders in their right to determine how their territory would be cared for and opposing the Coast GasLink pipeline project. There were solidarity protests by Haudenosaunee activists in Kanawake, Tyendinaga, and Six Nations.

“It’s Columbus’s mistake that unites us all.”

Vandana Shiva1

It's always about land

How did we get to this point? Many scholars, like Karl Polanyi, point to the ‘enclosure of the commons’ in England in the 1600s as the roots of the history of land as property, and of earth as a resource to be extracted for human use.2 He saw the subsequent processes of ‘civilization’, ‘modernization’, and ‘globalization’ as contributing to the Great Transformation, disembedding humans from the Earth while promoting their mastery and control of nature.

European colonization of the Americas converged with the rise of industrial capitalism and promoted a world built on a distinction between traditional and modern, in which notions of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ were used to justify laws that dispossessed the lands and discredited the practices of Indigenous peoples.

For example, early colonizers in British Columbia saw the potential productivity of the soil for conversion into English-style farms and settlements, not recognizing “the subtle but significant Indigenous management practices of the area, involving the use of fire, weeding and clearing, pruning, selective harvesting, seeding-while harvesting, soil aeration, replanting of bulbs and root fragments, and transplanting from one are to another…”3

Central to European colonization of the Americas were Christian and racist notions of the soul and the doctrine of discovery, which perceived Indigenous peoples similarly to nature, as wild and less than human, to be ‘civilized.’ The 1867 constitution of the colonial state of Canada, conflates the Euro-centric and white supremacist notion of superiority.

A recent gathering of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars concluded: “Unsustainable, non-reciprocal extraction, rather than sustainable, reciprocal regeneration, has become the dominant relationship to living earth and social systems.”4 This is more a ‘cradle to grave ‘system, rather than ‘cradle to cradle’ systems in which trees in forests cycle from seed to nurse log, constantly regenerating themselves.

Key developments over recent decades are worth noting. In Canada, there have been numerous landmark moments in this struggle of Indigenous people to reclaim their territory. In the mid-1980s – a series of first ministers conferences on self-government ended in an impasse. After the 1990 Oka crisis,5 a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples repudiated the doctrine of discovery and confirmed the inherent right of Indigenous peoples to govern themselves. The Supreme Court Delgamuukw decision in 1997 confirmed that the Constitutional rights in Section 35 included real proprietary rights to their lands, giving weight to historical possession and to oral traditions.

The 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on the history and impact of residential schools issued 94 recommendations based not on settler state frameworks, but on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. While the liberal government at the time pledged to implement the recommendations, it has become clear that they are too entrenched with corporate interests in land and resources such as oil. The TRC lead commissioner Justice Murry Sinclair synthesized the core criteria for moving forward: “Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships. There are no shortcuts.”6

There is no political reconciliation without a reconciliation with the land. And that challenges all the tenets of advanced capitalism, neoliberal trade, and corporate globalization.

Tully proposes a dual-pronged strategy linking two interconnected projects of reconciliation:

    1. Reconciliation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples (Natives and newcomers) with each other in all our diversity.
    2. Reconciliation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people (human beings) with the living earth; that is, reconciliation with more-than-human living beings (plants, animals, ecosystems, and the living earth as a whole)7

The nation-state is in question here. Because of the integration of corporate and political powers, the Canadian government continues to support fossil fuel industries and industrial agriculture. As Legacies partner and organic farmer Dianne concludes: ”There’s absolutely no political will for food sovereignty, zero. All the trade agreements, like CETA, NAFTA, the TPP, totally ignore the fact that we should be producing our own food and instead they mandate the globalization of commerce.”

Our conversations across geopolitical borders revealed the differing impact of these agreements. We are all shaped by a globalized corporate food system, but the Mexican partners in our exchange deal with the legacies of policies that have turned countries self-sufficient in food into export-producing nations, the Global South feeding the Global North. Neoliberal trade agreements opened the way for the expropriation of communally held land; this allowed easy entry of transnational agribusiness to use the land as a resource to be exploited, a source of profit.

Our Purépecha partners in autonomous Indigenous communities of Mexico also struggle to defend the legacies of both the rich biodiversity and cultural diversity of their territory. NAFTA gave the U.S. the comparative advantage in corn, supported by agricultural subsidies. This resulted in Mexico importing the cheaper corn and diminishing their self-sufficiency of maíz, which they had been producing for 8,000 years. The GMO corn of U.S.-based multinationals has contaminated the criolle corn and decreased maize diversity.

