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The greener grass (somewhere) (Part 1)

Part Twenty-two of a history of European occupation, rule, and brutal imperialism of Indigenous Australia, by Dr George Venturini.

The greener grass (somewhere)

Indigenous People’s representatives often make reference to the experience of their counterparts in countries such as New Zealand and Canada. This is understandable, given the assumption of a ‘commonality’ of the language spoken in those countries. To be generous the substance of such affirmation is a myth. It is true that four Maori seats were established within the New Zealand Parliament in 1867 as a very temporary expedient, originally for a mere five years while Maori communal title to land was converted by the Native Land Court into freehold title. Separate Maori representation is not guaranteed by the Treaty of Waitangi. In 1840 there was of course not even a New Zealand parliament, and when one was set up by the 1852 Constitution Act it contained no Maori seats. They were provided only in 1867. Moreover, the Treaty guaranteed to Maori ‘all the rights and privileges of British subjects’; no less than that, but no more either. For a while those four seats remained an established part of the political landscape until the introduction of a proportional representation system – the so-called M.M.P., for Mixed-Member Proportional (electoral system) – by the Electoral Act 1993. The ‘reserved’ seats were not abolished then, though, but extended, so that the number of Maori seats reflected – by a strange and complicated formula – the Maori population, including the Maori population not even on the Maori electoral roll.

All justifications for separate Maori seats have gone. With universal adult suffrage regardless of property ownership the original justification disappeared. With the introduction of M.M.P. and the appearance of many more Maori M.P.s in all political parties, the more recent argument that without the seats there would be inadequate Maori representation is no longer valid. (P. A. Joseph, The Maori Seats in Parliament, New Zealand Business Roundtable 2008).

As Professor David J. Round noted: “White, brown or cappuccino, Maori and European are slowly becoming one. Beyond this looms another greater question. Are we to be a nation, or merely a collection of disparate tribes and cultures all fighting for our own self-interest heedless of the greater good?” (The Maori Seats in Parliament | New Zealand Centre for Political Research Site,

Whether that could satisfy Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders living in Australia is a different matter.

It is not possible to speak of ‘Maori seats’ on the results of the 23 September 2017 New Zealand elections.

In Canada the situation is even more complicated – and more seriously ambiguous.

The term ‘recognition’ has found currency during the past forty years as a dominant mode of negotiation and de-colonisation between the invaders-state and the so-called ‘Natives’, the Indigenous Nations of Canada. In that sense, the word ‘recognition’ has embraced matters of cultural distinctiveness, Indigenous rights to self-government, to land and to the proceeds of land exploitation and mineral resources.

On 11 June 2008 Prime Minister Stephen J. Harper, then head of the Canadian conservative government, issued an official apology on behalf of the Canadian state to Indigenous survivors of the Indian residential school system. Characterised as the inauguration of a “new chapter” in the history of Indigenous-non-Indigenous relations, the residential school apology was a highly anticipated and rather emotionally loaded event. Across the country, Indigenous and non-Indigenous People were present to this ‘historic’ occasion. The Indigenous People received the apology with considerable skepticism. This subsided a bit; and it appeared to many, probably most, of the observers that apology was a genuine and necessary ‘first step’ on the long road to forgiveness and reconciliation. The feeling was encouraged by one thing in common to Prime Minister Rudd’s apology: no compensation. That re-assurance went a long way in quantifying the cost of reconciliation. Still, the benefit of the doubt which had been originally afforded the authenticity of the Prime Minister’s apology dissipated. Public distrust began to increase following a well-scrutinised address by Mr Harper at a gathering of the G20 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 25 September 2009. It was on that occasion that Prime Minister Harper abandoned himself to declaring that Canadians had “no history of colonialism.” Reconciliation – as proclaimed – had succeeded in white-washing some five hundred years of history. In addition, Prime Minister Harper took the occasion to declare rather smugly: “We have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them.” Things – that would define the invader’s contribution!

On 1 October 2009 Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, the former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada, who happens to hold a Master of Education in Adult Learning and Global Change from the University of Technology in Sydney, responded to the Prime Minister’s claim: “The Prime Minister’s statement speaks to the need for greater public education about First Nations and Canadian history. … The future cannot be built without due regard to the past, without reconciling the incredible harm and injustice with a genuine commitment to move forward in truth and respect.”

