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Intervention – ‘Addressing the Indigenous-Immigration “Parallax Gap”’

Anna Stanley, Canadian Studies, University of Toronto
Sedef Arat-Koç, Politics, Ryerson University
Laurie K. Bertram, History, University of Alberta
Hayden King, Politics, Ryerson University

In Canada, geographies of immigration and settlement and colonial domination overlap. And yet, academic and policy discourses about immigration and settlement in Canada neither engage the colonial domination of Indigenous peoples nor their struggles for self determination. We contend that the separation of indigenous sovereignty and migration issues is productive; constitutive of the state, of national identity, citizenship, and of the narratives and categories that animate them. It is also economically productive in that it helps mask the ways in which the generation of wealth is premised on the perpetuation of colonial inequality. The following intervention is based on a round table discussion addressing colonial domination in the context of immigration and settlement held as part of a conference on immigration and settlement at Ryerson University. Our intervention explores some of the contradictions that emerge when Canadian geographies of immigration and settlement are brought together with those of colonial domination in order to provide a basis from which broader conversations and research agenda might develop.

Introduction (Anna Stanley)

The opening remarks of a recent conference on immigration and settlement studies at Ryerson University, Toronto, were led by Ed Sackney, an Elder from a Northern Mushkegowuk (Swampy Cree) community on the shores of James Bay, Canada. In his remarks he recounted an incident wherein a Korean woman, newly arrived in Canada, was misdirected to his community by airport–and possibly immigration–officials. The woman, having landed at Pearson, agitated and unable to clearly communicate (presumably due to language barriers), was assumed to be confused about connecting flights and was put on a series of flights that brought her to the tiny, northern, fly-in community. Sackney joked that to some, Korean people must resemble the Cree. The woman remained in the community for a few days while people tried to sort out what had happened and make arrangements to return her to her intended destination–during which time they did what they could to make her welcome. Sackney offered very little by way of interpretation, leaving the story to simply hang. But whatever the intended message, that this story established a direct connection between Indigenous peoples and immigration is important on a number of levels.

It is, of course, profoundly ironic that in this immigration story a Korean woman is, in error, directed to a First Nations community and welcomed onto Mushkegowuk territory by Mushkego people before being sent “back” to Canada. These events underscore the colonial relation onto which the actualities of immigration are inscribed and place colonial relations at the forefront of the narrative. They also work to foreground the at once racializing and colonizing practices and systems of thought that fix racialized immigrants and Indigenous peoples into similar categories within the (white) Canadian geographical imaginary. In so doing the story invites us not only to consider how Indigenous peoples and immigrants (especially racialized ones) are linked through the logics that drive immigration policy, but also the relationships between immigrants, immigration policy, and colonial domination. Further, while the state appears sidelined by its own stupidity and by the actions taken by the First Nation, the story actually serves to highlight the extent to which state-centric discourses and practices coordinate colonial domination. The Korean woman did not find her way to the Mushkegowuk community by her own initiative (neither in symbolic terms as a racialized and possibly colonized subject, nor in actuality), nor did she have agency over the ways in which the state admits people like her onto Mushkegowuk land, and suppresses Mushkegowuk sovereignty–yet it is precisely because of her desired relationship to that racist, colonizing state that she arrives in the community.

In Canada, geographies of immigration and settlement and colonial domination overlap. They are connected through the historical fact of colonization and settlement (Bauder 2011), and Indigenous peoples and (especially racialized, illegalized) immigrants are subject to very similar dispossessive projects. And yet despite the connections drawn by the Elder’s story, academic and policy discourses about immigration and settlement in Canada neither engage the colonial domination of Indigenous peoples nor their struggles for self-determination. This separation, Harald Bauder (2011: 517) has argued, is formative. “[R]ecognizing the presence of Aboriginal peoples prior to the formation of the settler society”, he suggests, “would wreak havoc on the national identity…[of] an immigration country” that must by definition deny the politics of territorial belonging. The separation of Indigenous sovereignty and migration issues is therefore productive; constitutive of the state, of national identity, citizenship, and the narratives and categories that animate them. It is also economically productive in that it helps mask the ways in which the generation of wealth is premised on the perpetuation of colonial inequality (Coulthard 2007; Egan 2011). Furthermore, the discourses and imagined geographies of the settler state (like liberal multiculturalism) whose agency derives from certain representations of the settler society undermines both struggles for Indigenous self-determination and the recognition of colonial domination by fixing Indigenous peoples as a minority group and their rights within the rubric of groups rights descendent from political arrangement with a benevolent, (neo)liberal state.

The following intervention is based on a round table session held on the closing day of the above mentioned conference on immigration and settlement at Ryerson University in the May of 2013. Of the 45 different paper, panel discussion, and round table sessions held over the three-day period, it was the only one to address colonial domination in the context of immigration and settlement. Prior lines of debate and discussion inform our Ryerson conversation and our intervention speaks to a much longer debate about the tensions between de-colonization and anti-racism, and between racialized migration and settler colonialism–especially as raised by Bonita Lawrence and Enaksi Dua (2005) and the response/critique of Nandita Sharma and Cynthia Wright (2009). While it is impossible here to review the specific contours of this debate, we do wish to note that many of the problems and questions raised by their exchange, especially in relation to identity, nationhood, and belonging in Canada, inflect our intervention. In particular we note that attempts to engage (racialized) immigration and settlement in Canada–a settler state that as Dua and Lawrence note (2005: 124) is “premised in the need to pre-empt Indigenous sovereignty” and maintained through policies of direct extermination, displacement, and assimilation (2005: 123)–as well as to attend carefully to the “particular sets of relationships that make one a ‘settler colonist’” (Sharma and Wright 2009: 121) and to the “specificities” of indigenous oppression without reproducing the ruling strategies of the capitalist, colonialist state (2009: 122), necessarily raises a host of important and difficult geographical questions about indigeneity, oppression, citizenship, nation, place, and alliance. Likewise, it challenges many of the categories and concepts like nationhood and autochthony though which de-colonization politics may be formulated.

