Friday, June 15, 2007

Railways and Colonialism Redux

A while ago, I wrote a post titled "Railways and Colonialism" that started out talking about CN Rail bringing civil suits against Shawn Brant, the band council of the Tyendinaga Territory of the Mohawk Nation, and some others, because some people blocked a rail line as part of an action in support of a land claim around which the government has, as always, been stalling, delaying, postponing, and avoiding. I went on to talk about the historical role of railways in colonialism in Canada and to speculate a bit about what some recent events in this regard mean, as well as suggesting that there might be value in some sort of solidarity action directed towards CN.

This post has received a fair amount of attention from government, police, and railway officials (judging by the domains of origin of some of the traffic) as well as activists (juding by the sites some folks have travelled over from). Now, over the history of this blog, I have received far fewer comments that disagree with me than I might have expected, even given the site's generally modest traffic. The category of posts that have most consistently received such comments is those talking about solidarity of various sorts with indigenous struggle, which is interesting and perhaps worth exploring at another time. This particular post, however, had received no comments in disagreement until today. Though they disagree, they seem to genuinely be seeking dialogue, so I wanted to respond thoroughly.

I, ummm, got a bit carried away. So I decided, since writing this took a fair chunk of time I was going to put into the next post I have planned, to reproduce the comment as a post. So here it is...everything below this line is from the comment:


Hi Monty and Steve, thanks for stopping by and thanks for commenting. You have stated your positions in a fair bit of detail, so I will try to be as thorough as I can in responding to you. In fact, this reply has gotten absurdly long, so as well as posting it as a comment here I am going to put it up as a post on its own as well.

I think I want to deal with some of the things that Steve said first.

"Perhaps you should spend more time analyzing your own community and putting your energy into fixing the economic imbalances and social issues created by your own leaders..."

Excellent advice. You seem to have assumed that I am an indigenous person, but I am not. I am a settler and I am white. I wouldn't necessarily be as quick to put all the blame on leaders, but the basic point that I should be focusing on addressing the injustices that are of most benefit to rich, powerful, mostly-white people is exactly right...that's a lot of what this site does, and it is one way to see the kinds of social change activities I'm involved with in real life.

In fact, this makes me think of something I once read from Tim Wise, a white anti-racist activist in the United States. He was talking about the tendency for many white people in the U.S. to react to African American demands for justice with exactly the sort of comment you have made, that they should take responsibility for their own communities and their own leaders and so on. Wise remarks that it is amazing how infrequently the white folk who say that take their own advice: what we as white people need to be doing is taking responsibility for what we, in particular but far from only our elites, have done historically and do in the present to create and maintain racial oppression and white privilege.

I would add to that by saying that in this case -- the ongoing indigenous struggle against colonization within the Canadian state -- that your 'take care of your own backyard' advice is so ill-informed as to be almost insulting. The vast, vast majority of indigenous struggle against the devastating impact of colonization does indeed happen within their own communities, at both individual and collective levels, and most of us who are not part of those communities never see it. The thing is, addressing colonization by confronting the colonizers is not instead of internal healing, it is part of exactly the same process -- an essential part.

And I would add that saying that these problems were "created" by indigenous leaders is very misleading and ignores a great deal of the history. Of course you'll find some indigenous leaders making bad choices -- you find some leaders of every background and in every community making bad choices. But to say that is the cause of all of the problems that indigenous people face is laughable. And even in many instances where leadership is part of the problem, I suspect a lot of that can be linked to the impact of mechanisms of colonization as well.

Anyway, I may come back to some of the other points you've raised -- calling hypothetical one-day blockades "terrorist" is pretty ridiculous, for example -- but now I want to move on to Monty's comments.

Monty: You pack a lot of stuff into a few words, as Steve says. I think I'll try to address the overall points and maybe not every individual question, and if there is anything crucial that I miss then feel free to ask for clarification.