The position could not be clearer: on one hand, the propensity for soothing apologies – and no reparation, of course, on the other hand a clear re-statement that the Indigenous People – of Canada, at this point, but in fact anywhere – were not prepared to take ‘practical reconciliation’ seriously, effectively and as a response to their submissions and claims.

And out of that ambiguity has come an attitude – some would call it an ‘industry’ with the mission of promoting the delivery of official apologies advocating “forgiveness” and ‘reconciliation’, sometime, piously, ‘forgiveness’ as an important precondition for ‘resolving’ – more often ignoring – the deleterious social consequences of the original violence, the mass atrocities, the persistent sense of injustice which remains between the Indigenous People and the newcomers. The hope was, of course, that such Philistine attitude would help towards a transition, a ‘moving forward’ in the trite slogan of the time, from the violent but more often than not unmentioned history of invasion to a more acceptable regime of ‘democratic’ forms of government advocating the institutional recognition and accommodation of Indigenous cultural difference as an important means of reconciling the colonial relationship between Indigenous peoples and ‘the Crown’. In Australia, perhaps more so than in Canada, such ‘new language’ has been appreciated by speakers more affected by ‘education’, rather sectarian indoctrination of the Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran kind. There, perhaps, is where the utter non-sense of the double sovereignty comes: that of the Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander People and that of the Crown.

There is much of this ‘reconciliation’ as the act of restoring estranged or damaged social and political relationships in the intended meaning of the word Makarrata – in Australia, anyway.

As Prime Minister of Canada Mr Harper lasted for some nine years: 6 February 2006 to 4 November 2015. Early, he was faced with the reopening of the issue of the Bloc Québécois’ call for independence. The Bloc was successful in introducing a motion in the House of Commons which called for recognition of Quebec as a ‘nation’. On 22 November 2006 Mr. Harper introduced his own motion to recognise that “the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.” Five days later, Harper’s motion passed, with a margin of 266–16; all federalist parties, and the Bloc Québécois, supported it. And that was that.

His successor, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, assumed office on 4 November 2015 and soon managed with some fanfare to arrange for a meeting on 7 December 2015 with hundreds of chiefs at the Assembly of First Nations. He laid out his philosophy and commitments to Canada’s Indigenous People, to assure their “constitutionally guaranteed rights … a sacred obligation.” In brief, he promised to rescind government policies which are in conflict with their rights, make a significant investment in education programmes, increase general funding, and launch an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. Trudeau also indicated that the new government would implement all of the recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Some parts were delivered, others are still awaiting.

Mr Trudeau has sought to improve Canada’s image abroad.

Speaking on 21 September 2017 during a press conference on the third day of the General Debate at the United Nations, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, declared that Canada is ‘no land of wonders.’ He said that his country was working to address failures in the treatment of its Indigenous People. Trudeau told the United Nations General Assembly that Canada’s 1.2 million Indigenous People had mostly known “humiliation, neglect and abuse” in a country often held up as shining example of diversity.

“We know that the world expects Canada to strictly adhere to international human rights standards,” said Trudeau, who has put reconciliation with First Nations at the top of his reform agenda.

“That is what we expect of ourselves, too.”

Trudeau drew applause when he pledged Canada’s “unwavering support” to global efforts to combat global warming which he said was affecting the lifestyles of Inuit communities in the north.

It was Trudeau’s second address to the world body following his 2015 election.

“Canada is no land of wonders where hardships that you know do not exist,” said the Prime Minister, whose country consistently ranks among the world’s highest in living standards.

“Canada remains a work in progress,” he declared. (Canada has failed its Indigenous people, Trudeau tells UN, 22 September 2017, SBS).

And that was not the sole problem for Canada.

On 12 October 2017, when Prime Minister Trudeau made his first official visit to Mexico, “the Mexican Network of Mining Affected People” – R.E.M.A. by its initials in Spanish – issued a communiqué to call on Trudeau to live up to his commitments and stop the devastation of Indigenous and campesino communities which has enabled Canadian mining companies to make big profits.

