Part 4: Shining Vancouver’s Reconciliation Brand / City Versus Country
The Four Progressive parties also make some overtures to Indigenous peoples, some using language like “decolonizing” the city. Most of these gestures perfect Vancouver’s Olympics-era “4 host nations” reconciliation brand. Beginning with the 2010 Olympics, VANOC and the City of Vancouver used Indigenous peoples and cultures to brand the city differently from other Pacific Northwest destinations in the United States. In 2014, Vancouver declared itself a “City of Reconciliation,” raising poles and renaming plazas as Indigenous homelessness skyrocketed, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the broader homeless population.
The limits to Vancouver’s reconciliation as a brand are visible in the poverty and homelessness it produces for Indigenous people. Reconciliation in the form of City-organized recognition is appealing, particularly when it means taking out white supremacist colonizer names like Trutch Street, but it is not decolonizing when a colonial government (even a “democratic socialist” one) replaces the streets named for outmoded villains with ones stamped with the era of Reconciliation Inc.
More complicated (and less clear) are the policies from COPE that promise “reconciliation with substance” and OneCity that promise “Indigenous justice.” These policies combine the parties’ inoffensive reforms about housing with a politics that recognize that “the current housing crisis comes after a century of dispossession and displacement for Indigenous people” [One City] and that “this year the percent of homeless people who are indigenous increased from 30% to 40%, while making up only ~2% of the population” [COPE]. Efforts to respond to Indigenous homelessness through a lens critical of Canadian colonialism should be welcome. But do the COPE/OneCity promises live up to the rhetoric? It’s hard to say.
One City says they will address Indigenous homelessness by “offering city-owned lands to Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for non-profit housing.” It is not clear what this “offering” means exactly. Are they offering management of hypothetical buildings to local nations? A land lease offering like Vancouver used to give housing co-ops? After “offering” land to local Indigenous nations, who would build the housing that might go there? OneCity talks like they are offering to return the title of land to Indigenous nations but don’t say so clearly or explicitly. They also don’t say how much or which land they would offer.
COPE’s plan is equally performative and vague. In their platform COPE says, “The City should work with host nations to create land trusts, restore land to them.” Even this brief passage is contradictory because land trusts do not surrender title to Indigenous nations. In 2016 the Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish, and Musqueam nations, through a corporation they formed called MST Development Corporation, in partnership with the Federal Crown Corporation Canada Lands Co. purchased the 38.8 acre Jericho Lands for $480 million. In the language of Reconciliation, which is written through the frameworks of white Canadian race ideas and multiculturalism, this massive land acquisition is a return of lands to Indigenous people. But if we think of colonialism as about land relations and capitalist versus Indigenous economies, with Canada’s colonial-economic power of property as the foundation of colonial rule, then Indigenous nations buying and holding fee simple property for investment and economic development in the Jericho purchase represents the investment of three Indigenous band councils in Canada’s property economy.
Given that the MST Development Corporation is currently the vehicle that the three local nations have developed to organize their property and housing projects, it is puzzling that neither COPE nor OneCity mention the Indigenous corporation. Do they plan to work with MST? Or to ignore it and force the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh into a new housing and land body created by the colonial government in City Hall? Reading their platforms, it seems more likely that neither of them have thought it through that far. Neither COPE nor OneCity have talked about their Indigenous Justice or Reconciliation with Substance policies very much. Instead, they prefer to stick to their inoffensive reforms that do not highlight colonialism or the impossibilities of ending colonialism within a settler colonial parliament, or ending colonial property relations that force Indigenous nations to get their lands back by buying them.
And despite COPE acknowledging the dire situation of Indigenous homelessness, other than their plan to build 2,000 units of temporary modular housing, they offer zero solutions that would specifically affect urban Indigenous people. It is a big leap to assume that local band councils will prioritize or are able to respond to homelessness for Indigenous people who are not from their nations. There are also Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh people who, for so many reasons, have tenuous or severed relations to their communities. Overall, COPE and OneCity’s attempts at speaking to a form of decolonized city hall politics (an oxymoron if there ever was one) stop severely short of addressing the realities of the majority of Indigenous people living in Vancouver.
City versus Country
British Columbia’s rural and small town class structure is a bit of a different animal. Here, the usual financial investment core of the turn to financialization is buttressed with the unbroken, even accelerated, importance of resource extraction. Logging, mining, gas and oil extraction, and fisheries are the other pillar of BC’s economy and many of the investor offices in downtown Vancouver prey on Indigenous peoples’ lands to the north and east in the same way that they prey on the lands of colonized and formerly colonized peoples in the global south. This dynamic creates a cultural and economic gulf between city and country.
In places like Nanaimo, the class equivalent of the PMC is the resource worker, many of whom own homes but are feeling old complex pressures and insecurities common to boom and bust industries that use up workers’ energies and discard them just like they do the land. The rural and small-town economy puts the propertied working class and extraction industry contractors directly in conflict with Indigenous peoples defending their lands and non-capitalist economies. In the city, investors and service workers are a step insulated from the colonizer conflict that non-Natives experience in small towns, where anti-Indigenous racism is smoothly translated into anti-homeless hatred. In these places there is less space for inoffensive reform and more of a populist attraction to far right pandering, amorphous moral panic, and undisguised hate.