One of the things you seem to be asking is about where, in the minds of indigenous people and their allies, this struggle will be taking Canada and what it will be like once we get there. Obviously there is no single answer to this: indigenous peoples, just like any peoples, have many different visions for what the future might look like once this country has been decolonized. But the beginnings of arriving at an answer to this has to come from listening to what indigenous women and men themselves have to say. As just another "ordinary white guy" I have some things that I might like to see in that future, but I'm just one person, and even setting aside for a moment the inevitable resistance by settler elites and the ordinary settlers who support them, it will not only be a big process to figure out what that future is going to be but it will be one in which I/we have to engage respectfully and with care.

That said, I can probably make a few observations. Your use of words like "mortgage" and "ransom" makes me think that maybe you're thinking that large sums of cash are the primary goal of indigenous struggle, and I'm not sure that's true. Certainly one common goal of indigenous peoples is for the settler state to actually keep the promises it has made over the years, and some of that would take some cash. But I think a big part of what many nations want is a big chunk of their land back: the land they never surrendered, the land they agreed in treaties to share in ways much different than the settler state has understood and enforced by violence. How much? Where? When? What are the practical details? Obviously all those have to be answered, but any just future involves recognizing the existing rights of indigenous nations to their own land. There are lots of other ways that colonization is an ongoing, present-day process doing violence to indigenous communities, and I think ending that violence would be pretty high on the agenda too...and if you want more information about the nuts and bolts of those things, I would suggest finding some books and articles and so on by First Nations authors and really listening to what they have to say. In fact, that's good advice for any settler who admist that they, as you say for yourself, "really know nothing" and that they "want to stand shoulder to shoulder with First Nation's people." In any case, getting the settler state and settler social relations more broadly to take the boot off the necks of indigenous peoples is also a key goal.

You also express some more individual-level concerns. On a certain level, I find these very understandable. Like I said, I too am an "ordinary white guy". I have a pre-school-aged kid, and the idyllic life of golden opportunity, of each generation doing better than the one before, that seemed to still be the promise for (white) Canadians when I was a kid no longer seems to be the case. The days of the eternally booming economy that, at least in the mythology, trickled down to everyone are long over...the post-World War II social democratic compromise is long gone, the environment is in bad shape and getting worse, and good opportunities are harder and harder to find. Of course, for lots of people, including most indigenous people, they've always been hard to find and there are lots of other problems with that mythology too, but the sense of the world not doing ordinary working people too many favours and of declining opportunity is, I think, very real.

That said, I have to strenuously disagree with the notion that "an average income white guy from Saskatchewan" is someone who "got no breaks." Now, bear with me here...I'm not trying to say you've got nothing to complain about or to stop complaining...most of us ordinary people have real reason to complain, and we should do so vigorously, but I'll get back to talking about complaints in a few paragraphs. In the meantime, though, I have to say that I think that for us "average white guy[s]", white privilege is most certainly a "break". As a white guy, I don't have to face the same shit from police as I know that African Canadian and indigeous people often have to face. As a white guy, I know that the colour of my skin won't make it harder for me to find a job or an apartment. As a white guy, I didn't have to go through a school system that told lies about my people, my history, my culture, and systematically devalues my people and their ways of knowing and being in the world. Not to say that you or I are immune from having to deal with barriers of various kinds, limited choices, hard and exploitative work, and inadequate income, but in all of those areas we are likely to face much less than indigenous people and people of colour, especially from comparable class backgrounds, experience.

This makes me think of Tim Wise again. He writes:

I am not claiming, nor do I believe, that all whites are well-off, or even particularly powerful. We live not only in a racialized society, but also a class system, a patriarchal system, and one in which other forms of advantage and disadvantage exist. These other forms of privilege mediate, but nevery fully eradicate, something like white privilege... But despite the fact that white privilege plays out differently for different folks, depending on these other identities, the fact remains that when all other factors are equal, whiteness matters and carries with it great advantage" [Tim Wise, White Like Me, p. ix]

Search the net for "white privilege" along with names like Tim Wise, Inga Muscia, and Robert Jensen, if you want to read more about it.

