Cancel Canada Day

Arthur Manuel (1951–2017) was warrior for Indigenous rights, taking on colonial governments from British Columbia to the international stage. In this excerpt of Unsettling Canada, which he co-authored with Grand Chief Ronald M. Derrickson, Manuel explains the extremely shaky legal foundations of the Canadian state, and introduces traditions of Indigenous resistance and assertion of rights that has always pushed back against Canada's project of land theft.

As part of #CancelCanadaDay, the next 25 paperback copies of Unsettling Canada sold through our webstore will come with a free copy of Briarpatch's Land Back Issue.

Chapter 1: The Lay of the Land


There is no denying the beauty of the land. From the hills above Neskonlith—the community where I was born and grew up and where I served as band chief from 1995 to 2003—you can see the blue waters of the Shuswap lakes, the dry scrubland of the valley, and the cooler hills shaded by stands of ponderosa pines. Below, the South Thompson River empties from the lake and winds westward through the valley toward Kamloops, where it joins the North Thompson and flows to the Fraser and down to the sea.

This is British Columbia’s Interior Plateau. The land my people have shared for thousands of years, and still share with our ancient neighbours. Our Secwepemc territory spreads north to the Dakelh lands, south to the Syilx (Okanagan) lands, west to the Nlaka’pamux, St’at’imc, and Tsilhqot’in lands, and to the east by the Ktunaxa territory, where the Rocky Mountains rise to the sky, marking the boundary between the Interior tribes and the Nakota and Cree peoples on the Great Plains.

The village itself is moulded around a wide bend in the river. From the hills above, you see a handful of houses and the band office, and on the west side of the river, the gas station and store. Along the riverbank are small gardens, and now, after many decades of grasslands, the hayfields have been replanted with the help of the new sprinkler irrigation system.

Further upstream, where Little Shuswap Lake empties into the river, is the town of Chase. It began to form around the lumber mill built just before the First World War. We have generally had peaceable relations with the people of the town, with only occasional flashes of open conflict. But even when it is peaceful, there has been a steady note of racism from across the river. Our parents and grandparents faced open Jim Crow and were forbidden access to most services in the white world. The only restaurants that would serve us were the Chinese restaurants; for the rest, Indians would be stopped at the door or, even more humiliating, left to sit unserved until they slunk away. My generation felt the sting of blatant racism in a less formal way, but it was still shocking to be confronted by it. A generation later, as chief, I was still dealing with racist acts against our children.

There are, of course, many decent people in Chase, as there are anywhere, but the underlying noise is there. And even the well-meaning people of the town have a difficult time understanding us. To a large extent, we live in separate worlds. They live in Chase, British Columbia, Canada. We live in Neskonlith, Secwepemc territory.


I drove up to the hills above Neskonlith on an afternoon in June 2012. I was just back from New York, where I was serving as the co-chair to the Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus at the United Nations’ Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), and I was looking for a quiet place to think things over.

Somehow we had gotten our message through the clamour of states that make up the United Nations. We had condemned, as Indigenous peoples, the innocent-sounding doctrine of discovery, which was the tool—the legal fiction—Europeans used to claim our lands for themselves. Even that claim rested on obvious mistruths. The Americas were first portrayed as terra nullius on European maps. But in almost all cases, Europeans were met, at times within minutes of their arrival, by Indigenous peoples. There was an attempt to get around this inconvenient fact by declaring us non-human, but this was difficult even for Europeans to sustain over time. The doctrine of discovery remained because it was a legal fig leaf they could use to cover naked thievery.

In New York, the United Nations report had called this doctrine frankly racist and described it as no more legitimate than the slavery laws of the same era. Most important, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues’ committee report attacked the ongoing efforts to extinguish our title to the land through force or one-sided negotiations as a continuing violation of international law.

