Now finally, after 21 pages, the flashback and the montage is over and we’re back to the present. Bill Whitefish is preparing for a crucial Native People Council (NPC) meeting in which Molly Grace is expecting to face a challenge from the less-committed chiefs. In the off chance that you didn’t memorize the org chart lecture from two chapters ago, the NPC (appropriate) is a council of chiefs that Molly Grace has assembled to grant her revolution greater legitimacy.
You might also recall that the council actually isn’t the real power within the Movement. Behind the scenes Molly’s central committee is the real centre of power, and if you remember Bill & Molly’s recruiting pitch to Alex Gabriel, certain extra special people are even more important than the committee! Don’t worry if you don’t remember all of the nuances from those far away briefings. In the lead up to this briefing, Bill Whitefish will actually go over it all again! Because if there’s one thing a revolution needs, it’s another review of the headquarters org chart.
To be completely fair to Bland, this challenge from the NPC is actually a realistic concept. Once the shooting begins and lives are officially on the line,1 people are going to have second thoughts or become especially protective of their particular people’s lives.
I went and cut out most of the rehash of the org chart briefing, but there is a short digression that includes a bit more world building which is worth mentioning:
Bill Whitefish walked to the small lectern at the front of the long table and dropped his notes on it. Although meetings of the Native People’s Council were often a bit tense, today Bill expected serious trouble. Having the initiative in war is desirable, but it includes an unpleasant source of stress. When you attack, you must make decisions; on defence, commanders most often simply react, in ways largely dictated by unfolding threats. Now the Movement was attacking, which meant the chiefs on the Council had to make crucial, frightening, fateful decisions. Very possibly, they would decide to run away. For however full of bravado they appeared on the outside, it was obvious to Bill that on the inside they were timid, ready to bolt like nervous rabbits in low bush.
Okay so quick nitpick here. As we learned in the classic tactical treatise (and this blog’s first Supplemental Reading) The Defence of Duffer’s Drift, on the defence, simply reacting is to invite disaster. If you’re reacting to your enemy, then you’ve basically given them the freedom to pick the time and circumstances of the battle. Sitting around waiting to react is essentially the First Dream that the Lt has in Duffer’s Drift. The one where he fails miserably.
Molly and her disciples had seized the leadership of the Movement soon after the failed Days of Protest in 2007, and began to implement their grand strategy in earnest after the second violent Caledonia crisis of 2008, which had evolved from a dispute over the illegal sale of cigarettes by a local native family. After these failures, Molly realized straight away that the leaderless Council of “equals” was infected with a serious, potentially fatal weakness, and its bouts of indecision threatened to wreck the entire organization and its plans. “It’s past time to detach the Movement’s centre for decision and move it far away from the old squaws of the Council,” she had told Bill, “especially as hard decisions and tough battles are coming our way.” So Molly, with Bill’s help, simply usurped the gossiping, do-nothing Council’s authority and established the Central Committee, which she advertised to the chiefs as “necessary to assist the Council’s deliberations.”
So apparently there was a second Caledonia Crisis after the first, which enabled Molly Grace to seize power (or consolidate, since she apparently had power to begin with) and centralize it under her own exclusive control. Given how much Caledonia informs Bland’s panicked assessment of First Nations radicalism, it’s surprising how little it turns up in the novel.
I’ll be getting into it in detail later, but the short version is this: A dispute not unlike the Oka crisis emerged in 2005-6 when the construction of a sub-division began on land covered under a disputed Six Nations’ Treaty. In early 2006 protestors occupied the planned construction site, and when police arrived weeks later a much larger crowd confronted them, resulting in a near-riot that forced the police to withdraw. The protestors then occupied the disputed lands, which included roads that accessed several tracts of occupied homes. The standoff then devolved into a prolonged series of court battles, during which many of the ‘white’ residents of Caledonia accused the police and the Provincial governments of failing to protect them from harassment by protestors and other various hotheads from the Six Nations’ reserve.
