Civic-Indigenous 7.0

Dark Matter
Jan 22, 2020 · 20 min read

7 points of convergence towards civic and Indigenous futures

On October 9, 2019, 16 people from diverse expertises and worldviews gathered in Toronto. Together, we explored socio-ecological pathways that weave civic and Indigenous imaginations to better support current and future generations. This report seeks to reflect the richness of these conversations. It also highlights seven points of convergence around which we hope a growing community of practice will gather.

“Part of our challenge as peoples in cities is to learn how to live with the strength of the earth and draw this in in a counselling fashion. Go talk to the trees and talk to the plants and understand the language, understand the stories, understand the science, understand the treaties of nature. And because it’s living, it also means that it is not contained to a once upon a time in 1701. It means what is happening today and what can happen off in the future.

With Section 35 being part of Canadian Law, this is a way to help us start to make law not just in parliaments or legislatures or courts, but seeing law as being us. And lawing together. It’s not just lawyers and judges who practice law. We can all practice law. And we can do that by reconnecting people to their places. This is us. We don’t have to wait for it. It’s there. It’s around us.”

John Borrows, excerpts from his teaching by the pond, Toronto, 2019

We gathered on these lands

We acknowledge that we gathered on occupied Indigenous territory — the traditional homelands of the Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Haudenosaunee, and the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory is governed by the Canada Purchase, Treaty 13 and is subject to the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabeg Confederacies and allies to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes.

We acknowledge that the meeting place of Tkaronto, including this Wonscotonach area of the Lower Don River, is still home to many Indigenous peoples from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work within this territory and the community as a whole.

These people were welcomed through layers of places:

Exploring the intersection of Indigenous and civic futures

This gathering was an initiative of the McConnell Foundation, in collaboration with Dark Matter Labs. McConnell’s Cities for People group, along with many of their partners, has been increasing efforts to better understand how they can support and prioritize Reconciliation in their civic work and activities.

The intention behind this workshop was to explore more concretely:

  1. How ambitious visions at the intersection of Indigenous and civic futures could become a reality?
  2. What would be the most strategic ‘proofs of possibility’ to get there?
  3. How could these proofs of possibility play out across both Indigenous and non-Indigenous contexts?

The discussion was held with a shared understanding that we — Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike — both currently live under self-terminating paradigms. Indigenous people are systemically marginalized and are suffering under the Indian Act. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are robbed of good health and wellbeing and are dying under ecocide and increasingly unequal systems. We need to re-imagine our laws, our governance systems and transform our systemic and spiritual relationships with land and nature. And we need each other to get there.

The content of this report draws primarily on the discussions held on October 9, 2019 at Evergreen Brickworks in Toronto, but it also builds on exchanges from previous gatherings:

  • The Meetup of the Network of Regulatory Experimentation on the potential of social innovation and regulatory experimentation to support the operationalization of the pathways toward Indigenous self-governance, held in April 2019 in Toronto.
  • The Indigenous 7.0 inception workshop for the Transitional Governance Project, held in August 2019 at the McConnell Foundation in Montreal.
  • The Rights of Nature and Regenerative Natural Ecosystems workshop hosted by Dark Matter Labs, Radicle, Expo Live and the McConnell Foundation in September 2019 at the Biosphere in Montreal.
  • And many conversations with Satsan from the Center for First Nations Governance (CFNG).

This report seeks to reflect the richness of these discussions. It is also an invitation to join this emerging discussion and community.

7 points of convergence | Making kin: All my relations

“Make a rhizome. But you don’t know what you can make a rhizome with, you don’t know which subterranean stem is going to make a rhizome, or enter a becoming, people your desert. So experiment.’’

Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, Thousand Plateaus, 1987

Running through all of our discussions, was this deep recognition that everything we are in relationship to, is part of our being. We are not single and discontinuous. Rather, we are multiple and continuous. Our kinship extends to plants, animals, landscapes, ancestors, future generations, spirits and each other. Our cities are also living entities. They are continuous organisms where we are all interdependent and interrelated.

The market economy produces ever tightening cities and places where our connections become increasingly complex, and yet shallow and exclusive. For people who can’t fit in, the difficulty to make kin with these systems expresses itself through addictions and despair. In response, we look for emergence through relationships, we seek a kinship-based worldview where taking care of kin is taking care of oneself.

