Indigenous Culture, Settler Culture and Canada: Agriculture’s Highways and Byways

Harold Innis argued long ago …

Societies that depend solely on time-biased media are oral and tribal. Although leadership tends to be hierarchical, time-bound societies may also operate by consensus. Since, in their purest form, time-bound cultures do not rely on written records, they must preserve their traditions in story, song and myth handed down unchanged from one generation to the next.

He is referring to what in Canadian terms would be called Indigenous societies. He goes on…

For them memory is of crucial importance; they revere the wisdom of elders and favour concrete over abstract forms of thought.

He continues with a description of what in Canadian terms would be called today “settler” culture…

On the other hand, societies that depend on space-biased media such as printed newspapers and books tend to favour abstract thought and control over space. They have little regard for tradition and when compared with oral societies, their ways of thinking are apt to be more rational, linear and impersonal.

All-in-all, Innis was exploring the impact of space-based civilization (European culture) with time-based civilization (Indigenous culture), a conflict that continues today. Canada has survived here on Syilx land for as long as it has because of the power that the laws of Canada grant to space-based civilization, but that should not be allowed to obscure a parallel pattern: Canadian space-based civilization also preys upon or disregards its own time-based cultures, or the branches of its cultures moving in that direction, while relying on them as marketing tools. It is a strange compromise. It is also often unsustainable. These are just words, though. Have a look at what this looks like on the ground:

The above image shows what is called a “farm.” Notice, that it less a farm than a form of transportation, or a space for transportation, which is one of the most powerful forms of space-based communication in the political structures of Canada. After all, syilx land here was pulled into Canada through a railroad, and is kept attached to it by three highways, some microwave towers, and, well, now two railroads. But enough of that. Look at it again in a Canadian context, as if it were actually a farm. Note the productivity of the land, the bounteous food it produces, the joy of being able to go onto the land and pick your own tomatoes at a slight discount in price, the self-sufficient farmer, the care for the earth he has dedicated himself to, the strong family values, and so on.  That’s the Canadian compromise. A Canadian solidly anchored in space-based culture sees those things here, but is largely blind to the time-based culture in the image at the same time. In fact, such a citizen, will actually read space-based culture and its narratives as time-based ones (the myth of the good farmer, and so on). But look at the waste!

Notice as well the soil-compaction that transportation-as-farming creates.

Ain’t that the thing. If you focus on the waste, you no longer see a farm here. You see only a highway. If this form of transportation-in-a-field was really done by human labour, it would not be in this shape, nor would these tomatoes be wasted. However, that’s a little academic, because this highway-farming was designed to use the capitalization of industrial equipment to eliminate human labour. In other words, it shifted labour into the production of that industrial equipment, in a perfect image of an economy in which a handful of industrialists control almost the entire economy of the country. Here’s how an apple orchard conforms to this transportation model.

Soil compaction created by this transportation-based method of “farming” reduces yields by 25%. The extreme narrowness of the trees, and the clearing of the inter-row space, reduces it by a further 25%. That’s how expensive this method is.

And a vineyard…

Here, too, we can presume a 50% reduction in yield due to transportation methods, exacerbated further by forced low yields due to the inability of this crop, transported from Europe, to thrive here. Crazy from a time-based perspective, indigenous or not.

And a garlic field. Note how the cloves are planted in highways of plastic, which cover highways of water.

Such plantations are often sold as ‘organic’, if they have certification. The use of this petroleum-based transportation method is certified as an organic input.

Any crop you choose, really. The model is consistent. Here are, from top down, cherries, apples, pumpkins and corn.

To make these pumpkins grow on overly-compacted, fibre-less, dead soil, they exist solely on nitrogen fertilizers. In a fallow year, this soil can barely produce weeds.

It is a game of efficiencies. Note how much pumpkin goes unharvested.

Note as well the screening, to make these highways and thoroughfares private, rather than public. Ostensibly, this work is done to deny access to animals which would eat the trees, but that’s not really true. If it were, passages would have been built through the farm to allow them to transport themselves through space. Instead, space is blocked.

This is, in other words, the other side of the Canadian transportation experiment: reservations of private land and common land. There are three kinds: government land, used for industry, parks, water capture and so on; indigenous land (Indian Reserves), reserved for indigenous peoples; private land, used for people who have earned certain rights within “settler culture.” Here’s some private land. Nice. Note the water transportation system running across it from vineyard to vineyard.

Here is some more private land, being transformed into a testament to social power.

Intriguingly, houses like the one above sit at the sides of roads which deliver people to them from distant parts of Canada. Over time, however, this private land is often used to store broken transportation technologies, for the marginalized depreciated capital value and non-depreciated social value they still have within them.

Transportation is very important to Canada. But what this whole two-part culture misses is what the above image of a collapsed wall and a yard full of junk speaks of: at a certain point, space-based culture continually generates time-based culture. The current system of breaking cultures down between “Indigenous” and “Settler” prevents this entering into time, and keeps the leading edge of power solidly within the realm of book culture, ie as the dream objects called “a view”, “nature”, or “a farm,” even when the smoke of the burning forests of the failure of this system show how tawdry it all is.

This is troubling stuff. People will pay a lot to gain access to this power. It might be an expensive view house looking over late Autumn smog over a lake that the tourism brochures describe as “pristine”.

Farmhouse with a view.

It might be a half-million dollar duplex overlooking a complete mess of weeds called “a park” and “nature”, where 16 months ago the killdeer nested and the bear wandered down for chokecherries.

Where killdeer and bears are blocked, you can be sure people are, too, because to people who are the land in time those creatures are also the people.  The image above is what power looks like in Canada. It is not pretty. Fortunately, there is a way forward, out of this illusionary dichotomy between “indigenous” and “settler” cultures, divided on racial lines transported here from the United States, which happily shares its own version of transportation culture. That is just too easy, and it does not treat the underlying disease, which is about land, air and water, who has access to them, who controls that access, and the cultural mechanisms by which that access is controlled. In this context, we are all on reservations in Canada. If we were just to settle the racial problems within this culture amalgam, the underlying problem of land, air and water would remain. Fortunately, Innis has some insights to help us, if we allow it. It’s time to read Innis with new eyes.


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