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Arguing the State With My Dad: Thoughts on Settler Colonialism in Nova Scotia

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Gary Burrill is currently running for leadership of the provincial NDP [Photo: snipview.com]
Gary Burrill is currently running for leadership of the provincial NDP [Photo: snipview.com]

By Fred Burrill

I’ve been arguing politics with my Dad, Gary Burrill, for as long as I can remember. In my growing-up years in Upper Musquodoboit, he encouraged me to learn about the histories of miners' struggles in Nova Scotia, and introduced me to the world of oppositional Maritime literature through his favourite working class poets, Alden Nowlan and Milton Acorn. When I was a little older, fresh from my first experience of a Montreal student strike and thinking through questions of strategy and tactics, we argued through the streets of Belfast about Sinn Fein’s electoral policy, as I attempted to convince him not to continue on the path of running for the provincial NDP. It’s an argument that continued even as I worked on the 2009 campaign that would result in his election as the first-ever New Democrat to win a provincial seat in the riding of Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley.

Throughout, we’ve differed greatly, with varying degrees of nuance and dogmatism – I the righteous anarchist, he the pragmatic socialist — but have always concurred on one fundamental insight: the people of Nova Scotia, and the Maritimes more generally, have far too long served as the reserve army of labour in a Canadian economy bent on squeezing profit out of the most marginalized. The disastrous consequences of mass out-migration, militarization of the working class, and destruction of Maritime culture must be struggled against.

My father’s recent bid for the leadership of the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party, as a left candidate advocating free tuition, debt relief, and a general anti-austerity agenda, is for me then another chance to think through some reflections on the role of the state in Maritime struggles, hopefully in a way that moves past a simplistic yes/no on the issue of electoral participation and that gets at the underlying historical and economic conditions in which people in the region currently find themselves. Recently returned from a few weeks of visiting my parents in Musquodoboit, I’m full of questions about the state power model in the Nova Scotian context: is a viable left position possible in a colonial government? How could such a government grapple with the legacy of, and on-going imperial onslaught against indigenous nations? How can we move past the traditional narratives of underdevelopment and regional subjugation to more clearly identify networks of power in the province?

On policy

Let me begin by saying that I wholly support my father in what is a sincere struggle against the worst of a rotten economic system, even if I don’t have much good to say about the arena he’s chosen. Further, the main tenets of his “Democracy and Justice” campaign – free education, student debt relief, a $15 minimum wage – are all exciting proposals. After all, it’s hard to be against a politician finally refusing to bow before the bank-imposed neoliberal consensus.

A cursory glance at international political economy is enough to notice how the prospect of default by even the tiniest government threatens to topple the uneven house-of-cards of the market economy. At least since 2008, the constructors of this particularly rickety structure have been holding their breath and hoping that the world won’t notice that debt payments and their selective enforcement are in fact based on elaborate moralizing myths that function to conceal a massive wealth transfer from the poor to the rich. In a capitalist system, as anthropologist David Graeber has pointed out, neither governments nor individuals can survive in any meaningful way without debt. Moving beyond the moralizing, then, could have striking practical and political consequences.

In the Nova Scotian context, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has amply demonstrated that the deficit alarmism of the Liberal government (and, one might add, of the NDP before it) bears little relation to the actual fiscal situation of the province. Nova Scotia has, in fact, a quite manageable level of debt, and could responsibly take on more as a means of increasing people’s quality of life. On a broader Canadian level, one can only imagine the political consequence of a traditional have-not province declaring jubilee on student debt and dismissing balanced budget rhetoric as just that. Mostafa Henaway, in his 2013 “Capitalism on the Edge: The Crisis That Came and the Crisis Yet to Come,” posits that Canada weathered the 2008 financial chaos through active promotion of “debt-based growth” – most significantly a massive, credit-fuelled housing bubble – and increasingly intense extraction of indigenous resources. A systemic challenge to the myth of debt, therefore, could perhaps have far-reaching impacts on policies and conversations around the country about how we structure our economy and who benefits.

