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The Myth of the Non-Existent Aboriginal Working Class in Canada

By El Machetero - Unsettling America, April 9, 2013

“Native people focusing on settler colonialism sometimes don’t see how it intersects with capitalism and white supremacy. Consequently, things get articulated as sovereignty projects that really are not that great. Your sovereignty comes to be defined as economic development by any means necessary – let’s exploit the resources, let’s build a class structure within Native communities – and that ends up destroying the land as much as multinational corporations are doing. That goes against the principle of having a radical relationship with the land. And it’s self-defeating ultimately, because multinational corporations are not going to let you do what you want to do with the land because they want the resources. It ends up hurting your communities. So I think it’s critical to see where Native struggles and class struggles intersect.”

-Andrea Smith (1)

The role which Aboriginal workers have played in the building of Canada is one which is seldom acknowledged or recognized. During the rare instances when this long-minimized role and largely untold history is engaged, it brings to the light a complex dialectic concerning some of the immense contradictions inherent to any colonial situation. In these contexts, it can be reasonably argued to be in direct contravention to the survival of any subjugated peoples in question to actively contribute to the building of an empire-society which effectively requires their wholesale displacement and “removal” in order to establish and expand itself in the cancerous manner which such systems typically tend to do.

At the same time, there is no way that this paradoxical reality can diminish or remove the basic fact that such societies have also been historically most dependent on those who they oppress with the most vigor and the least remorse, nor does it even begin to resolve the simple economic fact that even those with the least to be gained from contributing to such an ongoing colonial project still have to find the means to survive within it, greatly magnifying the basic dilemma faced by all peoples living on the receiving end of predatory capitalism, where we have come to be dependent on the very things which destroy us all in order to stay alive.

Often when the subject of Aboriginal participation in Canada’s work force comes up in the mainstream, a barrage of myths of a highly racist character comes up, conjuring up essentialist notions that Aboriginal people “don’t pay their own way or pay any taxes” and are supposedly beneficiaries of all these supposed “special rights and privileges”(2), which then typically are countered by the highlighting of the greater disadvantages faced by Aboriginal peoples as a whole in Canadian society.

Reports by Statistics Canada and the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) make much of the reality of vast and disproportionate unemployment and poverty rates among First Nations people of working age, including such figures alongside the staggering rates of incarceration, illness, lower life expectancy, and high suicide rates which consistently hinder Canada’s international public relations ploys. Whether in good economic times or bad ones, employment rates among Aboriginal peoples remain lower than the national average and unemployment rates remain higher than those of the population in general (3), and they are consistently included alongside recent immigrants, people with disabilities and lone parents as being among those most likely to be systemically excluded from the work force. (4)

A 1985 report by the Urban Alliance on Race Relations elaborated extensively on the vast inequities faced by those who do manage to enter the work force, citing some 1978 Canadian Human Rights Commission findings which stated that the earnings of the average Canadian man were up to 29 times higher than the average Aboriginal man, and the earnings of the average Canadian woman were up to 17 times higher than those of the average Aboriginal woman. (5) If there has been any substantial change to these sorts of numbers in more recent years, it can be speculated that it most likely has more to do with the increasingly precarious state of employment across the board for all people living in Canada than it does with any semblance of “progress” in this general area.

Dry statistics and figures of this sort are uttered with such nauseating frequency in today’s world that they become essentially devoid of any meaning after a while, at the same time as they also effectively aid in the erasure process of any memory of the role which First Nations people have played in labour struggles and in the building of Canada’s infrastructure.

Placing such statistics into a broader historical context, it may do better to first take a look at how Canada’s notion of prosperity has always been tied to the existence of an “extractive frontier”, which industrialists and exporters of raw materials would seek out in the hopes of finding territories with very low population densities and where natural resources were considered to be vast and untapped.