“Canadian investment in Mexico – the principal destination abroad for Canadian mining investment after the U.S. – is expanding precisely in the most deadly places for anyone to get by on a daily basis, let alone speak out in defence of their land and wellbeing. As the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement is uncertain and Trudeau seeks to shore up a bilateral relationship with Mexico, it’s time to put words into action and answer for lives and livelihoods destroyed or at risk around Canadian mine sites.” (Richard Fidler, Mexicans denounce Canadian Mega-mining projects, 16 October 2017, Socialist Project – the Bullet).

Of course, Prime Minister Trudeau has presented himself on the international stage as a democrat, a supporter of human rights and freedoms, and committed to fulfilling the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. (See in particular Articles 10, 28 and 32, which require the “free, prior and informed consent” of the Indigenous Peoples concerned by projects impinging on their lands, territories and resources.) The Supreme Court of Canada has ignored this requirement in some recent rulings. (David Gray-Donald, Six Glaring Issues with the Supreme Court Line 9 Decision, 11 August 2017, Socialist Project – the Bullet).

But, on this latter point, it is important to mention that the government has taken a weak position, limiting its support for the declaration within the scope of the Canadian Constitution, which is not minor, particularly if Canada continues to refuse to ratify Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation, also known as the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989, and fails to respect the self-determination of Indigenous Peoples in practice.

Trudeau’s visit to Mexico had been announced as an opportunity to strengthen commercial ties between Mexico and Canada, which is bad news for those peoples and communities which have been seriously affected by Canadian mining activities.

Presently, Canada has become the biggest source of foreign investment in mining around the world and in Mexico, to such an extent that 65 per cent of foreign mining companies in Mexico are listed in Canada. For Canada, Mexico has become the second most important destination for Canadian mining investment abroad, after the United States, such that 11.3 per cent of Canadian mining assets are in Mexico.

The power that Canadian mining wields in Latin America has been openly and arbitrarily promoted by Canada’s entire diplomatic corps along the lines of its “economic diplomacy” policy through its embassies. Like good colonialists, they continue to propagate racism and hatred toward Indigenous Peoples and campesino communities when they encourage mining investment in an area such as Guerrero – where there is tremendous Canadian mining investment – and then issue alerts to Canadian tourists to avoid travelling to the same place, given the violence and risks that people live with there.

The political and financial weight of Canadian mining companies and the government is a reality which has been used to influence the promotion of constitutional reforms, laws and regulations in the extractive sector to help facilitate foreign investment, as well as to weaken and deny redress for harms, tax payments, or any other condition that might affect company profits.

In Mexico this has led to an unconstitutional legal framework which violates human rights because, among other things, it gives mining priority above all over activities, which despite being undertaken pretty much exclusively by private companies is also considered in the public interest. This has meant dispossession and forced displacement of legitimate landowners who, when they try to defend their rights, see them denied by the very same companies or through the structures of illegal armed groups or in collusion with diverse actors in the Mexican Government.

Health harms, environmental contamination and destruction, criminalisation of social protest, threats, harassment, smear campaigns, surveillance, arbitrary detentions and the assassination of defenders are the means for progress and development that Canadian mining investment is accused of having brought to Mexico. To counteract their activity, in the media and among the spheres of power, companies have been talking about their ‘corporate social responsibility’, ‘clean industry certification’ or safe cyanide use, or their adherence to absurd standards of ‘conflict free gold’ which are supported and certified by organisations largely set up by the very same corporate sector.

According to R.E.M.A. the abuses of Canadian mining companies have been ongoing, repeated, and have violated human rights such as rights to territory, property, a safe environment, participation, consultation and consent, lawfulness and legal security. The organisation detailed several cases.

R.E.M.A. reminded Prime Minister Trudeau that the only thing that mining investment from Canada has ensured for Mexico is dispossession and the risk that thousands and thousands of communities and persons could lose their culture and identity as a result of destruction of their territory; it condemned the arrival of organised crime – whether or not companies were signed up to the bombastic conflict-free gold standard; it bitterly complained against the escalation of violence, repression and criminalisation of those who defend their territories and life.