The following section regroups seven points of convergence in our discussions and the deeper — and still unanswered — questions they raised.

1 — Section 35 of the Constitution: Opening radically different futures

(1) The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal people in Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.
(2) In this Act, “Aboriginal Peoples of Canada “includes the Indian, Inuit, and Métis Peoples of Canada.
(3) For greater certainty, in subsection (1), “treaty rights” includes rights that now exist by way of land claims agreements or may be so acquired.
(4) Notwithstanding any other provision of this act, the aboriginal and treaty rights referred to in subsection (1) are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.”

Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 (Canada)

Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982 recognizes and affirms Aboriginal rights. It does not, however, define or create Aboriginal rights. Ever since, a string of case law (see Calder, Delgamuukw-Gisdayway, Campbell, Haida, Mikesew Cree or Tsilhqot’in) has been produced to interpret the nature and extent of these rights.

While Section 35 arises from a jurisdictional framework, its potential implications reach far beyond legal courts. For First Nations, Section 35 is an opportunity to reconcile in a deeper way the pre-existing sovereignties and the assumed sovereignty of the Crown. Through the process of nation re-building, Indigenous Peoples are now reclaiming their own frameworks for self-governance and lawing practices. The implementation of the inherent right to self-governance through the development of laws and policies paves the way for a true nation-to-nation-to-nation (Indigenous-provincial-federal) relationship.

The seismic waves of Section 35 have the potential to reach far beyond Indigenous Peoples themselves. It holds a unique and unprecedented space to envision a post-ownership world and to fundamentally rethink our relationship to land, to nature and our practices of togetherness, within and between nations. It opens up a context where we can challenge and transform our current governance models and explore new ways of constituting, perhaps even beyond the nation-state model that perpetuates inequality and unsustainability. All that, informed by Indigenous knowledges and ways of being.

In short, Section 35 created a wormhole into very different futures. Nowhere in the world is such an opportunity available, let alone enshrined in the Constitution. We have a collective responsibility to open the box that is Section 35 and expand its meaning, reveal the pathways of possibilities it contains and communicate its potential to the world. While the exact possibilities contained within Section 35 might still be blurry at this time, we know their ethics. Their contours touch upon the following:

  • They require new languages in order to include plants and animals as fellow constitutors and law-makers.
  • They should create new roles for the youth
  • They put communities first, not individuals.
  • They care for 7 generations.
  • They seek to build trust.

How do we translate this wormhole vision to the ground?

How can, for example, Friendship Centers leverage Section 35 to shift the narrative of their daily activities and development projects? How can it bring municipalities, cities and provinces to reconsider the lands they are on?

What does this wormhole entail for metropolises and big cities?

2 — Verbs not nouns: Conjugations and perpetual states of becoming

“I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe.”

― R. Buckminster Fuller

“A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamma — to be a bay — releases the water from bondage and lets it live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise — become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too.’’

― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 2013

Language is a way to see and co-exist in the world. With the loss of Indigenous languages, we are losing stories, laws and a whole grammar of animacy. Languages, however can be recovered and, perhaps most importantly, they can be learned. Caution and nuances are paramount here to avoid the pitfalls of essentialism and fundamentalism.

Words, in Anishinaabemowin, are 80% verb-based. They speak of relations, conjugations and acting together. They insist on how we relate to each other and highlight possible aggregations of everything that is possible. Indigenous languages also speak in stories — passing down teachings from ancestors — acting as a foundation for holistic and experiential learning. These Creation stories provide blueprints for how we can live more humanely and in balance and reciprocity with the earth and all our relations. Creation stories are teachings about the Cosmos and the Earth, the archetypal and spirit realms, and instruct us in our relationships with the lands, waters, and all of our more-than-human kin. They are powerful guides for initiating and navigating healing from trauma and dispossession, recovery, reconciliation and resistance processes.

Inversely, a noun-based language, like English, generates categorizations and classifications. This tends to objectify reality, induce dualism and freeze what is possible. All these inert nouns end up creating a scaffolding for an over-complexification that erases life. Some might say, speaking English is like trying to hold water in your hands, an idle attempt at fixing meaning into something meant to elude, through means of flowing.

What does it mean, then, to train ourselves to think of everything as a verb? Thinking of community as a verb, for example, releases boundaries and holds a diversity of affiliations and kinships. “Community” is a stable and self-contained (and even finite) object. “Communitying” evokes an asset in continuous communion, a place governed through a continuous flux of people who produce community.

