Saturday, March 8, 2008


Nothing is so pernicious as the profoundly racist notion that somehow indigenous peoples are genetically endowed with a special relationship, a spiritual kinship with nature that makes them superior caretakers of the land Europeans took from them. Like so many racist myths, there are just too many historical examples to cite that would discredit it. Easter Island was arguably the most notorious one, where 20,000 people committed eco-cide by deforestation and over-hunting. Australian Aborigines, meanwhile, exterminated 85% of the mega fauna of the continent before the British even weighed anchor at Botany Bay, and American Indians probably annihilated the horse before it was re-introduced by the Spanish. Given the time it took to cut down a mature Douglas Fir with a stone axe, one is moved to speculate that it was their primitive technology, not an inherent love for nature, which constrained coastal aboriginals from clearing more. Soil microbiologist Peter Salonius has pointed out that by the time of European contact Amerindians from mid continent south had established an unsustainable society moving toward collapse whose sustenance was increasingly from soil depleting cultivation agriculture.

And a biologist with Environment Canada maintains that “unless there is strong evidence that a code of ethics existed which dictated restraint I suggest that evidence is extremely weak that aboriginal societies necessarily exercised any form of wildlife management. I think evidence instead overwhelmingly supports the hypothesis that aboriginal culture did not wipe out the food they depended on due to limitations in technology and population numbers.” But more relevant to our concerns is not what natives once did but what they are doing now. He relates the following experiences:

The profligate killing of caribou by natives for their tongues. The decimation of Greenland seabird colonies by Inuit due to hunting during the breeding season and wanton disturbance at sensitive colonies. The depletion of key beluga stocks in the Canadian Arctic. The insistence of opening a Bowhead Whale hunt in the eastern arctic by Inuit despite the scientific evidence that this population is in critical condition. The wildlife “halo effect” around native communities in North America where virtually no game can be found. Large-scale killing of Bald and Golden Eagles in North America by natives under the guise of fulfilling “cultural needs”. Widespread killing of colonial waterbirds in Manitoba by natives and Metis since these birds are seen as competitors in commercial fisheries. The general ignorance of large wildlife populations by aboriginal elders and young people simply because they were “not important” as a food source.

He is careful to qualify his experiences with the observation that all societies, native and non-native, have pushed their environment to the wall, and all have their good and bad apples. Nonetheless, the environmental record of Aboriginal economic development projects is less than promising.

Case in point. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act had given the various native corporations across the state ownership of lands they selected from federal holdings. The total in Southeast Alaska came to more than 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares). Advised by timber economists, the native regional corporations and villages picked out mainly lands with productive big-tree forests. Then they began to level them and sell the raw logs to Asian markets, almost matching the pulp mills’ rate of timber consumption. So much for the precious Tongas National Forest.

Ontario researcher Brishen Hoff has cited several Canadian examples of Aboriginal eco-vandalism. In 2002, the Cree Aboriginals and Quebec Premier Bernard Landry signed the “Peace of the Braves” accord. In return for a $3.5 billion grant from Quebec tax payers, the Cree agree to construct a massive hydroelectric project on the Rupert and Eastmain Rivers. In 2004, 1.3 million hectares of old growth boreal forest are up for clear-cutting near Red Lake in NW Ontario beyond the 51st parallel after Aboriginals agreed by accepting monetary incentives. The Wikwemikong First Nation, who own 55,000 hectares of eastern Manitoulin Island have chosen industrial scale logging as a revenue source. 80 years of unsustainable logging had already depleted the community forest by the early 1990s. The Zhiibaahaasing First Nation, also on Manitoulin Island, decided to make a quick buck by dumping an estimated 1.75 million used tires creating a massive fire hazard and costing taxpayers a $4 million clean-up bill.

The sham that is Aboriginal Canada’s unique affinity with the land is best illustrated, however, by the example of the Michipicoten First Nation people south of Wawa, Ontario near Lake Superior. They received $58 million in tax payers’ money and 3000 acres of federal Crown land for “Economic Growth”, including industrial forestry, and mining projects, a major hydro-electric dam and a gas station business along the highway.

On the main page of their website, the Michipicoten state: “To walk our path is to experience the breathless beauty of the wilderness and to feel and participate in our oneness with mother earth and all that is.”

Does the Michipicoten’s “oneness with mother earth” include damning her rivers with industrial scale hydro-electric dams for “Economic Growth”? This land was once Crown land that was open to walking and camping but now it is 3000 acres of Lake Superior waterfront wilderness locked up in the private hands of “wise stewards” who have it slated for industrial resource extraction.

This kind of partnership in environmental crime is happening all over Canada, where Aboriginals are teaming up with large multinational corporations. The natives offer their land and their approval and the corporations offer a share of their profits. The government is tickled pink too because it gets Economic Growth, the universal measure of well-being and the unquestioned God of our age. It’s a dream partnership for corporations in another important way too—public relations.

