The strategies of confronting racism that people of colour (the “our” and “we” of this paper) employ must reflect these realities. We must also recognize our implication in colonial processes even while they deeply (and detrimentally) affect us. Our current strategies of confronting systemic racism that code our communities as outside of the nation or inconsequential to its well-being are, therefore, insufficient for addressing the particular violence directed toward Aboriginal people. Without succumbing to the paralysis of guilt or self-pity, which often shifts attention from challenging oppression to easing consciences, we must recognize our conflicted position as marginalized settlers and treaty citizens.
Power and complicity
Shifting currents of power are brought to bear on our lives; thus our sense of self is produced through power. Writing from an anti-racist feminist perspective, Sherene Razack notes that we cannot confidently speak of “women’s experience” because there is no single experience and no universal woman.2 We all navigate different power contexts that position us as subordinate, complicit, or oppressive in complex and often unpredictable ways. Thus a woman can be both subordinate and oppressor at once:
For example, think of the migrant woman of colour, who, once in Canada becomes “temporary foreign worker,” “underemployed,” “minority,” “marginal,” and “settler” all at once. Not only does her sense of self shift with the shifting forces at work around her, demanding her to respond in partial and in varied ways, but in these shifting configurations of power come shifting communities, networks of knowledge, history and tradition. Sometimes these relationships are productive and help her to achieve some sense of [community,] self and justice, and sometimes they are exploitative and abusive. Regardless, layer upon layer they impinge on her sense of self in relation to others.3
There is no such thing as the innocent subject whose hands are unsullied by power. Razack writes that “[w]hen we pursue … shifting hierarchical relations, we can begin to recognize how we are implicated in the subordination of other women.”4 She notes that given the interactive nature of power, even those of us who strive to be attuned to power and justice are deeply implicated in the oppression of others.
This does not mean that social justice work is pointless or that power is so relative that its abuse fundamentally means nothing; this acknowledgement calls upon us to shift our attention from the quest for innocence to the dynamics of power in which we are located and act upon. This also exposes the process nature of power and oppression where the marginalized are called upon to ensure the domination of others on the margins, and where oppression is realized institutionally and individually. The denial of personal accountability on the basis of a lack of direct personal or ancestral action will not wash here. Even if my ancestors had no direct role to play in residential schools, I am nonetheless their beneficiary. While the power at work here is socially constructed, it is undeniably a material reality. In other words, power and power hierarchies matter in immediate and visceral ways, and so we must direct our attention to the power contexts that produce us as simultaneously marginal and dominant. Exposing power and oppression as processes means that they are not de facto states of being. This leaves the possibility for justice open and this is a potentially productive place to work from.
When I was a student, a professor asked those of us non-Aboriginal students to consider the privileges we enjoyed in Canada.5 This was a hard task for me as I saw more burdens than privileges. I saw racist violence, alienation, glass ceilings, tokenism, and accusations of fundamentalism and terrorism. And even though I continue to see and experience racism in varied ways, I benefit from settler privileges. The right to earn a living from the land, to build a home (physical and metaphorical) anywhere in this country, and to be a citizen are only a few examples of how settlers are privileged. These privileges came from treaty with Aboriginal nations, without whose recognition settlers would have no right to build homes, govern themselves, move freely, or earn a living here. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people are, as J.R. Miller says, not “leaving any time soon.”6 He urges politicians to respect this and leave aside their polemics in favour of cooperation. “They also would be doing the country an enormous favour by getting behind efforts to educate the non-Native public about treaty rights through public education and curriculum reform.”7 In short, settlers are “treaty people” too, even if popular logic declares treaty to be exclusive to Aboriginal people. Shortly, I will outline how some Aboriginal political philosophers and legal scholars explain treaty and treaty relationships, but I would now like to turn to the ways that relationships and plurality are invoked and managed in the Canadian nation in relation to residential schools.