I would like to think that we live in a world where enlightenment—like the Permanent Forum statement on the doctrine of discovery—is a warm breeze spreading across the planet, and that with patience and good faith we will finally be warmed by the justice we have been so long denied. But I know that is not the case. At an earlier session of the UN, Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand fought bitterly against the whole world to try to block the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which eventually passed in 2007 by a vote of 144 to 4, with Canada leading the charge of the rights deniers.

Nothing we have ever gained has been given to us or surrendered without a fight. When circumstances forced the Europeans to make concessions, as was the case with the parts of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that recognized Indigenous sovereignty, the next generation would take advantage of a resurgence in its strength to reverse the concessions and try to push us even further into poverty and dependence.

Still, we have not given up and, as my father, Grand Chief George Manuel, often pointed out, the most important gift we have received from our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents is the legacy of struggle. They have opened the trail we now pass along and, in a very real way, set the destination for our journey.

Before we look at where we are today and where we are heading, it is important that we first look at how we arrived at this place. I will briefly describe the process for my Secwepemc people. Among the other Indigenous peoples in Canada and throughout the Americas, there are many variations, but there is one constant: the land was stolen from underneath us.


Europeans made their initial land claim on our Secwepemc lands in 1778 when Captain Cook sailed along the British Columbia coast, more than four hundred kilometres away from our territory. According to the tenets of the doctrine of discovery, all that Europeans had to do to expropriate the lands in a region was to sail past a river mouth and make a claim to all of the lands in its watershed. Our lands, given to us by our Creator and inhabited by us for thousands of years, were transformed into a British “possession,” not only without our consent and without our knowledge, but also without a single European setting foot on our territory.

In the early 1800s, European traders and advance men like Simon Fraser did begin to show up on our rivers. For the first fifty years, they were seen and treated as guests on our lands. We had more or less friendly relations. We traded with them, we shared food with them, and we often helped them on their journeys through our territory. On a personal level, we tolerated their eccentricities and they tolerated ours.

But gradually, the numbers of these uninvited guests began to increase, and they began to act less and less like guests and more and more as lords. It was a process that Indigenous peoples around the world have experienced. The strangers arrive and offer trade and friendship. The Indigenous population responds in kind. Gradually the strangers begin to take up more and more space and make more and more requests from their hosts, until finally they are not requesting at all. They are demanding. And they are backing their demands with garrisoned outposts.

In the case of the people of the Interior Plateau, we are fortunate to have a document from our ancestors that describes the precise pattern of usurpation. This declaration, which is known as the Laurier Memorial, was presented to Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier on August 25, 1910, by the Interior chiefs when the prime minister was visiting Kamloops on an election campaign stop.

It was prepared in the months before in mass meetings by our chiefs and people, who wanted to ensure that Canadians knew that we clearly remembered the betrayals of the previous century and that we demand redress in the current one. We called it a memorial because it represented, in a very precise way, our collective memories of our history with the settlers.

Europeans first came to the Interior Plateau looking for things they could pick up and cart away, as they did around the world. In this case, it was precious metals. The following are excerpts of what our chiefs told Laurier about their initial experience with Europeans:

At first they looked only for gold. We knew the latter was our property, but as we did not use it much nor need it to live by we did not object to their searching for it. They told us, “Your country is rich and you will be made wealthy by our coming. We wish just to pass over your lands in quest of gold.”

Soon they saw the country was good and some of them made up their minds, to settle it. They commenced to take up pieces of land here and there. They told us they wanted only the use of these pieces of land for a few years, and then would hand them back to us in an improved condition; meanwhile they would give us some of the products they raised for the loan of our land.

Thus they commenced to enter our “houses,” or live on our “ranches.” With us when a person enters our house he becomes our guest, and we must treat him hospitably as long as he shows no hostile intentions. At the same time we expect him to return to us equal treatment for what he receives.

It soon became apparent that the settlers were not offering equal treatment, and they were not planning to leave. On the contrary, their numbers were increasing. This led to growing unrest in the 1860s at a time when the route to the newly discovered Cariboo gold fields passed along the Fraser River to the Thompson and North Thompson rivers, directly through Secwepemc territory. The trickle of prospectors grew into a full-blown gold rush. With the unrest putting this new mining wealth at risk, James Douglas, the governor of the small colony on the coast, sent an emissary to meet with Chief Neskonlith to try to defuse the situation.