Timothy Wise summarizes the impact of NAFTA on Mexican campesinos: “while it opened land for investment, the manufacturing sector and agro-exports…it spelled death for campesinos; only 1 out of 4 got factory jobs.”8 It has also increased dependency on processed foods and shifted diets to U.S. style, exporting obesity. At the retail end of the food chain, supermarkets in Mexico are controlled by multinationals like Walmart.

The loss of land and livelihood has pushed even more Mexicans to move north to find ways to support their families, precisely by working in agribusiness in the U.S. and Canada, producing our local fruit and vegetables. They send back $20 billion in remittances, but even that is being threatened by recent efforts to tide the waves of migrants crossing the Mexican-U.S. border.

These legacies of migration and cross-border family relationships are being countered by our Legacies partners in their efforts to keep young people at home, defending food sovereignty in milpas and agroecological projects. Legacies partner Mayan Valiana leaves us with this question: “If la comida (food in the broadest sense) is what unites us in our lives, what we have in common, because all of us eat, how in this act do we ensure that we don’t let the companies govern us but that we govern ourselves, in the large scale and at the level of family and friends?”

Through dialogue with our Indigenous partners, we settlers have been confronting the dark legacies of colonization, which separated communities from the land, children from their parents, people from their traditional practices of feeding themselves – through gathering, hunting, and fishing as well as cultivating. Similarly, our Haudenosaunee partners find hope in recovering the legacies of traditional foods and ceremonies, even as they create new forms and practices. Once again, food is at the centre of these political struggles.

2020 brought three major political crises that revealed even more clearly the systemic inequities upon which the global food system is built, opening up public discussion of the impact of colonialism and racism, and generating new alliances for systemic change. In early 2020, Canada was ‘closed down’ for weeks, as Indigenous peoples and their non-Indigenous allies blocked the railways in protest of the Trans Mountain pipeline to carry bitumen from Edmonton, Alberta to Burnaby, British Columbia, threatening the environment and Indingeous livelihoods. By March, COVID-19 had ‘locked down’ not only Canada but many parts of the world, revealing the unsustainability of the global food supply chain and exposing the disregard for the lives of migrant workers upon whom our food depends.

In late May, the televised brutal killing of black American George Floyd by Minneapolis police kneeling on his neck, awakened the world once again to the anti-Black racism still rampant, and sparked an uprising, led by Black Lives Matter. This new anti-racism movement, while accentuating the disposability of Black lives, made the connection to the ongoing police violence against Indigenous peoples and generated a world-wide movement, joined by non-Indigenous activists as well.

The intersection of these three crises exposed both the horror of systemic racism integral to the corporate industrial food system and the hope of new alliances to tackle anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism in food justice and food sovereignty movements. The Legacies Project has carried on our intercultural exchange and we are preparing new videos to engage critical discussion of how these intersecting movements can push forward toward a truly just and sustainable food system.

  1. Vandana Shiva, The Emancipation of Seed, Water and Women, podcast forthewild.world, https://forthewild.world/listen/vandana-shiva-on-the-emancipation-of-seed-water-and-women-118, May 8, 2019.
  2. The notion of nature as resource was reinforced by key Enlightenment thinkers, such as Francis Bacon who proposed that humans could dominate and tame wild nature, and Descartes who reinforced that idea through dualisms such as the separation of the mind and the body.
  3. Nancy Turner and Pamela Spalding. “Learning from the Earth, Learning from Each Other: Ethnoecology, Responsibility and Reciprocity.”In Notes from Resurgence and Reconciliation: Indigenous-Settler Relationships and Earth Teachings. Michael Asch, John Burrows, and James Tully (eds). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018, 270.
  4. James Tully. ““Reconciliation Here on Earth.” In Notes from Resurgence and Reconciliation: Indigenous-Settler Relationships and Earth Teachings. Michael Asch, John Burrows, and James Tully (eds). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018, 110.
  5. The Oka Crisis of 1990 grew out of a conflict between the town of Oka, Quebec approving an extension of a golf course on the territory of the Mohawk people. Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (Montreal: National Film Board of Canada, 1993
  6. Murray Sinclair and TRC members. Final Report. TRC (Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015), quoted in Turner, Nancy and Pamela Spalding. “Learning from the Earth, Learning from Each Other: Ethnoecology, Responsibility and Reciprocity.”In Notes from Resurgence and Reconciliation: Indigenous-Settler Relationships and Earth Teachings. Michael Asch, John Burrows, and James Tully (eds). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018, 265.
  7. James Tully. “Reconciliation Here on Earth.” In Notes from Resurgence and Reconciliation: Indigenous-Settler Relationships and Earth Teachings. Michael Asch, John Burrows, and James Tully (eds). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018, 83.
  8. Timothy A. Wise. Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. New York/London: The New Press, 2019, 224.