In what follows we have decided to retain the symposium “style” of our original discussion to preserve both the distinctiveness of the discussants’ voices and approach, as well as to avoid falsely synthesizing what are legitimately different points of departure and entry into the complex and fraught issues that constitute this problematic. Nonetheless, our intervention begins from the shared conviction that it is now more necessary than ever to bring Indigenous and migration issues together, and to address what Bauder (2011) has termed the “Aboriginal-immigration parallax gap” in Canadian immigration discourse. Without suggesting that Indigenous peoples and immigrants should or can make “natural” allies, we do not accept that there is anything natural about the separation of these issues; they are being actively driven apart, and the resulting separation is constitutive of the racialized colonialist Canadian state.

Our common purpose is therefore to begin to explore some of the contradictions that emerge when Canadian geographies of immigration and settlement are brought together with those of colonial domination. Though the contributions recorded here are necessarily cursory and incomplete, we hope to provide a basis from which broader conversations and research agendas might develop. In taking up these issues from their respective points of entry the three discussants together address aspects of what is at stake in maintaining and dismantling this division, the complexities of racialized immigrant relationships to the Canadian colonial project, and the politics of addressing the “parallax gap”. Insofar as it is possible to identify a common argument, the contributions suggest that it is the process of immigrating to Canada that creates, amongst other things, colonizers. The very process of becoming a good, successful, moral, and respectable citizen with access to the resources of the state transforms newcomers into colonialists. In this sense colonialists are produced, as are colonized populations, through relationships to the state. This process is of course fraught, as immigrants, especially racialized, illegalized, and differentially incorporated immigrants, are not usually in a position to choose how and under what conditions they enter into a relationship with the state, anymore than they are able to redefine the moral contours of what constitutes a good citizen. It nonetheless helps shed light on the culpability of the Canadian state and the immigration practices and processes that constitute it as the key force in shaping and reshaping colonized and colonizing populations both. What follows is a lightly edited version of the commentary given by Laurie Bertram (University of Alberta), Hayden King (Ryerson University),and Sedef Arat-Koç (Ryerson University) as part of the May 2013 round table chaired and organized by Anna Stanley.

Icelandic and Indigenous Exchange, Overlapping Histories of Migration and Colonialism (Laurie K. Bertram)

Historians often imagine and discuss migration (particularly ethnic and racialized immigration) and colonialism separately. English and French historical populations possess an imagined monopoly over colonial acts and their histories dominate narratives of colonial contact in Canada. Conversely, non-Anglo and Franco Canadian ethnic communities often envision their histories as inherently detached from the colonial project. Post-war multicultural history spectacles and narratives emphasize this separation by emphasizing the socio-economic marginalization of ethnic immigrants. Narratives of ethnic arrival often cast immigrants as co-victims, incapable of participating in the dispossession of others and imagine them as latecomers, who arrived “after” Canadian state campaigns against Indigenous people and claims. Matthew Frye Jacobson (2009: 195) argues that such narratives of immigrant hardship and “just-off-the-boat innocence”, popular with so many White North American communities, emerged in response to intensifying Civil Rights critiques of White privilege in the 1960s and 1970s. Widespread attempts by immigrant communities to shed their problematic histories and obscure their roles in the colonial project have troubling legacies. As Jacobson argues, imagining ethnic immigrants as innocent latecomers in colonial violence and displacement attempt to fossilize colonial injustices and their enduring effects.

Jacobson’s work deals largely with American myths, but understanding the specific relationships between ethnic and marginalized immigrant communities and Indigenous peoples can also help fracture the template of colonial and contact narratives in Canada. This is not to suggest that ethnic colonialism and colonial exchange were somehow less damaging than Anglo or Franco incarnations. Instead, understanding the complexities of ethnic immigrants’ relationship to the colonial project helps illuminate the processes by which diverse populations–even people who themselves were colonized at home–were (and are) transformed into colonizing populations in Canada. Such a focus also helps confront the naturalization of colonial domination in Canadian historical narratives or the way in which colonial hierarchies are made to seem natural or “inevitable” historical structures. Using a brief overview of Icelandic-Indigenous conflict and exchange in Canada in the late 19th century, I want to outline some of the challenges that ethnic-Indigenous relations pose to understandings of contact and colonialism in Canada, particularly the economic and political forces involved in the creation of ethnic immigrant colonialisms.

Between 1870 and 1914, approximately one-quarter of the population of Iceland migrated to North America (Rafnsson 1983: ix), due to poor climate conditions, socio-economic stagnation, and poverty. Like many other ethnic arrivals, Icelanders had a complex relationship to Indigenous people and 19th century colonial projects more broadly. Icelanders were themselves a colonized people who emigrated at the height of its campaign for independence from the Danish empire, which also encompassed Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and territories and trading posts in the global South. The Icelandic independence movement enjoyed support from emigrants who sent home North American wages and investments for its campaigns. Icelanders also had their own pre-existing relationships to other Indigenous populations beyond Anglo and Franco Canadian networks. Icelanders traded with and lived in Greenland for several centuries, and their encounters with North American First Nations, which predated Columbian contact by 500 years, were well-known stories in 19th century Icelandic society. Icelandic narratives of this contact, as recorded in the Icelandic Sagas, differ significantly from Columbian narratives that emphasize European technological supremacy and domination. “Viking” arrivals in North America around 1000 CE happened around the height of medieval Norse conquests in Europe. During this time Norse-speaking people were some of the most sophisticated and powerful military and navigational forces in the North Atlantic. They controlled approximately one-third of the British Isles, regularly terrorized and pillaged the Holy Roman Empire, and established commerce routes that stretched into Central Asia. But according to the medieval Saga of Eirik the Red (a particularly popular saga in the 19th century), when Icelanders arrived in “Vinland” they were driven out by “skrælingar”, the well-armed and powerful local inhabitants. “Although the land was excellent”, reported the Saga, settlers and explorers “could never live there in safety or freedom from fear, because of the native inhabitants” (Anon 1970: 100).

