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.


#RelaxTamara, and Beyond

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.


Re-dressing and Reclaiming: Anishinaabeg Belonging and the Logics of the Family

The following paper was delivered at the Symposium on Decolonial Aesthetics from the Americas, 10-12 October 2013, Toronto, ON, and as part of Lakehead University’s 2014 Aboriginal Awareness Week, 20 March 2014 in Thunder Bay, ON.


As is the case for many Indigenous nations in Canada, Anishinaabeg practices for discerning belonging have been re-imagined along colonizing logics of Indianness.[1] In other words, being and belonging with Anishinaabeg, has become a matter of whether one fits into settler society’s projection of what an Indian is.  For the Anishinaabeg of the northern shore of Lake Superior, evidence of this intrusion was first witnessed in the signing of the Robinson-Superior Treaty in 1850 where, representing the Queen of Great Britain, colonialists argued that only those people who were racially pure ‘Indians’ could receive benefits of the treaty.  These race-based notions of Indianness were woven into Canada’s Indian policies, effectively inventing Indian in law and then penalizing anyone marrying non-Indians by removing Anishinaabeg individuals from Indianness over time.[2]  This dismemberment has worked to exclude up to two million Indigenous individuals from their nations across Canada today.

Much has been written about the troubles caused by the invention of Indianness in law.  Bonita Lawrence’s study “Real” Indians and Others traces the complexities and contradictions that Indian status causes in urban Indigenous communities, showing that Indigenous peoples can actually reproduce the very logics used by the state to write them out of existence when trying to reclaim control over belonging today.  Elsewhere, Pamela Palmater has shown us how Canadian Indian policy works to exterminate Indians and Indian bands.  Palmater shows that imagining Indigenous identities and belonging along the lines of blood quantum will lead to what she calls “legislative extinction,” a situation where Indigenous peoples will continue to exist, but as non-Indians.  Anishinaabeg, like other peoples, do not parent exclusively within their so-called “race.”  Intermarriage results in the dilution of Indian blood over time.  And so, according to Canadian law, once there are no more Indians, there will no longer be a need for Indian bands (or reserves).  In this way, the regulation of family-making allows the state to move ever-closer to exploiting what resources remain in Indigenous territories.  In other words, the regulation of Indianness is a project of termination.

All that said, Anishinaabeg are not creations of the Indian Act.  Our legal and political orders exist outside of Canadian law; they are sui generis.  We can look through these orders to see the world through Anishinaabeg eyes.  Doing so is simultaneously an act of resistance, resurgence and a performance of intellectual sovereignty.

And so, today I want to focus on what Anishinaabe law has to say about what it means to be belong with Anishinaabeg.  Whereas more than a century of Indian policy has made us think that belonging is a matter of Indian status, or solely a matter or racialized Indianness, Anishinaabe law says that belonging is a matter of family-making.  When one belongs with a family, whether through marriage, adoption, or birth, one carries responsibilities.  Those responsibilities are to people, but they are also to the land.  It is my experience, as someone who belongs with Anishinaabeg through adoption, that family-based customs for discerning belonging dispel the race-based logics that have come to grip Anishinaabeg communities.

I would like to discuss this through a recent piece of work by my friend, Anishinaabeg visual artist Christian Chapman.  His piece, entitled Past, Present and Future of the Anishinabe People gives us the opportunity to discuss belonging through Anishinaabeg constitutional orders.  By contrasting my interpretations of Chapman’s work with the ways in which colonialists deployed raced notions of Indigeneity to exclude individuals from Anishinaabeg communities, I demonstrate that a race-based approach to discerning belonging is not a part of Anishinaabeg customs, but a symptom of Canadian colonialism.  This opens a space where we can re-think belonging as a means to reclaim it from the logics that have created conditions of safety for what Joyce Green has called “Project Canada.”

Blood Based Exclusions

Signed at Sault Ste Marie on what is currently the Canadian side of the border on September 7 and 9, 1850, respectively, the Robinson-Superior and Robinson-Huron Treaties embodied and reflected the nation-to-nation relationship between Anishinaabeg and the Imperial Crown.  Overt racism was vogue at the time: the colonialists saw Anishinaabeg as a dying race.  Race in and of itself was believed to be an immutable difference between settlers and Anishinaabeg, and so racial mixing was perceived negatively as a threat to the purity and righteousness of the (white) Imperial global order.

Representatives of the Imperial Crown deployed racial discourses in the treaty negotiations in at least two ways: first, in conducting a unilateral census before the treaty, the commissioners distinguished between ‘full blooded Indians’ and those they identified by phenotype as ‘half breeds.’[3]  Their goal was to exclude all half-breeds from the treaty.  This form of racism presumed not only the ability to discern who belongs with Anishinaabeg communities solely on phenotype, but also asserted a hegemonic logics of identity formation.  Part white, half-breeds had less a claim in Anishinaabeg sovereignty than those deemed ‘full bloods,’ simply because of their biological heritage.  In other words, what we see here is that nationality was being tied to biology through a politics of recognition.

