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.

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!

Bill C-33: A Lost Opportunity to Rethink First Nations Education

What bothers me the most about C-33 as currently written —NOT being as the title (First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act) suggests— is this:

It’s the lost or postponed opportunity at stake in genuinely returning control of First Nations education to First Nations communities. First Nations educators could lead the way toward reforming the current paradigm of education, gifting the rest of Canada, and even the world, with it ending up being called an ecological model of education where young people learn about things in relationships, not in abstracted isolation.

There are many efforts going on to revive traditional knowledge and, most importantly, ways of knowing, through bush camps that are often framed as healing for Aboriginal youth—for instance, among the Cree of James Bay, the Eeyou Istchee, and the Deline of Sahyoue and Edacho, around Great Bear Lake in the NWT.

I sense many parallels to my own traditional knowledge and knowledge practices, from when my ancestors lived in direct relations with the land in self-governing commons that had evolved from traditional homelands as hunter-gather traditions gave way to those of hunter-farmer and then, largely farmer. Their ways of knowing flowed from that intimate connection with the land, that immersion in the habitat of both community and the natural world that the commons was.

As I tried to imagine my way into what these ways of knowing involved, I was hugely helped by the work of anthropologist Tim Ingold, who has pushed back centuries of misinterpretation about First Nations culture to argue that to understand their ways of perceiving and knowing the world, you have to take their position as participants dwelling in the environment as the starting point. It’s very different from the remote, objectified perspective associated with modern ways of knowing. This is more knowing as mastery versus knowing as attuned attention and empathetic understanding.

In my new book, Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good, I talk hopefully about reviving traditional knowledge practices and blending the best of these with the best of modern knowledge practices and producing a model that expands current understandings of literacy to include eco-literacy —knowing through relating to elements of surrounding habitats in much the way you get to know a person; oral literacy— the ability to articulate observations in dialogue and story, and the equally important ability to listen; literacy of the written word and numeric literacy, which is the ability to work with numbers, with data sets.

I would like to support First Nations in their efforts to negotiate the kind of education act they need, and I look forward to learning what their enactment of this legislation has to teach us all about living in right relations within all the habitats of our world.

Excerpt from Reclaiming the Commons:

“Reclaiming this immersed way of knowing is part of reclaiming the commons. It’s part of reclaiming our agency as subjects implicated in the larger contexts and habitats of our world. But reclaiming that agency won’t come easily. It might require some affirmative action, some unlearning of deep-seated habits of deferring to experts and officially sanctioned knowledge. Reclaiming our agency also means deliberately tuning in to what we sense and notice as we immerse ourselves in a particular habitat. It means embracing what Tim Ingold calls “an original condition of engagement, of being-in-the-world.” In a way, it means becoming ecologically literate, or ecoliterate, although not in the way the term is generally understood today.

“The term ecological literacy, or ecoliteracy is associated with educator David W. Orr and physicist Fritjof Capra who coined it in the 1990s. They wanted to bring a sense of the inherent value of the Earth and the importance of its well-being into the school system.12 They weren’t inspired by the heritage of premodern knowledge, however — almost the opposite. Their thinking was grounded in postmodern knowledge, notably systems theory and the new physics which demonstrated that energy and matter are intricately interconnected, as are time and space. Everything needs to be understood as in relationship.

“That’s what ecology is about too. It’s about the relations between organisms in a habitat, or environment. Still, it’s one thing to study them and quite another to live attuned to them, and I think this is what premodern practices (immersed, dwelling in a habitat) have to contribute to our understanding of ecoliteracy: we come alive to these relationships by being immersed in them, engaged in the habitat itself. It’s from these relationships that people can develop “a feeling for the organism,” even a feeling for the Earth and its venerable groundwater being blasted by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) or exhausted from over-pumping.

“To me, the essential thing in people, especially kids, becoming ecoliterate is creating opportunities for ongoing participation in particular local habitats. It’s learning to read not just a text but the land. It’s the ability to relate to the land, to read it empathetically as one would read the expression on a friend’s face. It’s the ability to know the soil of your garden or field through the process of relating to it over time. Ecoliteracy emerges not so much within the walls of a classroom but from prolonged participation in a habitat as living classroom. It’s an apprenticeship in the traditional sense of what apprenticeships have
historically involved, which is learning by doing, by attuned attention, by the head and hands working together, the senses alive to nuances of change in the living context. It’s not just the sum total of knowledge (as object) that matters. It’s the subject position, of implicated knowing through engagement in habitats and in situations within them, that

“I think of my father and what he had inscribed on a chunk of granite that’s long stood at the base of that first hillside we planted with trees and which a stone mason’s inscription turned into a memorial: “They cared for this land.” The words are his take on what we as a family did over the years to reclaim the land as fecund. The trees we planted now tower over my head as I walk through them; they overshadow the stone with its enduring statement of what mattered to some people who inhabited this land.”

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

What drew me to Chief Spence’s hunger strike

I went to Victoria Island first on Dec. 21st as a simple act of solidarity and support for Chief Theresa Spence who had put her body on the line to demonstrate how much it hurts for Canada’s Aboriginal peoples to be treated as though their rights, their vision and their traditional ways of making Canada what it is, are worth nothing. She enacted that nullification in her fast.

I returned again and again, bringing more food and, once, firewood. Each time I stayed a little longer because I felt that I belonged. Not because I am native. But because I’d done the homework I had felt called to do some years ago: to trace my own ancestral roots to the Highlands of Scotland, and the particular valley and glen that was my people’s tribal homeland. Having recovered what echoes and remnants of traditions I could, having reconnected with the earth and Creation there, I felt an affinity with what was going on in the Idle No More Movement and its spiritual unfolding on Victoria Island, around the sacred fire outside Chief Spence’s teepee and the wood stove inside it, too. The pieces I’ve written were inspired by my presence there, taking in the ethos of what was happening as well as particular details. Two days before Chief Spence ended her hunger strike, I was asked to find strawberry juice for her herbal medicines. It was an honour to take on and fulfill this quest. It was a last act of solidarity that also fed me in the continued unfolding of the book I’m writing as a fourth-generation descendent of settler immigrants to Canada, fleeing the Highland Clearances.

The story continues, and we’re all part of it whether we choose to be actively implicated and to actively contribute or not.


Heather’s new book is called To the Shieling: A Memoir on Reconnecting with the Earth. She will post something about it soon.