Chief Neskonlith, who was known as a tough and uncompromising leader, had been chosen to speak for the four bands around the Shuswap lakes. At the time, our people were under great stress because European diseases were sweeping through our country. First smallpox, then waves of measles, influenza, and tuberculosis. But even with our people in a weakened state, Neskonlith was forceful with the colonial representative. He told him that the encroachments on our land had reached an intolerable level and we would not accept any more European settlement. The emissary understood that this was not a bluff. But he had no financial or other resources that he could offer a deal with. So he simply asked Chief

Neskonlith what the necessary lands were for his people and the other three Secwepemc bands.

Neskonlith showed the essential area on the emissary’s map. Together they marked out the territory for exclusive Secwepemc use; today, this area is known as the Neskonlith Douglas Reserve 1862. On this map, our land area totals almost a million acres; the emissary agreed this territory was for the exclusive use of our people. Chief Neskonlith then went out and staked the land where non-Secwepemc settlement was to be forbidden.

But as Indigenous peoples around the world have discovered, a deal is not a deal when it comes to settler governments. No restraint was placed on settlers moving onto our lands. In fact, colonial powers began to give away 160 acres of our land, free of charge, to each settler who applied. At the same time, in an astounding act of racism, the authorities allocated only 20 acres for Indian families. Our forests were then handed over to the control of the lumber companies. Our million acres was gradually, without our consent or even notification, whittled down to barely seven thousand acres scattered in small strips across our territory. The Interior chiefs told Laurier in 1910 that they had been betrayed by the government.

[The settlers] have knocked down . . . the posts of all the Indian tribes. They say there are no lines, except what they make. They have taken possession of all the Indian country and claim it as their own. . . . They have stolen our lands and everything on them. . . .

After a time when they saw that our patience might get exhausted and that we might cause trouble if we thought all the land was to be occupied by whites they set aside many small reservations for us here and there over the country. This was their proposal not ours, and we never accepted these reservations as settlement for anything, nor did we sign any papers or make any treaties. . . . They thought we would be satisfied with this, but we never have been satisfied and never will be until we get our rights.

Bitter insult, the Interior chiefs told Laurier, was added to injury when the settlers not only invaded our territory, but also began to treat us as trespassers and bar us from the lands that had been ours since time immemorial.

Gradually as the whites . . . became more and more powerful, and we less and less powerful, they little by little changed their policy towards us, and commenced to put restrictions on us. . . . They treat us as subjects without any agreement to that effect, and force their laws on us without our consent and irrespective of whether they are good for us or not. . . .

In many places we are debarred from camping, traveling, gathering roots and obtaining wood and water as heretofore. Our people are fined and imprisoned for breaking the game and fish laws and using the same game and fish which we were told would always be ours for food. Gradually we are becoming regarded as trespassers over a large portion of this our country.

Indigenous peoples from around the world recognize this process of slow, lawless confiscation of their lands, with promises made and laws of protection enacted, then quickly broken as soon as the coalescence of forces again favours the settlers.

Non-Indigenous readers may be thinking—yes, terrible things went on in those days, but really, it’s all ancient history. To you, I want to stress that this is not at all ancient history. The meeting with Laurier occurred in my own grandfather’s time. When I was young, I hunted on Secwepemc lands with my father, and I remember being surprised to see how nervous he was that he would get caught by the authorities. In recent years, my daughters have been arrested and sent to jail for protesting a new encroachment on Secwepemc lands. My people have been beaten, jailed, and shot at by the authorities simply for occupying our own lands.

