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CIBC and Me, Part IV

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Issue: 60 Section: Opinion Geography: West Saddle Lake Cree Nation Topics: Indigenous, economics, genocide

June 12, 2009

CIBC and Me, Part IV

A little complaint about genocide, put into perspective

by Stewart Steinhauer

Winter Spirit Bear, stone carving by Stewart Steinhauer. Photo: Stewart Steinhauer

In May of 2003, Stewart Steinhauer informed the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) that he was stopping his payments on $150,000 of loans.

Steinhauer wrote at the time: "After 'discovering' genocide in Canada, I searched for the villains, and my search led from my reserve, here at Saddle Lake, to the top of the international financial community." As the primary beneficiaries of genocide and the expropriation of indigenous land that continues to drive it, Canada's financial institutions had to be held accountable.

"Unable to ignore, or deny, the incredible suffering being visited upon my family, friends, and all of the rest of the peoples who make up indigenous nations within the boundaries of Canada," wrote Steinhauer, "I began to look for something that I could actually do to affect the situation."

In an exchange of letters published in The Dominion, Steinhauer made his case for withholding payment. "I stated several times," Steinhauer wrote of an encounter with a debt collector, "that I intend to repay in full whatever I owe CIBC, when I am satisfied with Canada's actions in relation to Indigenous peoples, specifically the immediate repeal of the Indian Act, and the honouring of Treaty Six, including back payments, royalties, up-dated annuities, and whatever may be necessary to reverse the genocide." CIBC refused Steinhauer's conditions, and Steinhauer refused to pay.

* * *

Six years have passed since I launched my timid little complaint about genocide in Canada. One outcome has been the opportunity to engage in a whole lot of irritating telephone discussions with collection agency workers tasked by CIBC to harass me in the general direction they would like to see me go, like herding a wild animal out of the bush. Except for the initial response, a letter from CIBC printed by The Dominion in the first installment, there has been no more direct discussion between CIBC officials and myself about my initial complaint.

Other things have happened, too. The global financial meltdown, for one. Suddenly there is a public discussion about the bankocracy in power, and the massive transfer of taxpayer money into private shareholder and management hands, what some commentators are calling the largest theft in history. The geographer, David Harvey, calls it accumulation by dispossession. Take from the poor and give to the rich.

This is the role the historical development of capitalism has assigned to Indigenous Peoples in the Americas: we give, the rich take. Some Indigenous folks have been protesting; my cousin Vincent commented that we've gone from being officially listed as non-persons to being officially listed as terrorists. It's a start, in a way. Now we are at least perceived as existing.

Speaking of terrorists, how about that 19th century philosopher so frightening to almost all modern economists? I have tried to read Karl Marx, but there's something about his writing style and tone that loses me in the space between the capitalized first word in a sentence and the period indicating its end. I don't get the mental picture that a properly constructed sentence is supposed to leave you with. Marx got it all wrong, anyways. Right? Isn't that why absolutely no self-respecting professional economist even bothers to read "Capital"? Kind of a silent ban.

Ah, but forbidden fruit tastes best, doesn't it? The pursuit of forbidden pleasures returns highest yields when shrouded in secrecy; Bernard Madoff would agree. My secret research has been in a style academics call secondary research. I read what folks who've read "Capital" have to say about it, for instance Harry Cleaver's Reading Capital Politically.

And then along came David Harvey's 13-part lecture series, available at davidharvey.org. He's paid to lead a first reading of Capital Vol. 1 at City University of New York. Almost 40 years on in this line of work, you can hear him as he reads selected bits, broadens the meaning with his own examples and discussion, fields questions from his students and provides some outside discussion about Marx and Capital, Vol. 1 in short interview format, with a former student.

For me, it was still mind-numbingly abstract, but by the time I had listened through twice, I was suddenly ready to begin a serious examination of what folks call "the economy." Listening to David Harvey unravel Marx's critique of capitalism while watching Lehman Bros tank and AIG get the first of what has turned out to be a series of intravenous injections of taxpayers' blood, was astonishing. Marx, sitting quietly in the Royal British Museum 150 years ago, contemplating and writing industriously, was talking about the events I was witnessing around me.

From there it was an easy jump to internet discussions about Immanuel Wallerstein's world systems theory, and Giovanni Arrighi's opinions about China's "capital roaders." A description of the historical progression from City States like Venice to not-quite-nations states like Holland, to small nation states with global empires like Great Britain, to continent-sized nation states with global hegemony, like the United States of America, made sense.

