12 December 2017
INDIGENOUS PEOPLES SOLIDARITY: Go back to your country; living reality of settler-colonialism in Canada
by Rebaz K. Mohammed
“Why don’t you go back to your country?” said the young man to me at the YMCA gym that I attend in Winnipeg/Treaty 1 territory. I naturally tried to defuse the tension, but at the same time I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to point out his position as a white settler on a land taken from the original peoples. I replied calmly, “I can ask you to do the same, you know!” I suspect he understood what I meant, as he gave me an empty stare before walking away quickly.
This incident was a good reminder of the consistent racism that non-white people face in Canada. It usually goes unnoticed because Canada is pictured by politicians as a land of inclusiveness, and it still welcomes everyone the same way the first European immigrants were welcomed by the indigenous nations hundreds of years ago. More importantly, this incident was a good reminder of how much work there is to be done in exposing and undoing oppression, the main manifestation of it Canada being settler-colonialism.
It is easy for European settlers to forget that Turtle Island is not their land and it never was, because for most of them the discovery and claim of the land is a historic event that ended a long time ago and the case was closed. But colonialism is not a historical event, it is a living reality; it started only few hundred years ago and it hasn’t stopped or improved much since. On the contrary, the dispossession of the original peoples of this land continues to this day.
A lot of settlers and newcomers don’t realize that the land they benefited/benefit from is not theirs. The government either took it from the indigenous peoples either by killing those people or by taking large pieces of rich land that they considered ceded, surrendered or unoccupied, which their settler ancestors then benefited from. This was done under the eyes of the British Crown, and through a narrow interpretation of the treaties that was made with the indigenous nations. An interpretation that neither included the original commitments that indigenous leaders and the government verbally agreed upon, nor fulfilled the few promises the government made that were included in the written version of the treaties.
Based on what we’ve learned from Elders and educators, the spirit and intent of those treaties was sharing the land with the settlers and living together in peace, in exchange for mutual development for both communities, such as better education, better health care, and better infrastructure.
Today, after hundreds of years passing since signing the first treaty in Canada, we find that instead of promised economic development, the indigenous nations have been left with only 0.2% of the land, about 1/4 of homeless people are indigenous, unemployment is significantly higher among indigenous people than the general population, federal spending on education and child and family services discriminates against indigenous families on reserve and much more.
In place of promised infrastructure, many reserves don’t have clean drinking water, adequate roads, proper housing, or good health care. Instead, they live in what has been described as “third world” living conditions.
The promise of good education turned into kidnapping an estimated 150,000 children from indigenous families and placing them in residential schools, with the odds of 1 in 25 dying due to diseases and malnutrition, and a great number of those who survived were sexually abused, forced to stop speaking their language, practicing their culture and spirituality, and forced to become Christians instead. And the intergenerational effects of this assimilation policy are strongly affecting the indigenous communities to this day.
This is the reality of Canada today, with structural oppression marking the policy of the government in its relationship with indigenous nations, instead of true reconciliation. And that’s why this is a reminder for everyone of how much is still left to be done to undo colonialism. We can’t have enough activists and peacemakers working on undoing the oppression that was inflicted upon the people by the settler-colonialism. It shouldn’t be only a few people’s mission to change the reality and eradicate racism. Especially in these days, with the white supremacists getting stronger and stronger, it is everyone’s obligation to step forward and get in the way.