What change? Whose reconciliation?

On Friday 22nd April, an unusual ceremony took place in Winnipeg, Canada. Represented by its governor, the Hudson’s Bay Company gave its massive retail store in the heart of downtown Winnipeg, dating from 1881, to the Manitoba First Nations. The only payment received was a symbolic hand-over of two beaver pelts and two elk hides in a photo-op attended by the mayor of Winnipeg, the provincial premier, the Canadian prime minister and no less than three cabinet ministers.

The symbolism was ironic, those being the derisory initial ‘rent’ paid to Indigenous leaders by Charles II in the course of a royal charter in 1670, giving possession of the entire area draining into Hudson’s Bay – nearly 4 million square kilometres, one-third of modern Canada – to his cousin Prince Rupert. (Yes, just like that.) The resulting Hudson’s Bay Company had a trading monopoly in the entire area, and the basis of this far-reaching and extremely profitable enterprise, for the next two centuries, was the fur trade. It only exited this bloody revenue stream in 1991.

The HBC mobilized Indigenous hunters and trappers on an unprecedented scale, and in the course of doing so acted as a principal instrument of British colonialism. Most of them traded their traditional ways of life, based on a sustainable sufficiency and subsistence, for one dependent on capitalist accumulation, exploitation, competition, consumption, profit, with predictably ecocidal consequences.

It is indisputably true that the HBC and British, later Canadian authorities treated this workforce very badly, exploiting them, interfering grossly in their lives, and brutalizing them. It was in this context that the event was hailed by Grand Chief Jerry Daniels as one bringing ‘change and reconciliation…the beginning of a new future for First Nations peoples and for all Canadians’ (Free Press, April 23, 2022). And it is certainly something to celebrate.

The symbolism of the beaver pelts and elk hides, however, point to something still darker in the background: a ghost at the feast, exceeding even colonial reparation, which no one seems to want to acknowledge. And I believe that until it is acknowledged, change and reconciliation will fall well short of what is needed. For the basis of the huge profits of the HBC empire was pelts, hides and skins obtained by murdering millions of their original and rightful owners. Their deaths – often slow and agonising, in euphemistically-called leg-hold traps – constitute a major part of the immense stain of suffering caused by humans globally. And no one in the happy occasion I have been describing has so much as mentioned these particular victims.

A big part of the difficulty is acknowledging Indigenous suffering while asking for the suffering of others to also be recognised – especially when the former people bear a degree of responsibility – however qualified – for inflicting it.

There are various ways one could try to shirk that challenge. One obvious way is to blame some humans but not others. In this instance, if I assert that without Indigenous hunters and trappers the fur trade would have been impossible – which is certainly true – does it wholly negate that point to say that their participation was, to a significant degree, forced? Only if you are willing to countenance the unavoidable corollary that Indigenous people have no free will whatsoever – which is absurd as well as insulting.

Perhaps it might be asserted that Indigenous hunting and trapping are traditional and therefore justified morally (cultural identity) and/or ecologically (sustainability). But this cannot simply be assumed. Hunting and trapping for subsistence, as in pre-colonial times, are different activities, with very different consequences, when they take place in exchange for money in a capitalist economy. They cease being ‘traditional’ and become part of exploitatively ecocidal modernity – which is, of course, deeply anti-traditional.  

I would also point out that albeit to a much lesser degree than what is just, First Nations people benefitted, and to a degree continue to benefit, in the narrow and materialistic sense of that word, from the slaughter of the animal innocents. (‘Just’ here must also be heavily qualified; where was any justice whatsoever for the non-human animals?) And if this is denied, you must then allow the descendents of slave-owners – perhaps racists themselves – to protest that they have never kept slaves, as if that entirely absolved them of having benefitted from any consequences of their ancestors’ choices and actions. The reasoning is the same in both cases: x inflicts harm on y, and z, later, benefits; so if that conclusion has moral implications for z in one case, it must also in the other.

Obviously (I hope) I am not comparing Indigenous trappers and hunters working for the HBC to slave-owners; if anything, they became more like slaves. But on pain of a morally unjustifiable anthropocentrism, that point doesn’t altogether cancel out what was inflicted on those non-human victims.

Finally, to argue that crimes against certain human beings matter more than those committed against beings who are other-than-human is to succumb to the shared logic of ecocide and genocide. For the belief that (1) all and any human beings matter more than all non-human beings, and the belief that (2) some humans (whites, say, or men) matter more than others (Indigenous, say, or women), are essentially one and the same. It follows, then, that to support the first position is to collaborate with the second: that is, to support the very ideology of racism and colonialism from which Indigenous peoples have suffered so much, and which we are morally bound to resist.

For anyone who is really paying attention to what is going on in the world, none of this should come as a surprise. The deepest wound of all – even more than the purely human issues of race, gender or class, dire though these often are – runs between humans as such and the rest of the living natural world. That is the split which is helping drive the current mass extinctions and climate chaos which bid fair to make the Earth a living hell for all Earthlings, including, but far from only, ourselves.

This most fundamental challenge cannot be addressed without accepting – against our desire not only to think well of ourselves but to only think well of ourselves – that to whatever degree, and even if some much more than other, all humans participate, willy nilly, in the modern ecocidal empire. Furthermore, notwithstanding the qualifications, all ‘benefit’ thereby. As Abraham Joshua Herschel put it, ‘We are not all guilty, but we are all responsible.’

The moral is clear. Only when the crimes of humans against non-human nature and fellow-beings are openly recognised, admitted and, insofar as possible, redressed can real change and reconciliation take place and a new future begin.

In that spirit (and since we cannot expect any such thing from the Board of Governors of the HBC) I call upon Grand Chief Daniels and his colleagues, speaking on behalf of the human people, to explicitly honour the violent sacrifice, and involuntary contribution, of the beaver people, the otter people, the fox people, the sable marten people, the lynx people, the wolf people, the mink people, and the muskrat people.

Let the deep healing begin.

Read ‘What change? Whose reconciliation?’, by Patrick Curry, on the #EarthTongues blog