A Reflection on Solidarity between Indigenous Peoples and Settler Refugees of Colour

Sylvia McAdam (Saysewahum)

My name is Sylvia McAdam (Saysewahum) and I’m a Cree woman (nêhiyaw iskwew) from the Treaty 6 lands, which is located in what is now referred to as Saskatchewan province in Canada. We call our great continent Turtle Island. Our tribe’s name is Nêhiyawak, and in the colonizer’s language, we are called the Crees. Long ago, we numbered in the millions, sprawled over the prairies far into the United States. However, the intentional and purposeful annihilation owing to the Indian Act, Indian Residential Schools, Pass and Permit System, diseases, and many other genocidal methods, have decimated our numbers, leaving my people a mere shadow of our existence.

I grew up on an Indian Act reservation called Whitefish Lake #118, currently referred to as Big River First Nation. I am a registered Indian under the Indian Act and I carry a card with an identifying number. I have to follow regulations under the Indian Act, which dictates every aspect of my life. The Indian Act is in complete violation of Treaty 6, which is a Peace and Friendship Treaty, rather than a cede and surrender one as stated by the British Crown. The British Empire and its Crown system of imperialism created “possessions” and “provinces” on the Great Turtle Island, dividing up my people’s lands like pieces of meat and tossing it away to be destroyed.

In an act of resistance and survival, parents hid away some of their children in our hunting lands, and nourished secretly to carry our knowledges, languages and culture. Our lands became silent of children’s voices and laughter. My family and peoples’ lands are marked by the bones of my relatives and ancestors, while colonizers build campgrounds over and on top of them. I am a product of my family’s resistance to an ongoing genocide on the Turtle Island. I carry the memory of our freedom and liberation. Canada continues to occupy our lands. Canada continues to plunder and pillage our lands, waters, and animals.

Sujith Xavier

My name is Sujith Xavier. I was born in a tiny village 45 minutes away from Jaffna town in the Northern province of Sri Lanka. My mother and I fled our home when I was nine because of the protracted war between my people, the Tamils and the majority supported Sinhala Government.

Once Western colonizers had granted independence to our small Island nation, the Tamils of Sri Lanka faced harassment, discrimination, and death. With the arrival of the colonizers (first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and followed by the British), my peoples’ lives and history changed forever. When the first wave of colonizers arrived on our shores, they found multiple distinct nations with their respective cultures, traditions, and languages. With the tide of colonial history of the Island and the eventual push for independence, we saw the creation of the unitary nation-state in 1948, which later witnessed multiple communities vying for power. Thus, the Tamils became the target and were often marginalized. This form of discrimination would lead to the creation of a self-determination movement in the North and East of the country. To achieve freedom, these movements eventually turned to violence.

This struggle for power manifested itself in the daily shelling executed by the Sri Lankan military in the North and East. It is really hard to forget the first bunker that my father built in front of our house under the mango trees. My grandfather planted these trees with care years ago. I cannot forget the free-flowing bullets from the black, grey, and sometimes green helicopters, and the loud thud of the shells landing somewhere in the middle of our village. As the fighting intensified, my mother and I first fled to Colombo, the country’s capital. As the repression of political dissent intensified, our family could no longer stay in the capital and so we left. We landed in what is now known as Montreal, Quebec, in 1988, twenty years before the genocide in 2009 in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. We claimed asylum and settled as refugee settlers in Canada, first in Montreal and later in Toronto. I would eventually make my way to the traditional territories of the Three Fires Confederacy, where I now live, love, and work as a refugee queer settler of colour teaching law at the Faculty of Law in the University of Windsor.[1]