For those not familiar, the illegal cigarettest trade could actually form the basis for some kind of government/First Nations confrontation. In real life tobacco products are heavily taxed in Canada, and the existence of legal grey areas around First Nations reserves makes them a ready made avenue for the sale of contraband cigarettes. There is a lot of money involved in bootleg cigarettes, which makes for some real potential for violence. A confrontation over tobacco is something that could happen and I actually would read a novel that presented a realistic scenario.
Uprising…is not realistic.
As an illustration of just how tone deaf Bland can be, he has Molly Grace refer to the council as ‘the old squaws’ and (in another passage) describes the waiting council members in the conference room as ‘fat turkeys the day before Thanksgiving.’ It seems a bit off to me, for a native woman to use gendered slurs like squaws, or to speak favourably of Thanksgiving. I guess these are the sorts of insights you get from being a Chair of Defence Studies at Queens University. Can’t expect a BA student from Last Chance U to understand these things.
“Sure, the raids were successful, but perhaps now is time for an operational pause,” said one fat belly, mimicking some “Pentagonese” he’d heard on CNN or somewhere. Others grunted in agreement, trying to look wise.
“Look,” announced another chief, without looking at Molly as she entered the room, “the Quebec government has asked to parley, to call an inquiry into native grievances and to consider land claims and self-government in the north…We might get what we want without any conflict and I think-“
Archie from Wikwemikong interrupted. He had never been keen on the Movement anyway. He had lots of cash and investments in and around the reserves, and like a good capitalist, he was for the raids if they brought business north, soldiers with money to spend now and more grants to buy peace later, but not if they might harm his position and his sweet deals on the reserves. “Yeah, that’s the thing, ah…the rest of Canada, you know, is on our side and the politicians in Ottawa are shit-scared of Ontario and the Maritimes and the do-gooders at the CBC…”
Remember back when we started? At the very beginning of Uprising when Bland talked about Alex Gabriel experiencing racist harassment at RMC, but the worst thing he was apparently called was ‘Moccasin’ and ‘Chief?’ I called that adorable back then. I take that back. I’m now getting this sneaking suspicion that the young officer cadet Bland was a real shit.
Not much is said about the men at the table in terms of description. The one called ‘fat belly’ who suggests they should take an ‘operational pause’ will remain ‘fat belly’ for the rest of the novel (not that he appears much after this). Way back at the start of this blog, I contrasted Bland’s writing with Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who gave a background story to any person with a line of dialogue in his films. As a result, even minor scenes are acted out in a way that implies a level of depth that you’d only get…in real life actually. ‘Fat Belly’ in the meantime, only pops up for a scene or two, making him the literal embodiment of a straw man argument.
The other chief who doesn’t even get ‘Fat Belly’s level of description, suggests negotiation. The implication is that the Quebec government is willing to come to terms. This is surprising since, until now it’s been implied that the Movement were a shadow organization hidden in the shadows. How are they reaching out to the Quebec government? Do they have a representative or something?
Before he can pursue this avenue any further, he’s interrupted by a third chief, who actually gets the dignity of a first name: Archie from Wikwemikong. There’s no telling from the first name, but judging from the fact that he’s got a Native-sounding place of origin, it stands to reason that he’s one of the weak natives.
***Just for the record, this is the first mention of the CBC since their exposé on the weaknesses of the James Bay Hydro electric project. There it was implied they were bad for being an embarrassment to the government, here they’re cynically called ‘do-gooders,’ but the implication seems to be that this is problem for the Council(?)…Is the CBC good or bad? The text isn’t clear and it’s only going to get worse from here.***
Archie from Wikwemikong is presented as weak and prevaricating, but I’d be a lot more worried about him than Molly seems to be. This guy’s a professional dealmaker, and he’s got interests to protect. If he’s getting cold feet, what’s stopping him from walking out of that room and going off to cut a better deal with the government? This guy seems to be exactly the type. The fact that Molly hasn’t already reached out to recruit someone in Archie’s business empire in preparation for Archie’s untimely death is leaves me questioning her fitness as a rebel leader.
The line about ‘bringing business north’ seems to suggest he’s got a piece of a shipping company of some kind. In several parts of the Canadian north, transporting goods from the south is difficult and expensive. In many regions its almost entirely controlled by a single company, which can put a lot of people at the mercy of an unhealthy monopoly, and obscene grocery prices.
