Yesterday night, I was taken aback by the contents of several overlapping conversations about indigenous rights issues, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada — which is Vancouver-bound for a series of BC national events from September 18th to 22nd. All of these conversations manifested seemingly out of nowhere. This blog post will be focused on one of those conversations in particular.
A white male settler spontaneously solicited me (a white trans settler) for contacts within the local indigenous community, which he might get in contact with for the express purpose of having them as guests on his radio program, to speak to the matter of indigenous rights. He provided a short list of topics that might be useful to tackle on the program; including a sort of analysis or debate of the Indian Act, the recent “news” that residential school children were used as experimental subjects by being deliberately deprived of food (which, based on his phrasing, I am not sure he sufficiently understood when it became public knowledge), and a couple of others. He told me that I seem to be “connected” with the local indigenous community, which is true in an immediate sense, but also leaves me feeling somewhat puzzled and hesitant to get into specifics of what he meant as compared to what my connections to the community actually look like. I listed off some names, including a hereditary chief and four very intense indigenous women, and offered suggestions for what specific issues each contact might be most immediately or even urgently motivated to address based on what I know they are particularly passionate and well-spoken about as vocal activists and active members of their community. He also asked me if there were any other topics I can think of, and added that I would be welcome to participate as well, if I so chose to.
It just so happens that the day before yesterday, I was speaking to an elder (who is a residential school survivor who had been torn away from her very loving family to be incarcerated on the other side of the country) about this very scenario. She told me about the way she has approached healing from this trauma, which involves engaging as much as possible in the gifts life has to offer her. She told me about how, even after all this time (she is “a child of the 60s” in her own words) and all the effort she has invested towards her own healing, speaking about her time in the residential schools comes at the cost of reliving it, and it is in the interests of her emotional well-being that she chooses not to if she can avoid doing so at all. I expressed that, coming from my own history of trauma, I can certainly relate to her perspective, in a similar way to how I relate to the perspectives of people of colour who are triggered by racist displays on national television—I see it as my responsibility to educate my own people, who have not had to face the trauma of residential schools, are not the targets of racism, and can otherwise remain blissfully unaware of it all at their choosing, while continuing to privately entertain harmful stereotypes and racist narratives about people of colour (especially indigenous peoples). I emphasized however that I do not force this telling of truth, but share it when it is relevant to do so.
We also talked about trans-generational trauma, which indigenous peoples here have continuously inherited from European colonists and every subsequent generation of their descendants. She is not the first elder to tell me that the first colonists came here running away from the very oppressions they regurgitated upon the indigenous peoples, and I am confident that she won’t be the last. I told her that it’s been my experience that the same people who are ignorant of what indigenous nations have been forced to bear over the past several centuries are the same people who persistently avoid the same trauma in their own lineage. Just as an example, I know that I descend from a Viking clan, because that is where my surname at birth comes from. Yet when people speak of what happened to the Vikings, they generally say “the Vikings died out,” sometimes emphasizing that it is somewhat of a mystery. In actual fact, Viking ancestry has successfully propagated all over the world. We are very much still here. I am still here. It was the culture that was annihilated (i.e., cultural genocide). Likewise, I also know that I descend from a Scottish clan, because my paternal grandmother’s maiden name is one of the septs of the Gordon clan. Yet somehow, she had become convinced that she’s English, and denied her Scottish heritage (something I only very recently discovered when I looked up where her name comes from). But English isn’t a heritage—the Celts were invaded and occupied by Vikings, then Romans, and then two separate successions of Germanic peoples which are the namesake of the term Anglo-Saxon. English is a language and a culture, and it came to assume the place of the languages and cultures that existed prior to colonization. I said to this elder (my auntie) that it’s as if we (as in white people) devised the techniques of colonization on our own peoples first, then simply refined them when we made a run for it across the Atlantic ocean, but very few white people ever do the work of thinking through this and letting that hidden grief surface. I told her that the fact that I have done this on my own is why I perceive at all of the injustice that she’s had to live through, that her family has been and continues to go through, and that other racialized people face every day. It’s why I feel the responsibility to teach my own people to see it too.
Not having had this conversation with the white male settler who was asking me for contacts within the local indigenous community, however, he seems to have no idea where my passion comes from. So he asked, and I did the best I could to answer honestly. I had already mentioned that other topics he could address on his radio program (and that I am even willing to speak to from the perspective of a non-indigenous person/settler) are the missing and murdered indigenous women, police brutality faced by indigenous communities (especially men — who I did not emphasize at the time, often lose their lives in these violent interactions), or widespread ignorance about the legacy of residential schools in light of the forthcoming visit by Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I had also obliquely referred to the recent episode of Miley Cyrus’ misogynoir and the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag on Twitter, which is being used to confront white feminists who neglect their responsibility to resist racism every time another event like Miley Cyrus happens on national television or anywhere else (regardless of whether or not it is actually Cyrus that particular time is irrelevant when the behaviour is the same kind of racism). I finally stated that until indigenous rights are of central concern to a given person’s resistance against racism, they are contradicting themselves and perpetuating another form of the same kind of racism they claim to be opposed to.
