Ancestral Relations with the Land

If we are to heal the earth, we must also heal ourselves, individually and as communities. Moreover, the two are inter-connected. It’s all about relations — relations of mutual recognition and respect and mutual support and sustainability. It’s also about the daily practices of mutuality and responsible self-governance that support these relations.

 

Menzies_tweet_AncestorsBy Heather Menzies

As memories of giving the opening keynote at an International Conference on the Commons (IASC2015) start to fade, the lasting learning for me is twofold:

  • First, that we all have ancestral relations to the land; and,
  • second, that positioning ourselves to reclaim this, at first just in our imagination as a possible shift in perspective, is a critical step in reconnecting with the earth and the urgent task of transforming our economic and political relations with it, for mutual survival.

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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.

My new book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good

Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good begins as a memoir, my personal journey into the Highlands of Scotland to find that place on earth where my ancestors once lived in direct relations with the land, in self-governing commons.  It ends with a manifesto that identifies commons-keeping practices that could be reclaimed today. I link these practices to some promising initiatives in current social movements to frame what I see as a possibly emergent movement to reclaim the commons of earth, and perhaps a lost identity as commoners, too.

Order your copy from New Society Publishers today!