New, old notions of land title – Ottawa Citizen op-ed

First published in the Ottawa Citizen, July 8, 2014.

The Supreme Court’s 8-0 decision recognizing Aboriginal title to land First Nations communities have inhabited since before European contact  is huge. It legitimizes understandings of land tenure as habitation and sustainable use. And it legitimizes these inhabitants’ right to define or co-define that sustainable use into the future, instead of merely being consulted on mitigating damage when outside corporate interests move into their territory to develop mines, or oil and gas.

This historic ruling could be even more significant depending on how non-Aboriginal Canadians respond: If they choose to see it not as obstructing development, but as an opportunity to redefine “development” as mutually beneficial for habitat as well as human inhabitants, drawing on their own pre-contact heritage for inspiration.

For many immigrants from Britain, including my ancestors, that pre-contact heritage includes living on the land, inhabiting it as commons. The word common originally meant community and land, inhabitants and habitat, “together as one” or “bound by mutual obligation.” These forebears of Canadian “settlers” didn’t consider themselves as owning the land they occupied. Nor did they consider land as private property. That came later, with the Improvement and the Enclosure movements, the emergence of a modern market economy, changes in law and its jurisdiction and the writings of foundational philosophers like John Locke and Adam Smith. Considered the father of modern economics, Locke penned a treatise (in the 1690s) proposing that people can claim land as their own property by virtue of their labour “improving” it, while Smith, in his 1776 Wealth of Nations, argued that the state and the courts should back such claims.

Land in Britain had been considered allodial, that is, without a supreme authority, until the Norman Conquest and the introduction of feu charters granting formal control to Norman and Anglo-Norman lords. Even when commoners paid rent (in kind at first) to these lords, their commoning rights persisted. These entitled them to use the land by virtue of having inhabited it since before recorded time, and to do so according to traditional self-governing practices, as habitat that sustained them while they sustained it.

While the Tsilhqot’in people moved around a fairly extensive territory west of Williams Lake in B.C., the commoners managed their relations with the habitat through stints, or quotas. For example, each family could only send so many sheep, cows and goats to the common pasture, to prevent over-grazing. Markets and trade had a place in this economy, but didn’t govern it, and this was key. In his 1945 classic The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi chronicled the shift from an economy regulated by the social relations of community and ecological relations with the land to one regulated by the logic of the market. The result of this transformation, he warned, “must disjoint man’s relationships and threaten his natural habitat with annihilation.”

The transformation is not complete here in Canada, as the Supreme Court’s ruling makes clear. It holds open the door to honour the past and draw on its precedents to heal those relationships, to preserve natural habitats and even, perhaps, restore them. There are many inspiring First Nations initiatives and treaties upholding co-determination or self-determination in traditional lands, the Eeuyou Istchee or James Bay Cree administration and Nunavut Land Claims Agreement being two examples. But there are as many roadblocks, including the Yukon Government’s recent sidestepping of a 1993 constitutional agreement to negotiate directly with the Yukon First Nations over development in wilderness areas like the Peel River Watershed, forcing a court challenge.

One way to support the claims of First Nations is to hold political leaders accountable to negotiate in good faith around existing agreements and court judgements. Another is to work through environmental and social-justice groups to think about land differently: not as property but as habitat with which, as co-inhabitants, we all have ongoing relationships and responsibilities.

Heather Menzies’ 10th book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good (New Society Publishers) was published in May.

Cheers to Blue Communities

blue communitiesEvery time a community passes a resolution or otherwise chooses collectively to become a “blue community,” I cheer. A blue community is one that recognizes access to water as a human right and promotes publicly owned water and waste services. (See Brent Patterson’s blog for updates on this movement.)

Blue communities are part of reclaiming the commons as the habitats in which our lives are immersed and on which our health and the sustainability of our communities, to say nothing of our planet, depends. A possible next step would be to combine this with more local participatory, or citizen science to monitor local water – levels and quality – and to create local common water authorities. I see these as akin to local community public health authorities, and extending their mandate. It’s what my ancestors living in commons communities and on the commons did: responsible self-governance that was political, economic and ecological.

