By Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
The waning months of 2015 signaled a seemingly dramatic albeit likely superficial shift in Indigenous-state relations in Canada. When the fall began, the Prime Minister was steadfast in his refusal to call an inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which surprised few, as it was beautifully consistent with the contempt, paternalism and outright hatred that characterized Harper’s interactions with Indigenous peoples in general. By the time December rolled around, the next Prime Minister and his Haida tattoo were flanked with Indigenous drummers and dancers, clouds of smudge seem to follow him wherever he went, and Indigenous territories were being acknowledged at the beginning of events. The inquiry had been called and meetings with families were held, and recommendations from the past Royal Commission and current Truth and Reconciliation Commission were set to be implemented. Harper lowered the bar to such a level that the tiniest bit of humanity impressed us, and Trudeau was providing us with the mother load.
The cynical, critical, and loving decolonial part of me believed Parliament was photoshopped with all the expertise of a Cosmo retoucher. It was as if the state read Red Skin White Masks, thought recognition was a (still) great idea to control Indigenous desire for freedom, and while they were reading the book we were binge watching Netflix and eating corn chips. “Our people are drunk on Trudeau tears! I round danced my ass off through Christmas of 2012-2013, and all I got was (more) neoliberalism? Holy crap I AM cynical!” I thought, but didn’t tweet. It’s easy to be united and critical when the state is overt, violent, and just plain mean. It’s harder when they are sort of sorry and trying on nice.
Then one day while I was spending my eighth hour of the week on the bleachers at my kid’s indoor soccer practice, I decided to “tap” into iMessages what substantive change might look like. I say “tap” because it was more like “finger punching”. This was by no means a bulletproof analysis. It was mostly a self-imposed project so I didn’t have to talk to the other moms about the tinsel and the toils of baking Christmas cookies. More importantly, it is an ongoing conversation that we should be having (and some are) in communities of Indigenous peoples, and not just the ones we agree with. In reality, Indigenous peoples have said everything on this list in some way before and I’ve tried my best to point you in the direction of deeper Indigenous analysis.
So what was on my non-comprehensive punchy iphone soccer list anyway?
- The word No. The list started with a tweet from Métis activist and artist Christi Belcourt reminding us that it is critical that when Indigenous peoples say no to development on their lands, it means no development on their lands. Simple. Christi also tweets a lot about canceling those damn omnibus bills that sparked Idle No More, re-protecting the rivers and lakes so Indigenous peoples don’t have to continue to do this, alone, and repealing C51, because criminalizing resistance isn’t change. It’s Canadian history.
- Ending the termination tables was on the list near the top and if you don’t know what those are or why they matter, take a look at the work of Russ Diabo. He’s been talking about this forever. This is substantive, structural change and it’s crucial.
- Land Restitution. I’m from the so-called Williams treaty area. We have almost no land. We’ve been engaged in a civil suit against the province of Ontario and Canada for years now. Drop the case. Respect our rights. Produce land so hunting and fishing are more than hobbies. In fact, dropping the billions of dollars worth of court cases Canada has against Indigenous peoples over land is a great idea. So is land restitution. Real change means we get land back.
- Fix what you destroyed. Actually support us fixing what you destroyed. Support the regeneration of languages, political systems, education systems, and everything else that has been attacked through centuries of colonialism.
- Drop the most repressive sections of the Indian Act as a starting point. This includes the ongoing gender discrimination in the Indian Act for Indian Status that was not solved by Bill C-31 or the more recent Bill C-3, which just transferred to another generation Indigenous women and their descendants the sexist bullshit of the original assault on our sovereignty. Indigenous women have been fighting this in court for decades now, and it needs to stop. Indigenous peoples control who belongs in our nations, not the state.
- Make the inquiry matter. Listen to Kwakwaka’wakw scholar Sarah Hunt because she centres the families and organizations that have been working on this issue forever. She also names white colonial violence as the source of violence against Indigenous peoples of all genders and sexual orientations, rather than blaming Indigenous men and “risky lifestyle choices”. Her work encourages us to place body sovereignty on the same level as land sovereignty and she challenges us to recreate Indigenous systems of accountability in our nations that address gender violence.
If Trudeau really does represent hope, then shouldn’t we be engaged in just as much community organizing and mobilizing as during the winter of 2012-2013, to be able to build decolonial, resurgence-based alternatives? If this is our big chance, shouldn’t there be a plethora of Indigenous strategizing and action? Doesn’t our history, our oral Indigenous histories tell us that the putting all your eggs in the state’s basket hasn’t worked because the state is primarily interested in dispossessing Indigenous peoples of land to access resources and getting its representatives re-elected? How is a pretty important concept in Indigenous thought because it reminds us that the outcome is different if Indigenous peoples create the alternatives on our own terms, on the ground, rather than rely on the state. It also matters with whom we achieve liberation.
Back in September, when asked why violence against women remains a problem with young men today, Trudeau said music lyrics, pornography, and absentee fathers are factors in “a lot of communities.” Several Black activists responded on Twitter, in addition to Toronto Star columnist Desmond Cole’s series of tweets one of which read: “Is it a coincidence that two of the three factors Trudeau cited about violence against women are well-worn stereotypes about black people?” A few months later, Trudeau announced the “most diverse cabinet in Canadian history”, except there were no Black cabinet ministers. What does it reveal when the state seemingly holds Indigenous peoples issues in high regard while replicating anti-blackness? What does it reveal about us when we are silent? You can’t engage the Indigenous community with one hand and continue to erase Black Canadians with the other. It matters to me profoundly how change is achieved and with whom we achieve it.
Time will certainly tell whether Trudeau makes substantive, systemic decolonial changes, or whether the first 100 days of his rule just signalled window dressing. If Trudeau is an opportunity in a way that Harper was not, if we really do have the ear of the current Prime Minister, we should seize the opportunity in a principled and strategic way, that rejects liberal recognition and centres Indigenous land, bodies and resurgence, while building relationships with non-Indigenous communities of resistance. At the end of Trudeau’s term, we should have more land than we do now. The environment should be in better shape. Indigenous and Black bodies should be closer to liberation. Otherwise a kinder, gentler, smudgier dispossession is still dispossession.
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (@betasamosake) is a writer, academic, and member of Alderville First Nation. She is faculty at the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning, and for the winter of 2016, she is a Visiting Professor in Indigenous Studies at McGill University. Check out her work at leannesimpson.ca.
This led me to recollect a conversation with a hydrologist friend of mine who said that in her field they are naming a practice of “impair and repair” that is – damage a watershed then repair it; repeat – the relationship between settlers and First Peoples has a similar dynamic – but with the added indignity of team settler (my team) wanting thanks for any efforts on the “repair” piece.