Second, the commissioners made the treaty contingent on logics of an ever-decreasing racial purity.  The ‘dying race’ logic was used against Anishinaabeg; colonialists took it as only a matter of time before blood lines were diluted ‘enough’ through intermarriage with white settlers, to the point that all Anishinaabeg communities would be classified as ‘half breeds,’ thereby voiding the treaty.[4]

The commissioners, and the colonialists after them, thus attempted to hijack family-making practices, such as birthing, adoption and marriage, claiming them as methods for assimilation.  As Ann Stoler notes about the British in other colonial contexts, family-making was targeted because it as the level of the family that new bodies are made and taught how to be Indigenous.[5]  Racialized approaches to protecting the “purity” of the European Master Race fostered settler anxieties about mixed parenting patterns within the British colonies.  This resulted in laws discouraging mixed parenting between “natives” and Europeans.[6]  Claiming halfbreed Anishinaabeg bodies into the settler body politic was a form of attenuating settler anxieties within the colony; it made them non-Indian, while also having the ancillary benefit of removing more Indians out of the way of settlement.

In North America, it was the idea of blood quantum, whether explicit or implicit in policy, that answered the colonialists’ call to protect pure Europeanness from the racial contamination created by mixed parenting.  Blood quantum establishes a system of control based on mathematics where an Anishinaabeg person can cease to be Indigenous in the eyes of the law, effectively assimilating into Canadian society in a legal sense.  By measuring one’s quantum of Indian blood, colonialists could police and silence those who had legitimate claim to lands the settler society was attempting to dominate.[7]

Canada’s Indian policies evolved with these raced logics in mind.  Though not mentioned explicitly in current Canadian Indian policy, blood quantum is nonetheless still at play in our belonging practices.  Worse, many First Nations have reproduced the terminal creed of blood quantum.  As of 2005, of the 11 Anishinaabeg communities within the Robinson-Superior Treaty territory, nearly 100% were still using race-based logics to discern belonging.[8]

Creation Story as Theory

By contrast, we have our own legal orders that consider belonging and identity along a spectrum of Anishinaabe-ness.  The Anishinaabeg word for colonialism is zhaaganashiyaadizi, translated as to live one’s life like a white person at the expense of being Anishinaabeg.[9]  Zhaaganashiyaadizi differs from Indianness because it speaks to a fluidity around identity not apparent in Indian discourses predicated on the stasis of one’s genetic make-up.  As Leanne Simpson writes, zhaaganashiyaadizi is relative and based on one’s choices – not one’s race.[10]  Potentially anyone is in a spectrum of belonging with Anishinaabeg; what matters is whether a person lives according to Anishinaabe laws, and carries-out their responsibilities towards Anishinaabe relatives.

We see these responsibilities-based logics at play in part of the Anishinaabeg creation story, where humans were the last beings created, after all the animals and the ecologies.  Humans were weak because they did not know how to survive.  They were in need of help.  The animals, who already knew how to live on the earth, decided to care for these new humans.  They had the ability to do so, and they took them into their nations as adopted family members.  It didn’t matter that they looked different than, say a bear or a deer.  What mattered was exercising a responsibility to care for all of creation, and for families to promote mino-bimaadiziwin, or continuously renewing life in a balanced way.

I can see myself in this story.  It makes sense to me as an adoptee.  I was adopted into Fort William First Nation as a baby through the custom adoption practices my grandmother, Geraldine MacLaurin-ba carried with her throughout her life.  Phenotypically, I am white, but I grew up on the reserve as part of my family and community.  Like the humans in the creation story, it didn’t matter that I looked different than my dad and his family.  And while we cannot overlook the fact that settler society does not mark my my body for extermination as it has family and people of colour,[11] the values underpinning adoption nonetheless animate a sui generis logics of belonging that challenges Canadian regulation of what it means to belong with Anishinaabeg today.

Past, Present and Future

Anishinaabe artist and curator Wanda Nanabush writes that Indigenous artists tell the story about their peoples in the face of degrading colonial narratives.  In other words, the work of Indigenous artists is decolonizing because it inherently challenges the normalizations spun to make the world safe for colonialism.[12]

Christian Chapman’s Past, Present and Future questions the normalization of race-based belonging in ways that draw together our treaty relationship with the Crown while also asserting the contemporary validity of Anishinaabeg legal order of discerning belonging.  The images of Queen Elizabeth as a young queen (the past), then again as an older Queen (the present), are juxtaposed with an image of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge – most likely a future Queen.  The women in the three images are re-dressed in Anishinaabeg aesthetic; in each image we see a spirit circle, an element common to Anishinaabeg ‘woodlands’ art symbolizing our connection to the ecology-spirit world.

