Resisting Displacement, North and South: Indigenous and Immigrant Struggles
(This piece is based on the process of forging links and building a movement of solidarity between immigrant/ refugee communities and the Kahniankehaka aka Mohawk community in the Occupied Territories of Montreal)
In numerous and lengthy phone conversations and meetings at the “White House” (a youth center) in Kahnawake between members of Mohawk Eastern Society (MES) and No One is Illegal, we sought to explore links and overcome several tensions inherent in our work. Questions that had been lingering and avoided for over six months were finally confronted in the organizing of the No One is Illegal March (which took place on July 27, 2003). The callout for the march read “A celebration of resistance- The No One Is Illegal March will focus on the frontline struggles of indigenous peoples, immigrants and refugees and demonstrate our clear opposition to war and occupation, whether in Iraq or Palestine, Colombia or the Philippines, in Chiapas or on Turtle Island.”
Discussion centered around two fundamental questions “What is the link between immigrant struggles and indigenous peoples beyond just a seemingly common enemy? While we can understand the suffering of displaced and colonized people in the South, how can indigenous communities in the North tangibly support people who settle on our land and further entrench our ongoing dispossession from our homes?”
The support, solidarity and links between groups like No One is Illegal and MES is certainly based on a common enemy: a colonial system built on the dispossession and genocide of indigenous peoples– through the 1876 Indian Act, the reserve system, residential schools– and racist anti-immigrant measures—the Smart Border Policy, mass detentions and deportations since the internment of Japanese-Canadians and the Chinese head-tax, the use of illegal Security Certificates to target Muslim men– a system which serves to label entire communities as “illegal aliens” or “status Indians”, an apartheid system of who has the right to dignity and livelihood and who does not. As Cree lawyer Sharon Venne has written, “Canada, the great peacekeeping nation, must maintain its international image because its treatment of Indigenous Peoples makes its human rights record as black as the record of white South Africa. After all, the legislation to keep blacks down in South Africa was modelled upon legislation drafted and used in Canada against Indigenous Peoples.”
Yet to qualify the relationship between colonized peoples of different communities as opportunistic and merely based on a ‘common enemy’ is a rude disservice which does not account for the trust and sense of mutual aid which has developed and has resulted in a genuine sharing of our visions of an alternate world. As indigenous warrior Gord Hill states, “The purpose of the colonial strategy is to either destroy or assimilate the indigenous peoples and other oppressed social sectors. This is inherent in colonization, which seeks to impose one world onto another. The strength of our alliance, unlike the shifting alliances made between ruling elites, is ultimately based on trust and solidarity.”
Displacement, migration and race are intertwined phenomenon, almost inseparably, from the colour-line to the border-line. The majority of displaced throughout the world are indigenous peoples in the settler states of North America, Australia and New Zealand or from communities of colour in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa. Today an estimated 150 million people are in migration. Why are so many people migrating? Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate for economics, explains, “Increased migratory pressure over the decades owes more to the dynamism of international capitalism than just the growing size of the population of third world countries.” Global economic restructuring undermines the stability of communities, drains resources, and forces people to move in search of work and survival.” The imperialist policies of G8 nations plunder, displace, and dispossess people from their own lands, and then refuse any semblance of life and dignity to those who can get to the territories of the North. And less than 5% of the world’s migrants and refugees even come to North America.
Does immigration deepen dispossession of indigenous peoples? In a crude and quantitative understanding, yes it does. But such rudimentary claims were easily dispelled when we further explored and talked about dispossession and the colonial forces causing it. Displacement is understood as an imperialist and elitist agenda, rather than merely the number of migrant/settlers on Turtle Island. Migrants of colour and indigenous communities in the settler states face similar conditions of unequal citizenship: underrepresented, underpaid, constantly belittled by overt and institutional racism, massively incarcerated, denied equal access to social services, and face gross inequities in income, wealth, and health. Yet our roles in the economy is minimized or altogether denied. Except when it comes to scapegoating: immigrants are considered ‘job stealers’ while indigenous peoples are characterized as ‘lazy bums who do not pay taxes’.
The recent First Nations Governance Act and Citizenship legislation are both based on so-called Canadian values of security and accountability. Where people are resisting these policies, repression by the state has been swift and severe. (We are quickly reminded of ten non-status Algerians and two No one is Illegal members who peacefully occupied Minister Coderre’s office in Ottawa on May 29, 2003 and subsequently faced a violent takedown operation by combined RCMP and Ottawa Police forces of approximately 30 tactical unit forces, brandishing tazer guns, and proceeding to brutalize, humiliate and silence the protestors.) We are reminded of our place within the empire, to remain silent observers- the good Indian or the good immigrant- and remain eternally grateful to colonial masters who have given us the privilege of life, livelihood, and citizenship.
