‘Land is Relationship’ – Legality and Emotion

In a recent piece featured in Rabble.ca 1, activist, author and founder of Vancouver’s migrant justice organization, No One is Illegal 2 Harsha Wallia interviews indigenous scholar Glen Coulthard, whose recent book “Red Skins, White Masks” is getting much buzz these days 3. This interview – and indeed the ongoing conversation between immigrants and indigenous peoples – represents a growing movement based on new relationships that challenge the dominant discourse of colonial Canada. For Coulthard, these relationships are inextricably tied to the land:  “Land is a relationship based on the obligations we have to other people and the other-than-human relations that constitute the land itself.” 

Coulthard discusses the powerful role of emotions in the current indigenous resurgence. While he recognizes the harmful impacts of internalized anger within communities, he suggests that this “anger and resentment [can be] a critical, even cathartic, antidote to the current infatuation with “reconciliation” and ‘forgiveness,'” and that “There is another story to be told about these emotions.” In particular, Coulthard stresses that “these emotions can also serve as a catalyst for change. They’re explosive and prompt people to act, to take matters into their own hands, individually and collectively.”

These emotional dynamics raise a number of important questions about what causes these powerful emotions to be expressed in harmful ways and what it takes for them to drive transformation? Are their particular issues that serve as affective edges which, once crossed, have a determinant impact on whether emotional expressions have a productive or destructive outcome? Unfortunately this is not a discussion that Wallia and Coulthard address directly in the interview. Coulthard does, however, indicate that at the core of relationships with the land as well as relations with other people, the issue of sovereignty is always in play.  This has led Coulthard to have “…concerns regarding how some non-Native movements express their support for Indigenous sovereignty movements because they may see similar interests aligning around, say, environmental protections but have little interest in supporting Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination. This seems overly instrumental, not based on an ethical obligation to support Indigenous land and treaty rights.” 

New relationships need to involve new modes of relating to state sovereignty that reflect and respond to the emotions and experiences of different groups of people within Canada. This need for new relationships between Canadian state-sovereignty and the people is also a fundamental issue for groups like No One is Illegal. Colonial dispossession in other regions is a major reason why many of the most precarious migrants in Canada have been forced to take part in the global pool of migrant labour. Many immigrants and migrant workers continue to be forced into positions where they are treated as less-than-human, because of their marginal position in relation to Canadian sovereignty.  Going forward, these legal and emotional divisions provide a common terrain on which upon which alliances between indigenous peoples and immigrants is emerging. The full extent to which these relationships will be able to manifest in concrete actions and alliance building that are able to re-constitute Canadian sovereignty remains to be seen.