Chapman honours continuous renewal here as the three images are points within a circle of family-making.  Kate Middleton will one day take the place of Queen Elizabeth of the past (on the far left); this process opens spaces for in-coming generations who will take Kate’s current place on the right.  Kate’s connection to the young Queen Elizabeth on the far left is established through marriage to the unseen grandson, who is somewhere behind the Queen of the present.  What makes Kate belong to the family is her relationship and responsibilities, not her blood.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not a Monarchist.  But Chapman’s piece reminds me of several laws Anishinaabeg use to discern who belongs.  Similar to the way Kate comes to belong with the Queen, Anishinaabeg also bring new people into their communities and nations through marriages and adoptions.[13]  Indeed, it can be said that the Queen belongs with Anishinaabeg through these very practices.  Harold Johnson, a Cree lawyer, argues that Cree treaties with the Crown are a form of adopting settlers.  He writes,

It was in accordance with the law of adoption that my family [the Cree] took your ancestors as relatives.  This adoption ceremony is what we refer to when we talk about the treaty. … When my family adopted your family, we became relatives, and that cannot be undone.  … [The Queen] is the one we adopted.  She and her children received the right to occupy this territory alongside my family. [14]

These logics of adoption demonstrate that Anishinaabeg family-making practices transcend race-based logics of belonging.  In Chapman’s work, as in Johnston’s writing, we see the Queen and Duchess being claimed as family members, both politically and personally.  The bonds are based on teachings such as acceptance of difference, humility, caring for others, non-hierarchy and mutual success.[15]

Looking at Chapman’s work from a different perspective unfolds another layer of Anishinaabeg belonging orders.  In addition to adoption, Past, Present, and Future also represents family-making through birthing.  Birthing is a symbol of continuous renewal of the nation; it is a sign of mino-bimaadiziwin.  The portrait of Kate Middleton plays on the family-as-renewal narrative found in Norval Morrisseau’s 1975 work entitled Artist’s Wife and Daughter, a piece he painted in conjunction with a self-portrait.[16]  When juxtaposed together, we see in Morrisseau’s piece a Wife holding a Daughter, symbolizing the renewal of life into the next generation; in Chapman’s piece, we see Kate anticipating a child.  Chapman includes the next generation here by placing a spirit circle in front of Kate where Morrisseau’s ‘Daughter’ is located respectively.  Like the Duchess in the image, we are all anticipating the arrival of the next generation of those who belong with our families and communities.


This makes even more sense when we view Morrisseau’s Self Portrait and Artist’s Wife and Daughter together.  This is not to assert a heternormative, monogamous family model, but in this instance it is one model through which Morrisseau chose to emphasize continuous renewal through family-making.  In this original juxtaposition, Artist’s Wife and Daughter emphasizes the importance of the family within Anishinaabeg constitutional orders.  The family is the nation because it is through the family that people come to belong with the land and other Anishinaabeg.  This is why our treaties are discussed as adoption ceremonies: the principles underpinning treaty-making are based on the principles underpinning family-making.


Read together, Chapman and Morrisseau’s portraits assert not only the continuous renewal of Anishinaabeg in a physical sense, but speak metaphorically to the continued existence of Anishinaabeg constitutional orders that house our philosophies for discerning belonging.  As James Sákéj Youngblood Henderson has shown, if an Indigenous nation does not clearly surrender in treaty a right or responsibility, that responsibility remains within the jurisdiction of the Indigenous nation.[17]  Further, Anishinaabeg constitutional orders are not designed to automatically surrender aspects of sovereignty when we enter into treaties with other nations.[18]  No where in the Robinson-Superior Treaty does it state that Anishinaabeg surrender the responsibility to discern who belongs, and therefore our legal orders to do so are still in place despite the states’ unilateral assertion of its race-based Indian policies.  We see the continuation of our orders for discerning belonging in the portrait of Kate Middleton: dressed in Anishinaabeg aesthetic, she and her yet unborn child are being brought into Anishinaabeg belonging through our treaty-family relationship despite their low quantum of Indian blood.

Chapman’s work thus upsets the colonial narrative that says Anishinaabeg have no political or legal orders.

What Does it Mean?

What Chapman’s work does is it reminds us that we have our own customs for discerning belonging that are nested within sui generis legal orders.  It centers the family as the decision maker when determining who belongs and who does not.  It reminds us that such orders survived colonialism, particularly at the family level.  To me, Chapman’s Past, Present, and Future of the Anishinabe People pushes back on the colonial narrative that says belonging is a matter of being a racially ‘pure’ Indian, thereby challenging us more broadly to re-examine the ways our social order relies on race.[19]

I believe we can we can use the legal orders for discerning belonging as found at the family level to re-think how belonging is discerned at the national level.  I believe the family-making practices used by Anishinaabe families today can re-articulate at the community or national levels to reclaim control over belonging in resurgent and decolonizing ways.  In this, Christian’s work, and other stories about marriage, birth and adoption challenge us to see past the racialized notions of Indianness.  To belong, is to be part of a family, not whether one holds a status card.


[1] Pamela Palmater argues that the philosophy of “blood quantum” is at play in the provisions of the Indian Act that determine whether one is an “Indian” according to the Act, despite the absence of the term in the current version of the Act.  See Palmater, Pamela, Beyond Blood: Rethinking Indigenous Identity (Saskatoon: Purich, 2011), 46.

[2] Indian Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. I-5, ss.6-7, accessed September 8, 2013,

[3] Robinson qtd. in Alexander Morris, The Treaties of Canada with The Indians of Manitoba and The North-West Territories Including The Negotiations on Which They are Based, and Other Information Relating Thereto (Toronto: Willing & Williamson, 1880), 19.

