Speaking Notes: Disrupting Safe Spaces 4 Racism in Thunder Bay

Waverley Library
Thunder Bay, ON
October 8, 2015
Twitter: @damienlee

Download the accompanying PowerPoint slides, here.

As many of you will recall, the James Street Swing Bridge burned the night of October 29, 2013.  This fire sparked off a very public dialogue about racism: news reports were generated,[1] public speaking events were held,[2] and high school classrooms took the opportunity to define what racism looks like in real and immediate terms.[3]  While racism no doubt existed in Thunder Bay before that night, the burning of the bridge was a watershed moment in our collective anti-racism discussions, not least of which because it forced the issue of racism out from under the bed and into the limelight.  Anti-Indigenous racism in Thunder Bay could not be ignored, no matter how people wanted to write it off.  While the politicians looked for the culprit or culprits responsible for the arson, social media was on fire with racist slurs meant to do one thing: to remind Anishinaabeg that they are not safe in Anishinaabe Aki, or the Ojibwe Homeland.

It is the element of safety in anti-racism discourse that I want to focus on today.  What made October 29th “watershed,” is not just the fact that the racism expressed was so extreme, nor just the fact that Thunder Bay and Fort William First Nation still have not fully recovered from it.  Rather, it was also that the burning of the bridge forced white people to see the type of violence Indigenous peoples in Thunder Bay face each day.  Even if invisible to others, it showed that Thunder Bay is not safe for Indigenous peoples precisely because they are told, in varying ways, that their presence here is at best, tolerated, and at worst targeted for removal.  In short, “safety” was revealed to be a tenuous concept, as it was so swiftly taken away by those who wanted to punish Fort William First Nation for just being an Indigenous community.

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Dolezal vs. Smith: Apples to Oranges?

As I sit down to write this, my social media feeds are rumbling with commentary on the links between Rachel Dolezal’s claims to being black, and Andrea Smith’s past claims to being Cherokee.  I’ve read over the past days several postings on this issue, including blogs written by Lynn Gehl, Dina Gilio-Whitaker, Erica Violet Lee, and one on the tequilasovereign blog.  I suppose the comparison between Smith and Dolezal was inevitable in the Indigenous studies community, where identity construction is a huge issue, and where fraudulent claims to being Indigenous is an even a bigger issue.  And rightfully so; as Erica pointed out this morning, there are too many white settler folks taking space and air-time away from Indigenous peoples and Indigenous women in particular.

It is because of this latter point that I have not added my two cents into the discussion about how Dolezal’s claims reverberate through Indigenous communities.  I have zero per cent Indian blood.  I’m phenotypically white.  Cis male.  And straight.  I mean, its nearly impossible for anyone to have less authority in this matter, at least in an ethical and decolonizing sense.

That said, I share this post now as someone who, despite my whiteness, my maleness, my heteroness, is also a citizen of the Anishinaabe nation through customary adoption.  I was adopted into Fort William First Nation as a toddler, two years before my white biological mother “married in” to the community.  Despite all of the above, I identify as Anishinaabe, and I am claimed as such by my community.  But as Tuck and Yang point out, my adoption should not be seen as a move to innocence: I am not so clueless as to think my adoption in and of itself destroys white supremacy, my whiteness (including how my thinking has been produced), or colonialism, nor does it absolve me from undermining whiteness and patriarchy in every single way that I can.  I share so much of my positionality because its important for you to know where I’m coming from – so that you can decide for yourself if what I’m about to say holds any water…

What I’ve found most interesting in the discussions about what implications Dolezal’s claims might have for Indigenous communities, is that Andrea Smith’s past claims to being Cherokee have come up at all.  In some ways it makes common sense to juxtapose Dolezal to Smith: both had made identity claims that were challenged and, to different degrees, retracted.  In this common sense approach, Smith’s story has become the lightning rod upon which we in the Indigenous studies community attempt to understand Dolezal’s story.

