This is an edited version of a talk delivered at “The Housing Crisis is Global: Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on the foreign investment myth” panel discussion organized by Alliance Against Displacement and Chinatown Action Group, November 22 2016.
My talk tonight hinges on making some beginning connections between what we term settler colonialism in the context of B.C and wider forms of imperialism that are related aspects of the global economy. Therefore, the first section of my talk focuses on settler colonialism; the second section focuses on natural resource extraction as it fits within the global economy; and the third section draws connections between settler colonialism, natural resource extraction, and the housing market. Finally, my talk ends with some suggestions for how to deal with the housing crisis in B.C., in light of the links I draw in the first three sections. Overall, my talk tonight suggests that we cannot understand the current housing crisis in B.C. without understanding the role of settler colonialism and capitalism, both here right where we live, and globally as well.
Defining settler colonialism in the era of reconciliation
Settler colonialism is a specific form of colonialism by which an imperial power takes over the land of other Nations, or politically and socially organized groups of people, for the primary purpose of seizing the land. One of settler colonialism’s logics is that it works to eliminate the original inhabitants of the land, who are Indigenous peoples, by genocidal, cultural, political, and social means. Importantly, this logic of elimination of the Native creates a settler sense of “native” belonging. What I mean is that settler colonialism works in part by encouraging immigrants to this seized land to view themselves as the original – and therein “native” – occupants of this land. The development of settler colonialism over centuries results in many things, but significant to my talk tonight is the result of settler occupants believing they have a right to own land, to own houses, and to otherwise occupy land that is not rightfully theirs.
I feel like we are in a moment in which settler colonialism is talked about primarily in its cultural and political effects on Indigenous peoples. As Indigenous peoples, we deal with the presence of occupying states constantly. We deal with the denial of our political forms of membership and organization by having to assert our membership in our respective Nations through the use of status cards, if we are so “lucky” to retain status in the eyes of the colonial state – many of us don’t. We deal with the denial of our cultural forms of membership and organization, and the legacy of making cultural practices and political organization illegal, through acts like the Potlatch ban that affected Potlatch cultures, like the Nuu-chah-nulth among others, in the beginning and middle of the 20th century. And many of our relatives dealt with the cultural genocide perpetrated through residential schools in Canada, or Indian boarding schools as they were called in the U.S.
The cultural and political denials of our Indigeneity have significant and long-lasting effects on us as Indigenous peoples. This I cannot deny. However, the Canadian state has recently invested more resources in its official policy of cultural recognition towards Indigenous peoples, an investment that has come about through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC process has resulted in a significant amount of funding being injected into organizations that work to revitalize Indigenous cultural practices, art, and language. It has also resulted in increased funding and new funding initiatives for Indigenous peoples to access higher education.
What the TRC process has not resulted in is addressing the root of settler colonialism’s drive, and that is the ongoing occupation and the ongoing seizure of Indigenous land. While cultural and linguistic revitalization are politically transformative aspects of continuing to grow strong Indigenous nations, we cannot accept cultural revitalization, especially as it is supported by the colonial state, as a sufficient response by Canada to its active role in continuing the colonial occupation of Indigenous lands.
What this shift towards cultural and linguistic revitalization has the potential to mask is the ongoing accumulation by dispossession that the Canadian state drives for the profit of Canadian and multinational corporations, an example of which is the recent approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Accumulation by dispossession is a term that means the seizure or stealing of land from Indigenous peoples in order to commodify the natural wealth of that land and pull it into the capitalist economy. Accumulation by dispossession is a permanent feature of settler colonialism. Culturally, settler colonialism encourages a settler population to believe, and act, as though they have a “native,” originary history. Economically, settler colonialism encourages the process of accumulation by dispossession by rendering the political and social aspects of society open to the ongoing stealing of land. Settler colonialism coexists with capitalism; neither can exist in their current forms without the other.
The form of settler colonialism today and the role of foreign investment
So what role does the seizure of Indigenous land take today, and what is the relevance of this to a conversation about foreign investment in housing in BC? The main form that the stealing of Indigenous land takes today is through natural resource extraction. Canada’s economy significantly relies on natural resource extraction, with direct natural resource extraction, not counting related and dependent industries, accounting for 17% of the gross domestic product in 2015. Resource extraction included 1.77 million jobs last year, and natural resource extraction companies’ investments in the Canadian economic sectors totaled more than 40% of all investment in all economic sectors, amounting to $107 billion dollars. Natural Resources Canada also reports that there are more than 400 major resource extraction projects under construction or planned for construction in the next 10 years and these projects are worth $691 billion dollars.
Foreign direct investment in the resource extraction and energy sectors of the Canadian economy are also massive. According to Statistics Canada, foreign direct investment in the Canadian economy totaled more than $732 billion dollars in 2014. Of that $732 billion dollars, investment in resource extraction and energy sectors comes to more than 20%. Of all countries that supply foreign direct investment to Canada, the U.S. is by far the top investor, with 49% of all foreign direct investments coming from the States. In contrast, China supplied only 3.4% of total foreign direct investment in 2014.