Icelanders who migrated to North America were well familiar with these stories of their ancestral exchanges with–and defeat by–North American Indigenous people. These early stories of contact were but one of several factors that distinguished the longer history of Icelandic-Indigenous relations from Anglo and Franco incarnations. As both the Icelandic Sagas and archaeological evidence reveal, Iceland’s relatively close geographic proximity to Northern Greenland and North America also fostered multiple flows of people and objects both ways across the Atlantic well before Columbus’ voyages. For example, a 2011 study argued that the limited presence of C1e, a subclade genetic strain originating in North American Indigenous populations, was evidence that medieval Norse people who went to North America brought back an Indigenous woman who then had children in Iceland (see Ebenesersdóttir et al. 2011). Archeological finds in the North American Arctic and Subarctic have also revealed significant material cultural exchange between Norse, Inuit, Dorset, and Tuniit people, including the discovery of 12th and 13th century Norse chainmail, cloth, and tools in old Thule/Inuit homes (Schledermann 1980). At Mývatn in Northern Iceland, freshwater fishermen still use ice-fishing techniques learned from Cree and Ojibwe fishermen in the area now called Manitoba.

While the discovery of Norse artifacts in the North American north speak to older Icelandic-Indigenous exchanges, the arrival of Cree and Ojibwe ice-fishing techniques in Northern Iceland reveal more recent dimensions sparked by 19th century mass migration. As Ryan Eyford (2010: 77) discusses further in his seminal study, the Canadian government established a series of reservations in the West, both for Indigenous people and ethnic immigrants. In contrast to their earlier medieval prominance, by the 19th century Icelanders had been transformed into a colonized, largely impoverished people struggling with a climate downturn as well as socio-economic stagnation, and saw emigration as an escape. In Manitoba in 1875, a reserve called “New Iceland” was established for incoming Icelandic migrants, separated from other communities so as to protect the Icelandic language and culture. Relationships with Indigenous people in and around the area called New Iceland were characterized by a blend of conflict and collaboration. Tensions erupted in 1876 when immigrant settlers moved northwards to Sandy Bar, an established Cree and Ojibwe fishing and farming community, and new arrivals brought small pox from the immigration sheds with them. John Ramsay, a member of the Sandy Bar Band, confronted Icelanders about their incursion and embarked on a campaign to have them removed. Similarly, Elizabeth Fidler launched an exhaustive ten-year-long legal campaign for compensation after small pox broke out amongst Icelanders who moved into her house in winter of 1876-7 and the building had to be burned. That same epidemic killed approximately 70% of the Sandy Bar Band, including the wife and sons of John Ramsay.

The winter of 1876-7 marked a very low point in early exchanges between Icelanders and Indigenous people, but these exchanges fluctuated in the following decade and included multiple partnerships and eventually intermarriage in the region. The skill and economic influence of Indigenous people in the region in the 1870s, as well as the isolation of Icelanders from Anglo-Canadian society and state officials, meant that immigrants depended heavily on Indigenous food systems, aid, technology, and trade, and had frequent contact with neighbouring Cree, Ojibwe, and Métis people, particularly in the winter. For some Icelanders struggling in a harsh unfamiliar climate, Indigenous people were the holders of knowledge and skill who also became their employers, neighbours, guides, and business partners. Even the foundation of New Iceland’s winter caloric economy depended on Indigenous skills and brokers who provided the local store with fish, moose, and rabbit. In the wake of the 1876-7 epidemic, John Ramsay supported his surviving family by establishing a lucrative business supplying moosemeat to the Icelandic merchant Friðjón Friðriksson. By 1881 Ramsay was one of the wealthiest inhabitants in northern New Iceland. He and Friðriksson lived together periodically, and when disease returned to the community and claimed members of their families in 1883, the two men buried children together.

Indigenous-Icelandic relations in Canada were characterized by a mixture of conflict and collaboration. Anne Brydon (2001) has cautioned strongly against using early immigrant narratives about John Ramsay, who was a well-known figure in the Icelandic community, to construct revisionist narratives of good relations between Icelanders and local Cree, Ojibwe, and Métis people. Indeed, Icelanders’ were also guilty of very intentional offenses against local Indigenous claims and populations that began shortly after they arrived in the area. These offenses seemingly increased in the 1880s as Icelanders, engaging in the growing commercial freshwater fishery on Lake Winnipeg, increasingly infringed on Indigenous fishing territories. Furthermore, as New Iceland teetered on the brink of collapse, many Icelanders also moved to Winnipeg where they became more closely entwined into both Anglo-Canadian society and Anglo-Canadian popular racism. These tensions reached boiling point in 1885 when a conflict erupted between the Canadian government and investors in westward Canadian expansion and Indigenous peoples living in the Northwest Territories. Though they were themselves a colonized people and relatively recent arrivals in Canada from a country with no military, more than a dozen Icelanders enlisted to fight on the side of the Canadian government in the conflict. How and why did Icelandic immigrants become active colonialist agents ready to take up arms against their former neighbours on behalf of the Canadian state?