But now a real challenger takes the field! Unlike Archie who only has a european first name, we know he’s worthy to challenge the Movement leadership! Not only does he have a first and last name, but -gasp!- both his names are european! Alain Selkirk raises his voice and Bland assures us that he’s the only member of the council whom Molly fears. To my surprise, Selkirk actually echoes several of the concerns I’ve been raising so far in this deconstruction:
Alain Selkirk spoke up. He was the only member of the Council who Molly feared, and she feared him because she respected his brain and his dedication to his people, the large Blood band in Alberta. Alain wasn’t scared or dishonest; he was smart and careful, which carried weight even in this crowd. “It’s really a dangerous gamble,” he began, his familiar cautious refrain. “The government is powerful and it’s not going to lose – there’s the army and everything. Even if we win local control, we lose because the people will be harmed and prejudice will grow. We’ll become the Palestinians of North America, despised, rioting without aim against an unbeatable force, walled off from their cities, burning our own businesses, split into little factions of self-hate, and for what-a few acres of snow and bush?
“Do you guys really think the soft-hearted liberals and socialists in Toronto will support us if they think we might actually demand part of their rich lives? Have you ever seen tourists at the grizzlies’ cage at the zoo? They ooh and ahh and admire them and feed them…but if the bears get out…BLAM! They’re dead.
“I agree we should frighten the whites into concessions. But the rope is very short. If we pull too hard they’ll just cut it, and then what? We’re fighting for a chance to negotiate, not trying to win a war. This is just politics. How many families and homes are you willing to see destroyed simply to get heard, to get a seat at the table?
“Well, listen to me. If you get enough families and homes destroyed, and they’ll be our homes mostly, it won’t get us to the table, it’ll smash the table and we’ll end up with nothing. Never doubt the whites’ ferocity. They aren’t on our land and most everyone else’s in the world because they run away from a few angry natives. They hanged Riel, remember? They’ll do it again. The Sioux got Custer, but the U.S. Army got Montana.”
Uh…a few more nitpicks before we dive in.
The last half of the 20th Century consisted of ‘the whites’ getting kicked out of most of the most of the world as various angry natives rose up to kick out their ‘white’ colonial governments. Bland himself has already cited the Vietnam War, the revolt in Algiers, and the Soviets in Afghanistan as examples. Also, while there’s a lot to be said about the Palestinians, aimless and self-hating would not be one of them.
Proof-reading. It’s your friend.
So I agree Alain Selkirk’s warning that the NPA can utterly fuck everything up for the First Nations of Canada, although I’m not sure how he came up with Palestinians as a comparison…Well, except that when Douglas Bland was writing, the Second Intifada had only just come to an end, followed by Israel’s less than stellar Second Lebanon War. Maybe he had Palestinians on the mind?
Part of the problem with comparing the First Nations to the Palestinians is a matter of homogeneity and density. The Palestinian people are fairly homogenous (in terms of common religion, language and culture) and there’s a lot of them crammed into a fairly small region which is in turn surrounded by Israel. Alain Selkirk (and by extension Bland) seem to be suggesting a kind of perpetual Oka-style standoff with the First Nations confined to their Reserves to rage and rot indefinitely. This suggests a failure to understand the reality of the situation either in Israel on in Canada.
Consider this graphic from BBC News:
So that we’re clear on the concept of scale, the Gaza strip is about ten times bigger than the Akwesasne Reserve, one of the larger and more populous Reserves in Canada and has a population larger than Bland’s own estimate for the total number of Indigenous people in all of Canada. Furthermore, despite decades of effort and infrastructure by the Israeli security forces, the Strip still requires an enormous expenditure of manpower in order to (mostly) contain it.
Consider also that Akwesasne only has a total population of about 23,000 (plus 1,800 off reserve) in a territory of nearly 50 km². As Bland noted, it sits astride the Canadian-American border and the St Laurence seaway putting it within easy reach of both Toronto and Montreal. It is just one of three major Mohawk Reserves in the area (Kanesatake and Kahnawake bracket Montreal), which add another 12,000 or so people and about 60 km².