The violent conflict between the Tamil Tigers, the main militant group that sought independence from the unitary state, and the Sri Lankan state, would rage on for 27 years, with countless deaths on both sides. The conflict ended in May 2009 with the Tigers defeated by the Sri Lankan state. At this point, the military of the Sri Lankan state, with the help of foreign governments, had managed to corner the civilians on a strip of land in the Northern province. By the last stages of the war, almost three hundred thousand Tamil people were crowded over a strip of sand along the beach in Mullivaikkal as they sought refuge from the fighting. As the fighting increased, the Sri Lankan state knowingly and deliberately commenced its genocide against the Tamils by indiscriminately bombing the makeshift hospitals, tents, and other dwellings put up by the refugees. Many of us, who had fled the conflict before the genocide, watched in horror as our people were slaughtered by the racist Sri Lankan state, in its zeal to get rid of the dreaded “terrorists”. I watched as my people died, while I survived and thrived on stolen lands.

Truth, Freedom, and Solidarity on Occupied Lands

The Palestinian-American scholar, Steven Salaita, suggests that solidarity for Palestine liberation in settler colonial states such as Canada and the US first requires an action to decolonize Turtle Island.[2] Taking our cue from Salaita, we reflect on our solidarity work and the contingency of our freedom on Turtle Island based on our own lived experiences.

Freedom, we are told, is part of the founding fabric of Canada. The preamble of the 1982 Constitution, along with the various rights guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, are meant to protect those within Canada’s borders. These alleged freedoms range from basic protection of life, liberty, and security of the person to other forms of democratic participation rights. These freedoms, largely civil and political in nature, are the fabric of Canadian democracy that was founded on the recognition of the “the supremacy of God and the rule of law”.

But for both of us, as a nêhiyaw (Cree) woman from Treaty Six and as a Tamil queer refugee settler from northern Sri Lanka, these are the founding myths of settler colonial Canada. For us, our freedom does not lie within a Westphalian nation-state. The state’s promises of civil and political rights are a distraction. Our freedom is bound together as we forge a path forward in dismantling White supremacy and reconfiguring the political process that continues to marginalize Black, Indigenous People, and other settlers of colour. In thinking about our respective freedom, we are struck by the various measures that were put in place to invite reconciliation for the ongoing genocide on Turtle Island.[3] Largely based on the rule of law, these measures focus on how to move past the ongoing genocide that is so central to our daily lived experiences. The invitation to reconcile and move beyond the ongoing harms and the past atrocities by settler colonial Canada ignores a central ingredient in any justice seeking measure: Truth.

We raise the importance of truth because of our own lived experience; because one of us is confronted by the daily injustices that form the narrative of settlement and conquest. One of our communities continues to rely on the goodwill of the settler state for our daily survival, then the settlerstate would actively work to prevent the achievement of the nationhood of one of our communities.[4] Meanwhile the settler state is using the labour of settlers, including settlers of colour, to occupy stolen lands and to extract its resources. More importantly, the settler state uses settlers of colour to violently commit genocide against the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples of what is now known as Canada, by policing their lands and stealing their children. Settler complicity in this process is an important truth that needs to be set out. Of course, complicity is a loaded term and many of those grouped into the category of settlers of colour do not carry the same responsibilities.[5] We are particularly and painfully aware of the different lived experiences of the descendants of enslaved peoples who were brought to Turtle Island by force of European settlers.

This truth is an essential aspect of moving forward, as we seek a better life where both of our peoples can live with their respective freedoms.

Truth: Building Solidarity, Building Relations

As two survivors, and now privileged educators (albeit in different ways), we are on this journey of teaching together in one of the most notorious colonial institutions, indeed a higher educational institution that trains future lawyers. Given our own lived experiences, we are painfully aware that lawyers have inflicted harm through the various laws and legal institutions they helped to create. These laws and institutions allow for the continuation of white supremacy. Lawyers educated by our institution (amongst others) have gone on to work in government, represent civil society, and so on. They would, of course, use their knowledge of the Canadian Constitution, which too was drafted by lawyers trained by laws schools. The Constitution, as we noted earlier, is predicated on the founding myth that the law and the Christian “God” are supreme. However, while we can quickly problematize the reference to god, the reference to the rule of law is not so easy.