How do we conjugate keep open — opportunities for community?

In a verb-based language, does property exists and if so how?

3 — Counseling with nature: Moving toward more ecocentric models of law

“Reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians, from an Aboriginal perspective, also requires reconciliation with the natural world. If human beings resolve problems between themselves but continue to destroy the natural world, then reconciliation remains incomplete. This is a perspective that we as Commissioners have repeatedly heard: that reconciliation will never occur unless we are also reconciled with the earth. Mi’kmaq and other Indigenous laws stress that humans must journey through life in conversation and negotiation with all creation.’’

Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015

In the current Western paradigm, if you are not right-bearing, you are owned. By framing extractive practices such as mining, fracking and pollution, the current body of environmental laws are not actually made to protect the environment and other species. They are made to regulate the use and abuse of nature by humans. This fundamental legal anthropocentrism thus implicitly frames non-human entities as property (usus/abusus/fructus), making it increasingly difficult to account for and protect ecosystems’ natural — and essential — functions.

As we slowly move toward extending legal personhood to rivers (New Zealand and India), lakes (United States) or adding the rights of mother nature directly in the constitution (Ecuador), what are some of the risks of this approach? The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) and its International Center on the Rights of Nature has worked with many Indigenous communities who felt hesitant to move into a framework such as the rights of nature, expressing that it is still a very Western centered legal approach, but that it might still be the best way to embody their values inside the current system. However, CELDF also believes that rights of nature and Indigenous rights can go hand in hand since the concept in itself isn’t modern. Also, while Lake Erie made national news in 2019, the rights of Manoomin came first.

Among the concerns about the rights of nature’s application on the ground, let’s mention three. First, it is in a way the extension of individual rights from people, corporations and now to “natural” entities that are perceived to be seperate (where does the river who is granted legal personhood start or end?). Second, since those rights still have to be stewarded by humans, one could wonder if it will change anything to the rate of environmental defenders who are killed in trying to protect their land (160 were killed in 2018, which is only one visible extreme end of the spectrum of abuses of land defenders around the world: criminalization, harassment, etc.). Third, there is a risk of ventriloquism (trying to speak like an Indigenous person or voice) and instrumentalization (using Indigenous people to further environmental causes).

If we seek to best ensure ecosystems’ rights to exist, flourish, evolve and be restored, an ecocentric model of law also raises other major questions:

What language do we need to speak on behalf of nature in a court of law? Which protocols do we need in order to listen to nature?

In Canada, no natural “entity” has been granted the status of legal personhood yet. How different (or similar) would a more ecocentric legal framework be under a rights of nature approach versus under Indigenous/Aboriginal Law?

Should Canada jump into the rights of nature wagon and/or focus more on respecting Indigenous rights and support Indigenous people’s right to self-determination and self-governance through Section 35?

4 — Everyday lawing: Constituting as a daily practice

‘‘Sometimes when you undertake to do learn something about what is required to be good, at the beginning it’s all exciting, it looks very attractive. But, sometimes, in that work to figure out what it really requires to do good, if you want to get to the source of the beauty, to the source of the medicine, you have to dive deep. You have to get yourself dirty. And you have to figure it out, yourself, in the context of the relationships. You have to stay in the context of those relationships to be able to figure it out.

When I think about those teachings about ode’ (heart), ishkode (fire), odite’abug (water lily heart leaves) and what it requires in a city context (oodena) to be able to form good relationships, that allow us to draw the medicine teachings from these places. We need to walk into these places, we have to reestablish connections to these places. Revitalisation of landscapes is the revitalisation of the legal resources, the law, the governance in our spaces.’’

John Borrows, excerpts from his teaching by the pond, Toronto, 2019

In Anishinaabemowin, law is a verb. If law is an activity, something we do, the question then becomes: how do we work through this notion of making decisions together in this verb-like fashion? How do we law together? And with whom? Law happens through a counselling process between people, in interaction with space. An Indigenous legal perspective emerges from the literacy of nature. Water, plants, animals are our legal archives and professors. The beauty the world conveys is filled with stories, teachings, procedures and principles. As humans, we are but one of the legal agents involved in decision making and, as such, we cannot be constituting without being in relationship with all of creation, in a constant participatory process with nature.