But by finding resonance for Dolezal’s story in this way, I wonder if we’re missing a nuanced point.  And that is: are we not conflating racialized identity with Indigenous citizenships?

My worry is that defaulting to comparing Smith to Dolezal demonstrates how much Indigenous identities have been racialized, and, more importantly, how we might be upholding such racialization.  The fact that Smith’s claims to Indigeneity have to somehow automatically be compared to Dolezal’s claims to blackness seems to betray something that many people are thinking but not saying, namely: that Indigeneity is always-only a race thing.  While there is no doubt that the Indigenous peoples are racialized as “Indians,” I don’t think Smith claimed to be a different race; she claimed to be Cherokee, which under many (though not all) Indigneous citizenship systems would be totally ok so long as the community/nation one is claiming to belong with claims her/him back.

I don’t know Andrea Smith personally.  So I cannot answer any of the questions currently swirling through the blogosphere about her original claims to being Cherokee (see blog links above), nor would I want to police her identity in any way.   But many brilliant scholars have pointed out that to belong with an Indigenous nation is not only a matter of biological descent.  Family-making practices renew a nation’s citizens in several ways, including through birth, but also through marriage and adoption (Don Auger-ba provides a good example of adoption and belonging, here).

In trying to understand Andrea Smith’s story, I can only draw on my own experience of being Anishinaabe through customary adoption.  And one of the key things I’ve learned is that the public at large often refuses to consider the possibility that one can belong with an Indigenous nation without some high quantum of Indian blood.  In other words, Indigeneity is racialized in the common sense.  Lost in this way of thinking are the Indigenous citizenship laws that operate on their own frequencies, often doing so with different ideas about what constitutes essentialized identity, which in turn often operate in ways beyond a narrow focus on blood line.  What often matters more, is whether a person is claimed by an Indigneous community/nation, whether they identify with that nation, and how they carry out their responsibilities to family, nation and land.

I believe that, as scholars, it is incumbent upon us to extricate our own blind spots in discussions meant to be decolonizing.  In the current discussions about Dolezal, it is important to be aware of how that story is one of whiteness appropriating racialized identity for its own goals, and how this differs from the issue and function of Indigenous citizenships.

On this note, I would argue that Erica has posed the most important question yet in the current Andrea Smith discussion.  She asks, “Will Andrea Smith be claimed by an Indigenous community (in whatever form that takes) in the days or years to come? Would it even make a difference now?” [Emphasis mine]  Indeed, would the Indigenous studies community be willing to see belonging beyond race if the Cherokee nation reached out to Andrea and claimed her as Cherokee?  Or would such claiming of a person, and the Indigenous citizenship order it would rest on, be obfuscated by the same racializing principles that cause us to automatically compare Smith to Dolezal?

Cindy Gladue: Aren’t We All Women?

Guest post by Jana-Rae Yerxa

How come we never have to think of ways to humanize whiteness?

I arrived at this question after not being able to sleep last night. Cindy Gladue is on my mind. She is in my thoughts. She is in my prayers. She is now in my heart.

I am filled with so many emotions. I am enraged by the fact that there is no justice for her. Enraged that Bradley Barton claims he did not murder Cindy and that she consented to rough sex with her alcohol level four times past the legal limit. Enraged because his peers believed him and declared he was not responsible for Cindy’s death. He is free while Cindy is dead. I am enraged, disgusted and saddened not only because the Canadian legal system failed tremendously in obtaining justice for Cindy, which I am not surprised by, but also in the way the system violated Cindy again by treating her body in such an undignified manner- preserving her pelvis as evidence to debate whether the 11cm wound to her vagina was consensual.

The lack of regard by the Canadian legal system’s handling of Cindy’s body signifies that even in death the grips of settler colonialism and the stigma and discrimination against women who work in the sex trade would not let go demanding further dehumanization of Cindy during the trial. Dehumanization of this Indigenous woman, of Cindy, placing her intimate body parts on display for debate as if she and her body were on on trial. I am saddened for her and her family. I am also saddened and scared for the rest of us as a society if we do not stand up against this injustice and dehumanization.