By their very nature, the Icelandic immigrant community and other ethnic North American communities are colonial populations–since their very presence is rooted in the biopolitical population projects of the Canadian and American states. But certain ethnic immigrants become colonialists, or more aggressive, active, and intentional supporters of the colonial project. In keeping with Albert Memmi’s (2013: 51) assertion that “the colonial situation manufactures the colonialists, just as it manufactures the colonized”, I would argue that the very process of becoming “respectable” and financially successful in Canadian colonial society is also the very process that makes ethnic immigrants into colonialists. In other words, immigrant colonialist roles increase as they are exposed to and integrated in social, racial, and economic colonial hierarchies. Like other ethnic immigrant groups, many Icelanders were poor when they immigrated and occupied some of the lowest socio-economic rungs of the Canadian colonial order. North Americans widely believed Icelanders to be a colonized people from the “Savage North”, belonging to what Anglos termed a “squawmuck, a seal-skin wearing and blubber eating race” (Lord Dufferin 1856: ii). They also occupied the lowest rungs of the urban working class in the 1870s and early 1880s, often taking up unskilled labour alongside Chinese, African-American, and other marginalized people in laundry work, steam ships, railroad camps, and sewer construction. The poverty of these workers increased rumours of Icelanders’ racial inferiority and led to poor treatment and working conditions for immigrants. Magnus Magnusson (quoted in Magnusson 1978: 19) remembered struggling with the racism doled out to Icelandic workers in Manitoba. His English co-workers called him a “Greenland Eskimo”, he wrote, and “refused to use the same basin and towels as we used”.

While wages in these economies were good compared to those in Iceland, the Icelandic immigrant elite, made wealthy by their investments in Canadian expansion schemes, worried that the racially ambiguous, urbanizing, and poor immigrant community would endanger their support from the Canadian state. Indeed, appearing too similar to the Indigenous people they were supposed to supplant, and too dissimilar from the Anglo Canadians who comprised the official colonial order, could overturn the Icelandic immigration project altogether. As Eyford (2010: 62, 66-67) details in his study of New Iceland, anxieties about appearing as a “desirable” or qualified settler population were fundamental to Canadian citizenship and receiving economic state support. State definitions of desirable settler populations were unstable, and those who failed to uphold colonial roles and identities risked the future of state subsidies for transport, land grants, and aid for their communities.

Facing more intense xenophobic pressure in Winnipeg, an organized group of Icelandic urban leaders began to launch a series of public relations campaigns in the 1880s that responded to widespread criticisms and concerns about the racial character of Icelanders. By reforming the community’s image, these leaders hoped to stabalize support for continued Icelandic immigration and funding for community expansion. In 1885, the Macdonald government was facing a crisis in the Northwest when Indigenous action against Canadian expansion, which culminated in the Northwest Resistance, threatened to collapse government plans to send large numbers of immigrants to the West. A highly vocal group in the Winnipeg Icelandic community used this crisis as an opportunity to pursue upward mobility in the colonial order and initiated a campaign to support the Canadian government’s war against Riel and Indigenous land claims. Community records reveal that public declarations of Icelanders’ opposition to Riel represented the business interests of the Icelandic elite and not the larger population of working-class Icelanders in the province, many of whom had multiple ties to Indigenous communities. Still, the highly public anti-Riel campaigns created by the Icelandic urban elite recast the collective image of the community as supporters of the Canadian government’s colonialist campaigns and therefore collectively entitled to the state benefits that entailed. After the conclusion of the conflict, Icelandic leaders secured land for new Icelandic settlements in the contested territories of the Northwest, and immigrants began to move westward onto former battlegrounds now declared “vacant farmland”. Within a period of just ten years, this marginalized immigrant community of formerly colonized people, also fighting for sovereignty at home, was transformed into a colonialist militiamen willing to take up arms against their Indigenous neighbours and occupy their land.

The spectacle of ethnic immigrants fighting Indigenous resistance in 1885 offers an unsettling reminder of the intimate connections between immigration and colonial displacement and suppression in Canada. As Jacobson (2009) well illustrates, 20th and 21st century popular histories often use the marginality of 19th century ethnic immigrants to imagine their lack of participation in racist or colonial projects. Yet, as the case of the Icelandic community in Canada reveals, immigrant marginality in some cases actually fuelled participation in colonial violence, particularly when it promised access to resources and support from the Canadian colonial state. As Adam Barker (2009: 332) argues, such projects can encompass a diverse “network of adherents to one type of order”, all of who are “competing for status and control within a singular framework”.

Understanding the linkages between ethnic immigration and colonial history is critical to acknowledging the colonial legacies of ethnic communities and their connections and obligations to Indigenous people. Colonialism was not and is not a discretely Anglo and Franco sin, but an ongoing process with real and historic connections to every newcomer population in Canada. Trying to fit ethnic immigrant experience into Anglo and Franco models of colonialism or Canadian nationalist narratives of immigrant hardship or multiculturalism both obscures and naturalizes the colonial mechanisms still hard at work in Canada. However, attending to the distinct dimensions of the specific relationships between ethnic communities and Indigenous groups offers us new venues for not only understanding the past but also the possibilities embedded in other stories of contact and exchange. Such stories not only illuminate how the colonised have been transformed into colonizers, but also help to fracture more hegemonic narratives of colonial power that are still used to define national history, citizenship, and access to resources in Canada today.

