Promised Land

An aboriginal activist makes a case for full recognition of aboriginal title.

“And whereas great Frauds and Abuses have been committed in purchasing Lands of the Indians, to the great Prejudice of our Interests, and to the great Dissatisfaction of the said Indians … no private Person do presume to make any purchase from the said Indians of any Lands reserved to the said Indians … but that if at any Time any of the Said Indians should be inclined to dispose of the said Lands, the same shall be Purchased only for Us, in our Name, at some public Meeting or Assembly of the said Indians, to be held for that Purpose.”1

The Royal Proclamation of 1763, which recognizes the pre-existing aboriginal title of “Indian Nations,” is still the law in Canada. Aboriginal title is a unique form of land title in Canada that, in the words of a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision involving the Tsilhqot’in Nation, “gives the Aboriginal group the right to use and control the land and enjoy its benefits.” In this case the court also confirmed that aboriginal title includes “the right to the economic benefits of the land; and the right to pro-actively use and manage the land.” Practically speaking, this means that it is the First Nation that has the right to decide what does and does not happen on its lands in legal, political and economic terms.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763, which recognizes the pre-existing aboriginal title of “Indian Nations,” is still the law in Canada. Aboriginal title is a unique form of land title in Canada that, in the words of a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision involving the Tsilhqot’in Nation, “gives the Aboriginal group the right to use and control the land and enjoy its benefits.” In this case the court also confirmed that aboriginal title includes “the right to the economic benefits of the land; and the right to pro-actively use and manage the land.” Practically speaking, this means that it is the First Nation that has the right to decide what does and does not happen on its lands in legal, political and economic terms.

The root cause of the many social ills in First Nations, says Manuel, is the fact that they have been dispossessed of the majority of their lands. While the housing, water and flooding crises get most of the media attention, addressing this overriding issue of aboriginal title is the only way to deal with the crisis of First Nations poverty. He suggests that increasing government program funding or creating more jobs is still within the colonial dependency model, whereas recognition of aboriginal title means First Nations get to utilize their lands to support their nations economically—just as federal and provincial governments do now.

Address it how? By full recognition and implementation of aboriginal title and the right to self-determination, says Manuel. Although he acknowledges that some First Nations, in the interests of protecting their sovereignty, do not agree with focusing on Canadian laws to protect these rights, he argues that inclusion of these rights in the constitution is critical. Despite many positive decisions from the Supreme Court, Manuel stresses that Canada has refused to implement these decisions to give them effect. Therefore, since the constitution is the document where all the powers and rights are set out for governments in Canada, it would be important to include specific recognition of both the right of aboriginal title and self-­determination. Only these remedies offer a path toward true reconciliation and justice.

Some might consider this a radical recipe for social conflict. However, any potential for conflict will not likely be between First Nations and Canadians. Aboriginal title does not nullify the interests of Canadian homeowners. If the federal or provincial governments granted third-party interests (private property rights) in a way that does not respect aboriginal title, then the government would compensate the affected First Nation. Even during land claim and treaty negotiations, third-party interests are always addressed. The real potential for conflict comes from government and industry, especially the extractive industry where mining, oil and lumber companies often extract the wealth from indigenous lands without consultation with or obtaining the consent of First Nations. This is usually not only done with federal and provincial regulatory approvals, but also enforced, sometimes violently, against First Nations by provincial police, the RCMP and the military. The First Nation is then left to struggle with the resulting injuries, arrests, lengthy and expensive court cases, and destructive environmental contamination.

Still, right-wing thinkers such as Tom Flanagan predict nightmare scenarios of violence and conflict should indigenous activists and Canadian environmentalists join forces to protect the land.2 Others, such as high-profile legal commentator Bill Gallagher, suggest that the peaceful defence of aboriginal rights will create “train wrecks” and “conflict zones” that stymie economic development.3 But Manuel makes a compelling case that the failure to implement aboriginal title and rights is itself a radical departure from the law as set out by the Supreme Court—“one of the most conservative institutions in the country.” Turning current government and industry rhetoric on its head, he points out that it is not First Nations rights, but government’s failure to abide by the law that is the real cause of legal and economic uncertainty hampering investment and sustainable project development in Canada.

A Secwepemc from Neskonlith territory, raised in an activist family deeply rooted in traditional knowledge, laws and history, Manuel is well grounded in his culture—despite having spent time in a residential school and then studying law. His administrative experience is considerable as well. Besides serving as a tribal chief, chair of a First Nation tribal council, spokesperson for a Native alliance and a committee member at the Assembly of First Nations, he has been active at the international level, participating in United Nations forums and gaining a reputation as an expert in aboriginal title and an advocate for asserting and defending it. He has written journal articles, reports, opinions, submissions and community-based publications, but this is his first sole-authored book.

In Unsettling Canada, he sets out his argument within the context of key indigenous protests and an analysis of federal laws and policies affecting indigenous peoples. Weaving in personal stories about the impact of the indigenous struggle on his family and community, he connects his own experience to the plight of indigenous peoples nationally. He points out that despite the weariness that comes from extended struggles lasting decades, indigenous peoples have never given up. He quotes the words of his father, Grand Chief George Manuel: “the most important gift we have received from our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents is the legacy of struggle.”

Far from glorifying activism, Manuel speaks directly to the failings of individual leaders and organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations, and the devastating impact these failings have had on the efforts of the movement. He also addresses the doomed attempts by friends and respected colleagues “lured” to make change from within the federal system. Some may consider these views controversial, but his deep experience as both administrator and activist provides the reader with rare insight into the grassroots-level organizing and strategizing positions, negotiations and direct action on the ground. His account shows that in every major protest from Sun Peaks and Oka to Grassy Narrows, the core issue is always defence of indigenous lands from destructive development that excludes any decision-making role from indigenous peoples. His review of Supreme Court decisions supports his position that defence of our lands is not just an inherent part of indigenous peoples’ identities and cultures, but is also a legal obligation.