I am reminded of Patricia Monture’s truth telling words and how relevant they are for all of us at this time: “If rape occurs, if battering occurs, if any form of violence is present, all women are harmed and live with the knowledge that each of us is a potential victim.”

It is at this point where I again become angry and realize yet again that society at large did not see Cindy as human. Her indigeneity and her involvement in the sex trade do  not erase Cindy’s humanity despite attempts to do so by the structures of settler colonialism and its good friends- whiteness and heteropatriarchy.

It is also at this point where I feel compelled to list off all the reasons why Cindy is human. Her life mattered. She deserves justice. She was a woman. She was a mother. She was a daughter. She was a sister. She had a family that loved her and that she loved back. She had hopes. She had dreams. She was Indigenous. She was a sex worker.

Why do we always have to think about how to humanize non white humans? And how come we never have to think of ways to humanize whiteness when it behaves so inhumanely?

Rest in peace Cindy Gladue.

Jana-Rae Yerxa is Anishinaaabe Kwe from Couchiching First Nation located in Treaty 3 Territory. She is a graduate of the Indigenous Governance program at the University of Victoria. She can be found on Twitter: @janaraey

If I were Chief 

On Saturday, February 28, 2015, I was nominated for chief of my community, Fort William First Nation. 

If I were chief, this is what I would do:

1. I’d donate my seat to the Elders Council.  Meaning: I would develop a strategic two year plan with the Elders, then operationalize it from the chief’s seat. My words would be based on their vision. 

2. I’d donate 100% of my monthly honorarium to the Elders Council so they would have money to meet and make the decisions that give me direction (see point 1 above)

3. I would engage a critical education campaign that focuses on empowering our citizens with the tools they need to challenge the racism and colonialism that keeps them/us in poverty. 

4. Finally, I’d move all band council meetings out of the council chambers and into a less violent space, such as the community centre or youth center (with permission of those who use those spaces already, of course). 

Thats it.

Indian in a Jar?

Yesterday, Lakehead University announced that starting in 2016, all LU undergraduate students will be required to learn (something) about Indigenous peoples.  As reported by CBC Thunder Bay, this initiative is meant to ensure LU graduates have exposure to “significant indigenous [sic] knowledge,” and to develop basic understandings of treaties, and racism, among other issues.  The program is also meant to be flexible: exposure to Indigenous issues will be tailored to particular areas of study.  LU prides itself on being a school of and for the north, and so this programming could prepare non-Indigenous graduates for working in a northern Ontario reality, where Indigenous politics are enmeshed in everything.

In hearing this news, I was reminded immediately about something that happened in the Fort William First Nation sugar bush a few months ago.  I want to tell you about what happened there because it provides a backdrop against which I can assess yesterday’s announcement.

Settler Colonialism in the Sugar Bush

In the fall, my colleague – Gail Bannon – and I met with several Lakehead University students and their instructor in the sugar bush.  Several of us at FWFN have been working hard to revitalize our connection to inaantigag; after nearly three decades of not visiting, the bush is in need of some management to make it safer (identifying dead or near-dead trees that should be removed) and to optimize sap production for future generations.  We don’t necessarily have this knowledge “in-house,” so we did like any good Anishinaabeg would and reached out to those who had it – in this case, students from a department at Lakehead University.

But something happened that day that I think none of us have forgotten. Boundaries were broken, trust was put into question, and the colonialist sense of entitlement to Indigenous lands reared its head.

After not finding the students and instructor at the location we agreed to meet at, Gail and I decided to look for them in the sugar bush.  This is how our initial face-to-face meeting unfolded:

Me: Hi everyone.

Instructor: Hi there! How are you?

Me: Surprised. I’m surprised that you didn’t wait for us at the location we agreed to.

Instructor: Oh. I’m sorry, we must have get the meeting time wrong. So we just came up to look around and get started.