He didn’t understand why, and began asking “Why not [this racial/ethnic group]?” and “Why not [that racial/ethnic group]?” So I began trying to explain what amounts to foundational injustice — that indigenous peoples are continuously targeted for extinction, either as a race or as a culture, and that even though racism exists against other non-white racial and ethnic groups, members of those groups are still benefiting from the constant attempt to erase indigeneity (even though it goes without saying that, due to the effects of systemic racism, the “benefits”, or settler privileges, reaped by most non-indigenous people of colour are markedly reduced in comparison to that of white people).
He still didn’t understand what I was saying, and began asking how slavery alone fails to trump all that has happened to indigenous peoples aside from expropriation of their lands (more on why I find this a particularly remarkable exception to cherry-pick momentarily). And to grossly oversimplify it, I answered that indigenous peoples were also targeted for extinction during the Atlantic slave trade—to make the room for it to happen. That was about the conclusion of this aspect of our conversation yesterday night.
Now, I’ve just used the term foundational injustice to account for why I am so passionate about prioritizing indigenous rights issues and keeping those concerns central to all of my activism, but I haven’t explained what this term describes. Simply put, it means that until violations of indigenous rights are openly acknowledged and dealt with, and indigenous sovereignty restored, all the rest of us are doing is making our prison cells more comfortable to live in. All of North American society is founded on the systemic oppression of indigenous peoples and a flagrant disregard for this injustice. Once one fully acknowledges this and accepts it as fact, one cannot help but keep this issue central to the focus of everything else that they do from that moment forward. Even resistance to racism against other racial/ethnic groups becomes an intersectional form of activism tracing itself back to indigenous resistance. It doesn’t mean that an issue such as misogynoir is “trumped”, dominated, or otherwise overwhelmed by a narrative that explicitly centres indigenous struggles — rather; it means that one begins to engage with resisting issues such as misogynoir from a framework that keeps indigenous struggles central, even if that fact is only implicitly, obliquely, or quietly referenced. It’s a change in strategy—towards decolonizing one’s own politics and mindset—as a result of a major shift in world view.
Residential schools represent one of several faces of foundational injustice. For over 120 years, indigenous children were forcibly removed from their natal homes at the requirement of the Canadian government, moved across the country into remote locations where they were deprived of contact with their families, and subjected to a systematically orchestrated attempt to brainwash all connections to their natal culture out of every single one of them. RCMP were also authorized to jail parents who would attempt to interfere with the abduction of their children. Many residential schools were hostile and abusive environments in which children were separated by gender and withheld from their own siblings, often facing physical and sexual trauma as well in addition to disproportionately severe punishments for speaking their natal tongue, observing any aspect of their traditional culture, and sometimes even for laughing. Many recent news stories have brought to light for the general public that several residential schools also exploited the incarcerated children for unethical and involuntary experiments such as deliberately depriving them of food to study the effects of malnutrition to the benefit of non-indigenous families struggling throughout the rest of the country during the Great Depression, though this has been considered common knowledge among indigenous communities for several decades. It has also been common knowledge among indigenous communities that children were denied their birth names, often being involuntarily reassigned to an Anglicized name (see: that part I mentioned about where Anglo-Saxon comes from applies here), if they were afforded one at all (many residential schools simply assigned each child a number, which was printed on every piece of their assigned clothing to facilitate punishment for stealing or swapping with other children). Sound like anything you’ve heard of that happened in Europe in recent history? Because it ought to.
The last residential school only closed its doors in 1996, but most of the general public is either completely unaware of residential schools, or operating under the erroneous belief that it ended so long ago that there are no remaining survivors and that the perpetrators can no longer be brought to justice because they are no longer among the living. This is largely due to the mass destruction of residential school records (which were poorly kept to begin with) once their doors were closed, but also due to an abject refusal on the part of the Canadian government to acknowledge and reconcile this part of the nation’s history, aside from a) the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to settle a class action lawsuit by survivors against the government, from which the truth has gradually been coming out piece by piece as residential school documents are reluctantly released to the commission; and b) the 2008 apology by Prime Minister Harper, from which essentially no change has come to pass while Harper and the rest of Parliament continuously chip away at the rights and liberties of peoples from all nations (e.g., proposing for the second time in history to categorically abolish the Indian Act with no consultation with the people whose lives it prescribes nearly every detail of; and signing a 31-year treaty with China, without any consultation with Canada’s own citizens, that leaves Canada vulnerable to being sued for hundreds of millions of dollars if any of China’s interests in Canada’s resources are met with resistance).
If you knew that for over a century, children had been stolen from their own parents — and that this is actually continuing to this day through the Child Care system — and no justice had ever been served to those families for the trauma of being separated with the force of the state, would you not feel compelled to tell other people the truth of what happened? Would you not feel the need to relate back to this fact when confronted with ideas such as settler privilege, foundational injustice, and colonialism?