In this context, R.E.M.A. called on the Canadian Government to stop institutional and political support provided through its diplomatic apparatus to enable Canadian companies to accumulate profits through dispossession. The organisation also demanded that the Canadian Government stop promoting policies and weak laws which legalise the activities of those mining companies, such as voluntary codes of conduct known as ‘corporate social responsibility’ commitments, in place of mandatory compliance. Instead, corporate accountability is urgently needed to put a stop to the ongoing illegalities which violated the human rights of Indigenous Peoples and campesino communities.

Beyond the positive accounts of the business sectors and government officials in defence of the North American Free Trade Agreement, R.E.M.A. found it important to mention that this pact has only helped to legalise dispossession, enabling more wealth to be accumulated by already wealthy sectors, as well as the gradual displacement of both products and local economies to stimulate a new form of accumulation and control, an increase in the deregulation of land ownership and dilution of protections over the public interest and public good, further enabling private pillage. In sum, the principal objective of N.A.F.T.A. has been ‘to disappear’ the countryside and campesino farmers.

Finally, R.E.M.A. reminded Trudeau that on 26 April 2016, various organisations had sent him a letter in which they requested him to direct his attention to the context of human rights violations by Canadian companies in Mexico, much as in other parts of Latin America. The organisations had written just shortly after Trudeau had assumed his mandate as Prime Minister and, on that occasion, committed himself and his party to support human rights. The organisations had never received a response to their letter, nor had they seen any concrete actions the better to protect human rights. (Mexicans Denounce Canadian Mega-Mining Projects, Socialist Project – The Bullet, 16 October 2017).

The more dejected view of the situation is that provided by Professor Tatz.

After Uluru he asked: “Australia has ignored black viewpoints before – why would a constitutional ‘voice’ be any different ?” (Colin Tatz, Australia has ignored black viewpoints before – why would a constitutional ‘voice’ be any different?, The Conversation, 03 August 2017).

His experience of shadows and substance affecting Blacks in South Africa’s race politics yielded a startling metaphor. In 1936 the government established the 60-member Natives’ Representative Council as part-compensation for the abolition of the Cape Province’s black franchise. By 1947 it refused to continue. As councillor Paul Mosaka explained: “We have been fooled. We have been asked to co-operate with a toy telephone. We have been speaking into an apparatus which cannot transmit sound and at the end of which there is nobody to receive the message. Like children, we have taken pleasure at the echo of our own voices …”

The problem endures: ‘voices’ advise, but are rarely – if ever – heard.

In Australia, the Referendum Council had recently recommended that there should be a place for an Indigenous ‘Voice’ in the Constitution. (Final Report of the Referendum Council, 30 June 2017).

A mechanism to do so is awaited.

Australia had previously flirted with designated parliamentary seats for Indigenous Peoples elected on an Indigenous roll, akin to what were the seven reserved seats for Māori in New Zealand. One should remember two relatively recent initiatives which ended dismally: the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (1972 to 1977) and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (1990 to 2005). Their fate should be kept in mind and inform current debates.

But, by 2005, the Coalition government said “enough”.

The Howard government abolished the Commission and replaced it in 2007 with ‘the Intervention’. Indigenous voices were suppressed – again. Northern Territory Indigenous People were to be quarantined – again.

They had been ignored for more than century. This time they were to be ‘protected’ from themselves.

A century-work of resistance, resilience, self-help, economic enterprise, educational, artistic and sporting advancement was to be abolished at the whim of the Minister for Families and Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

“What new administrative creature lurches toward Canberra in 2018 or 2019?” wondered Professor Tatz. And he added: “If it is to have no executive, political and financial authority, and if its decisions have always to be “wise” and “logical” in governmental eyes, then we are in for another expensive and doomed instrument.”

One wonders; how should one read and interpret Fanon’s dictum: “To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.”?

Continued Friday with: The greener grass (somewhere) (Part 2)

Previous instalment: A dialogue with the deaf (Part 2)

Dr. Venturino Giorgio (George) Venturini, formerly an avvocato at the Court of Appeal of Bologna, devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reach at



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