[4] The Robinson-Superior Treaty states that annuities will be provided only so long as

the number of Indians entitled to the benefit of this Treaty shall amount to two thirds of their present numbers (which is twelve hundred and forty) to entitle them to claim the full benefit thereof, and should their numbers at any future period not amount to two thirds of twelve hundred and forty, the annuity shall be diminished in proportion to their actual numbers.

See: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, “Copy of the Robinson Treaty Made in the Year 1850 with the Ojibewa Indians of Lake Superior Conveying Certain Lands to the Crown.”

[5] Stoler, Laura Ann, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 81.

[6] Stoler, Ann Laura, Race The Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality And the Colonial Order of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 131-2, 144.

[7] Eva Marie Garroutte discuses the purposes of blood quantum as such: “[t]he original, stated intention of blood quantum distinctions was to determine the point at which the various responsibilities of the dominant society to Indian people ended.  The ultimate and explicit federal intention was to use the blood quantum standard as a means to liquidate tribal lands and to eliminate government trust responsibility to tribes, along with entitlement programs, treaty rights, and reservations.”  Garroutte, Eva Marie, Real Indians: Identity and Survival in Native America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 42.

[8] See Clatworthy, Steward, Estimating the Population Impacts of the E-Dbendaagzijig Naaknigewin, (Winnipeg:  Four Directions Project Consultants, 2010), 9.  This is not to say that these communities use blood quantum or the Indian status out of choice, as Canada’s Indian policies were forced onto Anishinaabeg; indeed, our communities were forced to abide by such policies in order to access treaty promises.  Regardless, generations of woman and their children have been wrongfully removed or barred from their communities because of this history.

[9] Geniusz, Wendy, Our Knowledge is Not Primitive: Decolonizing Botanical Anishinaabe Teachings (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2009), 192.

[10] Simpson, Leanne, Dancing On Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2011), 52-3.

[11] Sium, Aman, “‘New World’ Settler Colonialism: ‘Killing Indians, Making Niggers’,” [Blog post], Decolonization, Indigeneity, Education & Society.

[12] Nanabush, Wanda, “Love and Other Resistances: Responding to Kahnesatà:ke Through Artistic Practice,” in This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockades, eds. Leanne Simpson and Kiera Ladner (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2010), 170-3.

[13] Auger, Donald, The Northern Ojibwe and Their Family Law [Unpublished dissertation], (North York: Osgoode Hall Law School, York University), Chapter 6.  Also see various stories shared by Maggie Wilson in Cole, Sally (ed.), Rainy River Lives: Stories Told by Maggie Wilson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009).

[14] Johnson, Harold, Two Families: Treaties and Government (Saskatoon: Purich Publishing Ltd., 2007), 27-29.

[15] Simpson, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back, 107.

[16] Seen together, Morrisseau’s Self-Portrait and Artist’s Wife and Daughter speak to re-creating the Anishinaabeg through family-making.  See Morrisseau’s Self-Portrait here:

[17] As James Sákéj Youngblood Henderson writes about another British-Indigenous treaty relationship, “[a]ny Aboriginal rights or tenure withheld from or denied to the British sovereign in the treaties were vested in the [Indigenous] Nation.”  Henderson, James Sákéj Youngblood, “Constitutional Powers and Treaty Rights,” Saskatchewan Law Review 63(2000):720-7.  Similarly, the Robinson-Superior Treaty makes specific agreements while protecting Anishinaabeg sovereignty, including sovereignty in discerning belonging.

[18] Simpson, Leanne, “Looking after Gdoo-naaganinaa: Precolonial Nishnaabeg Diplomatic and Treaty Relationships,” Wicazo Sa Review 23(2008):38.

[19] Root, Maria P. P., “Within, Between, and Beyond Race,” in Racially Mixed People in America, ed. Maria P. P. Root (Newbury Park: Sage Publications, Inc., 1992), 3.

An Open Letter to Tamara Johnson

Tamara Johnson

Former Thunder Bay Superior North Progressive Conservative Party candidate

Dear Tamara,

In the past few weeks, you’ve made a number of comments publicly regarding First Nations, the tax system and the Ontario legal framework as it pertains to Indians.  Even though these comments have been incendiary to the point of you losing your candidacy with the Ontario Progressive Conservative party, you continue to argue your points in social media.  Worse, the points you are so fervently upholding about First Nations are largely misguided.  I assume that you will read this letter and try to turn everything around, but I am writing it anyways so at least you cannot say you are not informed about the basics of neo-colonialism, white supremacy and racism – all of which you are clearly protecting.

But first, I should introduce myself.  I am from the community you wish to attack; I was adopted into Fort William First Nation as a toddler.  I grew up on the reserve.  After witnessing for years the types of racism you are now projecting at my community, I decided to do something about it.  To make a long story short, I am now in the final stages of my PhD in Native Studies, where I focus day-in and day-out on unpacking various types of racism affecting Anishinaabeg.  Let me assure you, even though you may think otherwise, your comments as of late fit squarely within classic white-Canadian anti-Indigenous sentiments that by now are well-patterned and even boring to read each day.