Access to these “new” lands has always been contingent on a policy of keeping Aboriginal peoples separate and unequal, with neither the rights nor the full power to demand full value for their labour and materials. This has led to a process by which Canada’s economy has been and continues to be segmentary, with one segment enriched by the wholesale marginalization of the other. (6)

This process of land expropriation and exploitation brought with it a forced decline in the ability of communities to survive by means of traditional sustenance methods, and over time led to a mass migration to the rapidly expanding cities, where Aboriginal people seeking employment encountered unrelenting discrimination and the doors of opportunity well-guarded. Some moved to neighbouring cities in the U.S., such as Detroit, Boston, and Seattle to attempt to take advantage of unskilled and semi-skilled work opportunities which at that time were available in far greater abundance. (6)

In BC, many Aboriginal people were employed from the 1860s onward in commercial fishing, canning, logging, sawmills, herding, road/railway construction, and as dock workers, often relegated to handling the most dangerous cargo. (7)

Some of the earliest examples of indigenous labour organizing were on these docks, where Aboriginal longshoremen worked against opposition of an often violent nature to facilitate the entry of their kinfolk into jobs on the waterfront. Lumber handlers on Burrard Inlet, who were largely of Coast Salish background, founded Local 526 of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), popularly nicknamed the “Bows and Arrows Gang.” (8)

The IWW’s decentralized and anarchistic style of organizing, partly rooted in the fact that many of its earliest and most prominent organizers were transient labourers who were typically homeless, likely suited many of these Salish workers, many of whom continued to hunt, fish and trap on a seasonal basis. Very little has been documented about Local 526, other than that at its peak it consisted of about 50-60 members, and that it apparently met its demise during a particularly nasty strike in 1907 involving both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal workers. (8)

Andrew Parnaby, author of “Citizen Docker: Making A New Deal On The Vancouver Waterfront 1919-1939” writes: “Aboriginal workers were pioneers of industrial unionism in British Columbia….Yet equally striking is that the IWW emerged among Indian lumber handlers at the same time as coast and interior Salish peoples were experimenting with new forms of resistance… is important not to underestimate the political contribution of their participation in the industrial economy. Travelling great distances and work in a variety of occupational settings likely enhanced the Squamish’s understanding of the breadth and depth of the changes wrought by white society and allowed for the wider dissemination of political ideas among different Aboriginal groups.” (8)

Interestingly, it was movement of this very sort which was utilized by some of the propagandists of the day to cultivate much of the lasting mythology of the lazy, unreliable Indian with zero work ethic, at the same time as Aboriginal labourers came to be depicted as a mortal threat and enemy to the white working class, in a manner strangely reminiscent of how Latin American migrant workers have been depicted in more recent decades and centuries.

In editorials published only sixteen months apart, the British Colonist wrote in February of 1861 that “their habits of indolence, roaming propensities, and natural repugnance for manual labour, together with a thievish disposition which appears to be inherently characteristic of the Indian race, totally disqualifies them from ever becoming either useful or desirable citizens”, and then in June of 1862 that “for years Victoria has suffered to an extent unknown in any civilized town in the universe from the residence of an Indian population…’cheap’ labour at the expense of a white immigrant population.” (9)

While it has been speculated that these characterizations seem to be a mishmash of settler generalizations about the T’silhqot’in, who typically refused to work for white people altogether, and of the Lekwungen, who typically went wherever the work was and/or worked whatever jobs were available, (9) they still stand as shining examples of the racist rhetoric that is commonly applied to many different scapegoated and marginalized groups of working poor people to this day. They are lazy and they contribute nothing, but look out white man, because they will steal your job and work twice as much as you for half the pay. They are sneaky and conniving, but they are stupid and feeble-minded.