Me: The reason I’m surprised is that this place is important and sacred to us. Its not a place in which we want people poking around without a proper introduction, both to its history and connection to our community, but also to the trees themselves. You coming up here as you did today is representative of how colonialism works in the academy: you see yourselves as having a right to access Indigenous lands without representatives of Indigenous communities present.

Awkward silence.

Instructor: Is that something you work with? Colonialism?

Me: Colonialism is what my PhD studies are focused on ending, in one way or another. And one of the ways to end it is to establish good relationships with each other. Its about protocol. We invited you here because we want to establish a relationship with you and Lakehead University, because you have something we need. But we can’t do that without having a protocol in place.

Instructor: Oh, my apologies (he was sincere). I think developing a protocol is something we should do in phase two of this relationship.

Me: No. Establishing protocol and good relations comes before anything else. Nothing can happen here without it.

More was said, but we eventually got to the work that we had wanted to do that day.  And I am happy to report that our relationship with the students from the department at Lakehead University turned out well, with a very useful report being produced and given to us, and the relationship continues to unfold in positive ways.  But my point in telling this story is that regardless of our visitor’s intensions, what happened that day suggested to me that they had not been made aware by LU about how settler colonialism could work through them.  I think part of their surprise was a realization, however partial, that they could be (and were being) unwitting tools in upholding and expanding settler colonialism’s knowing of the Other.

Flipping the Lens

Earlier today, when I heard about Lakehead’s announcement, I wondered: If LU had instituted a mandatory Indigenous exposure policy, say, a decade ago, would it have changed what happened in the sugar bush that day last fall?  Maybe.  It might have, for example, made the students and instructor aware that the sugar bush is a sacred site, and that protocol is important. Maybe they would have waited for us at the agreed location.

But then I am also careful about projects that aim to learn more about the Other without substantive self-reflection being a core part of the process (and here I am talking about the Lakehead’s announcement). I believe that simply learning about Indigenous peoples isn’t enough to end colonial violence. This is because Canada and Thunder Bay are structured by settler colonialism and white supremacy. In this context, learning about Indigenous peoples is easy because it doesn’t question positions of power.

It is from this position, therefore – one of turning the lens back onto settlers in a settler colonial context – that I want to assess Lakehead’s news.

Indian in a Jar

My favourite piece of writing of 2014 was produced by my friend and fellow Anishinaabe scholar, Jana-Rae Yerxa.  Her powerful article, entitled Refuse to Live Quietly!, calls out so-called anti-colonial initiatives that can actually reproduce or protect colonialism in spaces of higher learning.  She writes:

I am tired of the ‘safe’ strategy that focuses on educating settler folks about an ‘Aboriginal experience,’ about ‘Aboriginal people’ and ‘Aboriginal history,’ instead of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and settler colonial violence.  I am tired of this safe strategy because it is not safe for me as an Anishinaabe Kwe. It is safe for settlers.  This is wrong because this type of educational approach is not only ineffective, it is also harmful.  It presents a guise of meaningful work, when the work needed – dismantling settler colonialism and ending settler colonial violence – is not actually being done.

This is an important critique to consider when assessing an initiative meant to expose all Lakehead University undergrads to Indigenous issues and knowledges on a mandatory basis.  Jana’s work here forces us to ask: Who’s comfort is being centered in such an initiative?

I have to admit at this point that I have not seen the project outline for what I am calling the Indigenous issues exposure initiative. All I have to work with here is the CBC Thunder Bay news article posted yesterday. But based on that, I question who’s comfort is being taken care of. For example, the article states that the teaching on Indigenous peoples/issues will be “tailored to each student.” My colleague representing the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives – Yolanda Wanakamik – explains that this tailoring might take the shape of foresters learning about treaties, or engineers destined for work in the north learning about “the culture of First Nations.”