The Politics of Indigenous–Non-Indigenous Coalitions (Hayden King)

I’ll address this issue from a different angle by thinking about the politics of coalitions between Indigenous, White, and racialized immigrants. Since I became an academic and later started engaging in activism, I’ve been thinking about the idea of coalitions. In practical terms, any social justice agenda advocating large-scale change such as the re-organization of societies probably requires allies! But for Anishinaabe peoples (or Indigenous peoples generally), our relationship with non-Native peoples, primarily White peoples, is really the foundation of our current political, economic, and, in many cases, social-cultural challenges. More often than not, these relationships are very bad–awful even.

I’ll never forget teaching in one of my very first classes and asking a poorly-framed question about who we can blame for the challenges we, as Indigenous peoples, face in Canada. The response was a not surprising–“White people”. I’ve been struggling with the question ever since. Can we really end colonization with the help of those responsible for it? How can we ever trust them? Increasingly, and in response to recent and frequent engagement on the question, I’ve been wondering if that category “White people” should be expanded to include all non-Native people: immigrants, long-tenured “Brown” and “Black” people, racialized people generally. What is the difference, anyway? Is the relationship as poor? Is there the potential for coalitions and (positive) partnership here? Drawing from my own experiences, I want to begin to sketch some terse reflections on the questions.

I want to start with Idle No More. Much has been made of the relationship between Native and non-Native peoples throughout the months-long Idle No More movement. The story has often been one of hostility: Canadians overwhelming news websites with hatred and vitriol directed at Native people; statistics that reveal low support for the movement; Twitter “trolls” provoking movement-supporters; and media punditry that excuses the movement through arguments about “dream palaces”, unrealistic demands by Native leaders, claims of corruption, and on, and on.

This discourse has spurred an “us vs. them” narrative in the Native community. There has been a genuine and legitimate anger directed at the Canadian society that presumes to tell Indigenous peoples what to do and how to do it because they know best–a resentment of paternalism and ethnocentrism. Unfortunately “them” may not be a limited segment of society. So what does this indicate about the possibility of “coalitions” in the Idle No More movement or otherwise? Actually, and predictably, some of our most important scholars have considered the issue and were dismissive. Deskaheh said, “We would be happier, if left alone” (in Akwesasne Notes 2005: 27). Likewise, Vine Deloria asked White people to grant us a “leave-us-alone law” (1988: 27). Harold Cardinal wrote that White people “do not know what [they are] doing…[They] lack any clear understanding of the Indian…[Their] efforts confuse the issues rather than contribute to happy resolutions” (1969: 76).

These were the polite sentiments. Since the time of Deskaheh and Cardinal, the relationship between Indigenous and Canadians has not improved. Look around: Canadian governments administer services that ensure only basic survival; the media perpetuates notions of faceless native terrorists or argues for assimilation; resource development, aided and abetted by Canadian law, continues to poison Indigenous peoples out of existence. All the while Canadians remain silent. Well, mostly.

Those who have been to an Idle No More round dance or protest notice a lot of non-Native people. Even before Idle No More, at rallies and demonstrations in Toronto, at Queens Park, Ryerson, OPP Headquarters, U of T, Valentine’s Day Marches, “No Olympics on Stolen Land” events, protests in support of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug and Grassy Narrows, Canadians were often the majority in attendance–and in many of the latter cases, Christian religious groups. Even more provocative efforts follow the trend. One of the most important causes for me over the past few years was the movement to stop Dump Site #41 in central Ontario, near the small towns of Elmvale and Midland and in close proximity to my family’s community of Gchi’mnissing. For years previous to last summer I watched the “Stop Dump Site #41” signs proliferate on lawns and highway fences. There was increasing concern and opposition to the County’s decision to construct a garbage dump on a particularly ecologically-sensitive watershed–so sensitive that a geochemist from the University of Heidelberg determined the water in the aquifer, which the dump would sit atop, was some of the planet’s purest! Or more precisely, the water “was comparable to the cleanest ancient Arctic ice” (Globe and Mail 2006). Incredibly, the County decided to begin construction anyway. But when they did, a group of Anishnaabe Kwe from Gchi’mnissing agreed that they had to fulfill their obligations as women, as protectors of the water, and stop the dump. They formed a loose alliance with farmers whose land would be directly affected if the dump were to leach into the aquifer. The Kwe were even permitted to set-up a camp on a clover field directly across from the dump entrance. They stayed there for months. With the help of young men as Firekeepers, they built a lodge, they sang and drummed, they cooked and ate, they chopped wood and held ceremonies, and every week hosted a Saturday afternoon potluck dinner.

The first of these I attended was as bewildering as the Toronto protests. Some Anishinaabe faces, of course, but mostly local, White, farming families. Not just at the potluck: young White men took turns tending the fire and were invited to sit at the drum; middle-aged White women were arrested alongside middle-aged Native women. Together, for 137 days, they raised awareness, defended themselves in the media, stood in front of bulldozers when necessary, and, finally, they stopped the dump.

In contrast, a few years before the drama at the dump I worked with the Ontario government as they attempted to convince conservation organizations, northerners, resource companies, and the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) to agree to a comprehensive land-use planning strategy. The plan called for 20 years of cooperation between these groups to ensure that development, protected spaces, and infrastructure projects would be undertaken responsibly. It was my job to sell the Initiative to NAN. But every time we spoke, they consistently wanted know why Ontario felt it could develop this long-term plan when the territory was their jurisdiction. They persistently wanted to know why provincial parks continued to be established, impeding their economies (traditional non-market and market). They routinely rejected forms of resource development that would be unduly exploitative. All of this I took back to Ontario, much to their frustration. Meanwhile my colleague responsible for engaging the conservation groups was reporting another story. Those groups claimed they were in a coalition with NAN, and, in fact, the latter supported the initiative. What was going on? It seemed that a loosely agreed upon ideal of protecting the land was mistaken for collaboration. So when NAN was made aware of this (and more likely when they had enough of Ontario’s failure to address their primary concerns) they pulled out of the discussions, jeopardizing the initiative. Later, one of the conservation group representatives urged pushing ahead regardless, asking my colleague, “Who cares about the First Nations?”.