All along through this search for meaning I've kept a sharp eye open for any reference to the Indigenous Peoples of what has come to be known as the Americas. In Left literature, such references are always brief: a sentence or two about the absolute destruction of Indigenous Peoples as a footnote in history, a part of primitive accumulation, capitalism's opening stage, long passed... and then no more. To the Left's credit, we at least make the footnote.

By listening to David Harvey I discovered that Karl Marx was engaged in an internal mental debate with David Ricardo and Adam Smith, whose theories are now called classical economy. In the Ricardian/Smithian version of the transition to capitalism, primitive accumulation is a quiet peaceful affair where hard-working individuals make their own breaks, while slothful Others lazily fall back. Those hard working individuals also just happen to be wisely thrifty, accumulating money until it can be diverted from personal consumption and re-deployed as Capital. In the classical and neo-classical liberal accounts of economy, there is absolutely no mention of the invasion of Turtle Island, wholesale destruction of human societies then present, and the absorption into capital stocks of the vast natural wealth of Turtle Island as it became the Americas.

Perhaps with our new designation as terrorists we'll have better luck than as non-persons. Maybe it's like the blues; you've gotta hang in there and do your time, pay your dues, before you get to move into the daylight of becoming just an average human being.

In 2003 I launched an incoherent one-person rebellion against a money property regime which I intuited but could not prove was implicated in the genocide of Indigenous Peoples. In 2009, my new, improved opinion has matured to an understanding that the money property regime against which I rebelled is implicated in genocides all over the planet. (Quite stupidly) from the point of view of its own survival, capitalism is even implicated in global ecocide. Marx lays out the reasons why the system moves inexorably in this direction. He's not the only one to ponder on these things, either. A very active global post-Marxist discussion is currently incorporating Marx's critique of David Ricardo and Adam Smith's classical economic theories, screened through the knowledge gained from the brutal experiences of failed attempts to implement Marxist theory. Ricardo, Smith, and Marx, as well as 100 per cent of so-called professional economists working today, are talking about theories. Actual experience interferes with the smooth operation of all these theoretical constructs, constantly.

I understand now why my property rights are suppressed, while Canadians' property rights are supported, in a property law system that tilts the tables towards the property rights of very wealthy individual Canadians. The key element in the suppression of my property rights is the forced disappearance of my traditional Indigenous forms of property rights, more accurately articulated as a relationship between humanity and non-human life forms (Mother Earth).

The destruction of Indigenous forms of property relationships is an example of activities that occur during Stage One of genocide, according to Raphael Lemkin, the legal expert contracted to draft the UN's Convention on Genocide. By Lemkin's criteria, Canada's Indian Act is an example of Stage Two genocidal behaviour: the forced imposition of the national characteristics of the genociders on the land, and on any surviving humans of the target group. In light of negative world opinion, Canada is edging towards another act of genocide, by incorporating Indigenous Peoples into the Canadian fee-simple property (estate land) law system, so that our original, frighteningly "socialist" property form is obliterated from memory.

I also now understand why money has the highest priority in the commodity chain, and why the folks who deal with the production and distribution of that particular commodity – bankers – have the highest priority in the power chain. I understand how what's called law is actively shaped and managed by the power chain gang, and why no court exists in the world for me to make my case about genocide in Canada.

In the year 2003, when I waved my tiny $150,000 of so-called debt in CIBC's face, in my ignorance, thinking that it might be an attention-getting device, CIBC management was focused on a $2 billion penalty fee arising from their involvement with Enron, a fine they voluntarily agreed to pay in order to avoid more serious consequences. I suppose it was my indoctrination into liberalist ideology that got me to believe that rational folks, when shown the truth, would react humanely. As my mental veil has been rudely lifted in public, my question to CIBC has, over time, transformed into a simple request for them to show me the legal proof, within the liberal structure of international law, of their claim of title to the money property that they "lent" to me. I'll speak more about banks and lending further on, but for now, I'll simply note that their Indian Act has tangled their own feet.

Canadian Indian policy was originally meant as a caretaker regime to quietly nurse Indigenous Peoples into a collective grave; this policy has backfired spectacularly in that, unexpectedly, Indigenous Peoples still exist. These still-existing Peoples are recognized, in international law, as holding certain political, economic and cultural rights, noted in the recent UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights. Canada, one of only four nations that refused to sign that declaration, claims root title to the Dominion of Canada, a title vested in the Crown.