That said, I have read some of your posts on Facebook about the so-called unfair advantages you feel First Nations benefit from in the country currently known as Canada.  You’ve made a number of accusations, including the argument that  First Nations are getting “illegal” tax breaks, that First Nations should follow Ontario law, and, most recently, that gas stations in my community price gasoline based on race (these are, for the most part, sufficiently summed up in your March 1st, 2014 Facebook post).  Such points tell me that you have not reviewed the legal history of the First Nations-settler Canadian relationship in the very territory you live in.  They show that you haven’t read Supreme Court of Canada decisions regarding First Nations tax immunity.  Most of all, they show me that through some very weird logic, you think that Indigenous peoples have an unfair advantage even after surviving generations of attempted political, cultural, linguistic and physical genocide.  So, maybe you should take some of your own advice and #RelaxTamara.  To ease your anxiety, here are some basic facts that anyone can find using Google:

1. Lets start with the most tricky element first: namely, your claim that my community sells gas based on race.  To understand this, you need to read the Indian Act, and its history.  The Indian Act determines who is an Indian according to what white people think about Indigenous peoples.  “Indians” in Canadian law were largely men; women and children were Indians only so long as they were connected to an Indian man, either through marriage or birth.  Historically, the Government of Canada used this as a method to exterminate Indians, because intermarriage results in less and less so-called Indian blood over time.  It has been estimated that between one and two million Indigenous peoples lost Indian status through intermarriage precisely because of the racist, gendered logics imbued in the Act.

Yet, you are trying to label business owners in my community as racists simply because they are abiding Canadian and Ontario law.  To receive the benefits of tax-exempt gasoline, one must acquire a Certificate of Exemption from the Ontario Ministry of Finance.  As you will note in the application for the “gas card,” Indian status under the Indian Act is a pre-requisite.  Please note that while Indian status is indeed a race-based idea, in practice it is not based on race at all: many people with non-Indigenous biological ancestry hold status cards legitimately under the Act.  At the same time, because the logics of Indian status have been used to exclude millions of Indigenous individuals from obtaining a status card, there are many people who should receive tax exemption because of Indigenous ancestry, but do not.  So, if gas was priced based on race, businesses at Fort William First Nation would be able to sell tax-free gas to any one of the millions of people who lost Indian status through legislation that penalized marriage to non-Indians.

Clearly, your accusation that FWFN gasoline dealers are breaking the law is misguided because we are, in fact, upholding Canadian tax law by selling tax-free gasoline to only those with a Certificate of Exemption.  Such businesses are, in fact, selling tax-free gasoline only to status Indians, which, according to law, now includes individuals of many so-called races.

2. Your whole argument that First Nations should follow Ontario law is misguided to the point of idiocy.  It demonstrates that you have zero understanding of the basic political-legal tenets of your own country.  As someone with political ambitions, I find it scary that you haven’t read the Canadian Constitution for how it divides political powers and jurisdictions between federal and provincial governments.

There are two very famous sections of the Constitution Acts 1867 to 1982 that you might want to consider before saying anything else publicly about First Nations.  Sections 91 and 92 of the Acts clearly divide the settler governments’ jurisdictions.  Check this out:

Section 91(24) states that the federal Crown has jurisdiction for “Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians.”

Section 92 states that provinces have a whole bunch of law-making/enforcement powers, none of which pertain to “Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians.”  In other words, the Province of Ontario has no basis in Canadian law to enforce its laws on Indigenous peoples.  This is Canadian Politics 101.

Now, don’t get me wrong; the Constitution Acts 1867 to 1982 is as racist towards Indigenous peoples as your recent public remarks have been.  This is because it re-makes Indigenous peoples into “Indians” (read my first point above again as to why this racist), and because it presumes the settler state has jurisdiction over sui generis Indigenous political and legal systems.  But I reference the Acts here because they demonstrate a key point for you to consider in future public banter: Fort William First Nation does not have to abide Ontario law as per the most basic law of your country.  And while First Nations do abide some provincial laws, you would do well to note that this is only because certain sections of the Indian Act make it mandatory to do so, or else – and most First Nations in Canada regard the Indian Act as an attack on their existing sui generis legal orders that gave rise to this country in the first place.

3. Finally, as might already be clear in point #2 above, your misguided arguments targeting First Nations tax breaks and so-called illegalities speak to a deeper misunderstanding about treaties.  Tamara, I don’t know where you’ve lived throughout your life, but it is safe to say that you currently live in what is commonly referred to as the “Robinson-Superior Treaty” territory, which we call Anishinaabe Aki.  You cannot understand tax exemptions at Fort William First Nation without putting them into the context of treaty law.

Treaty law is complicated, but there are a few basic things that are easily rendered for conversations like this.  First and foremost, treaties permit settlers such as yourself to live in Indigenous territories.  This is the backbone of Canada’s state-building, and has been upheld throughout Canadian law.  One of the basic principles underlying this body of law is that First Nations are based in polities that exist outside of Canada in a political sense – indeed, the nation-status of Indigenous peoples is the reason the Crown was obligated to enter into treaties in the first place: treaties are nation-to-nation agreements.