So when considering the example above or that of Kitchenuhmaykoosib and Christian Peacemaker’s or even the Dump Site #41 coalition between Anishnaabe women and White farmers, it’s reasonable to believe that the latter in each case have their own motives: the farmers to protect their lands and real estate; the Christian Peacemakers to offer the Lord’s charity; conservation organizations to conserve “wild” places. Fair enough, altruism’s a tall order. But at what point do their interests give way to ours, if at all? How sincere are our seemingly well-meaning allies; and, really, should they be our allies? When we press them on colonization and perhaps their role in perpetuating it, will they wilt? When the cultural romantics, arguably our most consistent allies, are pushed on our rights and reveal their liberal tendencies, will they wither? Indeed, they often do. Perhaps racism among these minority Canadians is no less poisonous than the type practiced by the majority. As Anita Heiss (1998: 18) writes,

I know you tolerate me,
but you do not value me.
I know you permit me to speak,
but you do not listen to what I say.
I know you put up with my opinions,
but you do not respect them.
I know you endure the history lessons I give you,
but you still can’t admire the strength of those who struggled.
You may think it’s enough not to call me names,
but it’s not.

Fast-forward to the present. My recent academic life has partly revolved around conferences organized by racialized, (short and long tenured) non-White immigrants on the question of Indigenous-racialized alliances. It has been at this point in my thinking where new questions about coalitions emerge. Despite this seemingly new and certainly robust interest, I wonder if the situation is really that different from experiences with coalitions that Indigenous peoples and White people have entered? Thinking about Deskaheh, Cardinal, and Deloria, would they say the same things about “doing more harm than good” or “leave-us-alone agreements” if referring to Thai, Guyanese, or Nigerian peoples?

A fundamental difference, in my experience with activism, is that the latter general group (racialized peoples) are much more deliberate and reflective about potential partnerships (owing no doubt to similar histories of colonization and imperialism). That’s a marked shift from the history of paternalism and arrogance associated with White people. While this is a source of hope, the nature of these engagements is also concerning. Since they have been largely academic, there is the tendency to be overly critical. During one of those conferences, as a discussant I asked a pointed question to the presenters: “To what end? Why are we doing this?” The same concerns about self-interest persist for me. The weight of cynicism that previous relationships have imparted can be difficult to see past, whatever the skin color of our friends. A critical orientation considers the time required to educate non-Native people (an intensive project that takes away much-needed capacity that might be used elsewhere). And what happens when our allies get bored or fear the danger that partnering with Indigenous peoples entails (jail, for instance). Where does that leave us? The potential reward of activist relationships might not be worth the lost time and effort. I have to admit this is not a popular opinion but a genuine problem to raise. And there are few concrete examples of successful activism to draw on, so the unfortunate outcome is the theoretical study of this potential phenomenon rather than focus on actual alliances with actual results. All of this pushes me to ask more questions, some that so far have been missing from this discussion. Is there really a significant difference between coalitions between White people and racialized people? What is race, anyway? Is this tendency for bigotry exclusive to one color of people; what about all the dismissive Black and Yellow people; or those Red and Brown peoples who advocate assimilation? What about all the disingenuous coalitions involving mix-blood peoples…and the genuine ones?

Interrogating these notions of race reveals that race is likely just a construction. White people, for instance, don’t really exist…not until we created them. Leslie Marmon Silkoe’s (1977: 132) Ceremony includes a brief story about how we, Cayuga, Mohawk, and Anishnaabe peoples (or our ancestors), brought White people into existence:

“They want us to believe that all evil resides with White people. Then we will look no further to see what is really happening. They want us to separate ourselves from White people, to be ignorant and helpless as we watch our own destruction. But White people are only tools that witchery manipulates; and I can tell you, we can deal with White people, with their machines and beliefs. We can because we invented White people.”

White people or “whiteness” is just an idea. When Silkoe’s story is recounted, “they” is not a type of people or race; rather, “they” is our fear and our ignorance and arrogance. Certainly, light-skinned people of European descent abound and live among us, but they aren’t “White” any more than those Cayuga, Mohawk, and Anishnaabe peoples are “Indians”. Both notions are inventions that come from the same place.

All of this is not by any means a colonial alibi. Rather, as Taiaiake Alfred (2005: 102) notes, it’s an acknowledgment that “the enemy is not the White man, in racial terms, it is a certain way of thinking”. While this “way of thinking” in North America appears to be manifest disproportionately in European settlers, it’s not exclusive to them–it exists in all cultures and all skin colors, in racialized peoples. For us, as Indigenous peoples, it’s our own disconnection from each other, and from the land that leads us down that path. And instead of recognizing the actual source of these problems, we contribute to it in debates about identity, and, in turn, our own destruction as Indigenous peoples, falling further from an authentic existence, if such a thing is even possible, and embracing notions of blood quantum and status.

So how does this discussion of the nature of color inform the possibilities for coalitions with White or racialized peoples? I think that it means, first, we have to recognize that the crux of the problem of coalitions is not race, but, rather, this “way of thinking”, represented by two kinds of people: those who express their fear, ignorance, and arrogance openly like those opponents of Idle No More with their well-used stereotypes. And, on the other hand, the more benign, oft allies; the people you need to scratch to see beneath the surface. Next, I think we have to concede that coalitions with either perspective is ultimately defeating. As Leah Whiu asks in her unpublished discussion of Maori-Pakeha feminist coalitions from 1994, “what affinity can we share with White women if they refuse to acknowledge and take responsibility for their colonialism” (quoted in Mikaere 1999: 26)? Even if a particular coalition is successful at achieving its goal, if our allies go home without recognizing their responsibilities (challenging colonial frameworks in institutions, economy, and society generally in an effort to end colonization), the conditions that produce our struggles will remain and recycle. Indigenous peoples will continue to be marginalized so others can benefit.