One of the most formidable and well-documented pieces of Aboriginal labour history concerns the proud legacy of the iron workers, or “spudwrenches.” According to most oral histories, the first Aboriginal peoples to practice ironwork were citizens of the Mohawk nation, who the trade is still to this day most commonly associated with. To this very day, up to 25% of the Mohawk community in Six Nations earns its living in the trade. (10)

In 1886, when the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) began construction on a bridge that spanned the St. Lawrence River, men from Kahnawake were initially hired to work on the bridge as labourers and to supply the stone for the bridge’s piers, but when the construction work for the very first day was done, they shocked and awed the management by climbing the skeleton of the bridge and casually walking across the girders several hundred feet above the raging river. Immediately, a dozen young teenaged men were trained and hired as iron workers. In less than fifty years, the trade had spread to other First Nation communities as far and wide as Ontario, BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

In the early 1900s, when iron bridges and skyscrapers first began dotting the landscapes, Mohawk ironworkers from Kahnawake, Six Nations and Akwesasne took their craft to New York City, working on projects which almost read like a “what’s-what” of symbols of American corporate/political domination: the Empire State Building, the George Washington Bridge, the Chrysler Building, the United Nations Building, the Waldorf Astoria, the Columbia Center, the Woolworth Building, the RCA Building (now the GE Building), the Chase Manhattan Bank, and the World Trade Center, as well as much of the borough of Brooklyn. Aboriginal ironworkers from communities in Ontario and Quebec also travelled west to build the Sears Tower in Chicago, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver. (10)

Similar to the manner in which the struggles of Aboriginal longshoremen in BC played a critical role in galvanizing many later struggles around land defense/reclamation and assertions of sovereignty on those territories where no treaties had yet been signed, the movement of ironworkers across the imposed Canada-U.S. border would eventually serve to galvanize the Mohawk nation’s struggle for self-determination.

In 1927, a Mohawk worker from Kahnawake named Paul Diabo Kanento was turned away at the American border by U.S. Immigration authorities. He had already been arrested and ordered out of the country when he had been found working on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia. Unable to get to his place of work, Kanento took a detour into a U.S. court and fought for the treaty rights of Mohawks to travel across the U.S./Canada border unimpeded. (11)

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decided in Kanento’s favour, as it sustained a lower court ruling which held that the main document cited in his defense, the Jay Treaty between Britain and the U.S. (which Canada to this day refuses to recognize), acknowledged the right to cross the international border for employment and residential purposes.

Despite the indisputable contributions made by these ironworkers, earlier during the 1920s, U.S. immigration authorities had attempted a crackdown on Mohawks who lived in the territories considered to be Canadian but who made their livings working south of the border. Many to this day believe that this was a reaction triggered by the Six Nations’ rejection of U.S. citizenship after Congress enacted the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, when the Haudensaunee leadership realized that acceptance of such an offer would serve to extinguish their treaty status and eventually all claims to be a separate and distinct nation. (12)

In the decades following the advent of that Supreme Court victory, the U.S. has turned to its bizarre and antiquated blood quantum laws to attempt to regulate and control the flow of Aboriginal labour between the borders. Current U.S. immigration rules state that under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, only Aboriginal people who possess at least 50 percent Aboriginal ancestry may use the Jay Treaty provisions. U.S. authorities have decided that this means any First Nations individual (whether from the Six Nations or elsewhere) who wants to live, study, retire or work south of the border must prove through documents issued by the Department of Indian Affairs, or their own band council, that they have 50 percent blood, meaning a minimum of four great-grandparents who must be certifiably Aboriginal.

Status cards issued by band councils are commonly used to cross the borders, but they do not entitle a person to cite the Jay Treaty or attempt to use the ruling from the Kanento case in their favour. Since U.S. immigration authorities have made this determination, other branches of the U.S. federal government have followed suit. The U.S. Social Security Administration, for example, will not cover any Aboriginal worker who is based north of the border unless they can meet the same 50 per cent blood quantum requirements. Oddly enough however, the U.S. military follows no such requirements when it comes to inducting Aboriginal enlistees from this side of the border. (12)

During the armed 78-day standoff during the summer of 1990 between the Canadian military and the Mohawk community of Kanesatake, many war veterans from Kahnawake played essential roles in the organization of patrols and the building of bunkers, as well as in the training of younger warriors who lacked combat experience or discipline. And the community’s rich legacy of ironworking would also come to serve as a crucial tool in the use of deception and psychological warfare against the military occupying forces.