The Prime Minister’s apology for residential schools indicates the need to collectively shoulder the responsibilities of apology and reconciliation, and it indicates the opening of a space to discuss community, collective responsibility, and the scope of the offered apology. In Prime Minister Harper’s own words, “on behalf of the Government of Canada and all Canadians, I stand before you, in this Chamber so central to our life as a country, to apologize to Aboriginal peoples for Canada’s role in the Indian Residential Schools system.” He then endorsed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s role of educating the nation about residential schools, stating that “[i]t will be a positive step in forging a new relationship between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians, a relationship based on the knowledge of our shared history, a respect for each other and a desire to move forward together with a renewed understanding that strong families, strong communities and vibrant cultures and traditions will contribute to a stronger Canada for all of us.”8 What the Prime Minister proposes is no less than the formation of a new relationship where the distinctness of our communities, families, and cultures will be respected. Compelling though this image is, Harper has demonstrated a lack of commitment to this new relationship and, as Chrisjohn and Wasacase argue, his government is ideologically in line with those that instituted residential schools.9 Moreover, the language of harmony and tolerance that Harper invokes brings to mind the language of multicultural inclusion and skirts the matter of profound structural change that would enable a true commitment to good relations. As Razack has argued, one cannot acknowledge difference without confronting domination.10
The relationship between the state and non-Aboriginal people of colour is deeply fraught, marked by structurally entrenched inequality. Prior to groundbreaking work on historical struggles for citizenship and national recognition,11 one might mistakenly believe that people of colour are recent additions to the national fabric. Indeed, when non-Aboriginal people of colour are invoked in public discourse, it is often within the multicultural frame, which ignores the historic diversity of Canada and the profound power imbalances that shaped it. Multiculturalism is a liberal social contract of tolerance for cultural difference within a nation. But tolerance is not anti-racism and it will not end racism.12 Anti-racism demands an analysis of the ways that racial oppression is systemically embedded, thereby denaturalizing it and moving us closer to its destabilization. In other words, its eyes are set on power whereas multiculturalism looks to cultural harmony without the imperative of systemic change. Multiculturalism allows the nation to remain recognizable and intact. This does not permit racial justice or a new and just relationship with Aboriginal people.
Despite official multiculturalism’s failures, people of colour have often been invoked to provide the gloss of racial and cultural harmony for a nation rooted in oppression. But this gloss is thin; as many critical race theorists have noted,13 Canada is a settler nation, rooted in colonial ideologies of governance, land tenure, and the law. Indeed, colonization is a global matrix (after all the British empire alleged that the sun did not set on its flag), and many non-Aboriginal people of colour hail from nations left deeply scarred by its legacy. Through migration our ancestors and we have sworn allegiance to Canada and the Queen of England. This is a deeply conflicted position to be in since the colonization of nations across the globe was carried out in the name of European, if not specifically British, empire. Not only is this a terrible irony to leave one nation blighted by colonialism only to swear an oath of allegiance to its figurehead, but it compels us to consider the different relationship with the state that sets Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people of colour apart (set apart, but not in opposition). Non-Aboriginal people of colour are not sovereign on this land. While our connection to this land might be important it is not critical to our languages, stories, knowledge systems, and selves. And, importantly, we have not entered into treaty with the Canadian state; rather, we have submitted to the state’s authority, even while we may contest it. This is not so with Aboriginal nations, which are linked with the Canadian state and the colonial empires before it through treaty.
One expression of domination in Canada occurs with the imposition of equivalences that, in effect, would level the very difference that distinguishes First Nations’ sovereignty from the ethnic, linguistic, or cultural rights of other minorities. The language of a state-to-state relationship is often used to communicate the intact sovereignty of Aboriginal nations and distinguish their unique position vis-à-vis the state, but this is tricky language. Nationalism and sovereignty are often understood in Eurocentric terms, which assume that its definitions are universal while variations are something less than “true” nationalism and sovereignty. This simply is not the case. Aboriginal sovereignty and nationality are distinct and affirmed in treaties made with European newcomers.
