Much of the material written in the public sphere about Indigenous people in Canada, their struggle, and possible ways forward, are written with a very uninformed reader in mind. Those books are, of course, vital. These are extraordinarily difficult topics with complex roots and very few simple answers. It is critical that there is an on ramp for people who are trying to learn.
This book, however, is not for folks new to the struggle.
If you have been educating yourself for some time, already understand concepts like the duty to consult, at least at a high level, have at least skimmed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, it might feel like there isn’t really anything left for you to really engage with. Chief Manuel steps into the fray to wield his lifetime of experience working both inside the system and outside of it to try and untangle the complexities of Indigenous rights as they relate to the rights of non-Indigenous people. He weaves his life story, starting with his father’s dedication to the emancipation of Indigenous peoples, even at the expense of the wellbeing of his family, with technical political processes. He creates a compelling narrative of events taken from the headlines by making the stories feel both personal and universal. He also acknowledges that his own views are at times controversial, even among Indigenous peoples.
It is easy to say “land back” or spout land acknowledgements and call it a day. It is much, much harder to explain what “land back” might mean, and how it might play out. What is actually being returned, to whom, and how might that play out in a country with a rich tapestry of cultures and with very significant procedural barriers that can cause decades of stalemates are all real, vital questions to ask. In addition to understanding the players and issues involved, Chief Manuel also focuses on what levers Indigenous people and their allies have at their disposal both domestically and internationally to try and more effectively advocate for true reconciliation.
Chief Manuel recognizes that there is much work to be done to create an equitable, just relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments, one that works to make amends for hundreds of years of blatant, harmful discrimination without harming the tens of millions of non-Indigenous people who also call this country home. Unfortunately, this means that there are no easy answers to be found in these pages, but there is an immense amount of food for thought. Ideas of Indigenous self government are not used as talking points, but as fleshed out theories of governance that can mean true autonomy for Indigenous governments in a way that can make sense within a Canadian context. It acknowledges that many Indigenous nations are not in a position to simply become a full government overnight, and proposes concrete ways in which their capacity can be increased to be able to offer more fulsome services to their citizens.
For those interested in taking their understanding of the tension between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people further, to really dig into the guts of the problems created by historical wrongs, the bottlenecks in the system preventing true reconciliation today, and concrete ideas of how to move forward, Unsettling Canada is an equal parts inspiring and depressing read. Readers in other colonial countries with similar conflicts would no doubt also gain something from this book.
Chief Manual passed away unexpectedly at 66 in 2017 after a lifetime dedicated to the struggle for justice. How we take up the mantle will no doubt define us for generations.