And it is the loss of our land that has been the precise cause of our impoverishment. Indigenous lands today account for only 0.36 per cent of British Columbian territory. The settler share is the remaining 99.64 per cent. In Canada overall the percentage is even worse, with Indigenous peoples controlling only 0.2 per cent of the land and the settlers 99.8 per cent. With this distribution of the land, you don’t have to have a doctorate in economics to understand who will be poor and who will be rich. And our poverty is crushing. Along with suffering all of the calamities of life that hit the poor with greater impact, our lives are seven years shorter than the lives of non-Indigenous Canadians. Our unemployment rates are four times higher. The resources to educate our children are only a third of what is spent on non-Indigenous Canadian children. Our youth commit suicide at a rate more than five times higher. We are living the effects of this dispossession every day of our lives, and we have been living this misery in Canada for almost 150 years.

What has been the response of the Canadian government when we protest the illegal seizure of our lands and the intentional impoverishment of our people? Generally, it has been to simply turn away. Until our voices become too loud to ignore; then false promises or outright repression come into play. This was the response after our chiefs made their determined plea to Laurier. First, silence from Canada. Then, after the First World War, when Indigenous veterans returned to their communities and began to insist on action on the land and on rights issues, the Dominion government responded with unprecedented repression.

The returning First World War veterans, like my father’s uncles, François and William Pierrish, were radicalized by the war. François had been band chief before he went overseas, and he returned to his post at war’s end with a new determination to hold the government to account for its broken promises to our people. François had the toughness of old Chief Neskonlith, and he began to resist the government at every turn. But the stress of the war and the fight against the government took its toll on him; while still a young man in the 1920s, he died of a heart attack in his hayfield. His brother, William, who had lost an arm in the nightmarish battles in the trenches in France, took over as chief and as leader in our resistance. In 1926, William Pierrish and two other B.C. chiefs travelled to London, England, to present a petition to the Privy Council to demand action on the land question. Their petition stated:

We Indians want our native titles to our native lands, and all our land contains as we are the original people of Canada. We Indians want our consent before laws are made upon our possessions.

The Privy Council refused to get involved in a fight with the Dominion government and pointed the chiefs back to Ottawa. Ottawa responded to the threat posed by this new Indian activism by passing draconian Indian Act amendments in 1927 that tightened the control over our daily lives and that made Indian organizing, for all intents and purposes, illegal. The government tried to separate activist veterans like Chief William Pierrish from the people by offering them citizenship—with the basic human rights afforded other Canadians—but only if they surrendered their Indian status. Virtually none of the veterans accepted this poison pill. Chief Pierrish summed it up when he said, “We do not want enfranchisement, we want to be Indians to the end of the time.”

The purpose of these measures was made clear by the Indian superintendent in the 1920s, Duncan Campbell Scott. Speaking with uncharacteristic frankness, he called our people “a weird and waning race” and said: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed.”


The 1927 Indian Act amendments, which were in force until 1951, brought about a shameful period in Canada’s history. Our people were, by Canadian law, virtually forbidden to leave our reserves without permission from the Indian agent, who now controlled almost every aspect of our lives, and the courts were effectively cut off to us as an avenue for addressing a land claim against the government. Our reserves began to resemble the internment camps that were set up during the world wars for enemy aliens.

But this repression did not extinguish resistance. It merely drove it underground. Communities met at night with travelling activists like Andrew Paull, who kept the fight for Aboriginal title alive. Paull, a Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) political organizer, had attended law school, and he was able to travel the country as the manager of an Indian lacrosse team. He founded the Allied Tribes of British Columbia in the 1920s and later founded a loose coalition he somewhat grandly called the North American Indian Brotherhood. Because of the restrictions of the day, both organizations existed mainly in his briefcase, but Paull, tirelessly criss-crossing the country to preach resistance, provided the light in this period of darkness.