If you knew that the explicit reason those children were stolen was to shame, beat, and rape them into being afraid to honour their ancestral heritage, would you not feel you needed to seek justice alongside survivors and their families? Would you not accept the validity of trans-generational violence among these communities, and seek to support their right to heal themselves (including determining the best means of doing so)? Would you not feel a responsibility to educate those whose offensive attitude towards this collective trauma is summarized by the three words “get over it”?
If you knew that it was your own government that had done this, and that in order to avoid prosecuting itself for crimes against humanity all the way back in 1948 when a consensus on the term “cultural genocide” was reached in the United Nations, your own government had fabricated its own — suspiciously narrower — definition of genocide, and not only continued stealing those children from their families but actually dramatically increased doing so throughout the 1960s (i.e., the “sixties scoop”), would you not become radically disillusioned by the idea that this government is or ever was some sort of “democracy”?
Overlapping with the timeline of the residential schools, and continuing to this day, is the establishment and enforcement of the Indian Act—which played a critical role in granting the state authority over children of indigenous parents, when it wasn’t legally erasing indigenous lineage through disenfranchisement (i.e., loss of aboriginal status through childbirth or marriage with a non-indigenous person or disenfranchised indigenous person, and loss of associated treaty rights and access to one’s ancestral community as a result), and outright criminalization of traditional indigenous dance and ceremony, in addition to granting the state authority to expropriate reserve lands without proper treaty negotiations by enforcing a rule of “use it or lose it” with very specific requirements to qualify the meaning of “use”. At the tail-end of the sixties scoop, Prime Minister Trudeau proposed a full eradication of the Indian Act (i.e., the 1969 White Paper Policy), which would have meant legal erasure of indigenous identity across the board, while residential schools were still operating with the explicit purpose of erasing indigenous cultures, as the legal definition of who is indigenous by Canadian law — and therefore who is entitled to certain Charter rights and treaty rights — is written into the Indian Act. Let that idea sink in for a while: would residential schools have ever stopped until all indigenous cultures were fully eradicated, once and for all? While you’re letting that simmer, the 1969 White Paper Policy would have essentially abolished the 11 Crown treaties which serve as the legal foundation of this nation as an independent country and define its territorial borders. As much as the Indian Act needs to go, it is clearly in the best interests of indigenous peoples to continue to live with it rather than outright abolish it in one fell swoop. And though the treaties are with the Crown rather than the Canadian government, and Harper has passed a massive succession of bills that explicitly violate those treaties as well as Aboriginal Charter rights and the rights of all non-indigenous people across the country, the Crown is not willing to intervene.
Additionally, despite the marked absence of a treaty in the area now referred to as the province of British Columbia, the expropriation of ancestral territories by European colonists overlaps with the timeline of both the residential schools and the Indian Act. “How was that land expropriated?” you might be asking yourself. The answer (apart from the crimes against humanity already detailed and overlapping with the timeline of land theft in Coast Salish and Interior Salish territories) is with intentionally malicious exposure to multiple life-threatening diseases including smallpox, tuberculosis, and influenza; and turning gunpoint on the remaining survivors, followed by burning everything to the ground behind them and filling unmarked mass graves with their dead. In what is now called Vancouver, a great deal of this violence for the explicit purpose of expropriating unceded territory was perpetrated from about 1870 right into the early 1920s. People just one generation after the last family to be forced from the world-renowned “Stanley Park”, and from the upper-class Kitsilano neighbourhood (a former reserve) are still alive and well today, and can still recount being told this history directly from the people who experienced it themselves.
If you knew all of this history, could put it all together yourself in the context of the present day, and fully accepted that this wasn’t even that long ago, would you not feel compelled to the very core of your being to do everything you as an individual can do to demand justice and support the communities who are fighting for it by keeping their collective struggles your central priority? What could possibly be more urgent for anyone who lives directly on the land where those mass graves were filled, those children were stolen, and those lands expropriated with such horrendous force?
If you could ever possibly accept the full scale what has taken place and is taking place in this country, could you not see that your own liberation — and that of every person of colour — is inextricably tied to the fruition of indigenous justice and sovereignty? If you could you hear all of what has happened, and is still happening, is there any way that you could not be shaken into direct action?
Join the reconciliation process. Learn and share the local history. Learn and share your own history, or histories, as the case may be for many people with mixed ethnic and/or racial backgrounds from all across Europe and the globe. Learn who the traditional stewards of the land are where you live, and share this knowledge with as many people as you can reach with it. Learn about local indigenous languages, cultural traditions, skills, ceremonies, and protocols — from the traditional stewards of the land. Get to know them and let them get to know you. Build bridges and build solidarity. Learn about local indigenous peoples, and how much you have always had in common with them. Learn how to engage issues of social justice within the context of indigenous justice.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere — but if we are only chipping away from the top down, we are all condemning each other to live in a prison, no matter how comfortable we think we can make it for ourselves.