Lastly, we can recognize that there is potential with those who can acknowledge these responsibilities and act on them. While Cardinal wrote that non-Native peoples wanting to help often do more harm than good, he did provide an apt mantra: “get Brown or get lost” (1969: 76). “Brown” is a metaphor for the following: listen to what we are saying; strive to understand our perspectives; critically reflect on your own assumptions about Indigenous peoples; and let us determine our best interests. The rest should follow. Otherwise, leave us alone. For those who are already “Brown” in the literal sense, this process should be less onerous. Building trust and parsimony in strategy will simply be easier with racialized peoples: we share what Nandha Garlow calls “the fellowship of suffering” (similar histories and often shared interests). Moreover, we have a common and deep desire to overcome this legacy of victimization. But it has to be acknowledged that problems will persist. Sharing a similar shade of skin color is not a substitute for understanding. And I guess that’s the conclusion of these reflections. Race probably matters little. The real problem is witchcraft.

An Anti-Colonial Politics of Place (Sedef Arat-Koç)

Harald Bauder’s (2011) editorial, “Closing the Aboriginal-Immigration Parallax Gap”, identifies and highlights an important absence of connection in public and academic discourses between immigration and Indigenous narratives, and calls for efforts to overcome this “parallax gap”. In the following, I address Bauder’s call, arguing that closing the parallax gap would need to be contingent on a politics of immigrant-Indigenous relations rather than purely academic studies and analyses. Specifically, I suggest that an anti-colonial politics and a politics of place might offer ways of overcoming the gap. To create an entry point for my argument I want to begin by raising two questions about Bauder’s intervention.

First, his intervention seems not to make distinctions between immigrants differently positioned in relation to the colonial project. Critical race scholarship has produced extensive theorizing and documentation on how White settlers and racialized immigrants are situated very differently in relation to the “nation”, as well as to the economy and society, in settler colonies such as Canada (see,for example, Mackey 1999; Thobani 2007). Making the distinction between White settlers and racialized immigrants is useful, not in order to declare racialized immigrants as innocent in the historical and ongoing processes of colonization in the White settler colonies; but, rather, in identifying the nature of the settler colonial project and of how it defines and organizes different groups in relation to each other and the project itself.

Second, his argument suggests that Indigenous identity is defined uniquely in ethnic terms, as opposed to belonging in settler societies which is defined in political terms. I suggest that both sides of this assertion can be questioned. The critical race scholarship mentioned earlier demonstrates how belonging in White settler colonies has historically as well as presently been defined in racial/ethnic terms. On the other hand, Indigenous literature shows that many Indigenous scholars and activists are critical of ethnic conceptualizations of Indigenous identity and Indigenous politics, stressing instead an oppositional, anti-colonial identity.

It is useful to elaborate on these latter conceptualizations of Indigenous identity and politics, as they are particularly significant in leading the way towards closing the parallax gap. There are no simple or exclusive references to either ethnicity or “tradition” in the way two leading Indigenous scholars in Canada, Taiaiake Alfred and Jeff Corntassel, define Indigenousness. Openly arguing against ethnic and Indigenous identities as artificial and state-created identities, they use the term Indigenousness in clearly contextualized and political terms. Defining it as “an identity constructed, shaped and lived in the politicized context of contemporary colonialism”, Alfred and Corntassel argue:

“It is this oppositional, place-based existence, along with the consciousness of being in struggle against the dispossessing and demeaning fact of colonization by foreign peoples, that fundamentally distinguishes Indigenous peoples from other peoples of the world” (2005, 597).

In terms of visions for the future, Alfred’s notion of decolonization is not one that is ethnic-specific. Arguing that newcomers to Canada today–many of whom belong to racialized groups–do not think or act much differently from the “biblically or economically-inspired Europeans” who his ancestors had to confront, Alfred envisions decolonization as a common future of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples which would be based on a different set of values and principles than the ones Canadians and Americans have and continue to live with:

“Would it be possible for people cultured in the North American mainstream to reimagine themselves in relation to the land and others and start to see this place as a real, sacred homeland, instead of an encountered commodity destined to be used and abused to satisfy impulses and desires implanted in their heads by European imperial texts? … In order to decolonize, Canadians and Americans have to sever their emotional attachment to their countries and reimagine themselves, not as citizens with the privileges conferred by being a descendent of colonizers or newcomers from other parts of the world benefitting from White imperialism, but as human beings in equal and respectful relation to other human beings and the natural environment. This is what radical imagination could look like” (2010: 5-6).

Indigenous scholar-activist Andrea Smith argues along similar lines. Smith criticizes the approach to Native Studies, popular among native and non-native scholars alike, preoccupied with identity and cultural representation and leading toward “essentializing discourses on Indigenous cultures and/or epistemologies” (2011: 57). Agreeing with Sandy Grande who finds this approach to be “obscur[ing] the social and economic realities facing Indigenous communities, substituting a politics of representation for one of radical social transformation” (2004: 1), Smith argues that notions of Indigenous sovereignty also need to be different from ones that argue for exclusive control over territory. Instead, Smith argues, we need to focus on relationship with the land. She cites Canadian Indigenous scholar Patricia Monture-Angus:

“Sovereignty, when defined as my right to be responsible…requires a relationship with territory (and not a relationship based on control of that territory)…What must be understood then is that Aboriginal requests to have our sovereignty respected is really a request to be responsible. I do not know of anywhere else in history where a group of people have had to fight so hard just to be responsible” (quoted in Smith 2011: 61).

