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Review

Blockades or Breakthroughs?: Aboriginal Peoples Confront the Canadian State

By Yale D. Belanger and P. Whitney Lackenbauer, Editors

April 12, 2016

Review By Sarah Nickel

Canada is no stranger to Aboriginal direct action: “Oka, Ipperwash, Caledonia. Blockades, masked warriors, police snipers” (3). Citing this excerpt from the 2006 report of Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal peoples to introduce the collection Blockades or Breakthroughs, Yale Belanger and Whitney Lackenbauer highlight the powerful imagery of land-based protest, Aboriginal militancy, and state intervention. Confrontations such as Oka, Ipperwash, and Caledonia are well established within the Canadian imaginary, but, as the editors of this important book argue, they have been overly simplified through media reports and scholarship that pigeonhole Aboriginal blockades and occupations under “umbrella terms such as ‘protest’ and ‘activism’” (14) that promote one-dimensional narratives. This collection successfully establishes the multi-vocal and politically formidable nature of blockades and occupations, in the process adding much-needed depth to histories of Aboriginal direct action and stimulating meaningful conversation.

Structured around a chronological comparative case-study approach, Blockades or Breakthroughs contains eleven chapters outlining Canadian Aboriginal direct action campaigns beginning with the Point Pelee dispute in 1922 (John Sandlos) and ending with the Caledonia conflict in 2006 (Timothy Winegard). These essays offer fresh insights into both well-known and under-analyzed events. For instance, along with the expected case studies of Oka, Ipperwash, Gustafsen Lake, Burnt Church, and Caledonia, the collection also includes chapters on Haida resistance to logging on Lyell Island in Haida Gwaii, Innu opposition to low-level flying in Labrador, and the Bay of Quinte dispute. Taken together, the essays collected here weave a dynamic, coherent, and significant historio-political narrative about direct action, shifting Aboriginal-state relations, community dynamics, Aboriginal sovereignty, land claims, and politics.

Additionally, this collection fundamentally disrupts Canadians’ existing preoccupation with the Oka crisis of 1990 and later actions in the 1990s, which have prevented deeper theoretical understandings of Aboriginal direct action strategies. For instance, in his chapter on the 1922 Point Pelee occupation in southern Ontario, John Sandlos establishes the long roots of occupation as political resistance, while Yale Belanger’s chapter on the Pikani Lonefighters’ opposition to the Old Man River Dam construction in August 1990 reminds readers that the Mohawk Nation was not alone that summer in its frustration with state authorities. The case studies also explore complex and interrelated issues of environmental protection and politics (David Rossiter and Yale Belanger), spirituality (Nick Shrubsole, and P. Whitney Lackenbauer), resource and land use (Sarah J. King, Thomas Flanagan, Belanger, and Winegard) and sovereignty.

By complicating and contextualizing blockades and occupations on both theoretical and practical levels, this volume explores the transformative potential of direct action. As the title of the book suggests, the authors ask whether direct action served as a “blockade” or barrier to political solutions or acted as a catalyst to political breakthroughs. “There is no clear verdict,” the authors conclude (33). In his article on the Lubicon Lake Cree’s quest for a land claim and resource rights, for example, Thomas Flanagan argues that the “radical tactics” of the Lubicon “may have delayed rather than accelerated the onset of meaningful negotiations” (111). Likewise, Lackenbauer in his examination of the Innu of Labrador’s protest against military training operations, which included low-level flying exercises over Innu hunting grounds, suggests that while the Innu did not succeed in stopping operations or achieving recognition of their sovereignty, they achieved an invaluable level of political cohesion through direct action (149).

Despite this attention to complexity, there is something unsettling about framing Aboriginal blockades and occupations within this success-failure paradigm. It tends to privilege practical political gains as evidence that direct action was “worth it,” while simultaneously emphasizing reactive and violent political elements. Sarah King’s chapter on the 1999-2002 Burnt Church (Esgenoôpetiji) dispute engages explicitly with this conceptual limitation, suggesting that “framing this dispute as either a blockade or a breakthrough also focuses attention on violent activism, when really a broad variety of strategies and tactics were employed” (368).

Ultimately, this innovative collection will appeal to a wide readership including those interested in Aboriginal issues in British Columbia. David Rossiter’s chapter on the 1985 Haida logging blockade on Lyell Island is an important examination of environmental politics. Likewise, Nick Shrubsole and Lackenbauer’s excellent reconsideration of the well-known Gustafsen Lake standoff adds much to our understanding of the role played in direct action outcomes by media, state authorities, and internal Aboriginal political factionalism.

Blockades or Breakthroughs?: Aboriginal Peoples Confront the Canadian State
Yale D. Belanger and P. Whitney Lackenbauer, editors
Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014. 488 pp. $32.95 paper