As we head into crunch time for the Ontario election, much has been said about Indigenous peoples in northern Ontario, and why they should give up their identities as Anishinaabeg to be “equals” with Canadians. This rhetoric has been led by Tamara Ward Johnson of the Ontario Libertaryan Party, and her merry band of racists. That band has included the likes of Michele Tittler – a known Vancouver-based internet bully – who has no valid reason for participating in local discussions about MPP selection, other than to act as a puppeteer and ideologue for anti-Indigenous sentiment.
That said, it’s important that the discussion moves forward; diagnosing racism in statements that otherwise seem to be common sense is a necessary step, which we have effectively done under the #RelaxTamara hashtag. But we also need a strategy to move beyond diagnosis – and that strategy is to centre Anishinaabe sovereignty.
To recap, I have been active on social media in addressing the illogics of Tamara’s positions on equality, but it makes sense to recap them here briefly to bring that conversation together. When Tamara and Michele speak of “equality,” what they’re actually saying is that Indigenous peoples need to be more like white people. Equality as they use the term makes whiteness invisible – it becomes the yardstick by which every person who does not identify as “white Canadian” is measured. This is racist because it demands assimilation: Indigenous peoples should be “equal” only by giving up their historical and on-going treaty relationship with the Crown. It demands a complete revision of the history that has produced Canada as a country. Such revision requires a colourblind approach to race relations, which is racist in and of itself because it hides the power of whiteness in a white supremacist society, such as Canada.
True equality is found in what is at least a dual-step process. It requires undermining whiteness as a power construct, so that Indigenous peoples’ intellectual, legal and political traditions may be expressed without fear of retribution. Anything less only leaves the problem – white supremacy – intact. But it also requires a restrengthening of Anishinaabe sovereignties. And this is something that both Anishinaabeg and non-Anishinaabeg folks can do.
Many people have been asking this in one way or another over the past weeks. To me, the next step is to de-centre Tamara Ward Johnson and to strengthen our relationships to Anishinaabe sovereignty. It is to refuse the fetishization of conflict (which is Tamara’s strategy), and a matter of supporting the resurgence of Anishinaabe law. How can we do this?
In a fabulous dissertation about decolonizing identities in Australia, non-Aboriginal scholar Michelle Carey writes that settlers can develop a non-colonial identity in ways that put them into a relationship with Aboriginal sovereignties. She says that to undermine the power of whiteness requires that whiteness be removed from the solution. She makes a call for settler peoples to move past the false dichotomy of white vs. black, and into one of non-Aboriginality. By identifying as “non-Aboriginals,” settlers centre Aboriginal people in their identity. They become settlers-in-relation-to Aboriginal people, living in a relationship with Aboriginal sovereignties. This is key because too often whiteness gets reproduced in dialogue meant to undermine it.
In northern Ontario, settlers might begin to identify as non-Anishinaabeg. This decentres the role of the Canadian state in our discussions about building a future based on equality. It centres Anishinaabeg sovereignty. It centres the fact that as non-native people, you have a treaty right to live within Anishinaabeg territory, and that this is an expression of Anishinaabe sovereignty. In other words, it would transition your identity from a colonially-produced one (e.g. “Canadian,” and/or “white”), towards one that undermines the colonial relationship that continues to oppress Indigenous peoples more broadly.
Key to this is Anishinaabe Sovereignty. Anishinaabeg are sovereign peoples. Through their political orders, they opted to enter into treaties with the Crown. It is through these treaties that settlers gained the rights to live within Indigenous territories. The Robinson-Superior Treaty of 1850 is an expression of that sovereignty – it did not delegate our self-determination; it is an expression of it. Yet, through specious arguments for “equality” as put forward by the heroes of #WhiteBacklash, this historical relationship is to be obliterated so that, in Tamara Ward Johnson’s words, companies can have guaranteed access to resources in Indigenous territories.
I am speaking here directly to non-Anishinaabeg settlers living in Anishinaabe Aki. My reasons for doing so is that I highly doubt any Anishinaabe person will vote for the Tamara Ward Johnson; but I assume some settlers are looking for better answers than she is providing. This is especially concerning if we assume Tamara will run for a seat in the next Thunder Bay municipal election. And so, the best thing I can say to you is this: don’t put yourself on the wrong side of history. Move beyond the relationship created for you by a colonialist history, and shored-up by people like Tamara Ward Johnson and Michele Tittler. An anti-colonial approach to equality requires the resurgence of Anishinaabe sovereignty, and one way to do that is to put yourself in a relationship with it.