However, as Jana’s work would suggest, this approach is safe for settlers. It allows settler undergraduate students to chose aspects of Indigenous peoples, issues, cultures, etc., that do not challenge their comfort zones. For example, learning about Indigenous “culture” in Canada is safe because it is often done through a framework of multiculturalism, where non-European worldviews, practices, art, laws and governance systems are decontextualized as “culture” that can be “tolerated.”  Looking at the Other in this way is different from learning about the “cannibal culture” of settler colonialism because settlers’ emotional, political, psychic and physical safety are given priority. Settler undergrads might therefore learn about treaties and culture, but this does not demand they undermine their own complicity in a settler colonial system that privileges straightness, whiteness, maleness, able-ness.

Tailoring Indigenous issues rather than turning the lens towards one’s complicity with settler colonialism presents a fractured picture.  In this critique, fracturing Indigenous realities into safe pieces of information commodifies lived Indigenous experiences of violence.  It renders these experiences, and Indigenous peoples’ resistances to them, into innocuous substances easily preserved like condiments that settlers can chose from as they walk down grocery store aisles thinking about what they want to digest on a given day. Lakehead University should avoid this “Indian in a jar” approach if it is serious about ending the foundational causes of colonial violence felt by Indigenous peoples.

Mandatory Indigenist Education

By contrast, what if exposure to Indigenous issues at LU took the shape of mandatory Indigenist education? Like Lakehead’s approach above, Indigenist theory centres Indigenous peoples’ worldviews, and the knowledges held by Indigenous women, children and the land. But it goes further: it is also consciously anti-colonial, and challenges the academy’s monopoly on what counts as knowledge. Importantly, because it is decidedly anti-colonial, it opens space for settler students to critically engage with their complicity with settler colonialism.

Key to achieving this would be a mandatory course (or more) focusing on the resurgences of Indigenous peoples worldviews and political orders. In these spaces, projects could depend on each student’s positionality: Indigenous students could focus on the resurgences of Indigenous laws, whereas settler students could complete projects concerned with ways in which settler colonialism has created the need for the resurgence of those same Indigenous laws.

Central to developing a mandatory anti-colonial course for all Lakehead undergrads – and one that does not commodify Indigenous struggles – would be ensuring students understand that just because racism and colonialism are being talked about does not mean the space is safe for everyone.  No doubt, this would be a process of unsettlement; much like what happened in my story about the sugar bush above, these unsettlements would create “teachable moments” where light is shone on the real problem of (un)knowingly upholding settler colonialism.  White students, for example, will be expected to embrace feelings of discomfort for having their colonial complicities discussed; such discomfort is integral to anti-racist/anti-colonial learning environments because it “promote[s] an honest dialogue about the need for the state and settlers to make amends to Indigenous peoples today,” as noted by Corntassel.

The great thing is, there are already university courses being offered that do just this. Lakehead’s own Department of Indigenous Learning offers INDI 2805 – Native Canadian World Views.  The University of Victoria’s Indigenous Governance program offers IGOV 520 – Indigenous Governance, among other relevant courses. If LU is serious about sending graduates into the world capable of ending colonial violence, then why not make courses like INDI 2805 and IGOV 520 mandatory for all students?

Full Circle

In reflecting on the above, I return to what happened in the sugar bush.  Had LU instituted an Indigenous learning initiative that required settler students to examine their own complicity with settler colonialism, I feel more confident in saying the students we met that day would have been aware of the power they had as young, white, male scholars; maybe they would have been more willing to undermine that power, and to allow us to introduce them properly to that piece of land. I think they would have been more ready to engage proper protocol.  And so, if Lakehead University wants to make things better for Indigenous peoples, it can play a key role by informing the majority of its students how to not reproduce the settler colonial power they have been given by a system no one tells them about.

Amendment: A previous version of this post included the name of the LU department mentioned in the section discussing the sugar bush above. The name was removed after a representative of said department contacted me with a request to protect its faculty.

Thunder Bay Settlers in Solidarity, Part 1

Its been three days since I sat with Lisa Laco and Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux on CBC Thunder Bay’s flagship morning radio show, Superior Morning, to talk treaties and Anishinaabeg sovereignty.  CBC did a great job in gathering questions about treaties that were then put to Cynthia and I.  The show was meant to honour National Aboriginal Day, but it was also a response to an agonizing past six months of white backlash against Indigenous peoples in northern Ontario.  There’s no need to reiterate that craziness here, but for those unaware please see the #RelaxTamara hashtage on Twitter, as well as some great commentary by folks such as Karen Drake and blogger Manic Expressive.

