Spring 2003,
Volume 24, Number 1

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New Warriors con't

Taiaiake Alfred:
So, as a “realistic radical,” what are you doing about the Indigenous struggle?

Gabriel Haythornthwaite: I’m most sure about what I should not be doing. From my own experience in conventional protest politics, the “activist left” holds no possibility of building the necessary link or the broad cultural base for struggle through local politics or community organization. People in the activist left aren’t willing to do that, mainly because it’s not glamorous—no going to protests and no getting arrested all the time.

TA: No groupies.

GH: Yeah, it’s not sexy. You’re not likely to be anyone’s guru when you have “a rather measured point of view.” :Instead of romantic idealism, I’ve been thinking about how my own work and my schooling can help me link to and begin to do this type of on-the-ground community work. Not to build a movement myself, but to facilitate and help communities to move toward building the cultural base of a movement. Without that essential foundation, you can have any kind of politics you want, but there won’t be any real meaning in it.

TA: That’s some serious dedication on your part. What made you want to do this kind of work?

GH: That’s a good question, because when I was a kid, and even when I was starting university, my consciousness about Indigenous peoples, even in the Americas, was very low. It was sort of like I knew that, “Native peoples had been hard done by,” and I wished that things could have been done different, but something was always a bigger priority. Because of my family background, I was always committed to anti-imperialist struggles; but it was always an anti-imperialist struggle somewhere else. I looked to Indigenous struggles in Latin America—although I never saw them as “Indigenous”—and in Palestine and in Africa. I saw them as anti-imperialist, but I never saw that they were rooted in Indigenous communities and culture and history.

What opened your eyes?

GH: It started for me with a growing awareness coming out of Oka in 1990, which happened when I was really too young to appreciate the significance of what was going on. The constitutional debates in the 1990s had an important effect on me too, but after that my interest kind of drifted away. I was mixed-up in a bunch of different things: anti-fascist activities, international solidarity work, ending the blockade on Cuba…all that sort of stuff. My consciousness of Indigenous peoples drifted away. Those events in the early 1990s brought Indigenous issues to me for the first time, but they didn’t really stick. There was always something else that came up that seemed to be more important. Among student activists, Indigenous peoples rights were never even brought up, much less anything done about them. It’s probably the most ignored struggle out of any that I’ve seen.

What really did bring it all home for me was the Nisga’a Agreement. When I saw what was going on with the Nisga’a, I instantly recognized it as neo-imperialism. In my mind, I related it to what was happening in the Middle East, and what had gone on in Latin America, too. That is how I see the so-called “BC treaty process,” as a kind of “Middle East peace process,” but in the north. The only difference is that it’s not about getting people to surrender and put down their guns, but about getting people to surrender by giving up their court cases. The basic similarity is in the long-standing grievances, and a dispute over unilateral dispossession that is then negotiated in an imperialist legal and political process. And, proposed solutions to the grievances are only tolerated by the state if they are within the confines of what is acceptable to imperialism.

I recognized the Nisga’a Agreement for what it is: a “final solution” for the Native question in BC. With that insight, I began to see the Native land question as the critical problem for those who want to maintain the status quo in this province, and also as the potential struggle around which politics in general could be re-ordered. I saw it as an opportunity to create new political and new social movement possibilities. I recognized that this was the only chance of there ever being any kind of true political movement in this part of the world. I’ve since come to realize that it’s much more complex and difficult than I imagined. I knew from the start that it wouldn’t be simple, but I was not prepared for the reality of just how difficult it will be to create movement in Indigenous communities. I think this is especially true here in British Columbia because of the corruption, division, and manipulation the BC treaty process has brought into, and what it’s done to the people, in these communities.

The gap right now between what people need and what is politically possible is astounding. It’s massive. I’m still trying to figure out how I can be remotely useful.

TA: There’s a tinge of despair in your words. You sound like many people working in Native politics right now. But you’re different in one way though, because most people take a lot longer than you to understand the structure and scale of the problem we are facing. Many of our people have lost the spiritual and emotional strength to continue to resist. It’s all used up, especially for those who have been going up against the government for 15, 20, or 30 years. The first priority is to convince people to not give up in the face of all this cooptation, hostility, and manipulation. We’ll only ever make change if we constantly renew the struggle with young people and bold, creative challenges to the old, entrenched power.

GH: That whole notion of not giving up is so important. I had sort of given up for a while. I had despaired about ever accomplishing anything meaningful in this neo-colonial country.

TA: Now that you’ve come through to the other side, and you’re all stoked for the next battle, what are you thinking these days?

GH: How do we work from where people are at right now? How do we form a network of committed people to build concrete projects that will move things forward in a strategic way? How can we make a contribution to the cultural base needed to support resistance in Indigenous communities? If we focus on answering these questions, and take action to apply the answers, we’ll get somewhere.

by Taiaiake Alfred

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