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Redressing Redress: The Neoliberal Appropriation of Redress in the anti-Native Backlash at Caledonia

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 35, Issue 1, March 2009
pp. 161-190 | 10.1353/esc.0.0170

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What has become glaringly obvious ... is that within that province there are two tiers of justice, a preferential one for aboriginals and another, lower tier for non-Natives. This unequal treatment throws the justice system into disrepute. The dangerous message it sends is that, in some cases, whites seeking justice against aboriginals have no choice but to take the law into their own hands.

“The Ongoing Disgrace of Caledonia”, an unsigned editorial in The National Post, 28 November 2009

Since 28 February 2006, when the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory reclaimed a small parcel of land just south of their reserve in the non-Native suburban town of Caledonia, the town has become nearly synonymous with images, promoted by an increasingly corporatized and sensationalistic media, of burning tires, blockades, and standoffs between Natives and non-Natives, a hostile breach of the civility that Daniel Coleman notes is held dear in the Canadian imaginary (9). This paper examines the response of the predominantly white community at Caledonia in the context of the powerful discourses now circulating around redress and reconciliation and the diverse avenues they offer for political contestation. I argue that the local non-Native backlash against Six Nations’ Reclamation (as it was termed by participants) sought to render itself intelligible as a redress movement in its own right. Investigating the demands put forward by the Caledonian community can help us think about redress as a genre of political activism within a neoliberal colonial-settler state like Canada. By understanding redress as a genre I am suggesting that it is a set of strategies, political discourses, and forms of activism, mostly addressed to governments, by which wronged groups make a call for justice and just compensation for past wrongs. However, in a moment marked by the atomization, isolation, and individualism of neoliberal culture, and the assertion of neoconservative social values to which neoliberalism frequently gives rise, the genre of redress is ironically subject to cooptation and mobilization by dominant groups and privileged citizens against marginalized groups’ calls for justice. This occurs in Canada in a context in which dominant discourses of state multiculturalism rely on and perpetuate the “racelessness” that David Theo Goldberg defines as “the attempt to go beyond—without (fully) coming to terms with—racial histories and their accompanying racist inequities and iniquities” (217). The redress genre, severed from racial histories and structures of oppression and exclusion, offers a readily appropriable form of political discourse. This ironic inversion of claims to persecution, abuse, and victimhood demonstrates the rhetorical and logical contortionism akin to the slander of “reverse-racism” that privileges white injury and facilitates the historical amnesia that, in this case, perpetuates ongoing colonial injustice.

After discussing global neoliberalism as the foremost political project and ideology characterizing the present political context in Canada, I elaborate an understanding of redress as genre and question the degree to which land claims can be read in this register. I then provide a brief account of the reclamation of Kanonhstaton at Caledonia, focusing my analysis on how local non-Native community residents and come-from-away agitators have staged a troublingly successful social movement that has taken up much cultural space and been favoured in local and national media at the expense of Indigenous claims. Racially coded fears about diminishing property values and the integrity of Canada’s territorial sovereignty reveal the unexamined entitlement characteristic of white privilege, in this case in the literal sense of “title” to the land, and the dedication to preserving that entitlement. Ironically (albeit perhaps predictably), the appropriation of redress tactics and strategies by Caledonians and their supporters—what I theorize as the “redressing of redress”—has been remarkably successful in achieving immediate goals such as monetary compensation, sympathetic media representation, and audiences with various levels of political power. Meanwhile, the fundamental issue—that is, the continued failure of the Canadian government to abide by its own (as well as international) laws and negotiate in good faith to repair relations with the Haudenosaunee and settle their grievances which include reparations for stolen land, unpaid rents owing and expired, and misappropriation of funds—has been in no way redressed or reconciled. Indeed, as I suggest, this...