Your sentence about the casinos is actually a good segue for me into my next point...I'm pretty sure that the "Indian casino" thing is in the U.S., not here, though I could be mistaken. Even there, it is of benefit to very, very few nations, so it creates this illusion that all indigenous people are now rich while leaving the lives of the overwhelming majority completely unchanged. And in terms of Canada, what I do know is that at least two casinos have opened up in Ontario in my memory. I'm pretty sure they aren't owned by indigenous people. In fact, from what I understand, they are officially under the banner of the provincial government's lottery corporation, but it's a large U.S.-based corporation that manages them and makes the big bucks from them. In other words, being inidigenous doesn't help, but being rich enough to own the right kind of major corporation could get you into the casino business.

And that's the thing: whatever barriers you face, whatever opportunities are being taken away from you, you are looking in the wrong place if you are blaming indigenous people and people of colour. It is a tiny minority of rich people, who are mostly white, that are benefiting the most from the changes in our economy that are making it harder and harder for ordinary people to make ends meet. They are the ones we should blame. They are the ones we should be pushing for change.

The issue of different social movements with different bases working together is a very tough one. Just because two different movements have the same chief opponent doesn't mean their interests automatically coincide. But with effort, they can. And the fact is it is that small grouping of elite, mostly-white people at the pinnacles of our economy, the state, and everything else that benefit both from the colonial oppression of indigenous nations in Canada, and the increasing exploitation of white working people. What we settlers, white and non-white, need to do is challenge those elites (even as we constantly challenge racism and other oppressions in our own communities and movements as well). Too few opportunities to make a decent living? Only collective struggle for social change can change that, to make the ways in which we all create wealth more responsive to the needs of ordinary people. Not enough spots in universities and university educations becoming too expensive for a lot of people? We need to struggle for more resources for higher education. And so on. And while we do those things we need to educate ourselves about indigenous struggle, challenge ourselves and each other around personal and systemic racism, and build links with their struggles and support them and work cooperatively where possible. It's not easy, but I see no other path. (And, I would add, the illusion that if the government would just butt out a little bit that all that would matter in this country is individual effort, and that there is no such thing as collective injustice against which we need to struggle, is one that can most easily be maintained as part of privilege, especially white privilege.)

The question of struggle brings me to the other major concern that you raised, and that is tactics -- how people might choose to struggle.

I can appreciate why that quote that appeared in the mainstream media about armed struggle gives you cause for concern. No matter where you approach it from, armed struggle is an path that inevitably comes with tragedy and destruction. Which shouldn't be taken as a blanket condemnation of how others have chosen to resist in different times and places, just a statement of fact about what it entails -- even renowned anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon, who saw no choice but armed struggle for decolonizing Africa in the mid 20th century, wrote at length about how awful it is for all concerned. I don't feel it is my place, particularly, to pass abstract judgment on how indigenous people in Canada choose to resist their colonization. I can say that I hope that armed struggle of the kind the quoted statement implied never has to happen, and given the facts on the ground, I seriously doubt it would be to the advantage of indigenous people to go that route. But it's not my decision.

What I think we as settlers need to do with that statement, however, is to think about where it must have come from. Going down that kind of path, even talking about going down that kind of path, is not something that anyone does lightly. How bad must conditions be for something like that to be said? Pretty bad, I think. And the fact that it got said, even in a heated moment and a context in which I wouldn't be surprised that the speaker now wishes he had kept his mouth shut, should be a cue for settlers to learn more, to listen more, and to figure out what kinds of changes we need to be pushing for on our end to move towards real justice.

As well, you need to look at how that statement has been used in the media. One guy said one thing from a place of understandable desperation and anger -- one thing that is, practically speaking, not connected to what's actually going on on the ground -- and it is used by the dominant media and settlers of various political persuasions to demonize all indigenous peoples and all efforts to struggle against colonization. I can't help but think that the ease with which that statement was used to mobilized anti-native resentment is not only about a very real desire on the part of ordinary people to avoid acute violence but also a result of the lingering stereotype of "savage" that is still associated with indigenous people in the white settler imagination.