If the law of the land is the highest law, law becomes an everyday practice — and not something restricted to courts and the legal system — and we are all legal practitioners. We don’t have to wait for law. It’s here. It’s us. It’s around us. This daily and inescapable practice comes with a responsibility to law together and to embody core values such as respect (mnaadendimowin, going easy on one another), honesty (gwekwaadiziwin, having no obstruct between us), love (zaagidwin, to be like a river) and truth (debwewin, harmoning the measure of our sounds). If we live according to these principles, we’ll never have to use or impose law, since laws are for the lawless.

Our challenge as people, in cities, is to understand the language, the stories, the science and the treaties of nature in order to learn how to live together. The process of collecting the medicine found at the roots of lily pads, for example, teaches us about the process of urban revitalization. So then, working on regeneration of cities, means working within a specific context which isn’t always appealing, but it creates a composite of possibilities.

How can we constitute cities in a way that doesn’t frame them as separate from nature?

What would regulations based on questions rather than prescriptions be like?

5 — Economies of care: Towards a systemic reciprocity

‘‘Reciprocity and mutual respect help sustain our survival. It is this kind of healing and survival that is needed in moving forward from the residential school experience.’’

― Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015

A kin-based worldview highlights our responsibilities, in stewarding the land and in caring for each other. Managing ourselves in relationship to our kin comes with a bundle of responsibilities, rather than rights. When the focus is placed on relations, mechanisms of reciprocity take center stage and this opens the way for an economy of care. The Stó:lō nation economy, for example, was based around reciprocal principles, made visible through redistributive and anti-hoarding practices such as the potlatch (t’leaxet). The Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address is another example of practices which acts as a daily and constant reminder of the intricacies of all things and the reciprocity needed to care for these relations. If we are to structure new economies in the light of systemic reciprocity we also need economic models that can internalize — care for — what we have thought for too long as mere externalities, things such as social or environmental impacts. This means true-cost economies that are intentional about our present and future kin.

The seeds of property, ownership and legal mechanisms that can foster an economy care are all around us. These often passed unnoticed ― or were actively repressed and banned. Our job is not necessarily to invent entirely new mechanisms but rather to recognize and enforce the value of existing ones. In other words, let’s not think that the job is greater than what it needs to be.

How do we reconcile interdependency at a global level and our kinship at a local level?

Economies of systemic reciprocity extend far beyond the realm of our local communities. In this age of entanglement, how do we build global economic mechanisms of care?

6 — High-TEK (traditional ecological knowledge): Indigenous innovation & knowledge

‘‘One of the challenges for Indigenous epistemology in the age of the virtual is to understand how the archipelago of websites, social media platforms, shared virtual environments, corporate data stores, multiplayer video games, smart devices, and intelligent machines that compose cyberspace is situated within, throughout and/or alongside the terrestrial spaces Indigenous peoples claim as their territory. In other words, how do we as Indigenous people reconcile the fully embodied experience of being on the land with the generally disembodied experience of virtual spaces? How do we come to understand this new territory, knit it into our existing understanding of our lives lived in real space, and claim it as our own?

Indigenous epistemologies are much better at respectfully accommodating the non-human. We retain a sense of community that is articulated through complex kin networks anchored in specific territories, genealogies, and protocols. Ultimately, our goal is that we, as a species, figure out how to treat these new non-human kin respectfully and reciprocally — and not as mere tools, or worse, slaves to their creators.”

― Jason Edward Lewis, Noelani Arista, Archer Pechawis, and Suzanne Kite, Making Kin with the Machines, 2018

Knowledge moves and evolves and yet, without falling into essentialism, certain bodies of knowledge and epistemologies stem from Indigenous perspectives. Given a historic and systemic expropriation and/or appropriation of Indigenous cultural knowledge, well-intentioned open source models and creative commons licenses might inadvertently reinforce exclusion, instrumentalization and lack sensitivity to cultural context. How can we provide a contextual framework for the intellectual property of traditional indigenous knowledge and the way data around (traditional) indigenous knowledge is owned and governed?

