Book Review –

A new book examines what actually happens when urban planning meets the claims and struggles of Indigenous people in Australian and Canadian cities

 Indigenous flag painted on a wall in Redfern A mural of the Indigenous flag in the Sydney suburb of Redfern

In Australia the acknowledgement of Indigenous land ownership, of custodians past and present, is now pretty much mandatory at official functions.

“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. This is especially so in the well-established cities and regional centres where land, which has long ago been stolen from Indigenous people, is now covered with the infrastructure – houses, roads, parks, civic buildings – of what many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders rightly regard as the “settler state”.

Acknowledgement of Indigenous “ownership” (and therefore, implicitly, of colonial occupation and dispossession) is one thing. Granting Indigenous people some determination over the land upon which our cities and suburbs have been imposed, quite another.

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 u

It considers the experiences of four Indigenous communities in British Columbia and Australia that are testing and renegotiating the use of traditional but now urbanised lands and how governments and planning authorities respond.

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.”

Porter drills into the experience of Indigenous people in Melbourne, “built on the unceded and unrecognised country of Aboriginal nations, with Melbourne’s built-up area largely over the country of Wurundjeri people”.

She explains how these people, while dispossessed and marginalised, have, through their Wurundjeri Council, still somehow managed to assert their rights to access urban land and, where heritage is threatened, impede new development.

But, significantly, known or established places of Indigenous cultural importance are not recognised under state legislation and, therefore, are ineligible for protection if they have previously undergone “significant ground disturbance”.

“This means that any land that, since colonisation, has been mined, quarried or excavated is exempt … It is important to note that the (2006, Aboriginal Heritage) Act provides significant powers to Wurundjeri Council where it is triggered. What is interesting though is … where the act is not triggered.

“The exemption (of prior significant ground disturbance) appears to uphold a view that Aboriginal people have long contested: that Aboriginal culture is somehow in stasis, fundamentally unchanging and vulnerable to modernity”.

Indeed. This is where the moral authenticity of the official “always was, always will be” purported acknowledgment really comes into question.

Alongside the many flaws of the Native Title Act, it illustrates the incapacity of the modern state to formally acknowledge Indigeneity where a colonial or post-federation development footprint exists. The question of officially accepted Indigenous coexistence with modernity applies largely to unoccupied urban spaces.

I’ve focused here on the coexistence question as it relates to urban Australia in the book. But Barry addresses it no less compellingly in relation to the Canadian experience. Indeed Indigenous people the world over have long shared resistance and political tactics in the quest for recognition by those seeking to take or develop their land.

In considering the interface between British Colombia’s small Coast Salish Nation, the Tsleil-Waututh, and local authorities, Barry explains how the Indigenous quest to engage in development partnerships led to a realisation of the need to better articulate historical connections to the land.

“They recognised that, while they had no intention of going anywhere, neither did the 2m people who now called metropolitan Vancouver home … Mapping was recognised as an effective way to tell their story … they began compiling a bioregional atlas that combined the biophysical (forest cover, geology, wildlife, plants) and cultural elements of Tsleil-Waututh Nation territory and that made use of extensive oral history work with elders and others in the community.”

This “dual process” mapping also included local government and regional district boundaries, forest and water management areas that made it easier to visualise and conceptualise how non-Indigenous bureaucracy and authority had been imposed on the First Nation presence.

It’s similar to methods used in Australia to help demonstrate continuous association with country (a prerequisite for the establishment of Native Title). And while that may help lead to forms of official non-Indigenous recognition, it does not necessarily of itself facilitate some sort of determination over land. In British Columbia, the mapping was just an early step on the long road to planning partnerships and a practical step to the imperative to consult First Nations.

In Australia, most of the academic and popular consideration of Indigenous land rights has related to remote and rural country and waters. There is a fallacious sense that traditional country is “bush” when, of course, it was all such until European occupation and development – the blink of an Indigenous eye given the 50,000 to 60,000 year history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander civilisation here.

I wanted to know why Porter had decided to focus on the urban question.

She responded: “I wanted to ask these kinds of questions because of the sense I have of living in a city of how all of this urban wealth and privilege is built off dispossession. Yet we don’t seem to consider the city as a place where land justice is just as important as anywhere else. I want to address that silence and prompt us to consider those important questions.”

And that’s worth thinking about next time someone at an official function says, “Always was, always will be.”