As for using direct action as one component of the overall struggle against colonial oppression in Canada, I'm all for it. Obviously how and when and by whom is complicated, but if direct actions of the sort I have heard talked and written about so far occur on June 29th, I will have no hesitation about talking, writing, and acting in support.

Both of you use the word "terrorism". As I said, I find it ridiculous in this context. In this context, that word functions to demonize resistance that is unlikely to do much more than cause some fairly minor inconveniences and cost a few big corporations a few dollars. Its use also distracts people from paying attention to the violence wreaked on indigenous communities by all the many nasty aspects of colonization day in and day out, which is not minor and not hypothetical. Why are you not writing about that violence? Why are you not calling it terrorism? Why are you not outraged and organizing to force the government which suposedly represents us to get its boot off of the necks of indigenous peoples?

"At this point in my life I am ready for a good fight, so I say bring it on, let's finish what was started by our ancestors then we can rewrite the treaties, divide up the land."

Dialogue such as you have initiated and I have agreed to by responding is always a bit of a balancing act between engaging with it in ways that won't alienate people unnecessarily so that the dialogue can continue, versus the responsibility to name oppressive statements when they occur. And on this one I have to fall on the latter side, even if it risks alienating you: That statement is perfectly horrible, colonial, and racist. (Not to mention kind of inaccurate -- from what I understand it, and I am certainly not an expert, the settler state has largely already unilaterally rewritten the treaties to renege on its obligation, something it can do because it has most of the guns and the settler majority lets it get away with it, and the vast majority of the land has already been unjustly stolen and divided.)

"Then again what kind of comments would you expect from a average white guy in Saskatchewan?"

And that -- which, for people reading this in the post rather than as a comment, was the very next sentence -- is a cop out. Sure, it's a pretty common sentiment, but nothing about being an "average white guy" requires you to openly embrace such colonial nonsense. It's a choice we make every day, to accept it or to work against it. Do you support the acute and structural violence wrought against indigenous people over centuries and still in the present, or do you oppose it? If you oppose it, what are you going to do about it? That's not an easy question; I find it almost paralyzingly difficult. But it is a critical question for those of us who are settlers to answer as we struggle towards the other world that we know is possible.


Frank Partisan said...

Really good blog.

I still find it amazing, when I look at my counter, seeing my blog read all over the world.

Good post. Indigenous people in Canada I've been finding out at several blogs, are playing a leading progressive role in Canada.

Anonymous said...

Finally someone who gets it. The struggles of Canada's indigenous people isn't all about money. IT'S ABOUT LAND AND RESOURCES. One trillion dollars in natural resource wealth was extracted last year from lands within Canada where there remains an unextinguished Aboriginal interest. Canadian taxpayers, keep your pocket change, we'll settle for OUR lands and resources. Ask your government if they have clear title to the lands within Canada. Better yet, don't take their word, start with a search of the property you're living on right now and track it back to the Crown grant. Then research how the Crown acquired title. I can bet that some indigenous nation was screwed out of it by broken promises. Most the early treaties with indigenous nations were peace treaties. What happens when the Crown fails to live up to its end of the bargain?

Scott Neigh said...

Hi Ren...and thanks!

Hi anonymous! Yeah, I think the centrality of land is a crucial thing for settlers to understand about indigenous struggle. Stereotypes based on dependency of one sort or another are central to the racist images of indigenous people in the white imagination, and I think that is a big part of why it can be so hard to get across the idea that the goal of indigenous struggle is not more dependency, it is the means -- which already belong to the nations by right -- for self-determination. And for sure another big piece of that is the complete silencing of the real history of the treaties in most education and media that we as settler's are exposed to...we get no real picture of the extent of the lies, the trickery, the one-sided and gun-supported reinterpretation of the agreements after the fact by the settler state, and so on.