These are just three reserves out of hundreds scattered across Canada. How exactly are they all going to be contained?
‘How many families and homes are you willing to see destroyed[?]’ [Alain asks.] ’[T]hey’ll be our homes mostly.’
Once blood has been spilt it will be impossible to unspill. The most likely outcome of any confrontation between the First Nations and the Canadian government would be a bloody, inconclusive fight followed by some form of ethnic cleansing. Smaller reserves would either be wiped out or ‘evacuated’ (with much loss of life) to larger ones where they can be more efficiently contained. Because there would be no time or inclination to plan the process out, starvation and illness would likely follow. Whatever discipline remains within the military or the police force (and there would be no guarantees) there would still be a vast number of ad hoc gangs and vigilante forces ready to step up and do the killing.
Despite having a character almost say this, Bland seems to be unwilling to admit it. He goes so far as to have Alain state that liberals and socialists(?!) in Toronto will quickly be swept aside when a real threat emerges, but he doesn’t really believe it. In real life, an ethnically based war will Balkanize the society in which it occurs. Whatever their former opinions, members of that society will have to pick sides if only for their own safety. Except in Bland’s vision of Canada. When the time comes Toronto will bleat and whine like the sheeple city he believes it is, and collapse as punishment for having ignored the warnings of Douglas L. Bland.
Now, what Alain’s suggesting – forcing the government to negotiate in haste and fear – is actually a pretty good idea. The Movement has built up a pretty formidable army, seized a bunch of weapons and are in a position to force a bloody fight with the government. And while a person could have a pretty good idea as to the outcome of that battle, until it gets fought, it’s impossible to know for sure. The government will have to weigh that unknown outcome against the concessions the Movement is demanding.
Until the battle has been fought, there’s no way to know for sure you can win it. That is a huge stressor to place on an opponent’s mind during negotiations. Conversely, it places a similar question in front of the Council. If they choose to fight, they throw away an excellent bargaining position on the hope of getting a better one if they win. That’s a hell of a decision to make, especially when it’s your people that are going to be dying.
Alright then. Alain Selkirk has thrown down the gauntlet. He’s invoked the spectre of violence and defeat. Molly Grace needs to answer this.
Maybe she’s going to talk about all the Native kids who are already dying – immediately or by inches from drugs and poverty – while the Council sits back and watches. Maybe she’ll remind Alain of a personal loss, someone from his Band or a colleague or friend ground down by the ‘white’ man’s system. Hell, this may be one of the few places where a cheesy tag line wouldn’t be out of place. Something like ‘we’re all dying. I’m offering us a chance to live before that happens.’ For a man who (we’re about to learn) stood on the grounds of Parliament Hill and challenged the Minister right to his face, there are all kinds of emotional levers that can be pulled to bring him around.
Yeah, this is Douglas Bland we’re talking about. Instead we get authoritarian rhetoric:
Bill knew the crucial moment had arrived. He had listened without comment to the chiefs, but now he watched Molly. She stood silently, jaw clenched, eyes furious, arms tightly wrapped around the notebook she held across her chest.
“Backsliders!” she said in a loud icy voice. Her fury swept the table, startling the chiefs.
***Featured image + Leadership! from Sharpe’s Honour, 1994 ITV Ltd.***
 And they have! Never forget poor Fred McTavish!
 Although court cases would drag on into 2011, the Caledonia Land Dispute had mostly petered out by 2007. Mostly.
 For those wondering, Thanksgiving seems to inspire some mixed feelings among First Nations activists. For an example, check out this track from Tribe Called Red.
 This is a serious question. Although somehow it doesn’t seem to have happened already, within the next day or so the Movement is likely to be declared a terrorist organization, meaning that nobody on the Council will be allowed to formally communicate with any level of government. How do they plan to conduct their negotiations?
 Does anyone else find something weird about people who use the term ‘do-gooder’ as an insult? How bitter are your lives?
2 thoughts on “38 – A Challenge!”