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“Are You Indigenous?”: Reflections on Settler Responses to Joseph Boyden and Canada 150

Earlier this month I was hanging out with some friends and the conversation veered towards talking Canadian politics, as it often does. At one point in the conversation, Attawapiskat and northern reserves without clean drinking water were brought up. As is typical when these topics are broached in this particular group, I was asked my opinion, knowing that my PhD work has (in their words) “something to do with Indigenous issues.” After my response came the slightly hesitant, not sure how to word it, slightly embarrassed to ask it, question from one of them: Are you Indigenous?

It’s not the first time that I have been asked the question or, at other times, had it simply assumed that I was Indigenous without asking.

I assertively, and without leaving room for any doubt, answered, “No.” I let the answer hang in the silence caused by its brevity. The follow up question was one that I have been thinking on for some time. He asked: ‘So, why do you care so much about these issues, then?’

In light of the recent debate around Joseph Boyden, I have been thinking on this second question and my response to it. This is because, in defending Boyden from his critics who have laid out his many deceptions in regards to his claims to indigeneity, there is a pervasive sentiment among settler commentators, one which argues that Boyden should be accepted by Indigenous communities (and, by extension, not challenged) because of all the good work he has accomplished for them. This position is nicely encapsulated in a response from a recent commentary in the Toronto Star which compared Boyden to another famous ‘Pretendian’, the environmentalist Grey Owl: “So what? He made an important contribution.”

This essay is not about Boyden and his dishonest and ever shifting claims to various Indigenous nations and belonging, nor about the failure of Canadian settler society to understand the importance of these issues and prioritize Indigenous self-determination around questions of citizenship and belonging.

But both the ‘so what?’ position on Boyden, as well as my friend’s question of why I care about Indigenous issues, strike at the same sentiment; that is, only Indigenous peoples care about Indigenous issues.

So, here is how I answered my friend. For me, settler colonialism and the so-called ‘Indigenous issues’ (which are only ‘issues’ because of settler colonialism, so it’s more accurately a settler colonial issue) are fundamental to understanding justice in this place currently known as Canada. Being Canadian is also fundamental to how many of us understand belonging, our rights and responsibilities, and how we define ourselves. It is part of who we are. But this part of who we are is founded on genocidal violence against Indigenous peoples. Canada only exists because settlers stole Indigenous peoples’ land, worked as hard as we could to kill the Indigenous peoples who lived on that land (so that we could have it) and, then, when that didn’t completely work we worked as hard as we could to ‘kill the Indian, to save the man’, destroying Indigenous cultures and ways of life. We did whatever it took to remove Indigenous peoples from their land so that we could own it and exploit it. This is Canada.

At the ‘kill the Indian, to save the man’ line, my friend responded, “that’s just your analysis, right?”

To which, I replied: “No, that’s a direct quote. Canada and other settler nations were very explicit about their desire to eliminate Indigenous peoples.”

So, if I am someone who is interested in justice, in being part of and contributing to a place that truly is safe for everyone, that values everyone, and interested in being a part of creating peace (goals that Canada, and many Canadians, would at least pay lip service to), then, foundationally, I need to grapple with and fight for a way to end the ongoing colonialism that is Canada. If there is a settler colonial problem that is hindering peace for everyone, I am interested in ending the settler colonial problem.

This is not merely a need to grapple with reconciliation, which is to make amends and recompense for terrible things that happened at the formation of Canada, but to recognize that the problem of settler colonialism, and the terrible violence it inherently brings on Indigenous peoples, is ongoing. Settler colonial violence is foundational to the ways in which Canada operates as a nation, today. The goal of removing Indigenous peoples from the land so that settlers may exploit it is still very much part of our national fabric.

We see this in the ways in which Indigenous women, girls, Two Spirit and Trans people are made missing and murdered, we see it in the ways Indigenous consent is overridden, we see it in the ways in which settler commentators chauvinistically advise Indigenous peoples to solve colonial created problems with colonial answers. While the conversation with my friends began with Attawapiskat and boil water advisories on Indigenous reserves, which are often the most visible points of colonial neglect and violence in the Canadian political imaginary, settler colonial violence is a normalized, daily part of Indigenous peoples’ lives in Canada.

Especially as Canadians gather to celebrate 150 years of the nation, with a central theme of ‘reconciliation’, it is important to disrupt the national mythmaking of Canada as a peaceful, multicultural nation for all. For many, this is not a celebration but a moment to mourn the ongoing years of colonial violence and to re-commit to supporting Indigenous sovereignty as central to resisting colonial violence. This colonial violence, and our complicity within it, is something that all Canadians need to understand. You do not need to be Indigenous to do this work, and doing this necessary work doesn’t make you Indigenous. Everyone has a role to play in ending the violence that has marked 150 years of Canada.

2 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To ““Are You Indigenous?”: Reflections on Settler Responses to Joseph Boyden and Canada 150”

  1. Penny Dickenson January 20, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    This was an outstanding overview as to the issue and I agree it does need to be fixed. Processes have been mentioned but the immense size of the repair/recovery is huge. And it is not going to go away. I have a question tho’. The adjective Colonial keeps repeating and I am embarrassed to even ask but what exactly does it mean?

    • Eric Ritskes January 20, 2017 at 12:55 pm

      Hi Penny, I was not approving comments on this piece but this question you ask is such an important one. It’s also an incredibly difficult one to answer in a short space as this (especially for someone as wordy as myself…)But let me take a stab at a short definition of what I mean by ‘colonial/ism’.

      If you Google colonialism it comes up with a definition that included taking control of another country and exploiting it for your own purposes. That’s a very historical definition, focused on a ‘colonial era’ that includes the conquest of Africa, Asia, etc by European countries (i.e., Kenya was a ‘colony’ of Britain, as was Canada, Australia, etc.) This is part of the definition.

      But beyond the historical definition, I use ‘colonial’ to denote a discursive and systemic violence that encompasses all facets of life and thought. Fanon, a de/colonial theorist, argues that the violence of colonialism is systemic and necessary for the colonizer to keep control. So, the colonizer arrives in a place and violently enforces systems of control and repression over the colonized. This happened in Canada when settlers arrived and imposed systems of governance, culture, etc that subordinated and oppressed Indigenous peoples (as well as carrying a supreme belief in white supremacy and antiblackness). This system of coercive violence, in all facets of life & thought, continues today.

      Ngugi (another decolonial theorist) describes colonialism as a ‘cultural bomb’ which destroyed “a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves”. Except, unlike a bomb, the blast is not a one time thing, it is a framework that develops, morphs and changes to best suit the conditions, to best suit the colonizers/settlers agenda of control over Indigenous peoples and lands.

      The final piece of this in Canada’s context (and this brief description) is land. Settler colonization (a particular form of the ‘colonial’) needs land. Land for settlers to live, land for settlers to develop wealth from, land to exploit. In Canada, there were Indigenous people here living on and with the land already, so when settlers arrived they needed to use this system of power and violence to remove the Indigenous peoples from the land. In a system of domination, there is little room for ‘sharing’ or ‘treaties’, despite a willingness to use such terms. Settlers used (and continue to use) any way possible – killing, forcibly removing, confining, killing cultures of – to remove Indigenous people from the land so they could live, develop wealth, and exploit.

      All of this is wrapped into what I call the ‘colonial’ – a system of destroying Indigenous peoples, cultures and lands for the benefit of settler society, a system of power and domination that inherently needs violence against Indigenous peoples to survive. This system is what Canada is built on, from it’s very beginnings until the present day and something, I argue in the essay, that is hardly worth celebrating.

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