Struggles Over Land and Labour

Reviewed by Jeff Fedoruk

Susan Hill’s The Clay We Are Made Of is a crucial intervention in the study of Indigenous land claims. It is at once a comprehensive account of the history of Haudenosaunee land tenure leading up to present-day Six Nations territory, and a rumination on Haudenosaunee relationships with the land based on traditional Indigenous Knowledge. Hill’s book thus appeals to both Haudenosaunee peoples—“to reconsider their current direction and regain an understanding of our shared past”—and settler Canadians—to “reconsider the history they have previously been taught”—especially given the long-standing relationship between the Haudenosaunee and settlers as it manifests in the Two Row Wampum and the Covenant Chain.

This history of shared responsibility bridges the first and second parts of the book: the former introduces key concepts in Haudenosaunee knowledge, while the latter examines land treaties, movements, and struggles in detail. The “decolonizing lenses” that Hill applies in her careful appraisal of existing documentation and scholarly sources about treaty negotiations generates balanced accounts of the events; no single event dominates Hill’s study, when it might have been easy to focus too heavily on one moment (such as Joseph Brant’s contentious position within the Haudenosaunee nations). But the two chapters that make up the first part of Hill’s book are particularly significant, as they assert the primary connections between Haudenosaunee peoples and the land. Hill draws on teachings about the land from Haudenosaunee knowledge, examining the significance of the Creation Story, the Four Ceremonies, the Great Law of Peace, and the Good Message of Handsome Lake, as well as the role of women in caring for and managing the land, offering readers a deeper understanding of what is at stake for the Haudenosaunee throughout the various treaty negotiations. In the progression of Hill’s study, it becomes clear that colonial memory is poor. At the same time, The Clay We Are Made Of is a book to act upon, to take responsibility and honour relationships—between peoples and to the land.

Where Hill’s book represents Indigenous struggles over land, the Graphic History Collective’s Drawn to Change represents Canadian struggles over labour rights. This volume contains a series of comics telling the stories of various moments in Canadian labour activism, from the late-nineteenth century to the present. Part of the organizing principle behind the collection was to draw attention to lesser-known struggles, as well as those that were not necessarily successful but nonetheless show a trajectory of labour struggle within the nation. Events explored in the collection include the founding of the Knights of Labour, the “Battle of Ballantyne Pier” in Vancouver, the On-to-Ottawa movement (simultaneously following the life of activist Bill Williamson), alongside stories of the feminist efforts of Madeleine Parent, the work of the Service, Office, and Retail Workers Union, and the organizing of Filipina/o migrant workers in Canada.

Tania Willard’s striking linocut comic is a standout, depicting the participation of Indigenous workers in labour formation around Vancouver in vivid relief. Nicole Marie Burton also utilizes the narrative possibilities of comic illustration to present the 1935 Corbin Miners’ Strike through the eyes of a young woman, stressing the impact of labour struggles on entire communities. This kind of careful consideration towards labour struggles and social reproduction is evident throughout the collection, and Paul Buhle importantly notes in his preface that Drawn to Change features many Indigenous, POC, and women’s voices, moving away from male whiteness as a basis for labour history. The Graphic History Collective have strived for accessibility, both in form and content, and this makes the collection useful for both research and teaching. As they mention in their introduction, “comics offer readers the opportunity to piece together the incomplete information in each panel/sequence to make meaning, and thus comics can be an active and empowering form of education.” In any scenario, their hope is to spur discussions about tactics and strategies for new struggles, and to open up new possibilities for equity and social transformation.

This review “Struggles Over Land and Labour” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 151-152.

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