Ethics

How to Create Floods in Indigenous Space

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has just published an article called “Fraser Valley threatened by flooding.” You can have a gander at it here.  

 The Fraser River at Chilliwack Source

I feel for the people threatened with this catastrophe. It’s a terrible situation and they need our full support. Whatever can be done to keep them safe needs to be done, as long as it doesn’t create even greater harm. All that stands between people in peril here and their total insecurity, even death, is the protection that can be offered by the care of their neighbours and the attentions of the provincial and federal Canadian governments. It is, as usual, offered eagerly, here and throughout Northern Cascadia, as winter snows melt in a hurry brought on by a warm spring. Most years, spring warms up rapidly in April, melts a whack of snow, then cools throughout May, to sustain the melting over a long, slow period. This year has returned to a longer-term cycle, of a warm April and a warm May. It’s nothing new, but when it comes it brings floods, and misery. Nonetheless, there is a colonial side to this issue, and it speaks to one of the things that must be done to ensure safety in the future once this crisis has passed. I’m talking about the conflict between water and property rights created to resolve the Fraser War of 1858, coupled with the larger issue: this is unceded indigenous territory, with a complex of colonial and pre-colonial common law rights to both water and land, that have never been resolved. In fact, the whole notion that there is a flood here is an expression of this mixture of unresolved claims.

The Sto:lo and Nlaka’pamux Peoples managed their resources through exercises of kinship rights and honouring beavers and their ability to regulate water flow.

The river remains their river.

The Hudson’s Bay Company managed the land for its shareholders in London by trading in goods that promised new kinship rights by turning those beavers into pelts, which were turned into hats, which enhanced the kinship rights of Brits back home in the rain.

The floods are exacerbated by this extermination. Claims that there have always been floods are less than honest, given that by 1835 most of the beavers were already gone and European settlement, and records, records nothing of what the land and water were like before that extermination. The floods belong to the HBC.

The Placer Gold Miners of 1858 managed their claims to Nlaka’pamux and Sto:lo land with Gatling guns, military companies, and long rifles, on the one hand, and land rights subordinated to water rights on the other — a system developed out of populist politics in the killing fields of the Gold Rush at Sutter’s Mill in Old California in 1849; in a gold rush town, a claim to land was nothing without the water to wash the gold from the gravel. A system was developed that protected both private property and access to water, based on an intricate system of rights of way.

The system of dikes and water works along the river, the system of private land, and notions of popular determination of land use belong to the miners of 1858.

The Colonial British Columbian Government formed two months after the system of the 49ers stuck, and after their genocidal war, offered the rule of law in exchange for a monopoly on violence; as a trade-off, it allowed the new populist American land-ownership system to stay in place. 40,000 armed miners, organized into military companies, some with dreams of setting up Panama-style independent republics, some with dreams of extending American rule over the Fraser, against a dozen or so Royal Marines dictated that.

The system of controlling land use through the exercise of European rather than Indigenous or even natural law belongs to the British Columbian government, as does the system of protecting people from natural events (ie from indigenous law). Unsurprisingly, the terms used to describe wild rivers remain close to those used to describe indigenous people. It is the great fear of a colonial society that it will vanish into the mix of indigenous people it has established itself within. The same goes to the power of rivers and of the land in general.

The Canadian Government that annexed British Columbia to clear its gold rush debt thirteen years later offered more law and the containment of the peoples of the river (and the colony in general) onto tiny reservations, allowing for the efficient expansion of private, taxable land, that could support the expenses of government.

The system of using law to simultaneously negate indigenous law, to privilege private ownership, and to reward it with rights of social power on a racial basis to be used to create a powerful, distant government, belongs to Canada. It replaces an indigenous social space that includes the river with a non-indigenous social space that includes neither the people of the river nor the river itself.

Little of this speaks to the needs of the river.

 The Fraser River at Chilliwack Source

As you can see from the image above, the title of the article, “Fraser Valley threatened by flooding,” is a bit misleading. For one, the valley is a fjord filled in with the outflow of previous Fraser River floods, not a valley. Look at the river flowing between the islands of what indigenous memory records as the sea. Look at the exhaust of the cars of Vancouver, 100 kilometres to the west, pooling against those islands. Look at the valley as a part of the river, on which colonial society has built farms and houses, and consider how it protects them by placing the river within a reserved channel, a kind of “river” reservation, to allow land for private settlement and the series of political compromises and benefits that accrue from that, all land stolen from the river and the system of laws that allow it its power. Look at the river strain against those artificial constraints. Consider that the country called Canada is nothing more than the system of those constraints laid over indigenous space. Note that that indigenous space still claims, and still has a right to, that Canadian land. Consider how the compromises of 1858 remain and how, in that context, Canada is still a profoundly colonial space. And consider that flood is the refusal to integrate what should never have been separated. Consider that there are two Fraser Valleys: the one within the legal system of Canada and the mixed Common Law-Populist legal system of British Columbia, and the physical valley itself, expressed both in its de-indigenized context as “nature” and its indigenous context as a power people live within — a form of their bodies. When the CBC says “Fraser Valley threatened by flooding” they are talking about the Canadian-British Columbian private property framework. The other Fraser Valley, the Sto:lo and Nlaka’pamux one, has no floods and is under no flood threat; its threat is only the system of dikes and private property that attempt to contain it to allow for industrialization and capitalization of its body. Slavery, we call that.

After the crisis is over this June and people and their lives are again secure, we do seriously need to attend to old business. We need no more floods of our own making. We all need to become people of the river. If we don’t know what that means, we need to ask, and we need to set aside the populism of the 1858 lynch mobs and listen, and then we need to act together. One of the people at the table will be the river. This is actually not negotiable. All that is negotiable is whether we will accept the challenge or fail to.

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