The banks' claim, based on the Crown's claim, is invalid within the framework of international law even though the forces we're calling the Crown have constructed international law for their own purposes. Taken further, this means that all third-party claims based on the Crown's claims are also invalid; for instance, fee-simple title to real estate. Fee-simple is a registered interest in the Crown's underlying claim to root title. Anyone in Canada who holds fee-simple title is directly benefiting from the dispossession strategies to which Indigenous Peoples are subjected. It's a chain reaction caused by Indigenous Peoples' failure to disappear.

What are my choices? As a non-person-cum-terrorist I don't have the psychology to be even the tiniest bit threatening, thanks to being a life-long pacifist. Whether or not that psychology includes cowardice, it's compounded by a philosophical attraction to a long Indigenous history of non-violent problem-solving that always shies away from direct confrontation, while continuously seeking consensual solutions. Both the Mayan Zapatistas and the Bolivian Indigenous-driven Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) have anti-capitalism as the front plank in their campaign platform. Now I understand why. Capitalism is a system that requires exploitation, causes ever-widening gaps between rich and poor (with all it's socially destabilizing effects) and has to mine the environment in ever more extreme ways, leading ultimately to total environmental devastation. The system requires ongoing imperialism, and moves in bubble cycles; war, financial crises and environmental destruction are not aberrations of the system, but key structural components.

I started out with a tiny complaint about genocide, and linking it to the banking industry. That naïve action has opened a doorway to fantasies like a zero-growth economy, with full ecological sustainability, and trade systems based on fair and equitable exchange instead of exploitation, in a global system consciously chosen by folks who have the mental/physical/emotional/spiritual space in their day-to-day lives to devote to this sort of contemplation. All folks. Everywhere. The naïf in me imagines that there could be a genuine democracy, on the foundation of a grassroots council system, to replace the current system of oligarchic rule that uses a managed periodic electoral function to rubber-stamp the oligarchic decisions we now endure.

In 1980, an American Indian Movement activist, Russell Means, made a provocative public statement: "In order for humanity to live, Europe must die." Just more Indigenous terrorist rhetoric, right? Kill Europe?

Perhaps some bankerly folks absorbed his comment into their subconscious minds, and its sublimation re-surfaced as a mass financial suicide attempt in the fall of 2008. Certainly the eight years of Cheney-Bush administration made every effort to drive the US-centric Global Empire into the ditch.

It leaves humanity in a precarious position. The sudden massive transfer of public wealth to private bankers consolidates and centralizes wealth into fewer and fewer hands. Publicly-subsidized debt forgiveness for the rich and layoff/foreclosure/deficit for the poor is the proposed antidote to the present crisis. However, the decay of the US Empire, with no new greater-than-continental-sized Empire looming on the global horizon, presents an ideal opening for power chain gangs. Non-wealthy humanity, the remaining 99 per cent of us, is in such a state of antisocial disrepair that the likelihood of a grassroots democratic egalitarian outcome is remote. The alternatives seem to be a step backward into a dangerous, violent, global non-state, where Blackwater-style mercenary armies provide as much security as possible for oligarchs, or a step forward in human consciousness, beyond the ideologies of elite rule into a stable, global pro-choosing-all-life steady state.

My choices boil down to one simple action: I'll add my one little voice to the global vote on our common human future. I recommend that we humans start an international not-for-profit banking system that makes credit and credit counseling widely available. That would eliminate the need for primitive accumulation, including the accumulation through dispossession tactics that Indigenous Lands and Peoples are subjected to. Ricardo, Smith and Marx all describe the capitalist production cycle as starting with capital. It's a conundrum: if you can make it through to the end of the production cycle and successfully realize the transformation of the commodities produced back into money, you will have, at the end of the cycle, what you need at the beginning. Capital.

You either have to scavenge around, in other Peoples' pockets, figuratively speaking (one of the reasons for imperialism, for your startup capital), or you have to have access to credit. Canada's Indian Act prohibits on-reserve status Indians as individuals or as collectives, such as Indian Bands, from gaining access to Canadian credit markets, by vesting title to all property in the Crown. This vestiture is a component of Canada's ongoing struggle with Indigenous Peoples inside of Canada, where the Crown claims root title to all territory inside of the Dominion of Canada, in spite of the Crown's inability to provide evidence in support of such a claim. Banks cannot engage directly with on-reserve status Indian individuals or organizations because the normal types of security, where banks place claims on property, cannot be enforced.

I unintentionally sidestepped this barrier because of the way that racism's real name, white privilege, operates in apartheid societies. As described in earlier Dominion segments of this micro-saga, unconscious white privilege was interacting with unconscious white privilege whenever I sat in my CIBC accounts manager's office. From 1975 until 2002 this unconscious collusion kept my accounts transactions below the Indian Act radar, and it wasn't until CIBC upgraded their risk assessment programs to include, for the first time, an aboriginal business component, that my unique case came to light.

