Understanding settler colonialism and so-called ‘Indigenous issues’ (which are only ‘issues’ because of settler colonialism, so it’s more accurately a settler colonial issue) are necessary to understanding justice in this place currently known as Canada. Being Canadian also allows us to better understand our sense of belonging, our rights and responsibilities, and how we come to define ourselves, both individually and as a nation. It is an integral part of who we are. But the truth is, this part of who we are, is founded on genocidal violence against Indigenous people. Canada was built on unapologetic colonialism. The centuries-long expansion of European imperial powers like England and France directed the coercion, domination and ethnic cleansing of Indigenous communities to make room for newcomers. Today, Canada only really exists because European colonizers seized Indigenous peoples’ land, killed Indigenous people who lived on that land (so that they could have it), and, then, when that didn’t entirely work, efforts to ‘kill the Indian, to save the man’ resulted in the complete destruction of Indigenous cultures and ways of life. European colonizers resorted to every last means possible to remove Indigenous people from their land so that they could own and exploit it for their very own benefit. This, in short, is Canada’s shameful history – and learning of its legacy helps us to recognize just how colonization has and continues to affect us today. So, if I am interested in contributing to a place that is safe and inclusive for all, then this fundamentally involves the need to grapple with and fight for a way to end the ongoing colonialism that is Canada. That is, if there is a settler colonial problem that is hindering peace, I am interested in ending the settler colonial problem. This process, however, is not only the mere grappling with reconciliation, but is one that recognizes that the problem of settler colonialism, and the terrible violence it inherently brings on Indigenous people, is ongoing. Settler colonial violence underpins the very way in which Canada operates as a nation today. The objective of removing Indigenous people from the land so that settlers may exploit it is still very much part of our national fabric.
We see this in the ways in which Indigenous women, girls, Two Spirit and Trans people are made missing and murdered. More land is being seized by large corporations in Alberta and British Colombia for the creation of pipelines, like Kinder Morgan, resulting in worsening health and environmental conditions. Large bodies of water are being polluted with oil and harsh chemicals, poisoning vital sources for clean drinking water and food. Harsh living conditions on reserves are a driver behind chronic illness and poor health, under a health care system that is largely inaccessible and underfunded. Unemployment rates are the highest they’ve ever been. The education system fails to support Indigenous youth, as more and more are being pushed out each year. Indigenous youth suffer tremendously with mental health issues, leading to alarmingly high suicide rates. Indigenous men and boys are overrepresented in Canada’s prison system and detention centres. The legacy of residential schools has ensued in a vicious cycle of intergenerational trauma, whereby problems of domestic abuse, addiction, homelessness, and alcoholism are pervasive. Indigenous children are forcibly being ‘scooped’ up and placed into the ‘care’ of the government. Most recently, verdicts in the murder trials of Colten Boushie (22) and Tina Fontaine (15) have failed the Indigenous community once again. In the past month, both case have acquitted their murderers, claiming innocence to their crimes. In the aftermath of such injustices, many will often say that the criminal justice system and other major institutions are broken. But the fact is that they were designed to carry out the very outcomes we see today. While these current events are often invisible points of colonial neglect and violence in the Canadian political imaginary, settler colonial violence is a normalized, daily part of Indigenous peoples’ lives in Canada. Especially as Canadians gathered this past summer to celebrate 150 years of the nation, with a central theme of ‘reconciliation’, we must be able to disrupt the national myth-making of Canada as a peaceful, multicultural nation for all. For many, the celebration of Canada 150 was nothing more than a moment to mourn the ongoing years of colonial violence and to recommit supporting Indigenous sovereignty as central to resisting colonial violence. This colonial violence, and our complicity within it, is something that all Canadians need to understand. You do not need to be Indigenous to do this work, and doing this necessary work doesn’t make you Indigenous. Everyone has a role to play in ending the violence that has marked 150 years since Canada’s formation.
