Reflecting on Couchiching: Some Thoughts on What it Means to Navigate

Since the 1930s, power brokers of the government sort have been meeting on the shores of Lake Couchiching, on the traditional lands of the Chippewa Rama First Nation, in a quaint YMCA park, to discuss policy issues. Billed as a “civil place to disagree,” these summer conferences take on topics of national and international significance, aiming to create a place of dialogue from a non-partisan perspective (though their roster of speakers over the years is distinctly left-leaning). While the organization positions the history of the conference as “understand[ing] the issues of the day by creating an accessible gathering place for the free exchange of ideas on common Canadian concerns,” the capital-P political representation of attendees gives the feeling that this is a place where substantial conversations about future policy directions are instigated. [1] However, a robust slate of scholarship opportunities, coupled with the fact that the specific topics draw in associated and unique crowds, work to diversify the range of participants at the conference, young and old, party-affiliated and not. As a novice, I was reminded that “for those who have not attended before, the dress is informal. And we do mean informal…jeans, shorts, skirts, bathing suits. Ties and suits are decidedly out of place.” [2]

As the first gesture of my curatorial residency at SBC, which sits within the gallery’s Focus Program on sovereignty, Director/Curator Pip Day and I attended the 2013 conference.

The theme of the summer’s meeting was “Coming Together as One: Navigating the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Canada.” The relationship between Indigenous populations and settlers (in Canada and elsewhere) has always been subject to debate, struggle and compromise, and yet the title comes off sounding a bit strange for the way it make Indigenous populations a subject of the state while somehow separate from it. This awkwardness acknowledges that Indigenous people do not bear an easy or even consensual relationship to Canada as a nation. In the case of Couchiching, the title points to the actual need to negotiate that relationship: it is not given, it is not in the past, it is contentious, right now, everywhere across the country.

In the lead up to the 2013 conference which, according to then-President Rima Berns-McGowan, was two years in the making, a foundational relationship to place was instigated when, at the 2012 conference that focused on the Arab Spring, Chief Sharon Stinson-Henry was invited to welcome conference participants to the land of the Rama First Nation. For over 80 years this conference has been taking place in the same YMCA park just north of the reserve. It is possible, though I cannot confirm otherwise, that 2012 was the first time that a proper welcome from the people of Rama was part of the conference proceedings. In 2013, Stinson-Henry again welcomed conference participants, and further, John Snake and James Simcoe, elder brothers from the reserve, performed a ceremonial welcoming, setting a tone of mutual respect and reciprocal vulnerability between conference attendees and local residents, and between those Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. However, that the welcome took place after a wine and cheese introductory gathering demonstrates that there are opportunities to delve deeper into what this reciprocity calls forth, as ceremony should not follow the consumption of alcohol. A recognition of cultural context of the conference’s happening deserves a corresponding adjustment of cultural norms.

Over the course of the conference, an acknowledgement of the land was fittingly reiterated by moderators and presenters, regardless of their cultural affiliation or home base. The theme of the conference did relate to this practice in a very direct manner, though this was not necessary for it to be appropriate. The specificity and the politics of the place do not change despite the topic of conversation shared amongst Couchiching participants. Though the practice of territorial acknowledgements does run the risk of seeming to be enough simply because it is something, I think it is important for non-Indigenous scholars, artists and politicians to bear some weight of what a colonial history means in Canada, and perhaps thereby challenge the on-going systemic injustices that are deployed against Indigenous populations across the country today. It is factual and ethical to acknowledge this history, but it also opens the possibility of being motivated in response. Whose land are you owning when you buy that house, for instance? Maybe property ownership should be understood in a spectrum of political implications, and not just a person’s simple and privileged right to consume. As a guest on any land (all land?), what obligations are we bound by? Territorial acknowledgements are a small act of resistance, to which no one should be content, but hopefully this kind of performance connects with other strategies of civic evolution.

