“This is Indigenous land,” you’ll often hear a non-Indigenous speaker say, sometimes after a prominent Aboriginal person or Torres Strait Islander has spoken a welcome to country. “Always was, always will be.”
Too often, however, the acknowledgement of original possession and ongoing custodianship amounts to little more than lip service when it translates to Indigenous access to – and use of – the land.
The vexed question of coexistence between Indigenous people and culture, and the settler state, is central to a new book, Planning for Coexistence? Recognizing Indigenous Rights Through Land-use Planning in Canada and Australia, by the Australian academic Libby Porter and Canadian Janice Barry.
Given the increasingly polarising debate (not least within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities) over how recognition might look, this is a prescient and timely book that considers coexistence in both the Australian and Canadian urban contexts….
They write: “Our aim … is to examine what actually happens when planning systems meet the claims and struggles of Indigenous peoples, as well as when they interact with now well-established settler-state mechanisms that purportedly seek to redress these claims.”
In tackling the coexistence anomalies between Indigenous cultures and state bureaucracies, the authors’ starting point is an acknowledgment of the “contradiction that underlies the contemporary situation of every settler-colonial state: Indigenous people and non-Indigenous settlers co-occupy place, and yet they do so in a ways that are rarely common with each other and often fundamentally different”.
Chapter two – the aptly named “A Meditation of Discomfort” – sets the scene for the practical examples of how urban coexistence actually looks, at their best and for their faults, in Australia and Canada. And it is the uncomfortable question of what forms recognition of Indigenous presence might take in urban coexistence and land use that forms the framework for this examination.
They talk of a pervading deep inequity in power relationships between Indigenous interests and planning bodies, even though authorities do have ways of recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Native Canadian interests.
“The asymmetry of these power relations runs deep, producing and reproducing colonial ways of being seeing and acting. Under these conditions the struggle for coexistence is reduced to a struggle for inclusion: something that can be recognized through a procedural or institutional fix and can accommodate an Indigenous Other within an existing legal or political order.”