But to completely honour our commitment to embracing a spirit of truth and reconciliation in this country, this process of negotiation further calls on us to assess our own complicity in upholding and perpetuating colonialism, and to examine whether our ideals truly help or hinder Indigenous movements. The term “settler” refers to anyone who is not Indigenous living on Indigenous lands. It means not just long-dead ancestors, but any non-Indigenous person who continues to benefit from the colonial seizure of land from its original inhabitants. I too am interested in invoking an anti-colonial conceptualization of the term “settler”; one that not only recognizes non-Indigenous complicity in Canada’s ongoing colonial project, but that also stands in solidarity with the decolonization projects of Indigenous people. There’s an identity binary that exists in which I believe further limits our scope in effectively contesting the question of settlement: that is, the binary of white settlers vs. the Indigenous peoples of Canada. As a person of colour, who was born and raised in Canada, I often wonder, where do I and other people of colour fit into this equation? Are we innocent just because we are people of colour and do not have a relationship of conquest to this land? Is our relationship to First Peoples colonial? Well, the truth is, whether you are white or a person of colour is irrelevant. Neither identity negates your status as a settler. Unless you are First Nations, Métis, or Inuit, you are a settler, and so am I. We are all settlers. This may be difficult to accept, but it’s necessary nevertheless. Especially as a Palestinian woman, I cannot deny my settler identity. My people too have a history with settler colonialism; one rooted in a Zionist movement claiming birthright to our land. Palestine today is still under illegal occupation and apartheid by the state of Israel, and has been since 1948. As a young boy, my father had to face the daily presence of tanks and heavily armed soldiers on his way to school. The constant imagery of force, acts of violence, and genocide was very much the norm. He witnessed the destruction and shelling of homes, schools, and hospitals and tragically lost friends, neighbours, and classmates to bombings and sniper attacks. Tight border controls restrict the free flow of goods, and the movement of bodies anywhere. My mother, also hailing from the same reality, lived in exile all her life. To this day, they still speak of the injustices they faced, noting great emphasis on being denied the basic right to living a safe and dignified life, free of violence and discrimination. Both my parents originally hail from Gaza. In 1987, my father, still a teenager at the time, left home to seek refuge someplace else. He ended up coming to Canada, my mother joining him shortly thereafter. This is the entry point to my family’s origin story. This is how I come to understand myself and the relationship I have with the land. Denial is not the way forward. Love and solidarity with my Indigenous sisters and brothers is a choice I make every day because it’s the only way. This is our collective struggle, and I honour it by doing my part to challenge colonial oppression and state-sanctioned violence imposed on Indigenous people here and abroad. If I, as a Palestinian, can do that, then there’s absolutely no reason why the rest of us cannot.
I often hear people of colour with leftist political views claim that “our relation to this land is different.” How is this difference lived differently by communities of colour? On the one hand, many of us are fighting for justice in the name of being Canadians. We stand in various anti-racist events claiming our rights as Canadians. On the other hand, we also attempt to distance ourselves from white settlers, claiming innocence. We say that we are coming from other post-colonies that have also fallen victim to the direct contact of European colonization and American imperialism. Even when we do identify that we are settlers here, there is no sense of urgency for us to organize with Indigenous people and nations. I call on us then to not only question where we are coming from, but also to consider the place we have come to. What does citizenship mean for racialized people in a white-settler-colony? What does it mean when we demand our citizenship rights, which are rights entrenched in white supremacy, dispossession, and the genocide of Aboriginal people? For example, when Muslims today (including myself) protest and organize against legislation like the Anti-Terrorism Act, do we also draw parallels to how the Indian Act still works to subjugate Indigenous people? Do we even consider the long history that Indigenous activists and community organizers have had with being labelled as terrorists? Do we ask ourselves why Indigeneity and urbanity are mutually exclusive? If we think that we people of colour have a right to be here, then where do we think people of native nations belong? To clarify: this is not to imply that we share the same power as white settlers, or that race, class, gender, and citizenship do not define where and how bodies are organized in Canada. Yet a conversation still needs to be had about the ways we come to organize against racism and colonialism. We need to discuss what it looks like, which means that we must be able to carefully map out strategies for doing this work. People like me who have the privilege of mobility, and have the resources and platform, and whose status is not as tenuous as that of refugees, should definitely engage in serious political action. Whether we first came to this land as freed slaves, refugees, or under the racist policies of the Immigration Act, we are all here now, and we benefit from the settlement process. We need to reimagine and rework our anti-racist efforts in ways that do not continue the erasure of Indigenous communities. We need to stop paying mere lip service to Indigenous sovereignty and recognize that the forces that dehumanize us as racialized people are the same forces that continue the genocide of Indigenous peoples. We need to stop being defensive when we are told that we need to be more critical of how we are working for Indigenous sovereignty in our organizing. If these important negotiations and discussions do not happen in the organizing of all settlers, then there can be no real fight against the racial and colonial violence that this country was built on. To self-identity as a settler rather than as a Canadian does not necessarily negate the rights and benefits of citizenship that settlers have come to accrue as a result of settler colonialism. But mobilizing all settlers to become aware of the ways in which their settler privileges are anything but natural and well deserved can constitute a first step in supporting Indigenous activism against settler domination.
Photo: Nicole Brumley
Rally for Tina Fountaine, Toronto