Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Goebel reviews Fairweather, A Common Hunger: Land Rights in Canada and South Africa

Joan G. Fairweather, A Common Hunger: Land Rights in Canada and South Africa (University of Calgary Press, 2006) is reviewed by Allison Goebel, Women's Studies and Environmental Studies, Queen's University, Canada on H-SAfrica. Goebel writes:

This interesting and well-documented book attempts the difficult task of comparing the histories of European occupation and subsequent dispossession, oppression, and struggles for liberation of indigenous/Aboriginal peoples in Canada and South Africa ("indigenous" is more common in South Africa, while "Aboriginal" is the word of choice in Canada). Beyond the commonly understood similarities of the Indian Reserves in Canada and the Bantustans of Apartheid South Africa (although they are, in fact, quite different in origin and function), this is not an obvious comparison to make. How can you compare a country with a vast majority of indigenous peoples who won independence from former European colonialists with a country where the indigenous population is a tiny minority with no agenda to defeat the government, or a developing nation with a member of the G8?

However, by choosing to focus on land rights and their relationship to dignity, sovereignty, and human rights, the project proves useful for what it reveals about each case. It was also a good choice to restrict the book to only two cases: this allows for enough detail so as not to lose the unique historical narratives of each country, while allowing the drawing out of an interesting selection of thematic points of comparison.

For me, as a Canadian who does research in southern Africa, the most important overall point was the reminder that Canadian history is a colonial history, not separate from the South African story or other histories of empire. It is a story of dispossession and racism, of cruel oppression and ongoing marginalization. For Joan Fairweather is dead right when she claims, in her conclusion, that Aboriginal peoples are not part of the dominant narrative of Canadian history, which is written as a story of the battle between the English, the French, and the emerging United States. We Canadians have been well schooled to write Aboriginal peoples out of our national identity, and to try hard to ignore the struggles going on right now for Aboriginal land rights and recognition.

The book is organized in three parts denoting the three major themes pursued: dispossession, reclaiming the land, and dealing with legacies. Within each theme similarities and differences between the two cases are exposed. The first section outlines the main historical processes on the two continents, which began with trading, but led to setting up permanent settlements and the claiming of land and resources. In both cases, European colonists assumed the right to impose governance structures where none (that they recognized) seemed to exist. However, how this was done differed. Two key differences in this early period are the issue of slaves and other labor relations, and the role of treaties in the land alienation processes....

Part 2 of the book traces efforts by indigenous peoples in both countries to reclaim the land....The final part of the book, dealing with legacies, highlights efforts to confront and promote healing in relation to the more traumatic aspects of colonial occupation and rule....

Ultimately, although South Africa has won its independence, the majority of indigenous people there still live with the historical dispossession and impoverishment wrought by colonial conquest, as do Aboriginal peoples in Canada. This unifies the book, and reminds readers of important truths of colonial legacies both North and South.

The rest of this detailed and interesting review is here.