The rule of law serves as means to regulate everyday actions of those who are bound within the borders of Canada. The rule of law includes the Indian Act and the Natural Resources Transfer Act. In this context, the rule of law centers European settler notions of legality as the legitimate and essential organizing feature of the national order. By doing so, the settler colonial state then facilitates the monopoly of western law, thus guaranteeing rule by law. Yet this rule by law, so powerfully written into the settler state’s constitution and etched into our minds, works to maintain white supremacy on these settled and occupied lands that we both now call home. How do we work towards dismantling the white supremacy that is maintained through the rule by law? How do we do this while in solidarity with each other?

Our central point that we want to articulate builds on the words of Steven Salaita that we cited at the outset of this paper. Anti-colonial and anti-imperial efforts taking place on stolen Indigenous lands must first and foremost acknowledge the theft of the land and the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples. This is the truth.

Indigenous people’s lives were taken. Lands were also taken and continue to be destroyed through clearcutting, resource extraction, and other extractive activities, despite supposedly being protected by treaties, specifically Treaty 6.[6] These measures affect current and future generations. Indigenous lands located in what is now called “Canada” are being pillaged and plundered with devastating results. Elders ruefully lament the fact that the once fertile boreal forests now stand empty of trees, medicines, and water.

In many instances, Indigenous peoples were tortured before they were killed. Many children lives were taken in Indian Residential schools and Indian Industrial Schools, while others were killed through disease and daily encounters with the White supremacist nation-state. By acknowledging this truth, sitting with this truth, and reflecting on this truth, we believe we can move forward by taking action in our search for justice.

As we witness the recent calls for reconciliation, we urge for a different starting point. It is one that recognizes settler complicity in the ongoing genocide of Indigenous People. Settlers continue to be beneficiaries of the White supremacist nation-state. In particular, settlers of colour are deeply implicated in this process. This is a hard fact to accept, especially when they were forced to flee, to leave everything behind and become disconnected from their land and ancestors.

Analogous to the violence embedded within the above image of the seared and left behind backpack on the shore of Mullivaikkal, one of us carries the violence of fleeing and of having to claim asylum by providing evidence of persecution to a white official within the settler colonial nation-state, while being forced to learn how to perform whiteness to survive in a white supremacist space. Notwithstanding these episodes of violence, one of us continues to love, live and work on a stolen land while the other continues to reel from the ongoing violence of settlement and conquest. The recognition of the continued presence of settlers on Indigenous lands is part and parcel with the ongoing genocide. It is the starting point, we believe, of our solidarity. It is the truth that binds us into solidarity across our shared pain. If we are to build a better world, for both of us with our respective lived experiences, then we must reconcile and accept this basic and intrinsic fact. Settlers are complicit, and their complicity must be acknowledged if we are to move ahead in search of justice; in search of a better day.

[1] Sujith Xavier, “Loving, Working, and Living on Stolen Land: People of Colour, Settler Colonialism & White Supremacy,” Reconciliation syllabus, 8/12/2018, accessed at: https://bit.ly/3qo95Un

[2] Steven Salaita, “American Indian Studies and Palestine Solidarity: The Importance of Impetuous Definitions,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 6, no. 1 (2017).

[3] See for example: “Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls,” MMIWG (June 2019); Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Summary: Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future (Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015); Office of the Missing Persons ACT in Sri Lanka, accessed on 19/2/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3ue7OBy

[4] Sylvia McAdam (Saysewahum), Nationhood Interrupted: Revitalizing nêhiyaw Legal Systems (Saskatoon: Purich, 2015).

[5] For a robust examination, see: Tapji Garba & Sara-Maria Sorentino, ‘Slavery is a Metaphor: A Critical Commentary on Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor”’, Antipode, vol. 52, no. 3 (2020), pp. 765 - 782.

[6] Steven Newcomb, “Reconciliation and Sylvia McAdam’s Efforts to Protect the Land,” Indian Country Today, 27/10/2016, accessed on 19/2/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3s0NdPa

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