The seminal political scientist Benedict Anderson coined the term “imagined communities” to describe modern nations – political entities so large and diffuse that they are held together not by direct personal ties but by shared stories, which shape common identities. Examined through this lens, Canada is a nation of master storytellers who have crafted a tale of a harmonious, liberal, environmentally conscious sub-Arctic utopia.
This narrative is quickly becoming untenable, especially given the current administration’s myopic politics, which have left the members of Canada’s imagined community increasingly polarized. But regardless of the specific version of Canuck self-conception, it leaves little room for our country’s colonial past, entrenched racism, or abhorrent treatment of indigenous communities.
In Unsettling Canada (with an afterword by Grand Chief Ronald M. Derrickson), veteran activist Arthur Manuel recounts a history of systematic exclusion of Canadian indigenous people from their land and from national politics. He considers ongoing governmental policies to be a continuation of colonial practices, as evidenced by land grabs, legal gerrymandering, and ubiquitous violence, both structural and overt. However, his is not an account of a passive, downtrodden people. Instead, the book tells of generations of resistance and grassroots organization fighting a David vs. Goliath battle for recognition of long-denied rights and claims. Native communities, he states unequivocally, have been anything but idle.
Manuel has spent his entire adult life championing these causes, and much of the writing here is autobiographical, peppered with strong personal opinions, potshots at political enemies, and an overt political agenda. But a false objectivity is not Manuel’s aim, and while the book is heavy on indictments and proscriptions, it is also full of insights into how indigenous political organizing works on the ground, and how it scales up to different levels of political action.In the end, the book makes the potent claim that the strength of communities lies not only in their narratives, but in the land they control. Sovereignty and self-determination, it argues, begin with land, making politics as much about local organizing as about large-scale legal battles, international institutional recognition, and economic empowerment. Opinionated, at times meandering and scattered, but pragmatic and hopeful, this is a timely book for our fraught political moment.