The fallout from the radio show has been productive in some new and important ways.  Since it went to air, I have been contacted by many individuals identifying as white people in support of Indigenous struggles and decolonization.  Complete strangers have been coming up to me in person, and sending me messages through email and social media, saying that they are sick of the racism they’ve been witnessing in Thunder Bay.  So I wanted to put this out there for consideration: Thunder Bay needs a “Settlers in Solidarity” group.

However, before we can discuss this group, I need to define my use of “settler.” Indeed, this has been a contentious word in Thunder Bay, getting criticism from both Anishinaabeg and zhaaganaashii alike.  Therefore, in this two-part series, I begin by defining and contextualizing the word “settler” (Part 1), and then move on in a separate post to propose an initial agenda for establishing a Settlers in Solidarity group in the city (Part 2).

Defining Settler: Not a race-based term

The term “settler” describes a person who occupies Indigenous lands as a result of historical/on-going settler colonialism.  As my friend and colleague Adam Barker writes, “[i]t is not enough to simply state that Settler people are ‘non-Indigenous,’ as is often done; this ignores the complexity of Settler society and culture itself and normalizes non-Indigenous society, preventing much useful analysis. Settler people in this context include most peoples who occupy lands previously stolen or in the process of being taken from their Indigenous inhabitants or who are otherwise members of the ‘Settler society,’ which is founded on co-opted lands and resources.”

In northern Ontario, “settler” would describe those people enforcing and upholding non-Anishinaabeg legal and political orders at the expense of Anishinaabeg law and polity.  Just as Harsha Walia writes that “it is imperative to understand being Indigenous as not just an identity but a way of life, which is intricately connected to Indigenous people’s relationship to the land and all its inhabitants,” so too is the way of life of a settler: what matters is one is intentionally or unintentionally centering a colonial rather than Indigenous sovereignty-based relationship while living in Indigenous lands.  (I can’t see Indigenous peoples being “settlers,” because they are not in control of, or work to protect the structure of settler colonialism, which is a system of dominance that removes peoples from their territories in the name of state-building; but that doesn’t mean they can’t protect settler colonialism in other ways)   Thus, while there were “original” settlers in northern Ontario, say a century or two ago, settlers continue to occupy those lands today when we consider that the settler identity is based on continued occupation of Indigenous lands in ways that either assert or protect a presumed Canadian sovereignty.

It follows, then, that the term “settler” is not a race based identity.  White people can be settlers, but so can people of colour in the Canadian context.  It is important to point this out because, too often people assume that “settler” is describing only white people.  This is not the case, as Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua write:

People of color [in Canada] are settlers.  Broad differences exist between those brought as slaves, currently work as migrant laborers, are refugees without legal documentation, or émigrés who have obtained citizenship.  Yet people of color live on land that is appropriated and contested, where Aboriginal peoples are denied nationhood and access to their own lands. … The Canadian nation-state project was one of white settlement.  It displaced Aboriginal peoples and targeted them for physical and cultural extermination to open land for settlers, while marginalizing and restricting the entry into Canada of people of color.  … [However, ongoing] settlement of Indigenous lands, whether by white people or people of color, remains part of Canada’s nation-building project and is premised on displacing Indigenous peoples.

Therefore, if we take this definition of “settler” to a deeper level of reflection, we find two very important anti-colonial tools that we can use to move forward.  First, it moves us beyond the artificial binary of white-vs.-native.  This binary obscures the ways in which Indigenous peoples have been affected by, partnered with, and use(d) relationships with non-Indigenous peoples to further their goals.  Indeed, the colonial history in northern Ontario has been more complex than a simple Us-vs.-Them; there is ample evidence in oral histories and in the archives to show that Anishinaabeg adopted and treatied with non-Anishinaabeg to build strong communities, and to adapt to new challenges and opportunities brought on by the emergence of the settler state.  The binary is exploded when we realize that both white and non-white people can be settlers, and this opens up more productive discussions about how to end settler colonialism by undermining one’s complicity with it (see Part 2).

