October 8, 2014

Motherland amidst Imperialism: A Story of Indigenous Resistance and Settler Mutiny

Occupation site in August - J-l Fournier
By Siegfried Barazov

"In our opinion, the foundation for national liberation rests in the inalienable right of every people to have their own history…. It may be seen that if imperialist domination has the vital need to practice cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture." —Amilcar Cabral, Syracuse University speech, 1970

There are times when the power of a culture can make time stand still.  The elder of the Cree nation spoke to me of the sanctity of fire, and I, a settler on stolen land, had to struggle to find an adequate response to stories and traditions that seemed in that moment to be as old as the Ottawa river itself: born countless thousands of years before European imperialism’s chosen killers came bearing their guns, germs, and steel.  However, in meeting with this old man at the site of the occupation where the Ottawa and Gatineau rivers combine, I am happy to say that I had the knowledge and the memory to reply with the example of Beltane, the ancient Celtic fire festival from the days long before this monstrous colonial enforcement agency, referring to itself as the ‘white race’, was ever invented to stain the moral fabric of the European peoples and set them against the rest of the world.

The elder was one member of small group consisting of people from several Indigenous American nations, coming from as far away as the Yukon and the southern United States to stand in solidarity with the local Anishnabe, and Mohawk peoples who were struggling to protect a sliver of their ancient heritage from destruction.

The city of Gatineau, like many cities across Canada undergoing gentrification, was developing its waterfront and in the process of building a new boardwalk and installing new sewage systems they uncovered a veritable treasure trove of Aboriginal artifacts which, to their shame, they initially tried to re-bury and cover up.  But news of the find leaked, and pressure from Indigenous groups and local residents led to a limited archeological excavation of the site which was still uncovering artifact after artifact even as the Gatineau city government closed it down and moved in its bulldozers.

But the assembled nations refused to allow the legacy of their ancestors to be buried under concrete without a fight.  Preliminary tests revealed that many of the artifacts were between three and six thousand years old, including stone and bone tools, and copper spearheads that came all the way from Lake Superior, revealing the existence of ancient Aboriginal trade routes in the area. Unwilling to let this heritage be lost, they occupied the site of the excavations and refused to allow construction to continue until guarantees were given that their ancestors would be treated with respect.  This goal seemed to be achieved when in a public meeting on August 20th the city government, wary of negative publicity, agreed to consult with the First Nations in every step of the development process and to ensure that any further artifacts uncovered would be properly excavated and preserved in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture. These promises were not kept.  On September 18, Gatineau police moved in, dismantled the occupation and arrested six Indigenous activists, all of them over sixty years of age. Once again, they found themselves displaced by settler-colonialism and driven from land which the Algonquin people had never ceded in the first place.  The arrested activists have been banned from communicating with one another prior to the beginning of their trial in December.

However, what struck me during the time that I spent at the occupation site was the collective strength of the people who decided to make a stand there.  These people have survived the barbaric genocide of their nations and the conquest of the land, and in surviving they have learned how to stand together and to fight back against the common enemy of imperialism and settler-colonialism in a way that few other peoples in the world have.  In Gatineau they gathered and joined hands from all over the North American continent to resist the onslaught of this common enemy. Sandwiched between two upscale restaurants, the occupation camp looked so small, but it was the embodiment of an alliance of risen nations that had, in the name of dignity and self-determination, united to occupy land that they had never ceded.  It was part of a much larger national liberation struggle involving blockades, protests, and occupations across Canada and beyond.  A Palestinian activist, who had come to the camp to express his solidarity, openly pointed out how similar the Palestinian struggle for self-determination is to the ongoing struggles of the First Nations in Canada.  As I found out, the Mohawk people of the Ottawa region, who had been forcibly confined to a reservation in what is now the city of Hull only to lose it along with their official status in 1903, are now challenging the government of Canada before the Supreme Court.

But this is not only about them; it is about us as settlers on this conquered territory that the imperial overlords of the British Empire and the capitalist interests they served forcibly carved out of stolen aboriginal land on the basis of guns, smallpox, forced starvation, residential schools, racist laws, and sham treaties that they had no intention of honouring.  As a man of European descent born and raised in Canada, I was educated to be an enforcer of this settler-colonial system built to reinforce the profits of the capitalist class by privileging a segment of the working class to physically and culturally beat down the others, most notably the Aboriginal peoples who are the greatest victims of this evil class order.  Raised to be little monsters in the service of big monsters, many people of European descent in this country have long forgotten what it means to resist because, like the Israeli settlers in Palestine, we have been trained to act as oppressors and to view oppression as normal.

But there’s more to it than that.  For too many of the European settlers who arrived on these shores were victims of imperialism themselves, and if my own Irish ancestors, who arrived in Canada in the 1840s after fleeing the genocide being waged against their nation by the British Empire, had actually sat down and conversed with people of the Mohawk or Cree nations they would have discovered that they had more in common than they realized.  Indeed, they faced a common enemy.  My European ancestors who stood up against Westminster’s legions and the legions of the Roman Empire before that, knew what it meant to stand together against monstrosity and it is horrific to see their sons and daughters converted into stooges of imperialism against other nations through the lies of settler colonialism and white supremacy.

It is these lies that we must now reject.  It is this spirit of resistance that we must now reclaim. We must refuse to be little monsters for an evil system that can only survive by pitting working people of different ethnicities against each other.  As Europeans living on stolen land we can only re-learn our true heritage of resistance, long eclipsed by imperial delusions, by standing alongside and learning from these brave Aboriginal Canadians who have defied all attempts to erase them from the pages of history.

As I told my Chinese students during my time teaching English in that proud and ancient nation, as a settler I can never call Canada my “motherland” until all of its nations; Indigenous Nations, the Quebecois and Acadians, have self-determination and the yoke of imperialism that still holds this country back is completely and utterly smashed beyond repair. For until they control their own destiny, we can never claim our own.

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