In terms of taxes, First Nations are exempt from paying certain taxes because Indigenous nations allowed settlers to live in their territories.  It was part of the agreement in a meta-sense.  If you think about it, you will see that its true: why would an individual from one nation pay into the tax system of another?  Would you pay US taxes just because they asked you to?  I doubt it, but this is basically what you’re saying First Nations must do.  It makes no sense at all.

And yet you perpetuate the myth that First Nations are getting an “illegal” break on taxes.  It is racist to for you to live in this treaty territory and then claim Anishinaabeg are getting a “free ride” on your tax system.  “Your” taxes come directly from the exploitation of resources in Anishinaabe Aki.  If you had any understanding of the basic treaty history, you would know that First Nations have already paid dearly: they agreed to share their lands through treaties with settler governments that chose to interpret those treaties in a specious manner (i.e. government says the lands were surrendered, whereas First Nation law shows the treaties were meant to be an on-going partnership…but thats another topic).  Tax exemptions are the legal manifestation of the recognition that First Nations have already paid for the upkeep of Canada, through (stolen) land and (stolen) resources.

Anyhow, those are just a three points for you to consider in your future tirades.

Please note that while you claim not to be racist, you are in fact inciting racist sentiments by perpetuating age-old settler anti-Indigenous arguments.  The claim that First Nations should be subject to all laws/taxes of the settler society is a white-supremacist argument; it is steeped in the notion that Indigenous peoples have no laws or political orders of their own, and that they should assimilate into the Eurocentric way of doing things.  That was the basic idea behind the residential school era, yet for some reason you want to align yourself with that wrong side of history.  But I guess its your choice.

All that said, I’m not trying to change your views.  I get that you are making a name for yourself by personifying the sentiments of the extreme Right, just like Ezra Levant and Sarah Palin have done before you.  I get that such radical remarks get you some traction in the media, and maybe someday even a spot alongside those egregious personalities.  But at least now you can’t say you didn’t know about the very basic tenets of First Nations history and law as described above.  Likewise, you can no longer claim that your public arguments of late are not racist, white-supremacist or neo-colonial.

Damien Lee (@damienlee)
PS: If you found this Open Letter of interest, you may also be interested in my follow-up post: “#RelaxTamara and Beyond.”

Recovering from Racism: Moving Forward in Thunder Bay

The public reaction to my recent post, Burning Bridges: The Unleashing of White Settler Racism in Thunder Bay in Moments of Catastrophe, heard here and here, has raised a number of questions about eliminating racism in Thunder Bay.  The short article went viral within hours of being posted to my blog and to a local online news site, and spurred a plethora of racist responses.  Given that the people of Thunder Bay and Fort William First Nation are organizing to address racism in our community, it is important that our next steps account for the ways in which white supremacy reproduces itself even in those acts meant to dismantle it.   As such, I felt it important to offer a reflection on what can be learned through a brief analysis of the commentary that followed the posting of the article.

Below, I’ve compiled and contextualized some of the more nuanced racist comments Burning Bridges receivedThis may help the local community recover from the racist violence we witnessed this week, which included the destruction of a tipi at Lakehead University, because it expands the definition of racism beyond only the most violent and obvious forms to include more subtle acts that serve to protect settler colonialism in northern Ontario.  While Mayor Hobbs repeatedly stated in the aftermath of Burning Bridges that only a minority of people in Thunder Bay hold racist views, the quotes and analyses below tell a different story; they show that racism, defined broadly, actually structures the discussion about anti-racism in our community altogether.  Therefore, if future acts of recovering from racism are to actually address Indigenous peoples/people of colour’s concerns instead of simply allowing the white majority to feel better about themselves by forgetting October 29th ever happened, we need to account for how it manifests in ways other than the most egregious of examples.

But first, I think its important to say that my post received many comments by people cognizant of how whiteness and settler colonialism intersect to form and protect the foundations of white privilege in Canada.  These folks not only agreed that colonialism, racism and white power are real problems, but they were also in the trenches of the comments sections trying to educate the more racist and dismissive commenters.  While there were many people who were awesome in this regard, Jamie Lee’s posts really stood out:


How Does White Supremacy Reproduce itself in Race Dialogue?

Many of the commenters dissenting against the points made in Burning Bridges made claims that the post was an act of “reverse racism,” stating that my use of the word “settler” was incorrect/offensive because, as Canadians, they were “born here,” making them ‘native’ to Canada (this absorption into the landscape is key to understanding settler colonialism) .  Others were adamant that Anishinaabeg should just get on with life and stop complaining about a ‘supposed’ racism.  Finally, many said that we’re all the same, which is a colour-blind argument saying that Anishinaabeg and Canadians should be unified as people and all will be well.  I provide screen-shots of some of these comments below, but first its important to contextualize them.

Zeus Leonardo and Ronald Porter say that discussing racism in a white supremacist society is not safe for people of colour.  In their view, white people who want to avoid looking racist will take over conversations in ways that silence people of colour from speaking the truth about how they are affected by white supremacy.  They say that all this is done to control the space so that it is safe for white people at the expense of those who experience the violence of white supremacy, namely, people of colour (and, I would add, Indigenous peoples).  This protects one of the most important foundations of white supremacy: whiteness is always seen as neutral, and therefore any attempt to make it visible as an ethnicity or pre-requisite for power makes white people feel unsafe.

