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

BY Eric Ritskes / Commentary, Decolonization / 2 COMMENTS

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.


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Tectonic Shift(s)

I've always written poetry. Most of it has been bad, some of it might have been good. Most of it I've had no idea if it was 'bad' or 'good'.

I've never published any poetry. This might have something to do with that I've no idea if my poetry is 'bad' or 'good'. Despite an undergraduate degree in English literature, in which I took a number of classes specifically about poetry, I'm not really sure I can tell good poetry or bad poetry.

So, this might be bad.

But this last year has seen a reinvigoration of poetry writing in my life. I'm not sure what sparked it, if it's a continuation of past poetry writing practices, or if it is the result of some 'spark' at all. But, I have decided to share some of it.

This is not the best poem I've written. Mostly I know that because I have no idea how to evaluate what my best poem would look like. But, it is a poem. It is the first poem I wrote in this period of 'reinvigoration', and sometimes what is first is the truest expression of what you want to accomplish, of what you hope to do. Sometimes it is only a first draft of what only long hours and long discarded drafts can accomplish. Either way, this is my poem.


Tectonic Shift(s)

A shift in landscape reposes questions of relations:

How do you hang on when the world is leaning?

It is an imperative, for times that have long passed into the future,

For working new plots of land.

Local movements in cities, apartment blocks,

Moving mountains, train tracks glacially tenured.

What is the appropriate action,

When you know that there are two sides to every coin?


Is this a deviation from the generalized state of security, or

Standard Operating Procedure?


Can we formulate practical proposals that are not

Stillborn from the mouths,

Absent of the necessary blood and sweat and tears and rebel yells?

Why do things get worse with each revelation,

Each roiling rotation,

Each revolution?


They prowl, they categorize, they build where we burn

And all the while we dream nascent dreams of the past.

Some claim immunity while others claim impunity.


Can you count the pain? Can you balance the white sheets

Draped over prone bodies and heads?

Spectacle of the splinter, driving it in - oh so - deep.

Transformation of naïve innocence

In order to bear witness,

To say their names, ages, sisters, and their sins.


It all seems so insane yet so calculated, so fluid yet so proper.

What do you hang on to when the world is leaning

In sanctimonious excess

And you don’t know your own hands, your own head

And compromise is the only position your body knows?


The impunity of the inarticulable violence that stalks our dreams,

That lifts each foot each step, away, yet still touching, holding on

Movement without a hope, spinning tops waiting to fall.

Ignoring the face of this place,

Which smells oily and law-like in its shame,

We dream gaps into being so that we,

Never filling but always falling,

Might run into them.

The continued violence of #AllLivesMatter: Mural of Sandra Bland defaced in Ottawa

The backlash to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which sprung up last summer during the resistance in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, Baltimore and beyond, was as speedy and as certain as the three seconds Cleveland PD needed to gun down Tamir Rice in a park. The hashtag #AllLivesMatter sprung up as a pushback to the centring of Blackness; the hashtag was challenging and fear inducing to white supremacy even in its centering of Blackness as an epicentre of white violence. This violence is visited by white supremacy upon Black bodies in a white colonial state and this revelation, while not really a revelation to anyone who is not white, seemed threatening enough to white folks that they immediately erased Blackness yet again and reasserted white violence with the #AllLivesMatter hashtag.

Many penned their reasons explaining why #AllLivesMatter was racist and violent, hoping perhaps that there were some well meaning white people out there using it by accident. And perhaps there were a few. Yet, the sentiment survives and, in fact, has seen a revival in the recent US presidential race, most notably with Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton walking into a Black church and proclaiming “All lives matter.” Understanding the power of #AllLivesMatter matters...

What has also continued is the murder of Black people by police. As activists have noted, hardly a day has gone by without someone in American being murdered by a police officer, the ones who some still trust to ‘protect and serve’. One of the most recent cases was that of Sandra Bland, a Black activist pulled over for an alleged traffic violation, roughed up by the arresting officer for daring to assert her rights in the face of routine police intimidation, and found dead in her jail cell days later. While an investigation is still ongoing, to many there is no doubt that Sandra’s murder is part of an ongoing pattern of the state and their belief in the disposability of Black life.

In the wake of Sandra Bland’s death, artists Kalkidan Assefa and Allan Andre painted a mural in Ottawa in remembrance.

Original Mural, via Ade Boluwatife (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10153328745204300&set=a.10151131979674300.445670.504909299&type=1&__mref=message_bubble)

Original Mural, via Ade Boluwatife.

This is significant in it’s cross-border connection making. Canada promotes a narrative of blissful and peaceful multiculturalism, particularly in contrast to race relations in the United States. And yet, Black life is routinely erased, in many ways. The day after the mural was painted, activists marched in Toronto to protest the police murders of Jarmaine Carby and Andrew Loku, Black men gunned down by police. They shut down highways, reminiscent of actions south of the border. In Montreal, the same week, two police officers were found guilty of beating a Black man stopped for a traffic violation. Canada does not value Black life any more than the United States; in this, colonial states are remarkably consistent.

Less than 48 hours after it was completed, the mural of Sandra Bland was defaced with “All Lives Matter.”

Defaced mural, via RJ D. Jones.

Defaced mural, via RJ D. Jones.

Make no mistake, this is an act of white supremacy. #AllLivesMatter is a mantra of white supremacy that ignores history, social relations, power, and, most of all, the lives of non-White people. #AllLivesMatter is a mantra of peaceful multiculturalism that proclaims equality in the face of disproportionate violence against Black and Indigenous peoples, in particular.  #AllLivesMatter is hate speech, especially when splashed across the mural of a slain Black women, erasing once again Black life, remembrance, resistance, and presence. It proclaims that Sandra Bland’s life does not matter underneath of #AllLivesMatter.

This defacement was spotted by RJ Jones, who organized a group of Black, Indigenous and white allies to attempt to fix the mural. This too is significant in its connections. In Canada, like in the United States, Black and Indigenous peoples are the most targeted by police violence. In fact, days after Sandra Bland was detained and murdered by police, a Choctaw activist, Rexdale Henry, was found dead in his cell after failing to pay a fine for a traffic citation. While in different yet connected ways, Indigenous lives do not matter in the white colonial state. So it is Indigenous youth who recognized Black life as valuable, recognized the violence of #AllLivesMatter and attempted to restore the mural. As Anishinaabekwe writer Leanne Simpson wrote during the #BlackLivesMatter protests last summer, “I was reminded over and over this week that Black and Indigenous communities of struggle are deeply connected through our experiences with colonialism, oppression and white supremacy.”

Touched up mural, via RJ D Jones.

Touched up mural, via RJ D Jones.

The violence of colonialism and white supremacy continues, writing itself onto buildings, over murals, onto bodies and the land, and into the laws – and the enforcement of them - of our countries. #AllLivesMatter is a form of this violence and cannot be ignored, cannot be condoned, cannot continue. As Leanne Simpson writes, “To me, Ferguson is a call not only to indict the system but to decolonize the systems that create and maintain the forces of Indigenous genocide and anti-Blackness.” We must continue to resist, continue to remember Black and Indigenous life and, more importantly, begin to support and centre Black and Indigenous life beyond the spectacle of their death. We must decolonize systems of white supremacy that are built on Black and Indigenous death.

A version of this post was republished in the Huffington Post, here.

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