Not only would the warriors go out of their way to use the technical names of the machine guns which the army believed they had in their possession in their radio communications, but they would also carry around circular tools used in ironworking as a ruse to convince the soldiers on the other side that they had obtained M72 rocket launchers. And on at least a few occasions, welding torches were used on old pieces of scrap iron to make it seem as though they were cutting the anchor bolts of the Mercier bridge in order to weaken it. (13)

In conclusion, history has demonstrated quite consistently that the notion that First Nations people are non-participants and/or non-contributors to the building of Canada as a nation-state who do not pay as much with their labour as they have with all other aspects of their living beings is both fallacy and ideologically-driven myth.

But this role and contribution also does not negate or minimize the vastly contradictory relationship between many Aboriginal people and the Canadian world of work. It does not in any way diminish the fact that mass unemployment in First Nations communities is as much reflective of an oppressive and hierarchical colonial relationship as are the mass suicide and incarceration rates. It can be argued that there is nothing aberrant whatsoever about the existence of these entrenched social catastrophes, for while many individual Aboriginal people may accept the reality of Canada, that does not mean that Canada is a project to which they will ever wish to contribute or cooperate with.

It also does not come even remotely close to addressing the even deeper question of relationship to the land, and how radically divergent the European view of land and resources is from the indigenous one, or how thoroughly out of synch the building and structuring of class societies within many First Nations communities is with the traditional structures of many of those societies. Attempts by the Canadian state and corporations to establish neo-colonial relationships based on the proselytizing of elites within many First Nations communities is not something which ever goes over peacefully or with any ease, or which alters a single legacy.

Indeed, how these questions are addressed, or how these contradictions are further magnified, in many respects strikes at the very heart of what is reconciliation and what is assimilation, what is the further aggravation of a genocidal legacy of domination and control, and what self-determination may one day truly mean.


1. “Building Unlikely Alliances: An Interview with Andrea Smith.” Upping The Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action. Number 10, May 2010.

2. “Debunking the Myths About Aboriginal Peoples: A Guide For CUPE Members.” September 25th, 2002.

3. Michael Mendelson, “Aboriginal People In Canada’s Labour Market: Work and Unemployment, Today and Tomorrow.” Caledon Institute of Social Policy. March 2004.

4. “Indicators of Well-Being In Canada: Work-Unemployment Rate.” Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

5. Richard C. Powless, “Native People and Employment: A National Tragedy.” Currents. Vol. 4, #2, pp. 2-5

6. Russel Lawrence Barsh, “Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples: Social Integration or Disintegration?” University of Lethbridge.

7. Valerie Lannon, “Indigenous People In Trade Unions”, Socialist Worker. Issue 530, May 2011.

8. Andrew Parnaby, “The Best Men That Ever Worked The Lumber.” Citizen Docker: Making A New Deal On The Vancouver Waterfront 1919-1939. University of Toronto Press, pp. 86-88.

9. John Sutton Lutz, “Outside History: Labourers of the Aboriginal Province.” Makuk: A New History of Aboriginal-White Relations. UBC Press, 2009. Pg. 163.

10. Aboriginal Ironworkers.

11. Calvin Ayre, “Do The Right Thing: An Unofficial History of Mohawk Rights.”

12. Doug George-Kanentiio, “The Paul Diabo Case Affects Us All.” News From Indian Country. April 2008.

13. Geoffrey York and Loreen Pindera. People of the Pines: The Warriors and the Legacy of Oka. University of Michigan, 1991.Pgs. 244-245.

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