One such proposal, seeming to have a rising chorus of support, is the abolition of the Indian Act, a statute that circumscribes many aspects of Indigenous life in Canada, including the definition of what an “Indian” is, the governance of bands and legislation of reserves. Again and again, the Indian Act was brought up as a moment of perpetual harm, as a turning point in the relationship between Indigenous people of Canada and Canadians that soured the potential to speak amongst each other as equals, though I have to wonder if this was not just a moment of formalizing conditions between the state and Indigenous populations, to the express benefit of the former. Indigenous people of Canada are literally some of the most legislated people in the world. Fundamentally, this fact bespeaks fear and disrespect on behalf of the legislators. Indigenous people must continually respond to these regulations (through acts of resistance that are as old as the act itself), despite the fact that the statute approaches Indigenous populations paternalistically rather than diplomatically. Correspondingly, settlers and immigrants should be forced to acknowledge that the act legislates in their name: what is your relationship to the Indian Act? This mutual implication is also part of the treaties that set out terms for co-existence on much of the land that Canada occupies. Treaties do not only police the actions and rights of Indigenous peoples, but of settlers too. If you live in a part of the country governed by a treaty, it dictates responsibilities for yourself as well as others. The phrase “we are all treaty people” is not a metaphor. As was brought up at the conference on several occasions, non-Indigenous people of Canada would do well to reckon with what their identities mean when framed by these statutes.

Over the course of the conference, I was presented with many ideas that I am grateful to have encountered:

  • To responsibly conceptualize a relationship to resource acquisition and use (be that mineral or social), the terms of the conversation should shift the focus from a rhetoric of rights to an articulation of responsibilities.
  • To undo Canada’s historical amnesia, the assumed sovereignty of the state must be reconciled with the pre-existing sovereignty of Indigenous nations. Canadians, as part of the relationship navigation of the conference’s title, need to confront how the colonial hubris of settler populations unlawfully usurped the living sovereignty of Indigenous cultures. Unlawful, that is, on the state’s own terms (not only ethically). For instance, Joseph Trutch, the first Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, did not believe that Indigenous populations deserved legal recognition as already existing inhabitants of the land, despite the way that property ownership was and is otherwise understood. Today, BC remains unceded despite Supreme Court rulings that assign fiduciary duty to acknowledge that Indigenous land rights persist after, and despite, colonization.
  • We are the least of existence. If humans were to vanish, the net result for the balance of earth’s ecosystems would be positive. (Perhaps not actually; what about domesticated house cats?) If humans were to vanish, the complex and interrelated health of all ecosystems on earth would benefit. I am speaking in grand terms, but what life forms are less important to balance than us? All animals and plants and other life forms are more integral to mutual sustainability of life here than the human animal. And even if exceptions to this position can be produced, that is not the point. The idea is to diminish our self-importance to a point where, as mentioned above, our orientation to the environment and each other becomes one of care (responsibility) and not entitlement (rights). This is a profound paradigm to use in discussing natural resources, where the dictates of capitalism demand ever increasing extraction and consumption, and the dictates of many Indigenous cultures suggest a consideration of indefinite future sustainability.

I interpreted the charge of the conference’s title as a decolonizing one, and that the negotiation would be one of how the descendants of settlers could responsibly and respectfully account for the rightful sovereignty of Indigenous peoples through a reconsideration and reformulation of privilege, power and resources. The term “decolonization” has a current cache in the art and academic fields. Yet, despite its prevalent usage, I feel that a lack of specificity accompanies its charge. Decolonization sounds like a great idea, but what does it mean? Because the politics of art and theory often remain propositional, and because policy is concerned with the translation of ideas into action, I went to Couchiching hoping to gather information on tactics to use in the decolonizing work I attempt in the cultural field. In re-articulating the history of Canada as colonial, in recognizing the on-going and systemic consequences/repercussions of these overly managed relationships between settlers and Indigenous people, what is to be done and how can we do it?

What I came away with is what should be the fundamental gesture of decolonizing work: to listen. It was said over and over again, that “navigation” is not a matter of the Canadian state dictating the terms and conditions of life for Indigenous people. Decolonization must begin from a position of Indigenous sovereignty, diverse and complicated as it is. Here are some other tools at our disposal:

