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Maxed Out: Moving the margins

'Many problems arise from the intractable fact that the margins—geographically, politically, economically—never stay where they were'

The history of marginalized people is a relentless march towards, well, the margins. Many problems arise from the intractable fact that the margins—geographically, politically, economically—never stay where they were. They’re always moving.

When the Dutch arrived in the New World, they looked around at Manhattan Island—undoubtedly called something else then—and thought to themselves, “Wow. We could build the greatest city in the world here. And if that doesn’t work, at least we can cut down these trees and grow tulips.”

Problem was, Manhattan was already inhabited by people who, until that very moment, had absolutely no idea there were Dutch people. Like so many of their brethren, the Lenape simply considered themselves The People, ergo, the centre of the universe, the only People. As far as they knew, these hilariously-dressed foreigners could have been apparitions, figments of their imaginations conjured during some spirit quest.

The Dutch, of course, knew right away the Lenape were marginal people. They knew this because the Lenape weren’t Dutch, and the Dutch were smugly confident in believing they were superior and occupied the centre of the universe, except perhaps for that unpleasantness with the Spanish.

They were sure about this because they had superior ships, superior firepower, a superior god, Dutch Masters cigars and 60 guilders worth of beads, trinkets and assorted junk jewelry they were able to offload to the Lenape for what would become, at least in the latter half of the 20th century, the centre of Earth’s universe, New York City.

In keeping with their status, the Lenape were moved to, you guessed it, more marginal lands. Brooklyn, if I’m not mistaken. Where they eventually formed the Brooklyn Dodgers and were ultimately moved to even more marginal lands, Los Angeles. But I digress.

North of the border, the scenario was much the same. The French and English battled on the Plains of Abraham. This was, of course, after they’d already booted the natives out. The English, rumour has it, won the battle, but with unaccustomed generosity, pretended it was a draw, leaving Quebec—who’d want it—to the French, and moving themselves to marginal lands: Toronto… where they booted the natives to yet more marginal lands, Mississauga.

And so it went. Rulers, conquerors and the monied classes rolled over the landscape like a relentless glacier, pushing less desirable classes ahead of them and scattering people they believed inferior to land they considered marginal as though they were so many erratics. The displaced made things as homey as they could, and frequently made them too homey. What was the margin became the border, then became the mainstream, and it was time for the undesirables to move on yet again.

Often, the only places to go abutted industrial lands where the monied classes made their money. Neighbourhoods sprung up around abattoirs, smelters, smoke-belching factories, tanneries and airports. Okay, airports came later—same idea though.

As lands once thought of as marginal were rebranded as desirable suburbs, two interesting developments took place. First, people who thought it was cool to live in the cities decided it was way cooler to commute and moved to the suburbs. And since the ‘burbs were now cool, there was nowhere for the lower classes to go—they either had to stay next to the abattoir or move into the newly abandoned inner city and create their own private ghetto.

The ones who stayed agitated to get the abattoirs moved to even more marginal lands. That’s how Taber, Alberta got its start. The ones who moved to the inner cities made the classic mistake of making them so homey, the children of the suburbs decided they were cool and moved back to the city, booting out the underclasses and replacing them with Starbucks and Lululemon stores. That’s why people live on sidewalk grates in cities all over North America.

But all over Canada, particularly in British Columbia, the original marginalized people decided enough is enough. And the courts and legislature have agreed with them. The last few decades have seen court decisions recognizing Indigenous title and searching for ways to have it co-exist alongside what non-marginalized people consider legal title.

B.C.’s legislature may have beat the courts to the punch. Bill 25 recognizes the Haida Nation’s aboriginal title—consistent with Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982—to the lands previously known as the Queen Charlotte Islands and now known as Haida Gwaii.

The bill recognizes the Haida’s title and the Haida have recognized their title does not affect the “legal” title to lands owned by non-Haida—or Haida—within their territory.

As groundbreaking as this agreement is, it, in many ways, is the low-hanging fruit when it comes to Indigenous land claims. There are no competing claims to Haida lands by other First Nations. This is not the case elsewhere in the province—witness the land acknowledgement intoned at every public gathering in Whistler.

And less than three per cent of the land mass of Haida Gwaii is privately owned! A fact that makes settling land claims far more difficult where, for example, people with multi-million-dollar vacation homes gag at the notion their largely uninhabited trophy is on the unceded territory of some group they’ve always considered marginal whenever they considered them at all... which is rarely.

As expected, there are people all over the province who have never considered themselves marginalized who are setting their hair on fire. I shared a chairlift with one this spring who, when he found out I had a cottage in the Interior, informed me the First Nations who claimed the land Smilin’ Dog was on would block my licence to build a new dock.

Puzzled, I explained I’d never had a licence to build a dock and didn’t expect to ever apply for one. He said it was the law and I should hope the dock police never come by. I didn’t bother to explain the cottage was in a postage-stamp-sized part of the province with no First Nations claims. And I really hoped the chair wouldn’t stop before we got to the top.

The extent to which he feels marginalized by the steps Canada and B.C. have taken toward reconciliation makes them seem all worthwhile. Any land-use decision taken in the future is going to seem ponderously slow, painful even, because the parties involved are going to have to hash out their differences as equals. There will always be people who wish it was as easy as exporting what they perceive as problems to the margins.

But that’s where we all live now.