It was at these travelling meetings, where Andrew Paull called for justice on the land question, that my father and many others of his generation headed down the path of national and international struggle. In the 1950s, when some of the more oppressive laws against our people were finally lifted, my father’s generation began to build the national organization—the National Indian Brotherhood (NIB), forerunner of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN)—to take their fight to Ottawa and to Canadians. But first they had to find each other again. Organizing meant taking a collection at a local meeting, travelling long distances, and sleeping in their cars. As we will see in the following chapters, these men and women—for women were extraordinarily present in these battles—led us back out of political wilderness and fought for our rights in the national and provincial capitals, in the courts, and when necessary, by demonstrating in the streets. The struggles of my parents’ generation are part of this book not only because it is important that we honour them, but also because we can learn from their successes and their failures.

Along the way, we will examine their civil rights battle in the 1960s, the critical battle against the 1969 White Paper, court victories like the 1973 Calder decision, and the direct action of the 1980s that won recognition of Aboriginal rights in the Canadian Constitution. We will also look at how their ongoing fight for justice on the international stage transformed our struggle from a group of isolated activists fighting for survival to a movement of more than 350 million Indigenous peoples from around the world working together to regain our land and dignity.


The book then focuses on how my generation has been able to build on the successes of our parents’ generation, but we will also look at some of our missed chances and wrong turns. This history is still being written with our deeds; the story includes some tensions and conflicts within our movement. As we search for the path through the chaotic and often

bruising world we all inhabit, we should not be afraid to disagree among Ourselves.

This is a fault that sometimes appears in our movement. It is a fundamental tenet of Indigenous peoples that everyone is allowed to speak their mind. That is the only way we can move forward as a people. It shows no lack of respect to point out that someone may be leading us down the wrong path or that another path may take us more quickly to our goal.

Finally, before we embark on this journey, it is important to note that when we speak of rebuilding Indigenous societies and Indigenous economies, we are not seeking to join the multinationals on Wall Street or Bay Street as junior partners, but to win back the tools to build our own societies that are consistent with our culture and values. Our goal is not simply to replace Settlers Resource Inc. with Indigenous Resource Inc. Instead we are interested in building true Indigenous economies that begin and end with our unique relationship to the land. This is essential so we can be true not only to ourselves, but also to a future we share with all of the peoples of the world.

Our Indigenous view—which includes air, water, land, animals, and people in a continually sustaining circle—is increasingly seen by both scientists and citizens as the only way to a sustainable future. As Indigenous peoples, we must always keep in mind that taking care of Mother Earth is the most important contribution we can make. This is how we can support a new international economy that is not based on the outdated and environmentally unsound laissez-faire concepts of economics. In this endeavour, we can be an important ally of those growing forces—in Canadian society and internationally—that understand that for our collective survival on the planet, fundamental changes must be made. Mother Earth cannot simply be reduced to the industrial binary of profit and garbage.

We welcome the new alliances. And when we speak about reclaiming a measure of control over our lands, we obviously do not mean throwing Canadians off it and sending them back to the countries they came from—that is the kind of reductio ad absurdum that some of those who refuse to acknowledge our title try to use against us. We know that for centuries Canadians have been here building their society, which, despite its failings, has become the envy of many in the world. All Canadians have acquired a basic human right to be here. We also know that Canada does not have the astronomical amount of money it would cost to pay us for the centuries of use of our lands. We are certainly asking for compensation for the illegal seizures, but those amounts we can discuss. And we can begin these more precise discussions with Grand Chief Ron Derrickson’s Afterword to this book. At present, we are asking for the right to protect our Aboriginal title land, to have a say on any development on our lands, and when we find the land can be safely and sustainably developed, to be compensated for the wealth it generates.

That is the thought I had in the hills above Neskonlith that warm June afternoon, when I returned from the UN meeting. The land retains its power and its beauty. All we have to do is rethink our place on it. Simply by removing the shadow of the doctrine of discovery, you find a rich tapestry of peoples who need to sit down to speak to each other as equals and build a new mechanism to co-operate with each other, to satisfy each other’s needs and aspirations in the modern world.

There is room on this land for all of us and there must also be, after centuries of struggle, room for justice for Indigenous peoples. That is all that we ask. And we will settle for nothing less.