Both young activists and seasoned warriors will gain invaluable insight into the conditions that led to critical mistakes and to political success. It is a rare opportunity to gain from the knowledge, experience and mistakes of a respected activist and leader who is still engaged in the struggle. As an activist myself, I felt a whole range of emotions reading his accounts of various protests. At times, I was sad for the suffering of his family, angry about the government tactics used to vilify and divide us, and frustrated that little seems to have changed. At the same time, I was inspired by the stories of grassroots people who have always been the real source of power behind our movements. Many young indigenous activists will likely feel a source a pride knowing that indigenous peoples have always resisted and have never given up, despite all that has been done to them. This is an important part of ensuring a positive legacy for the next generation of activists in a context of oppressive assimilatory influences.

One of the few weaknesses of the book includes a chapter that starts out well, reflecting on some of the mistakes made in the 1980s when activists “relaxed” their advocacy efforts and relied on their leaders to follow through. But the emphasis then abruptly switches to a discussion of some of the racism experienced by Grand Chief Derrickson—a friend of Manuel’s—in his business dealings, which does not seem to fit in with the structure, core themes or chronology of the rest of the book. Similarly, an afterword by this same grand chief focuses on deals to be made between resource companies and First Nations and his ability to negotiate such deals. This seems somewhat of a departure from Manuel’s core message on defending aboriginal title lands from destructive development. It would also have been better had Manuel included more references for all of the official letters, documents, submissions and reports he mentions, as well as the statistics he uses to bolster his points.

Anyone interested in gaining an informed understanding of various First Nation–Canadian flash points in our collective history will learn something from Unsettling Canada. As the reader progresses through the book, the details of various protests, demonstrations and key events in history are presented as though Manuel was telling stories at the kitchen table. He avoids legalistic terminology and keeps the analysis of court cases simple, making his book accessible to a wide audience. Non-indigenous Canadians will gain a valuable insight into the history of their country, by hearing this history from a different perspective as they learn about the thousands of indigenous activists who are not famous and do not get paid for their labours, but work tirelessly to better their nations. While he does not paint all First Nation leaders with the same brush, he is highly critical of what he describes as the recent failure of most chiefs and chiefs’ organizations to advocate strenuously to protect indigenous rights—a political reality that requires grassroots activists to ramp up their role as defenders. Readers will also learn about the Canadian allies who have supported First Nations in the cause and why Manuel argues that they are key to changing Canada for the better. Finally, they will come to understand that the criminalization of our people stems not from any notion of inherent criminality but from an attempt to silence our voices and prevent us from living off the land.

Although the Idle No More movement may be the first time many Canadians have become as informed or engaged in our struggle, Manuel reminds us that indigenous activists have never been idle—nor are the issues they are concerned with relevant only to indigenous peoples. Unsettling Canada is a national wake-up call to Canadians to stand in solidarity with First Nations who are on the front lines protecting the lands and waters for our collective benefit. I believe that First Nations represent Canadians’ last best hope at protecting the lands, waters, plants and animals for future generations. Manuel comes to the same conclusion, arguing that cases from the Supreme Court of Canada not only support this position, but go so far as to obligate us to protect our aboriginal title lands. This is a perspective now shared by many prominent Canadians from John Ralston Saul to Naomi Klein (who has provided a foreword to this book) to David Suzuki.4 Even the Pope has stated that when indigenous peoples are permitted to remain on their land, “they care for it best.”5

Few books deal so compellingly with the historical development of Canada’s laws and policies related to indigenous peoples and set within the context of struggles to defend indigenous lands. Unsettling Canada is invaluable for its direct and honest account of the issues, the players and the politics behind the indigenous movement. Some may not agree with Manuel’s depiction of various players or events, but he has challenged the notion that speaking out is disrespectful. As he lays out his plan for moving forward, he reminds readers that everyone stands to gain from his plan.

The real surprise for other Canadians, I suspect, will be that the path that we want to embark on is one that not only brings justice to Indigenous peoples but also builds a better, much more sustainable Canada.

Rather than a manifesto, Manuel has presented a story of peaceful resistance that will inspire Canadians and First Nations alike to stand together to restore justice and prosperity in Canada.


  1. Royal Proclamation of 1763, R.S.C. 1985. 

  2. Tom Flanagan, “Resource Industries and Security Issues in Northern Alberta,” Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, Calgary, 2009. 

  3. Bill Gallagher, Resource Rulers: Fortune and Folly on Canada’s Road to Resources, Bill Gallagher, Waterloo, Ontario, 2012. 

  4. Joe Friesen, “John Ralston Saul Calls for All Canadians to Be Idle No More,” Globe and Mail, October 31, 2014, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/john-ralston-saul-calls-for-all-canadians-to-be-idle-no-more/article21415062; David Suzuki, “Aboriginal People, Not Environmentalists, Are Our Best Bet for Protecting the Planet,” Vancouver Sun, June 8, 2015, http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/David+Suzuki+Aboriginal+people+environmentalists+best+protecting+planet/11112668/story.html

  5. “Pope Francis: Indigenous Peoples ‘Should Be the Principal Dialogue Partners’ on Projects,” Indian Country Today, June 18, 2015, indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/06/18/pope-francis-indigenous-peoples-should-be-principal-dialogue-partners-projects-160778.