Closing the parallax gap between immigration and Indigenous discourses, rather than a purely academic or intellectual matter, would need to be contingent on the politics of immigrant-Indigenous relationships. That is, it would need to be based on a politics of mutuality, alliances, and shared perspectives between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples; and on the possibilities of dreaming a collective future based on new principles, radically different from the ones established by settler colonialism. I would suggest that rather than being based on a focus on immigration, closing the parallax gap might benefit more from starting points in an anti-colonial politics and a politics of place.

For non-Indigenous groups, including immigrants who themselves are coming from colonized backgrounds, this would involve seeing connections between their own and Indigenous experiences in the ways in which the past is remembered and the present understood. This could involve overcoming what we may perhaps call another parallax gap, one that links analysis of developments in Europe with colonial practices in the Americas and elsewhere. In an article on the commemorative events marking 500 years of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, Ella Shohat (1992) points out that there has been no acknowledgement, even in the counter-quincentenary events, of the relation between two important events that took place in 1492. Reminding us that 1492 was the year when approximately three million Muslims were defeated and around 300,000 Jews were expelled from Spain, Shohat argues that the correspondence between the two 1492s was not accidental, but rather politically, economically, and ideologically linked. The “discovery” of the Americas according to Shohat was made possible largely by the wealth confiscated from Jews and Muslims in Spain. Clarifying that she is not suggesting an exact equivalence between the treatment of Muslims and Jews in Spain and of Indigenous peoples in the Americas, Shohat nevertheless argues that there was a significant relationship between the two. In addition to the economic linkages between the two events, she shows how “European Christian demonology pre-figured colonialist racism”, how the discourses about Muslims and Jews constituted some of the elements of the racism against Indigenous peoples (Shohat 1992: 96-97).

Historically, experiences of oppression in Europe–for the Irish during the potato famine or for the working classes in Europe–has not translated for Europeans migrating to the colonies into a different position in relation to Indigenous people. For recent immigrants from the Third World, too, remembering/acknowledging their own colonial experiences or experiences of genocide in the countries of origin and/or experiences of exclusion and racism in Canada provides no guarantees that even racialized immigrants, and/or those with relatively recent memories of colonialism at home, would necessarily identify with an Indigenous project of decolonization. We need to remember that the need, the anxiety, and the desire to belong in a racist society may lead on the part of racialized immigrants to gestures of assimilation and support for dominant structures and ideologies of settler society. Honig (1998; 2003) brilliantly shows how dominant American discourses on immigrants often contain expressions of xenophilia side by side with expressions of xenophobia. She demonstrates how the figure of the “good” immigrant is often used to celebrate the virtues and values attributed to the nation; to show the disenchanted that the regime is worthy; and to discipline the poor, domestic minorities, and unsuccessful immigrants, by showing them that the system is fair. Honig also argues, however, that “[n]ationalist xenophilia tends to feed and nurture nationalist xenophobia as its partner” (1998: 3):

“…the dream of a national home, helped along by the symbolic foreigner, in turn animates a suspicion of immigrant foreignness at the same time. ‘Their’ admirable hard work and boundless acquisition put ‘us’ out of our jobs. ‘Their’ good communities, admired by some, look like ethnic enclaves to others. ‘Their’ voluntarist embrace of America reaffirms but also endangers ‘our’ way of life” (1998: 3).

The play of xenophobia and xenophilia in nationalist discourses may, through the anxiety it produces, often ensure conformity into the dominant order on the part of immigrants. Even though many immigrants from the Third World may share with Indigenous peoples histories of colonization in the home country and experiences of racism in the country of settlement, these by themselves would not automatically or necessarily lead to identification with Indigenous politics and vision of decolonization.

Moving in that direction might rather be based on a politics of place that can simultaneously offer ways of acknowledging and addressing the historical relationships and injustices between the different peoples who inhabit settler colonies; and imagining visions of peaceful co-existence that would be based on equality and justice, as well as different ways of relating to the land, as Indigenous scholars suggest. Arif Dirlik argues that a politics of place can be an alternative to what he problematizes to be the two dominant and competing political logics of the present: identity politics/ethnic nationalism, on the one hand, and a neoliberal imperial cosmopolitanism presented by globalism, on the other. Advocating a new form of politics informed by places, Dirlik aims to clearly distinguish “place-based politics” from essentialist “place-bound” nativism or ethnicist politics (2001: 31-32). The concept of place allows for a political imagination that is based on a contextualized and historicized understanding of the relationships between the different peoples who have interacted and co-existed in places over time, as well as the relationships between the local, the regional, and the global. It allows ways to remember, acknowledge, and address historical tensions and injustices among peoples, while allowing for an imagination of peaceful co-existence. The kinds of visions offered by Indigenous scholars for decolonization and sovereignty summarized above provide possible glimpses into what a politics of place in settler colonies may look like. These visions are radically different from (neo)liberal multiculturalism which promises peaceful co-existence but leaves the existing socio-economic structures and power hierarchies unquestioned and intact. Explicitly rejecting ethnicism, they offer a common future for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in different relationships to each other and the land they share.

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One comment on “Intervention – ‘Addressing the Indigenous-Immigration “Parallax Gap”’

  1. Pingback: Intervention – ‘Empty Words on Occupied Lands? Positionality, Settler Colonialism, and the Politics of Recognition’ | AntipodeFoundation.org

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