New Book – The Laws and the Land: The Settler Colonial Invasion of Kahnawà:ke in Nineteenth-Century Canada

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Daniel Rück, The Laws and the Land: The Settler Colonial Invasion of Kahnawà:ke in Nineteenth-Century Canada (UBC Press and the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, Sept 2021).


Cover of the Laws of the land by Daniel Rueck

Ever since becoming part of the environmental history academic community in the early 2000s, I had the nagging feeling that I didn’t belong. It’s not that anyone told me I didn’t belong – in fact, I felt truly welcome in the NiCHE community as a graduate student, and I still consider the network of Canadian environmental historians to be one of my most important intellectual homes. Instead, it was a feeling that wouldn’t go away, a feeling that my research on Indigenous-settler relations and land wasn’t environmental enough. That feeling was occasionally reinforced by responses, like one from a European environmental historian who was disappointed in a talk I once gave at a meeting of the European Society for Environmental History. He seemed to want to hear more about trees, soil, and pollution and less about colonialism and politics, race and inequality. I have grappled for years with these questions, and my new book The Laws and the Land deals with some of them. The book tells one of many stories of how the settler state of Canada violently expanded into Indigenous lands and undermined their sovereignty as nations. One site of invasion was Kahnawà:ke, a Kanien’kehá:ka community and part of the Rotinonhsiónni confederacy, today located on the South Shore of Montreal.

“The book is… about the kind of agency that humans are able (and unable) to express through laws and practices related to the environment.”

Instead of emphasizing the importance of the agency of nature or treating it as a backdrop for human interactions, the book is more about the kind of agency that humans are able (and unable) to express through laws and practices related to the environment. Of course, environments and other-than-human creatures always shape human behaviour, but the focus of the book is on human beings interacting with each other politically and environmentally as they shape their environments. As historians Tracey Banivanua Mar and Penelope Edmonds put it, the lands themselves “narrate the stories of colonialism.” If environmental history is the story of human beings in relationship with other-than-human creatures and forces, then this book is an environmental history because it discusses a human story in relationship to particular places, forests, fields, animals, and plants – in the context of settler colonial land theft and genocide.

The narrative of The Laws and the Land unfolds in the context of nature and in relationship to other-than-human creatures, but it does not begin in a “wilderness” – in fact, Indigenous people have been trying to teach settlers for centuries that none of their lands are “wilderness,” places that are untouched by humans. Instead, Indigenous people have been, and continue to be, engaged in ancient and ongoing relationships with creatures and places throughout their homelands. Environmental historians have more recently recognized the deeply problematic nature of settler conceptions of wilderness: one common Western understanding is that a pure and good environment is one without humans, that human presence and interaction are inherently negative. Indigenous stories about human relations with other-than-human creatures tell a different story: one of intimate relatedness. The story in this book unfolds in a landscape that humans have inhabited and intimately known for thousands of years.

The Laws and the Land delineates the establishment of a settler colonial relationship from early contact ways of sharing land; land practices under Kahnawà:ke law; the establishment of modern Kahnawà:ke in the context of French imperial claims; intensifying colonial invasions under British rule; and ultimately the Canadian invasion in the guise of the Indian Act, private property, and coercive pressure to assimilate. It reveals increasingly powerful and aggressive colonial governments interfering with the affairs of one of the most populous and influential Indigenous communities in nineteenth-century Canada. The invasion described by the book is one spearheaded by bureaucrats, Indian agents, politicians, surveyors, and entrepreneurs. Although these invasions were often chaotic and poorly planned, I show that despite their apparent weaknesses they tended to benefit settlers while becoming sources of oppression for Indigenous peoples who attempted to navigate colonial realities while defending and building their own nations.

[The Laws and the Land] is one story of the “slow violence” of Canada’s legal and environmental conquest of Indigenous peoples and lands and the persistence of one Indigenous nation in the face of this onslaught.

The book is deeply connected to larger issues of human relations with environments, communal and individual ways of relating to land, legal pluralism, historical racism and inequality, and Indigenous resurgence. It is one story of the “slow violence” of Canada’s legal and environmental conquest of Indigenous peoples and lands and the persistence of one Indigenous nation in the face of this onslaught. In the years researching and writing this book, I have come to understand that “the environment” can’t be separated from the people who inhabit it, along with their laws, ideas, and behaviours. Even the idea that “the environment” can be a discrete category of investigation has been discredited in my mind. In fact, it’s our ability to categorize “nature” as something separate from people that facilitates the harm of the extractive capitalist relations we currently have, and that are at the root of our environmental and spiritual crisis. In this I have been influenced by many Kahnawà:ke community members who encouraged me to think this way, and also by brilliant scholars like Max Liboiron, whose “Pollution is Colonialism” I highly recommend. In other words, I don’t worry so much anymore about whether or not I’m an environmental historian—my body and mind is itself a community of living beings that is unimaginable outside of its relationships with others, and that’s what the book is about.

Feature Image: “kahnawà:ke” by douaireg is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
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Daniel Rück is Assistant Professor in the Department of History and the Institute of Indigenous Research and Studies at the University of Ottawa. He is a settler scholar living and working on the unceded territory of the Algonquin nation along the Kitchissippi (Ottawa River).

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