One fateful day, in the local St. Paul, Alberta, branch of CIBC, during a normal review of my banking business, my accounts manager was instructed by her monitor to press a certain key sequence to enter all information into the new aboriginal business program. From there, a warning popped up on her screen asking her to immediately call risk assessment headquarters in Toronto, followed shortly by a screaming male voice coming out of her phone ear piece, which I could hear plainly from across the office. He unwittingly became one of my informal advisers in the matters now being dutifully reported to you, the Dominion reader.

Section 89 of the Indian Act blocks CIBC from being able to take legal action against me. However, Section 89 also points obtusely towards the fact that, by the letter of the law, I own absolutely nothing while on reserve lands, not even the shirt on my back. The Dominion is not the Globe and Mail's Report On Business, so I probably won't get any feedback on this topic, but if any average Canadian business person was asked to give up all of the their Canadian property rights and forgo access to formal Canadian credit markets, while trying to operate any sort of (legal) business inside of an entire zone existing under these conditions, then they, like I, may try to lodge a complaint.

The UN's genocide clause about deliberately inflicting on a group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part may be argued against in the Canadian situation based on the inclusion of the word "deliberately." However, for anyone who is familiar with conditions of life on-reserve circa 2009, and continuously so since the Indian Act's official inception in 1876, the remainder of that clause is a grim reality.

Luckily this is about an Indigenous reality, where there are always more options. Would you care to dance? And so I dance around in a circle with CIBC, existing under a constant barrage of collection agency psychological operations, often laced with racist comments. But this isn't about CIBC; this about the Canadian banking system.

In western civilization's current system, commercial banks create new money by issuing new debt. The central banks of each of western civilization's nation state members manage the money supply in circulation to sort of keep step with their commercial banks' issuance of new money, and either accelerate or depress the demand for the issuance of new debt by adjusting the interest rate. Theoretically, private banks hold in reserve some proportion of the total amount of debt they have issued, in actual cash, taken as deposits or from the sale of shares.

The new money thus created must be repaid with interest; the interest portion is above and beyond the amount of the principle lent out. This means that new money has to be created somewhere else, the borrower has to be able to get his hands on it, and return it to the bank, along with the principle. For this to happen on an ongoing basis, the entire amount of money in circulation has to continually grow, with new money created through issuance of new debt going towards payment of interest on former issuance of new debt. In other words, a Ponzi scheme.

In order to avoid the Ponzi nature of our current money creation system, we need issuance of credit as a public service, and we need it to be issued without an interest charge. A central contradiction of capitalism is that capitalism requires infinite growth inside a finite space. Logically, we humans need to collectively contemplate a zero-growth economy. There's no good reason why money has to be created by commercial banks; have at look at Richard Douthwaite's The Ecology Of Money, a free read on the internet. And there is no good reason for interest to be charged; it's actually a from of extortion. That an elite group is allowed to create money out of thin air and then charge rent on it will be seen as criminal, some day.

Western civilizationists talk a lot about the democratic rule of law. In my humble opinion such talk is abstract; I for one would like to see this actually happen. Therefore, I also recommend that all Peoples present inside the territorial boundaries of Canada, Canadians and Indigenous, to carefully and thoughtfully end Canada’s apartheid era by undertaking a comprehensive collective action. The days of Indian Acts are over, and a new era of pluri-national, ethnically-diverse, eco-logically, bio-regional governance-by-consensus is dawning. Making credit available as a public service, like education and health care, and like energy and transportation services should also be, is a possible first step towards the advent of an Indigenist society: a Turtle Island re-emergence.

Ninety-nine per cent of the Peoples inside Canada, Indigenous and Canadian, are already paying for it – Canadians through dispossession of tax dollars, and Indigenous through dispossession of resources, land, and life. A major incentive to engage in primitive accumulation through dispossession would be removed if credit were made available as a public service. It's possible that a greener hue of what things look like right now could be produced, quite quickly, if we didn't have the inner driving forces of capitalism that continually push towards bubble crises, war, and ecological destruction.

Political economy is really not all that complicated, once you get the hang of it. Our current crop of bankocrats just make it look complicated.

In all fairness to them, it is extremely complicated to keep a severely dysfunctional system running when in fact it needs to die so that we all can live.

Gifted with a white privilege suit on his Birth Day, Steinhauer has been slipping back and forth across the invisible boundary between Turtle Island and Canada, since 1952. And this is what he saw.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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