To First Nations, the gesture of national accommodation and inclusion does not even begin to address the fundamental problems of imposing a settler national structure on an existing state-to-state relationship. Legal scholar and citizen of the Chicksaw Nation, James (Sakéj) Youngblood Henderson begins from the fundamental position that treaties formed between First Nations and the British Crown affirm First Nations’ sovereignty. He argues that the imposition of Canadian settler nationalism in the form of Canadian citizenship threatens to undermine Aboriginal sovereignty that “transforms the sacred homeland of Aboriginal nations” into a space where ethnic difference is paraded in the service of “Euro-Canadian self-congratulation and individualism.”14 Henderson writes:
These sui generis sovereigns are the ancient law of the land, and they are embedded in Aboriginal heritages, languages, and laws. They were distinct from the European traditions of aristocracy and sovereignty. They reflect a distinct vision of how to live well with the land with other peoples by consent and collaboration. The diversity within Aboriginal sovereignty reveals a generation of holistic orders that were designed to be consensual, interactive, dynamic, and cumulative … They are intimately embedded in Aboriginal worldviews, ceremonies, and stories, as expressed by the structure and media of Aboriginal languages and art. They reveal who First Nations are, what they believe, what their experiences have been, and how they act. In short, they reveal Aboriginal humanity’s belief in freedom and order.15
Aboriginal politics exercise a philosophy of relations that Huron–Wendat historian Georges Sioui describes as “circular” philosophies.16 Circular philosophies recognize the interrelatedness of the human and the land, animal, water, spirit, and plant worlds. This necessitates the making of treaties that formalize these relationships and ensure that they are properly cared for. Just as a circle has no end, treaty is a process to be made and reaffirmed. It is recursive. The potential to recover neglected relations or repair abused ones is therefore alive.
Contrary to the settler myth that Aboriginal people were ignorant of treaty-making practices until Europeans introduced them, it was European newcomers who needed to be versed in Aboriginal treaty practices. Treaties between Aboriginal and European nations were governed by the Covenant Chain of Silver (communicated in Gus Wen Tah, or Two Row Wampum). According to Métis historian David McNab:
The Covenant Chain is an Aboriginal concept of relationships in their totality which have included, among other things, cultures, diplomacy and trade. The Chain, which was adopted by the Dutch, the French and then the English, was originally wrought in iron and then in silver; it was a metaphor for the partnership, or covenant, meaning a sacred agreement, between the Aboriginal and European nations in all matters regarding their mutual relationship.17
Peace, respect, and friendship were the basis of all subsequent treaties, or in McNab’s words, “This was the original meeting ground.”18 The Covenant Chain of Silver ensures that all treaties re-affirm this relationship, and it communicates the recursiveness of the treaty-making process; left unpolished, silver will tarnish, thus a shining chain is the sign of a good treaty relationship.
Traditions and stories surrounding treaty are meant to educate everyone about the relationships entered into and communicated by treaty. These are sacred relationships. Cree reverend and moderator Stan McKay describes the spiritual significance of treaty: “Treaty talks were about sharing the sacred land, and that required prayerful preparation. The treaty negotiations were understood to be tripartite. The talks involved the Creator, the Queen’s representatives, and the Aboriginal peoples.”19 McKay notes that the involvement of the spiritual world in the treaty process was lost on settler society, which wrongly understands treaty to mean the imposition of agreements by a powerful body onto a comparatively powerless one. This is a disempowering, reductive, and overwhelmingly popular view of treaty. Such a view fails to recognize treaty-making practices as a vitally important part of Aboriginal spiritual and political life as well as a critical avenue for historical and contemporary Aboriginal political action. Failing to recognize the significance of treaty to Aboriginal political philosophies and practices amounts to another act of colonization.
