A NATION OF SQUATTERS © David Watts 28/04/2010

For most of our long history as an inhabited country, Canada has been a Nation of Squatters.

Land ownership is so established with us, we cannot imagine what it’s like to live without it.

Yet aboriginal societies did just that. Many still do. So did early New France, though the French did introduce a form of landholding that became private ownership along the St. Lawrence.

But the traders and voyageurs from New France and later under British administration, who worked in the woods and on the plains, lived as squatters if they had fixed homes at all.

It was the wholesale entry of settlers from Ontario into Manitoba that brought Métis squatters on the Red River into collision with Anglo-Saxon land claims in the American township system.

This 1870 uprising was the biggest in our history since those of 1837-38. A parallel crisis, the Northwest Rebellion, came in Saskatchewan 15 years later. While ethnicity and religion were at issue in these western uprisings, the challenge of settlers to squatters’ rights was central to both.

But even in the Anglo-Saxon world, private land ownership is less of a right than we imagine. as privately owned land is subject to expropriation by the state for a public facility or tax arrears.

This prompts the question “Whose land is it, anyway?” First Nations have been asking all along. In the mortgage crisis with our neighbour country to the south, the answer is often “the banks’.” That is what a mortgage is, and most homeowners come to ownership by the mortgage route.

So as financial institutions decide that many who thought they qualified do not after all, perhaps it’s time to examine the ownership issue that’s become a measure of our imagined independence.

This would be good before we adopt suggestions of selling off crown land, allowing land sales in national parks, and pressuring First Nations to discard the reservation system we foisted on them

This brings us back to our First Nations, so called because they lived here long before we did, though they made no claim to “own” land the way we do. What they show us may be surprising.

The fact is, First Nations did without private ownership not because they were naïve, simple, or too primitive to think of it. They avoided it because it seemed to them to be totally unworkable.

They could no more justify owning land than we can defend private ownership of our lakes and rivers, or owning the air above the land and water.

Issues of air and water and what is under the ground have brought us to begin to look at the land as aboriginal peoples have intuited it since their beginnings.

For while First Nations did not claim to own the land, they did accept a responsibility for it, more than we do who say we own it.

In fact, they were not mere squatters on the land, but stewards of it. They saw land not as play-dough to be squeezed, stretched and thrown away, but as part of a consciousness we all share.

To ignore, or worse, to deliberately do harm to it, is to harm ourselves since we are part of it.

French Canadians, the first Europeans to penetrate the country in partnership with First Nations, understood this better than most other newcomers. The French system of landholding and development, called seigneurial tenure in Québec, was based on a view of land from the water.

Their system of long strip lots, surveyed back from the water, made sense economically when rivers and lakes were the main transport and trade corridors.

They also made sense ecologically, in relating humans to the land organically and consciously.

To experience a territory from its waterways, watching for twists and turns, shoals and sandbars in the channel, is to see the land very differently than from a road grid. It is to be vulnerable to it.

And the grid of the township survey system, superimposed on Canada West and the prairies, cuts the land up as a commodity and makes it easier to flip, sell off or abandon when times get tough.

Vestiges of the French system of river lots can be found in the west in Saint Boniface on the Red River in Manitoba, in Lamoureux on the North Saskatchewan and Saint Albert on the Sturgeon rivers of Alberta. Many are inhabited by fourth and fifth generations of original settler families.

This was the approach to land at issue in the Red River and Northwest Rebellions when so called “squatters” stood on the chains being drawn across the lots by foreign speaking surveyor crews.

This is the spirit that underlies the treaties that were pledged “as long as the rivers shall flow.”

Further west in British Columbia, the township system did not take hold as much as on the prairies because of the mountains and the waterways they created.

Here the struggle was between those who lived on the land and water: who fished, farmed, cultivated and raised fruit trees on it, and those who saw it as something to be mined and logged.

Today the incentive of economic development, though strong, has not been enough to cause First Nations to abandon their ties to the land or their collective responsibility for its well being.

This suggests that a more realistic and reasonable alternative to land management might be that created in our national parks. Our first park, Banff, was created by a bequest and tourist interest of Canadian Pacific: a balance of capitalism and conservation.

In national parks residents can build homes and establish businesses but within limits. The land they build on is leased, not owned, and these leases, though renewable are for terms, say of 99 years, that includes an element of accountability for the land use: a long term view.

Canada has been, and still is, in many spots and in spirit, a Nation of Squatters on a geological timeline: tenants who live on the land and relate to it. Their dreams, schemes and activities may be ephemeral, but their awareness/partnership and cohabitation with the land, is enduring.

The principles that bring us to heel, that remind us of limits on our land use and development—these are not cultural fetishes or sentimental superstition. They are part of a larger consciousness expressed around the globe for millennia, and found in scriptural injunctions such as

The land shall not be sold for ever for the land is mine and you are strangers, sojourners with me

(Leviticus 25:23)

The “mine” here is not an arbitrary overlord, an individual ego, but an I AM that is being itself

In the coming together that is Kanata, let us be responsible stewards of the land we hold in trust.