Elsewhere, George Lipsitz has looked at how white people try to distance themselves from past racialized violence.  He discusses how white students in the US try to undermine the intergenerational effects of slavery.  He shows that some white students there argue that they don’t have anything to do with slavery, because it was in the past.  This argument is meant to reduce feelings of guilt, while also playing a role in perpetuating the problem: when whites say they’re not responsible for past racialized violence, they’re invisibilizing how they benefit from the actions of their ancestors that structured today’s society in a way that whiteness opens more doors than any other skin colour.

This brings me to the myth of “reverse racism.”  It doesn’t exist in Canada because our society is historically structured in such a way to privilege whiteness while simultaneously putting Indigenous peoples and people of colour at a disadvantage.  Consider the fact that there are 600+ Missing, Murdered or Traded Aboriginal Women despite Indigenous peoples making up less than 5% of the total population.  This is a form of structural racism because Canadian society permits violence against Indigenous women (and men) in the name of privileging whiteness, even while many individual Canadians would never support it.  And so, as Sara Luckey so eloquently put it, “[r]everse racism isn’t real because we live in a culture that supports and enforces whiteness as the norm and [people of colour and Indigenous peoples] as other.”

The Comments Received

What Leonardo, Porter, Lipsitz and Luckey are pointing to above, is that white supremacy perpetuates itself in North America based on a number of arguments that serve to reproduce and protect white privilege.  Racism doesn’t always come in the form of physical violence or outrageous tweets.  A number of the more classic (if more “subtle”) arguments designed to protect white supremacy and settler colonialism appeared in the responses to Burning Bridges:

1. Some noted that the post was an act of “reverse racism.”  In particular, people took offense to being called a “settler,” and some sought to invisibilize their whiteness (to re-establish its ‘neutrality’) by asserting themselves as “native” to Canada.  These are just four examples among many:




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2. Other commenters posted that Anishinaabeg should just get on with life and stop complaining about racism and things that happened in the past.  This is a tactic used to distract us away from the fact that white people in Canada continue to actively benefit from the very histories they say Indigenous peoples need to get over:




3. Finally, many commented that we’re all the same, and we should just live in unity and all will be well – something my friend Ant Lock calls the “Kumbaya” approach.  This is a colour-blind approach to racial dialogue that ultimately silences Indigenous peoples because the terms of “unity” are defined by the dominant society; such definitions of unity allow for Indigenous peoples’ voices only to the extent that they do not upset the power imbalance.  Here are a couple of examples:



As is clear in the responses above, racism can be “subtle” even while seeking to uphold the white supremacist order already in place in Canada.  What these comments show is that the road to hell really is paved with “good” intensions. The question is, though: Good for whom?

Moving Forward

Because racism in Canada is a structural issue (in addition to an individual issue), there is always a risk of reproducing racism in mainstream organizing meant to eliminate it.  Mainstream anti-racism organizations and/or committees must thus be vigilant in self-assessing for ways in which they may be complicit in white supremacy and/or colonialism.  Just as importantly, white individuals within such organizations must be willing to feel unsafe in their reflection process if they are to understand how their presence may re-assert white supremacy.  This is a salient point to end with, since in the aftermath of the public demonstrations of racism in Thunder Bay over the last 36 hours, the City of Thunder Bay’s Anti-Racism Advisory Committee has been discussed as a player in moving us forward.

The Advisory Committee is doing good work, and it needs to continue to do so.  But if there is anything to be learned from the commentary elicited in response to Burning Bridges, its that the structural element of racism needs to be foregrounded.  The Advisory Committee’s extreme focus on “Respect” for cultural difference only goes so far; its focus on respect for difference maintains the “otherness” of non-white people while obfuscating the main problem: whiteness. If it continues down this path, the Committee will not be able to identify and dismantle the ways in which the City of Thunder Bay is implicated in broader structural racism in northwestern Ontario (for example, see Mayor Hobbs’s denial that racism in Thunder Bay is structural, here).  This is a question of identifying the City’s blind spots in how it is complicit in an already white supremacist and colonialist environment. The best way to address this is to unsettle the settler within, or come to know and account for mainstream organizations’ complicity in settler colonialism.

Thus, in addition to mainstream anti-racism organizing in the area, it is just as important that those most affected by racism are given the opportunity to lead in addressing the problem.  This should be given high priority, even if it means yielding to grassroots organizations or local reserves when planning and implementing anti-racist projects.  Grassroots groups such as the Regional Multicultural Youth Council should be recognized and supported as leaders in dismantling racism in Thunder Bay.

That there was such shocking reaction to the racist tweeting the night of October 29th only tells me that racism in northern Ontario is too readily written-off as individual occurrences rather than understood as a problem that structures the very social fabric of Thunder Bay society.  As one commenter put it today, we can learn from this issue to make real change.  But that change won’t come if we simply go back to relying on the systems that were already in place before the James Street bridge burned in the night.