Second: defining “settler” based on complicity with settler colonialism rather than race thus helps us to identify settler colonialism as the real problem that we have to eradicate.  Its not about ending racism per se, although that is an important and much needed step along the way.  But if our work is only about ending racism (a symptom), we risk leaving settler colonialism (the root cause) uninterrogated.  In other words, by focusing only on racism, or by using a discourse based only in racialized identities, we fail to reveal what racism actually is: a tool of settler colonialism.  

To explain this better, consider what Andrea Smith recently wrote about racism and settler colonialism in the US context:

[S]ettler colonialism does not merely operate by racializing Native peoples, positioning them as racial minorities rather than as colonized nations, but also through domesticating Black struggle within the framework of anti-racist rather than anti-colonial struggle.  Anti-Blackness is effectuated through the disappearance of colonialism in order to render Black peoples as the internal property of the United States, such that anti-Black struggle must be contained within a domesticated anti-racist framework that cannot challenge the settler state itself.   Why, for example, is Martin Luther King always described as a civil rights leader rather than an anti-colonial organizer, despite his clear anti-colonial organizing against the war in Vietnam?

My read of this quote is that the settler colonial state protects its settler colonial nature by making sure no one sees it.  And it does so by entertaining anti-racism discourse, but will resist any talk about the fact that the state itself is a settler colonial entity based on historical genocide of Indigenous peoples.  We can see a similar situation in Canada by looking, for example, at Himani Bannerji’s critique of multiculturalism.  It is this very thrust to keep settler colonialism hidden that betrays its power over us today.

This is exactly why Thunder Bay needs a Settlers in Solidarity group.  We need those to whom the state distributes most of its benefits – namely, settlers… and more specifically, white settlers – to call the state and this community out for how they use “domesticated” social movements, such as anti-racism, to distract us from the root cause of settler colonialism.  To explore putting this into practice, lets move on to Part 2.

I would like to thank my friend and colleague, Jana-Rae Yerxa, for her rigourous critique on earlier drafts of this piece.

Thunder Bay Settlers in Solidarity, Part 2

Settlers in Thunder Bay have a very important role to play in challenging settler colonialism and racism in this city.  The nature of settler colonialism is to reassert itself in the form of backlash once challenged.  While Indigenous peoples speak for themselves and challenge settler colonialism on their own terms, settlers in solidarity can challenge it without the same kind of backlash.  So while Indigenous peoples may experience more physical violence than settlers when challenging settler colonialism on their own, there will be less physical violence directed at Anishinaabeg when settlers join in the work of directly challenging colonialism.  But so far, it has largely been Anishinaabeg who have been doing the work in this city.  That needs to change.

Judging by the responses I’ve been getting from settlers since my interview with CBC Superior Morning, there is indeed a willingness to establish an outspoken Thunder Bay solidarity group to support Anishinaabeg in challenging settler colonialism.  So, I wanted to share some ideas at the outset, should you folks decide to get together and take some of the weight off of Anishinaabeg in fighting the backlash so clearly evidenced under the #RelaxTamara Twitter hashtag.