Just as nuclear corporations love to have a celebrity “environmentalist” like Patrick Moore speaking on their behalf, and the Royal Bank of Canada, a major engine of environmental destruction, loves to have Nature Conservancy of Canada advertising their mutual collaboration, corporations love to have Aboriginals on board to make the public think that they’re running a “green” operation. What better way to bypass arduous red tape like Environmental Assessments and Public Consultations than to get an endorsement by forming a partnership with the First Nations people. After all, the average urban Canadian still believes that if the Aboriginals are involved in land management decisions, the land will be preserved sustainably.

Another dimension of Aboriginal negative environmental impact is their alarming population explosion. First Nations are now experiencing a birth rate 1.5 times the Canadian average and has seen its population grow by 20% between 2001-6. With a higher population they will deplete more resources and multiply their footprint. What accounts for this population burst? Brishen Hoff attributes it to the two-tier nature of rights in Canada that favour Aboriginals. As he points out: “Aboriginals do not need hunting or fishing licenses. They can use gill nets for fishing. They can take as many walleye or moose as they can kill in or out of season. In the far north, Aboriginals are still hunting beluga and narwhals and with rifles. Aboriginals need not take the hunter safety course and they are even entitled to build a cabin on crown land. In addition they are not required to report their harvest. They also do not pay sales tax, property tax, or fuel taxes.

All of these things are conducive to a population explosion amongst Aboriginals. It is as if the federal government put out a bird feeder but left out bird seed only for a particular species of bird. Naturally one would expect then that particular bird would grow in numbers at rate relatively greater than competing species. It is ironic that perhaps the most serious racist group in Canada are not some extremists wearing white robes and burning crosses but a federal government that chooses not to collect taxes from natives, Inuit and Metis.

However, the revenue that governments fail to collect from aboriginals pales in comparison to the reckless abandon in which they spend on their behalf. Eighty percent of the Department of Indian Affairs $8 billion annual expenditure is transferred directly to native bands, and it is the Chiefs and their band councils who decide how they are disbursed and how programs are developed. Given this inherent politicization of band administration, it is not surprising that media accounts of corruption and mismanagement of reserve funds have been reflected in native complaints to the Department.

In 1999 the Department received 300 allegations about 108 bands ranging from nepotism to mismanagement, and even at that the federal auditor found their data to be “incomplete”, while in 2003 there were 297 such allegations. It is little wonder then, that governments can throw $10 billion a year at Aboriginal poverty without result, or spend $3.8 billion on native housing in the past decade and still see people living in run-down units. It is frightening to think that the “Wise Stewards” who are running the reserves are the same ones who will be partnering billion-dollar economic developments that will despoil our boreal forests.

One might ask then, how is the money that Ottawa has spent on aboriginal affairs substantially different than the money it has wasted on African development aid? In both cases it has been in the billions, in both cases it has been essentially without strings, that is, the recipients have been unaccountable for its use, in both cases it has not been conditional on any kind of family planning---in fact it has provoked a fertility boom. And in both cases the aid money has been filtered through corrupt political leadership that intercepts it before it reaches the intended beneficiaries. There is another similarity too---the corrupt tribal dictators hide behind and depend upon white Canadian political correctness not to blow the whistle and put an end to the game. Others prefer just to shift all responsibility onto a legacy of white colonialism.

The Myth of Wise Aboriginal Stewardship is just a contemporary make-over of Jean Jacque Rousseau’s myth of the Noble Savage, a superior being untainted by our corrupt European vices. That caricature of aboriginals is just as preposterous and harmful now as it was then in the eighteenth century, Just as inaccurate however would a representation of Aboriginals as more careless of the land than European North Americans. Roderick Nash (among others) has clearly documented in “Wilderness and the American Mind” that pioneers regarded wilderness with “defiant hatred” and treated it so. And for every John Muir there were one hundred robber barons who didn’t give a damn about the environment.

All of the foregoing was merely an attempt to make natives accountable for their record of eco-vandalism, as one would do with the multi-nationals. It is to humanize them rather than demonize them or as, the politically correct have done, deify them.

The sad fact is, people of various cultures and times for various reasons, have not been able to acknowledge limits. And just because they can sing, dance and beat drums should not give them license to trespass those limits.

Brishen Hoff deserves credit for the research re. the Aboriginal environmental track record in this article.


Carol Knox said...

Great essay! Well written and soon to be well read... Found it in a Sun News Network thread on Facebook. Enlightening and timely peice, sir. Thank you.

Myrmecia said...

A careful and direct account of the situation, Tim. I was referred to it today by Lorna Salzman. Your observations have direct relevance to us in Australia where there is a particular conflict between Aboriginals and conservationists over Cape York.

Michele Tittler said...

that was a really well written essay. Thanks so much!