To order my book, request it at your local bookstore or order your copy from New Society Publishers today!

See my article “Reclaiming the commons in the Salish Sea Islands,” in Island Tides, May 15, 2014.


David Bollier reviews Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good

Commons blogger David Bollier has reviewed Heather’s new book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good.

“The great virtue of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good is its willingness to probe into the deep personal and spiritual dimensions of commoning — while not losing sight of the entrenched, all-too-real political and policy structures that also must be confronted.  We need more such approaches to the commons — because if the commons aspires to bring about a more integrated, holistic way of life and self-governance, we must begin to pay as much attention to the inner, invisible mysteries as the outer, visible dramas.”

Read the full review on David’s blog.

Healing our Relationship with Bees

Bees in the gardenWalking the land of my ancestors helped me remember that we live in nature, even as we turn on the tap for a drink of water in a high-rise apartment, or hang a planter full of marigolds and salvia in the backyard of our suburban home. Walking the land that they inhabited, and worked, also helped me realize that HOW we live in nature, how we relate to nature and tend our bit of local habitat matters!

It was perhaps easier for my ancestors to grasp this and act on it. They had to treat the soil and the grassland of the common pasture with respect for what IT needed to sustain itself from one year to the next. They had to if they, in turn, wanted to survive and thrive from one year to the next. In other words, they had a clear, vested interested in responsible and right relations with nature.

Cause and effect is much harder to see in today’s globalized, high-rise world. But the bees bring it home to us. Knowing no borders or other man-made boundaries, they treat all habitats as home. They enter a relationship with all the flowering elements of nature we’ve bought at a local gardening centre, trusting that this habitat is safe and healthy for them to feed in.

But a new study released by Friends of the Earth Canada reveals that over half the so-called ‘bee-friendly’ home-garden plants being sold at garden centres (think Canadian Tire, RONA , Home Depot) have been pre-treated with neonicotinoid pesticides that have been shown to harm and even kill bees. Check out Friends of the Earth Canada’s website, and the larger study, Gardeners Beware 2014, and learn what you can do to heal our relations with the bees.

Our common connection to the land

Billy_Lewis_Heather_Menzies_Halifax_smallIn Halifax, the last leg of my book-launch tour, I met a beautiful person: a Mi’kmaw elder, Billy Lewis, who welcomed me to his ancestral land. I offered him a pouch of tobacco as my gesture of thanks. I also told him that I now understood why it was so important to me to acknowledge, as I just did, that I was standing on unceded Mi’kmaq land. By doing this, I am acknowledging and honouring his continuing sense of connection with the land; I am honouring the fact that it has never been broken in his heart and spirit. And as I do this, I am honouring my own efforts to reclaim the lost sense of connection that is associated with my heritage in the Highlands of Scotland.

To read more, about the historical concept of duthchas, my ancestors’ sense of responsibility toward one’s people and the land that they inhabited, click here.

Meanwhile, after listening to me speak in Halifax and starting to read my book, Billy Lewis sent me an email, saying: “We truly share a common history, and it’s our common connection to the land that unites us in giving life to the true meaning of a Commons.”

I felt so affirmed in what my book is about in what he said!

Walalin (Mi’kmaw for Thank you)

Excerpt from Reclaiming the Commons:

Duthchas is not a land claim as we’ve come to understand the word today. Or rather, what’s claimed isn’t land as property, but a lineage of connection and a responsibility toward a particular piece of land, as place, that’s passed on from generation to generation. I recall not only that common means “together as one” or together in obligation, but that its opposite (that is, the opposite of communis being immunis) is being “not under obligation” or “exempt.” In other words, the ethos of the commons knit people together with their neighbors and with
the land, plus the local fens, forest and bodies of water, with no one or nothing treated as exempt, nor as an externality. Inhabitants and habitat were one inseparable whole. All were neighbors, all belonged together, though this didn’t rule out resentment and dissent. The point was that all were also bound together by mutual obligation and mutual self-interest, and reminded of this every day.

To order my book, request it at your local bookstore or order your copy from New Society Publishers today!