  • Start the story earlier. Instead of beginning the history of the land that Canada occupies in 1867, begin it in 1467. In this way, Indigenous histories are re-centralized, which is not only factual but has the additional consequence of destabilizing the power of inherited historical narratives that are already a reflection of systemic power differentials related to colonization. When the story starts earlier, the interpretive gap between what settler societies believe history to be and how Indigenous populations have experienced colonization, becomes a lot clearer.
  • Start from different sources. Seek perspectives other than your own. (Or, be wary of confirmation bias.) Seek out ways of knowing that destabilize what you think you already know. Assume an imperative to engage outside of one’s comfort zone, to reach beyond the cannon, to look further, to be unsure, to expend effort.
  • Learn the pre-contact names for the places you go.
  • Know whose land you stand on. Acknowledge this. Contend with the fact that there are consequences to knowing this.
  • Situate yourself in relationship to power through a practice of non-belonging. Make it a habit to align yourself publicly with the parts of your identity that belong the least. Through non-belonging, it is possible to disrupt one’s own privileges, whatever they may be, and create ruptures in logic that would otherwise be definitional. [3]
  • Advocate outside of your subject-position. Be the one to speak out against injustice when it is not your own. In essence, there is no true value, no right place of power, only socially constructed negotiations to which we contribute either constructively or disruptively. Or both.
  • It is often proclaimed (sometimes attributed to Slavoj Žižek or Mark Fisher or Fredric Jameson) that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. The force of this imaginative block can be measured in precise relationship to the ongoing ubiquity of colonization. Capitalism is not inevitable. To read decolonially is to denaturalize these kinds of totalizing concepts and strict binaries. Insist on nuance and specificity and the possibility that things can be different.

And now, to undo all these lofty hypotheses. Decolonization is precisely related to land and resources. Decolonization is the repatriation of land and resources to Indigenous people. This work I am talking about, it’s not actually decolonization. Scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang would call it social justice. [4] I prefer the use of an adverb to modify its scope: cultural decolonization. In relation to the kinds of conversations Couchiching is known for, this type of decolonial work could have taken the form of specific policy proposals, only this is precisely what remained unsaid at the conference, at least from a non-Indigenous perspective. There was no talk about what it meant for non-Indigenous people to re-orient themselves to non-colonial ways of knowing, to give up their privileges, to reconsider land ownership.

And also this: people on the presentation stage speaking about their personal experiences, not from the positions of power that they occupy in the relationships up for discussion. These men—David MacDonald, a minister for the United Church; James Weisgerber, a Catholic archbishop; and Ian Anderson, president of Kinder Morgan; to name a few—got up on stage and told stories about themselves. Anderson is friends with at least 20 chiefs, and Weisgerber was adopted by an Indigenous community, and MacDonald did not know about residential schools growing up and it was upsetting when he learned the history. And it was maddening. These men used their personal stories to avoid having to embody the positions of power that brought them to the conference. I wanted them to speak as the president of a company that wants to triple their resource extraction by building pipelines on unceded land, which means that his relationships with Indigenous communities are in service of this profit motive and not simply community building, as he otherwise characterized it. I wanted these men to struggle with the fact that “adoption” does not somehow absolve them of the reciprocal, generational alienation the church has brought to Indigenous communities. I wanted them to deeply worry about the inherited responsibility they embody as architects of historical and therefore on-going horrors. Instead, smoke screens.

In the question periods that followed each panel, audience members were instructed to keep their comments in the form of a question. People did so, more or less, with the consequence that the format did not allow a rigorous holding accountable of the claims made in the presentations. Granted, it is difficult to orchestrate meaningful dialogue when there are more than maybe ten people in a room (and the self-importance of some audience members was a real detriment to creating space for diverse positions to be presented), but what could a more functional post-panel strategy be for encouraging meaningful, inclusive but not self-centred discussion to play out? How can the conference synthesize the lessons of past iterations and carry them forward in radical and meaningful ways? How does the civil disagreement central to the conference’s identity become more than polite deferral or egomaniacal posturing?

As preparations for the 2014 conference progress, it is my hope that the re-invitation of the Rama chief be central, along with organization of a ceremonial welcome (though this time, perhaps, wine could follow rather than precede the smudging) and continued territorial acknowledgments. For the conference’s future, one must imagine that the Snake and Simcoe brothers will become as central to the cast of characters as ex-Prime Ministers. And if I am right – that Couchiching is a place of brokerage – I eagerly await the policy outcomes of so many people engaging an Indigenous dialectic from a civic perspective.

[1] “Our History.”

[2] Two days before the conference began, an email was sent to participants noting some basic information, such as the informal dress code and, importantly, offering a pre-conference workshop for Aboriginal Awareness-Cultural Understanding.

[3] I first encountered the idea of practicing non-belonging through Wanda Nanibush.

[4] Over the course of their essay, Tuck and Yang outline the specific ways that social justice work is different from decolonization, which for them hinges on the way that social justice work turns decolonization into a metaphor, rather than addressing the strict charge of decolonization as the repatriation of Indigenous lands to Indigenous peoples.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no.1, 2012.


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