On Settlerism

And yet, there’s still the extractive side of the coin. As one of the earliest fronts in the ongoing colonial war against indigenous nations to establish “Canada,” Nova Scotia as a political jurisdiction is deeply enmeshed in a history of imperial control through the imposition of a bureaucratic state apparatus. In her book “The Fault Lines of Empire,” historian Elizabeth Mancke argues that Nova Scotia differed from its 16th-century revolutionary New England settler state counterparts in that its governmental structure emerged not from local townships but was in fact carefully introduced by the British in order to maintain imperial control, becoming “part of an interconnected system of power reaching from Whitehall and Westminster to settlements such as Liverpool.” More specifically, the development of a system of land ownership controlled by the government (“Crown land”) ensured that politics as an arena would develop not so much around differing ideologies as around competition over allocation of these colonially-controlled resources – resources obtained through theft and maintained by force.

This pattern of competition for resource control amongst various sectors of local and transnational elites has characterized the political economy of the province throughout subsequent centuries. In its modern form, it has resulted in Nova’s Scotia’s financial viability, at least within the current Canadian structure, being almost entirely tied to resource extraction and strong, reliable equalization payments from other provinces – essentially, the spoils of theft of indigenous territories further to the west.

From this angle, the consensus points in my ongoing argument with my Dad (the outmigration of Nova Scotian workers and the militarization of Maritimers through mass Canadian Forces recruitment) look somewhat different. Revolutionary writer J. Sakai has argued, in an American context, that an historical analysis of the white working class reveals that this sector of society has forsaken its potential as a force for social justice by buying into systems of colonial privilege based on a foundation of racism and land theft.

In the Nova Scotian context, many thinkers have tried to account for the lack of oppositional organizing in recent decades, given the difficult economic situation of the majority of the province’s inhabitants. My own father, writing in the 1980s as the then-editor of the radical journal New Maritimes, suggested that part of it was based in regional particularity – “It’s as though we live our lives here inside a giant flour bag: the tangled closeness of regional culture shakes us around together until—covered in a common coating of family connections and a shared past—it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad.”

This rings true, to a point. But perhaps we also need to consider the influence of settlerism here. In a province built on slave labour and conceived in British military conquest of Acadian and Mi’kmaq populations, maybe the settler working class and its left allies have been bought off. Successive waves of emigration, first to New England, then to Ontario, then to the tar sands, have been difficult and lonely, but look pretty good next to the horrors of residential schools. Military jobs in an international force mostly used as a repressive administrative apparatus following U.S. invasions bring financial security and largely subsidized educational opportunities, despite the dangers.

I don’t wish to suggest here that poverty in Nova Scotia is not a real problem. It’s clear, though, that in a colonial settler state, leftists are operating in a different context of power than an underdeveloped non-settler state like Greece. Re-imagining how we think about debt and redistribution involves more than a more active role for government. A truly liberatory state project must contend with an imperial power apparatus that locks all of us, settler and otherwise, into an unsustainable and unjust pattern of resource extraction and reliance on the spoils of power from other parts of Turtle Island.

It would involve addressing Nova Scotians openly about the true debts it owes to the Mi’kmaq nation, and re-thinking how we can live together without the productivist mindset of a resource-based, foreign market reliant economy. Most importantly, a left formation serious about ending economic exploitation in Nova Scotia would need to be dedicated to dismantling the ideology of settlerism, not only in order to illustrate the paltry nature of the section of the pie awarded to Maritimers but more fundamentally to point out that the pie itself is poisoned.

On possibilities

One possible objection in the context of this discussion is that a just nation-to-nation relationship between indigenous people and Canada would need to be enacted through the federal government. True – but as with the question of provincial debt, a local government-based insistence on and enactment of the slow process of decolonizing our relationships and economy could serve to destabilize the delicate balance of settlerism in Canada.

I think it’s an open question as to whether or not such an initiative could come from a settler left formation taking state power. It certainly will not be coming from the current configuration of forces within the NDP. Clearly, as recent purges of pro-Palestinian voices from the federal party demonstrate, as this once social democratic formation moves higher up the ranks of the powerful it also moves to solidify its adherence to the settler colonial consensus.

Maybe it’s most accurate to say that none of the interests represented by the current political parties – all of them firmly tied to big business and speaking the language of settlerism – can be expected to bring about such a change. In the unlikely scenario that a true liberation-oriented candidate such as my Dad does form government, however, any attempt at balancing the economic playing field through state intervention, subsidies and debt relief must do the hard work of facing up to the theft-based nature of the resources driving the change. 

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