Treaty as a space of solidarity
Residential schools were instituted under the pretense of fulfilling the government’s treaty obligations. Cree citizen and founding president of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, John Tootoosis, explains that when they made treaty with settlers, Aboriginal leaders stipulated that their children be educated in settler ways of knowing and doing so they and future generations could “compete on an equal basis.”20 The government’s response came in the form of residential schools. “The government violated deeply the spirit and intent of this most important (to the Indians) promise. The “education” provided was immediately subordinated to the conversion process and religious indoctrination.”21 Residential schooling, like other state strategies of cultural genocide and colonial violence, did profound violence to treaty relationships made between First Nations and the Crown. In this context, returning to treaties as a space that might enable cooperative action can risk a return to such abusive practices, but it also turns a critical eye on the colonial mechanisms that worked to diminish and transform treaty into a smokescreen for genocide. Commitment to good treaty relationships opens a critical space for challenging the quotidian and institutionalized operation of power that produced residential schools and kept them in operation. After all, good treaty relations will never be maintained through the status quo.
The Crown represents non-Aboriginal people’s interests in treaties with Aboriginal nations, but as I have said, the Crown has violated the rights of its non-white citizens (indeed, throughout the country’s history, citizenship was exclusively granted to white people) despite repeated promises of multicultural inclusion. We, people of colour that is, have metaphorically and literally challenged the borders of the Canadian state, and we recognize that the state is not natural and immutable, but susceptible to (incremental, glacial) change.
In an effort to identify and analyze colonialism’s role as the structuring mechanism of oppressions in settler nations, some anti-racists have articulated their accountability to the sovereignty of Aboriginal nations.22 This commitment to Aboriginal sovereignty serves as a useful way of linking the work of challenging race and racism to Aboriginal political struggles, foregrounding the imperative to decolonize and restore Aboriginal sovereignty. This is useful and insightful work; however, given the colonization of Aboriginal knowledge systems and the historical failure of non-Aboriginal people to appreciate the depth and breadth of Aboriginal philosophies, we cannot assume that anti-racists (and I count myself among them) understand Aboriginal sovereignty in Aboriginal terms. I am not saying that Aboriginal knowledges are unknowable, but that colonial ideology is pervasive.
Sovereignty is a debated concept among Aboriginal philosophers and activists. Scholar and activist Aileen Moreton–Robinson,23 citizen of the Quandamooka Nation, argues that sovereignty matters in material and embodied as well as public, political, and cultural ways. She questions the ways that Aboriginal sovereignty and politics are represented and opportunistically used by settler political and cultural institutions and power holders. Noting the diminishment of Aboriginal knowledge and political systems, Kanien’kehaka political philosopher Taiaiake Alfred warns that the notion of Aboriginal sovereignty is often grafted onto its European counterpart along with its attendant notions of state, governance, and borders.24 This colonial strategy suggests that Aboriginal political and knowledge systems are derivative of their European counterparts, thus decolonial uses of sovereignty are severely curtailed. Cherokee feminist activist and scholar Andrea Smith recognizes the colonial uses of and abuses to sovereignty but argues that the concept need not be shackled to its European definition.25 Rather, she argues for an Indigenous understanding of sovereignty that is non-statist, non-hierarchal, and takes direction from Indigenous women activists who express an inclusive, relational, and spiritual vision of sovereignty. Sovereignty is a contested and politically urgent concept, and the complexity of these debates suggest that when Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists talk of sovereignty, they are not speaking about the same thing.
I am in favour of organizing on the basis of a shared interest in treaty and treaty relationships over a mutual commitment to sovereignty because treaty is the basis of relationships and for non-Aboriginal belonging on this land, not because sovereignty is irretrievable from colonial versions while treaty is somehow unaffected. Both treaty and sovereignty have been subject to sustained colonial violence. Treaty is important to non-Aboriginal people of colour and anti-racist politics because it is the ground upon which residential schools are condemned, the apology is criticized, and redress is sought. Treaty is also the space that the state has attempted to appropriate and empty of meaning. The turn to treaty is important also in terms of solidarity formation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people of colour because it presents the possibility to develop discursive spaces where we can begin to explore our relationship with one another within a settler and racist state.