Models of centralized community-based ownership through blockchain are now possible in order for Indigenous communities to gain control over their own narratives and the processes through which they are produced. The emerging development of smart agreements based in blockchain technology allows for an encoding of data and agreements so that actions and transactions can be automatically exercised when agreed conditions are met. Going even further, these smart agreements could be coded in functional programming languages like Haskell or Lisp, that reflect the verb-based nature and relationship-oriented way of thinking inherent in Indigenous languages. We also need to acknowledge that there are currently too few Indigenous talents and leaders in IT. We need to build leaders — not just technology — so that more Indigenous people will have the ability to walk in both worlds: to bring tech back to Indigenous people and to create Indigenous technologies.

Finally, we need to remember that innovation isn’t always about new things. The etymology of the word “innovation” comes from latin innovare which means to “restore” and “to come back to”; a renewal of what already existed rather than the introduction of something new. The “innovative” filiation between Two-Spirit identities and the current LGBTQ movement or more-than-human kin-based worldview and artificial intelligence are eloquent examples. In an Indigenous context, innovation often involves looking back at ancestral practices and values and bringing them forward into new situations.

In this Digital Age, how do we learn to make kin with the machines?

How can we provide a contextual framework for the intellectual property of traditional indigenous knowledge and the way data around (traditional) indigenous knowledge is owned and governed?

7 — Inherent right: Reweaving our relationship to land

‘‘My ancestors resisted and survived what must have seemed like an apocalyptic reality of occupation and subjugation in a context where they had few choices. They resisted by simply surviving and being alive. They resisted by holding onto their stories. They resisted by taking the seeds of our culture and political systems and packing them away, so that one day another generation of Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg might be able to plant them. I am sure of their resistance, because I am here today, living as a contemporary Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg woman. I am the evidence. Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg people are the evidence. Now, nearly two hundred years after surviving an attempted political and cultural genocide, it is the responsability of my generation to plant and nurture those seeds and to make our Ancestors proud.’’

― Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Dancing on our Turtle’s Back, 2011

The process through which we “recognize” and “acknowledge” Indigenous inherent rights is, at minimum, a demonstration of respect and a step towards reconciliation. A deeper and more committed activation of this process requires each of us to look reflexively at our relationship to the occupied lands that we inhabit; and to challenge and work to dismantle the (neo)colonial systems, discourses and tools that continue to undermine the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples. One could also argue that the multiple crises of our time stem from the dominant transactional and market-based worldview and practices rooted in private ownership and gain that sustain such a paradigm.

Engaging with Indigenous inherent rights from a kin-based world view is a process than can lead us into new ways of relating to the Earth. Concrete tools and mechanisms such as Inherent Right Zones hold space for the emergence of unorthodox archetypes and imaginings of property. What would they look like? Feel like? Where will they begin? And where will they end? And perhaps, most importantly, how do we listen and observe for what is already here? The seeds of collective property regimes and their reciprocity mechanisms already exist within Indigenous cultures, at various stages of flourishing.

How can we weave together models like community land trusts and indigenous common property practices?

Can tools like land relationship plans have the potential to decolonize current urban planning models and tools (such as land use plans)?

Can aboriginal land titles revendications and negotiations constitute an opportunity to challenge the notion of private property more broadly and to inform a post-ownership world?

How can we re-constitute an inherent right for a different relationship to land?

Concluding thoughts

The multifaceted crisis we are facing is calling for approaches created by new and imaginative ways of thinking, sensing, being and doing, while also integrating older ways that were lost or violently suppressed. In order to better support socio-ecological systems that surpass the issues that have come to define modern societies, there is a need to formulate stories that are more nuanced than the current dominant ones — where the inherent power of both mind and heart are integrated.

We need stories for humankind that involve everyone, including other living forms. We need stories that move away from the narratives of duality, ruptures and separation towards fresh stories of awakening, reconnection, belonging and integration where all living forms can flourish. This is a call for us to engage and hold multiple contradicting paradoxes, where we are capable and willing to harness love-based power to live and lead in this increasingly complex time.

Anishinaabemowin > English

ode’ > heart

ishkode > fire

oodena > town/city

We are still at the very early stages of development for Civic-Indigenous 7.0, so we would welcome any feedback to inform the work moving forward. We are also looking for fellow travellers, so please get in touch if you’d like to contribute.

This report was co-written by Marie-Sophie Banville and Jonathan Lapalme from Dark Matter Labs, in collaboration with Cities for people / The McConnell Foundation, and with the support of the other partners mentioned in this report. The graphic design of the icons representing the seven points of convergence was done by Hyojeong Lee, based in South Korea.

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