Canada also uses foreign direct investment in other countries as a way to generate capital and money. In 2015, Canada invested more than $1 trillion dollars in the form of foreign direct investment. The U.S. received nearly 45% of this investment, making it by far the largest receiver of Canadian foreign direct investment. The majority of foreign direct investment flowing out of Canada is put into the 3 economic sectors of finance & insurance, management of companies, and manufacturing.
Given these numbers, we can begin to understand Canada’s role in the global economy. The global economy works across nation-state borders. International free trade agreements regulate flows of capital across and between nation-state borders in ways that benefit international capitalist-investor classes. Given the fact that 20% of foreign direct investment coming into Canada is invested in resource extraction and energy sectors, we can also see that corporations based in other nation states have a direct hand in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples of their lands. In this context, colonialism overruns national borders; Canada is not our only enemy. Colonialism is a part of the global economy, and the global economy relies on colonialism in order to expand and stay out of recession. The ongoing colonization of Indigenous lands in Canada is a requirement of the global economy in its current form.
Making connections with the housing crisis
Now that we have established that settler colonialism in Canada is a part of the global economy, and not just a unique feature of Canadian state power, we can ask what does this have to do with the housing market? The biggest claim that this forum tonight is working on addressing is the claim that foreign direct investment is the cause for the current housing crisis, particularly in the cities of Vancouver and Toronto. There are two ways I want to respond to this.
My first response is to place foreign direct investment in the resource extraction and energy sectors in Canada alongside foreign direct investment in the housing market. Criticisms of foreign investment in natural resource extraction tend to suggest that if local companies were in charge, they would treat the environment better. But what is lost in this criticism coming from the environmental movement is the understanding that resource extraction is a form of colonialism that not only impacts Indigenous lands, but also overruns Indigenous national sovereignty. And beyond the environmental movement, the reason I don’t think there’s much complaint about the role of foreign investment in resource extraction is that Canadians believe that the land that Canada is on today belongs to them, and that they have the right to develop this land, and – as long as it brings Canadian jobs – they welcome investment in its extraction regardless of the Indigenous nations who continue to fight for political and territorial sovereignty.
The second way I want to respond to the claim that foreign direct investment is the leading cause of the housing crisis in Vancouver is to bring forward what statistics we do have available about foreign investment in the housing market. According to Statistics Canada, foreign direct investment in housing totaled just over $6 billion dollars for 2014. With foreign direct investment in all industries totaling a little more than $732 billion dollars, the amount of foreign direct investment in the housing market comes to just under 1% of all foreign direct investment.
Now, I have read some commentators call into question the statistics that are provided by the Canadian government regarding foreign investment in the housing market. So let’s assume that Statistics Canada is grossly underreporting the amount of foreign direct investment in the housing market. Let’s assume that rather than $6 billion dollars in 2014, it was actually double that, $12 billion dollars. It would still only account for just under 2% of all foreign direct investment coming into Canada.
Further, a recent report showed that 5% of house sales in Metro Vancouver were bought by foreign buyers in a three week period. Yet, what this report does not do is place these statistics in the context of other international cities and in the context of nearby United States. For example, 8% of all home sales across the U.S. in 2015 were purchased by foreign buyers. Florida alone took up 21% of the total $100 billion in home sales by foreign buyers, while California received 16% of foreign buyers into the real estate market. Yet, while these areas note the significance of foreign ownership of real estate, they also rarely blame foreign investment for the state of the housing market. The claim that foreign investment is the cause for the housing crisis in Vancouver is a specific argument born from a legacy of anti-Asian racism in Vancouver. And keeping in mind the statistics mentioned earlier about the central role of the U.S. in the Canadian market, we can begin to see that the argument about foreign investment is deeply racialized.
Settler entitlement and Indigenous title
Finally, what does the foreign investment myth in the housing market have to do with the ongoing colonization of Indigenous peoples in Canada? Settler colonialism encourages immigrant populations, especially white immigrants, to believe that they are originary occupants of the land that Canada is on. Settler colonialism encourages the belief that this land can be owned by settler immigrants, and that all settler immigrants, but especially white settlers who are most easily included in dominant society, have the right to own a piece of land and a house. The foreign investment myth expresses upset and outrage that white settlers feel when their belief in the right to own land and a house is called into question. It is becoming increasingly hard for professional/managerial and working class white settlers to buy into the housing market – in other words, to realize and experience their personal bounty made possible by settler colonialism. Their outrage at racialized foreigners is an expression of their settler entitlement to Indigenous lands.
In conclusion, what solutions to the housing crisis does my talk suggest, given the points I have brought up about settler colonialism, resource extraction, and the global economy? It is my belief that settler colonialism must be overturned in order to realize a just society in this land we call Canada. In order to address the roots of the housing crisis, we must address the founding dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands and their homes. This would require the establishment of true nation-to-nation relationships, re-founding national relations between non-Native and Indigenous nations on the basis of mutual consent, not domination. In order to address the roots of the housing crisis, we must recognize how deeply capitalism relies on colonialism – that these two forces are violently intertwined. In order to truly address the housing crisis, we must smash the twin forces of capitalism and colonialism. Working from where we are at now, this means a hard, lifelong commitment to building incremental resistance in our communities.
Natalie Knight is Yurok from northern California and Navajo from New Mexico. She is a member of Alliance Against Displacement and part of the editorial collective of The Volcano newspaper.