Burning Bridges


On October 29, 2013, the James Street bridge crossing the Kaministiquia River, which links Fort William First Nation with the city of Thunder Bay, caught fire.  While the local media is tracking the criminal element of the fire, and while the politicians are promising to get to the bottom of what happened, there’s another story here that is going un-reported.  As the bridge burned, social media lit up with white-settler racism directed at my reserve.  It was a display of what most Canadians don’t like to admit, namely, that Canada is a racist place.  Our communities – on both sides of the river – need to address the acts of hate speech posted online last night if we are to have a informed dialogue about what it means to live together in Anishinaabeg Aki, or Anishinaabeg territory.

What is it about catastrophe that makes white people feel they can release racist attacks on Indigenous communities, in moments when they’re most weak nonetheless?  The white settler consciousness is teeming with fear of Indigenous peoples to the point that its undercurrents spill out when communities like mine find themselves in an emergency.  This fear is based in a deep seated recognition that, yes, white people have stolen the land and that, therefore, seeing Indigenous peoples reminds them – if only subconsciously – that their privilege in Anishinaabe Aki is built on (failed) attempts at historical cultural and physical genocide.  This fear comes out as hatred: every single online news story about Indigenous peoples in this country is trailed by a scorched path of racist “free speech” vitriol.  Canada has a racism epidemic, and it is easily traced in the comments section.

And it spilled out again last night.  The Thunder Bay Twitter community lit up with racism like a Christmas tree once news spread that the main bridge into Fort William First Nation was on fire.  But what differentiated the social media KKK parade was that, unlike online news sites, the majority of posts came from young people.  Consider these posts:


While these tweeters are clearly young, they nonetheless are well versed in how to demonize Indigenous communities.  Their comments beg the question: my community should be permanently closed off because, clearly, Indians are a threat to ‘civilized’ society.  Such comments ghettoize Fort William First Nation; we should be locked up like animals and left to burn to death in our own cage.  Interestingly, this reflects the government’s original philosophies behind Indian reservations altogether: fence Indians in and make it nearly impossible for them to leave.  The kids learn to tow the line well.

Maybe I’m being to hard on these young folks.  Maybe they’re just mis-guided.  Unfortunately, excusing their behaviour as individual mistakes only elides the fact that Canada is a racist society in a structural sense.  These kids throw racism at my community because they’ve been taught by their parents and society at large that its okay to do so.  In turn, parents are passing this belief on to each new generation, as the following tweet so eloquently showed us just hours after the bridge caught fire:

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If white people can admit that racism in Canada exists, Anishinaabeg already know that its not going to disappear over night.  There have been too many broken promises.  As George Lipsitz has said about racism in the US context, those white people invested in their privilege are not going to give it up easily.  As last night’s James Street bridge fire shows, the ‘possessive investment in whiteness’ in Canada is a burning bridge that insulates white privilege from facing the changes that are needed.

That said, young Anishinaabeg folks have a different narrative.  They are aware of how racism affects them, and how their peers perpetuate it.  I asked some of the younger folks from my community what they thought about last night’s bridge fire.  Some of them spoke about their relationship to the city, and how much it hurt to read what some of their peers were tweeting.  They asked not to be named here, and I respect that because they’re the ones who have to share high school hallways with outspoken racists this week.  One wrote:

What many people of Thunder Bay do not know is how cruel sparks of racism rising hurt Fort William First Nation peoples. It wasn’t long after the James Street swing bridge fire made it to the social media websites. So many comments stood out, but one that one that hurt the most was some guy saying he should block the other entrances to the reserve to save the city.  This is beyond cruel – we’ve done nothing to provoke his threats.

Another contextualized last night’s racist comments more generally:

I find that the people of Thunder Bay always have something crude to say about Aboriginal people.  While attending school I constantly have my ears open to the comments referring to Aboriginal peoples as “drunk, low life indians”.  Why do you think that some of my people end up taking that road?  What is easier – standing up to the racist comments or standing out of the way of them only to let it eat you from the inside out?  We lose either way.  My people are never going to find hope in the toxic [racist] environment we are forced to live in.

Finally, a young woman from my community astutely connected the bridge comments to broader issues of safety many Indigenous women contend with in settler society today:

The James Street swing bridge burning down not only showed a perfect example of the racism that has been going on for uncounted years, but also stirred up many emotions for the women in my community who feel unsafe in Thunder Bay.  For many of us, the [James Street] bridge is the only way to get out of the city and back to a place where we feel a sense of safety, among our families on the reserve.  To be ridiculed for losing that safety route only made me feel less safe [for the next time I’m in city].

Clearly, our youth know exactly whats going on.

Unlike the authors of the racist tweets and Facebook posts, the young people of Fort William First Nation spoke from their heart about improving our relationship with settler society.  While the peddlers of white settler racism are telling us that we deserve every bad thing that happens to us, and that we should just do ourselves a favour and die in a ball of flames to lessen settler fear and guilt, the youth from my community are calling on them to stop wielding their privilege at the expense of Indigenous peoples lives and safety.  Thunder Bay exists on Anishinaabeg land, and we should not be made to feel unwelcome in our own territory.  Most importantly, the youth from my community point to the fact that Anishinaabeg are not leaving any time soon, and so settlers better get used to it.