What follows is a list of do’s and don’t’s that might help you set up a group in solidarity with Anishinaabeg resisting settler colonialism.  This list is by no means exhaustive, and by no means do I claim to be an expert on the issue.  I am, however receiving emails and direct messages from those wondering how to go about doing decolonization, so I thought I’d put you all in touch with some info in hand.  Here we go:

  1. Anishinaabeg speak for themselves.  The role of settlers in solidarity is to support Indigenous peoples, not speak for them. Again, this is not a racialized issue, as many non-Indigenous individuals have been taken in by Indigenous nations.  If you have not been taken in, don’t speak for Anishinaabeg.  Speak for yourselves as settlers working to undo settler colonialism.  Harsha Walia’s work, as well as Nora Burke’s piece may help you figure out the boundaries and responsibilities.
  2. De-center the state.  As mentioned in Part 1, trying to address settler colonialism by operating within the state’s “permitted” discourses will only lead to defanging your work.  The state rewards those who take the path of least resistance.  The work of dismantling settler colonialism is inherently related to dismantling the settler state because the Canadian state, as it is constructed today, is built on and perpetuates settler colonialism.  This does not mean that the goal is to destroy “Canada,” but rather to decolonize it.  De-centering the state in your work means entering into a direct relationship with Anishinaabe sovereignty.  On this point, Nora Burke’s words are salient: “A decolonisation movement cannot be comprised solely of solidarity and support for Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty and self-determination. If we are in support of self-determination, we too need to be self-determining. It is time to cut the state out of this relationship, and to replace it with a new relationship, one which is mutually negotiated, and premised on a core respect for autonomy and freedom.”  Michele Carey has said something similar in her dissertation based in Australia.
  3. Be ready to feel uncomfortable.  Your project is a matter of unsettling the settler within (see here).  If you’ve grown up comfortably in this settler society, you’ve probably gotten used to not having your ethnicity put on the table, or the ways in which you benefit from the historical genocide of Indigenous peoples questioned.  If you shut down discussions simply because you’re feeling uncomfortable about how you’re complicit with settler colonialism, you’re making it about you; you’re foreclosing the chance to decolonize; you’re making it “safe” for colonialism again.  Leonardo and Porter’s article is helpful in wrapping your head around feeling uncomfortable.
  4. Don’t make Anishinaabeg do the work for you.  It is totally unfair to rely on Anishinaabeg to tell you how to decolonize.  They are burdened enough with survival, restrengthening their intellectual, political and legal traditions in the face of intergenerational effects of colonial violence, and facing daily the reality of being marked for extermination.  Solidarity work is not about voyeurism.  This doesn’t mean Anishinaabeg can’t or shouldn’t remind you of basic facts like treaty responsibilities and Indigenous sovereignty.  But you need to get together with other settlers, do the research, and solve your own internal dynamics so that you can get to the front line with us when we need you most.
  5. Don’t “bliss out.”  Many Indigenous individuals are colonized, too, and will do/say things that don’t challenge settler colonialism.  This is indicative of a “colonial mentality”: the colonized may actually come to protect the colonial order.  Therefore, be critical.  Like any other human beings, Anishinaabeg can sell-out.  Work with Anishinaabeg that you feel have a handle on settler colonialism, whether they use that language or not.  Don’t let your energies be used by those who want to keep Thunder Bay safe for the status quo.
  6. Examine and undermine “complicity,” rather than “privilege.”  I really can’t describe this any clearer than Beenash Jafri, so just “Pass Go” and read her work directly.
  7. Contact other Settlers in Solidarity groups.  There is no need to reinvent the wheel.  These groups exist in one form or another in Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Montreal, and other locales.  Make those connections to learn from their successes and failures.  Google is like a singles bar for this stuff.
  8. Don’t start a Facebook group. As Jill Luke writes, “Liking, posting and commenting makes you feel like you’re doing something without actually making any difference whatsoever.”  What’s more, in Thunder Bay, making solidarity work a matter of a Facebook group will only drain your energies in trying to convince haters that racism even exists.  And while there is nothing wrong in using social media to communicate, educate and plan, settler solidarity work needs to be embodied.  Get together in person as much as possible.

There will be other issues for you to consider as well.  Being an ally is anything but easy work.  But that does not mean the work shouldn’t be done.  Tell each other the things you’ve been telling me over the past 48 hours.  You have a lot of potential to change the conversation in Thunder Bay.

Return to Part 1.

 

I would like to thank my friend and colleague, Jana-Rae Yerxa, for her rigourous critique on earlier drafts of this piece.