We might begin to develop this discursive space by exploring why people of colour have been written out of, perhaps forgotten in, the treaty relationship between the Crown and Aboriginal nations. This is another way of asking how colonial power alienates non-Aboriginal people of colour from our relationships with Aboriginal people. In theory, the Crown represents our (people of colour) interests, thus we are already in relationship with Aboriginal peoples. That en masse we do not know this reflects the dominant strategy of including (or perhaps absorbing) us when it suits the status quo, and it certainly suits the status quo to present the image of a contrite, though unified, and so stable settler nation. A stable settler nation is a nation resistant to actually cultivating a good treaty relationship with Aboriginal nations. From the marginalized settler’s side of this relationship, the Canadian state is in need of substantial change. Multicultural inclusion was presented to us as the healing salve, but it offers surface relief, not substantive change, and so we must resist the vacant conciliatory language and the parade of ethnic difference. Treaties are adaptable enough to last such critique and reconstitution on the settler’s end; those formed between Aboriginal nations and the Dutch, for example, were transferred to subsequent imperial interests. Anti-racist action and people of colour must continue to challenge the Aboriginal–white dichotomy that pervades the literature and that “whites out” people of colour from the establishment of settler states.
So what’s a person of colour to do? The critical thing in my view is to focus attention on decolonizing treaty. In other words, we need to turn from an understanding of treaty as a historical artifact, based in European notions of rights and freedoms, and move toward Aboriginal philosophies of treaty as a process of making and keeping good relations. We, people of colour, must refuse the myth that treaty does not concern us. We belong here not because Canada opened its doors, but because Aboriginal nations permitted settler governance on their lands. Finally, we must identify as treaty citizens and so refuse the liberal strategies of tolerance and inclusion of difference at the expense of the more difficult task of formative change. After all, treaty is the space where power is negotiated.
Robinder Kaur Sehdev is a first-generation immigrant currently residing on Anishinabe territory. She was raised in Cree, Dene, and Métis territory (Fort McMurray, Alberta) where treaty talk, settler racism, and the capitalist “development” imperative significantly shaped her understanding of belonging, community, and colonialism. She is a non-Indigenous affiliate of the Indigenous Studies Research Network based in Brisbane, Australia. She holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from York and Ryerson universities where she researched the involvement of popular cultural representational practices in the normalization of the myth of the innocent settler state. Robinder is editor of a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Law and Society on Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission with Dr. Rosemary Nagy. Her current research asks how the concept of sovereignty is conceptualized and taken up by anti-racist feminists seeking solidarity with Indigenous peoples in Australia and Canada. This research queries the possibilities of developing social justice, specifically feminist, alliances across colonial differences. She has taught extensively in critical Indigenous, race, and feminist studies. ↩
- As I write, the Toronto chapter of the activist network, Defenders of the Land, is preparing for “Indigenous Sovereignty Week 2010: Indigenous Resistance and Renewal” (21–28 November 2010), which features a workshop called “Indigenous Solidarity for People of Colour.” There are other networks that work to establish solidarities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people of colour. For example, INCITE! a feminist activist network of women of colour and Indigenous women across Turtle Island focuses on solidarity formation for anti-violence. ↩
- Razack, Sherene H. (1998:159). Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press. ↩
- Sehdev, Robinder Kaur (2010:118). Lessons from the bridge: On the possibilities of anti–racist feminist alliances in Indigenous spaces. In L. Simpson and K. Ladner (eds.). This Is an Honour Song: Twenty Years since the Blockades. Winnipeg, MB: Arbeiter Ring Publishing: 105–123. ↩
- Razack (1998:159). ↩
- I will always be grateful to Patricia Monture for turning her classroom into a space of creative anti-colonial dreaming. ↩
- Miller, J.R. (2009:306). Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty–making in Canada. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press. ↩
- Miller (2009:306). ↩
- On 11 June 2008 Prime Minister Harper offered a full apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian residential school system in Ottawa, Ontario. Retrieved from: http://pm.gc.ca/eng/media.asp?id=2149 ↩
- Chrisjohn, R. and T. Wasacase (2009). Half–truths and whole lies: Rhetoric in the ‘Apology’ and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In G. Younging, J. Dewar, and M. DeGagné (eds.). Response, Responsibility, and Renewal: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Journey. Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation: 219–229. ↩
- Razack (1998). ↩
- For examples, see: McKittrick, K. (2002). “Their Blood is There, and They Can’t Throw it Out”: Honouring Black Canadian geographies. Topia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 7:27–37; Ward, W.P. (2002). White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy Toward Orientals in British Columbia (3rd ed.). Montreal, QC: McGill–Queen’s University Press. ↩
- Bannerji, H. (1997). Multiculturalism is … anti–anti–racism: A conversation with Himani Bannerji. Kinesis: 8–9. ↩
- See: Bannerji, H. (2000). The Dark Side of the Nation: Essays on Multiculturalism, Nationalism and Gender. Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholar’s Press, Inc.; Razack, Sherene H. (2002). Introduction: When place becomes race. In S.H. Razack (ed.). Race, Space, and the law: Unmapping a White Settler Society. Toronto, ON: Between the Lines Press: 1–20; Stasiulis, D. and R. Jhappan (1995). The fractious politics of a settler society: Canada. In D. Stasiulis and N. Yuval–David (eds.). Unsettling Settler Societies: Articulations of Gender, Race, Ethnicity and Class. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage: 95–131. ↩
- Henderson, J.S.Y. (2002:416). Sui Generis and Treaty Citizenship. Citizenship Studies 6(4):415–440. ↩
- Henderson, J.S.Y. (2008:21). Treaty governance. In Y.D. Belanger (ed.). Aboriginal Self–Government in Canada: Current Trends and Issues (3rd ed.). Saskatoon, SK: Purich: 20–38. ↩
- Sioui, Georges (1999). Huron–Wendat: The Heritage of the Circle. (Trans. J. Brierley). Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press. ↩
- McNab, David (1999:8). Circles of Time: Aboriginal Land Rights and Resistance in Ontario. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. ↩
- McNab (1999:11). ↩
- McKay, Stan (2008:110). Expanding the dialogue on truth and reconciliation—In a good way. In M. Brant Castellano, L. Archibald, and M. DeGagné (eds.). From Truth to Reconciliation: Transforming the Legacy of Residential Schools. Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation: 103-115. ↩
- Cited in Goodwill, J. and N. Sluman (1984:27). John Tootoosis. Winnipeg, MB: Pemmican Publications. ↩
- Goodwill and Sluman (1984:27). ↩
- See: Lawrence, B. and E. Dua (2005). Decolonizing antiracism. Social Justice 32(4):120–143; Thobani cited in Khan, S. (2007). The fight for feminism: An interview with Sunera Thobani. Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action 5. Retrieved 6 December 2010 from: http://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/05-the-fight-for-feminism; Razack (2002); Razack (1998); Nicoll, F. (2004). Reconciliation in and out of perspective: White knowing, seeing, curating and being at home in and against indigenous sovereignty. In A. Moreton–Robinson (ed.). Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. Canberra, AU: Aboriginal Studies Press: 17–31; Nicoll, F. (2000). Indigenous sovereignty and the violence of perspective: A white woman’s coming out story. Australian Feminist Studies 15(33): 368–386. doi:10.1080/713611981 ↩
- Moreton–Robinson, A. (2007). Introduction. In A. Moreton–Robinson (ed.). Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous Sovereignty Matters. Crows Nest, AU: Allen & Unwin: 1–11. ↩
- Alfred, Taiaiake (2009). Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto (2nd ed.). Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press. ↩
- Smith, Andrea (2008). Native Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. ↩