The new immigration laws have extended the power of immigration officials to detain those suspected of security breaches or terrorist links. According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada records of 2002, of the 440 people being held in Canadian detentions at any given point in time, only 5 people had actual charges of ‘being a threat to national security’ laid on them. Proposed Bill C-18 would also grant the cabinet government the “power to refuse citizenship if the person has demonstrated a flagrant and serious disregard for the principles and values underlying a free and democratic society.” There is no definition as to what that means and can easily be directed against political dissidents. Such a clause perpetuates and exploits our desperate situations and ensures our complicity. Meanwhile, the proposed FNGA legislation further asserts Canadian control over Indigenous lands and peoples. The fundamental assumption of the legislation is that the Canadian government has the authority to dictate the lifestyles and livelihoods of indigenous communities without their participation or consent. An example is a code dictating terms and procedures of Council elections, a code that communities have two years to approve or it will be imposed within two years by default. The ability of the Canadian government to impose two such major legislations despite the resounding resistance of affected communities says multitudes about democracy and equal rights for those from migrant and indigenous communities. These legislations are used as an effective tool to implement policies aimed at assimilation and disenfranchisement, while simultaneously displacing us from our traditional homelands.
Sun Peaks Ski Resort and Delta Hotels are built on Secwepemc territories, land which has never been ceded, released, nor surrendered. Under International and British law, the unceded lands now defined as “British Columbia” are Indigenous lands—with over 27 distinct nations and communities– subject only to their jurisdiction. The BC government approved a $70 million development plan in 1997, allowing Sun Peaks Corporation to continue to expand their resort to 20,000 beds and put ski runs on the previously undisturbed Mt. Morrisey. Successive provincial governments have claimed that Indigenous title has been extinguished, even though Court decisions have rejected this argument– the recognition of the inherent land rights of Aboriginal People as Aboriginal Title was established in the Delgamuukw Supreme Court Decision in 1997, along with the Haida decision that requires provincial and private interests to consult, obtain consent and accommodate Aboriginal interests prior to pursuing development on Aboriginal territories. Secwepemc people are now actively resisting this major expansion of Sun Peaks ski resort. There have been many arrests and racist attacks. Sweatlodges and homes have been bulldozed, and injunctions taken out by Sun Peaks against people defending their lands and resources. For this exercise of rights, 54 arrests with charges from criminal contempt and intimidation by blocking a road to resisting arrest have been made. In January 2003, a BC judge found four Elders not guilty for refusal to obey an injunction to tear down the Protection Centre, and as she left court, Elder Irene Billy, 74 years old, stated: “I always knew we were right, this is our land, and Sun Peaks and the province cannot remove us from it.”
The Secwepemc Support campaign (Montreal) consists of individuals and groups—Mohawk Eastern Society, No One is Illegal, Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement, and Action Committee for Non Status Algerians–who stand in support of the Secwepemc and have organized a multitude of solidarity actions such as pickets, informational events, delegations, and boycotts over the past eight months. Working with members of MES and Native Youth Movement-Shushwap Nation on this campaign provided an opportunity to share information and draw links with the struggle of Naramada Valley in India which I had been involved in doing support work with a few years earlier. The federal and provincial governments harassment of Secwepemc people is a continuation of colonial practices and is the same logic that international financial institutions like the World Bank have used in India, amongst other countries in the South, to attract foreign investment, create economic growth, and encourage mega-development projects. This is the logic of capitalism and the colonial relationships it exploits, guaranteeing the rights of capital over local communities. Like earlier and ongoing modes of colonialism, it seeks only commodification and profit.
The struggle against the construction of mega-dams on the River Narmada in India is symbolic of the global struggle for social justice. The Narmada Valley Development Project (NVDP) has been conceived without adequate participation from the people who are going to be affected and has disrupted the lives of one half-million people without just and adequate compensation. The World Bank loaned US$450 million towards the project over a decade ago, with the majority of the money going into the Sardar Sarovar dam. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada) believes that 400,000 people will lose land, and of these only around 7000 people have been resettled, in Gujarat and Maharashtra (no oustees have been resettled in the Madhya Pradesh) so far. The stress and impoverishment caused by displaced has resulted in a variety of hardships, including loss of livelihood from the land and increased death rates, especially of children.
The resistance movement against the dams is a seventeen-year old struggle, and culminated in 1999, when courageous adivasis expressed the intention to offer Jal Samarpan (sacrifice by drowning) into the rivers to pressure and force the government to end the devastating development plans. As Medha Pathkar has repeated “The assessment of large dams like the Sardar Sarovar cannot be made on the basis of the displacement-rehabilitation issue alone. It becomes important to ask why the adivasis, peasants, and labourers should sacrifice their life and resources. Instead of spending most of the irrigation allocations of Gujarat on this single project, we appeal to concentrate all the attention, resources and power for true, sustainable, decentralised alternatives without the problem of displacement.” This July 2003, the water levels at Narmada have risen again, and 3000 adivasi and peasant families, their houses and fields, are all under threat. During a peaceful occupation, more than 100 people including women and children were arrested in Chimalkhedi village where police forcibly evicted them and destroyed their homes.
Upon hearing the struggle of hundred of thousands of adivasis in India, members of NYM-Shushwap Chapter were determined on receiving more information on the struggle and finding concrete ways to build solidarity between displaced peoples in the North and South, tangibly through the next indigenous youth conference being organized in BC in 2004.
We also discussed the illegal occupation of Palestine at length with the aim of building communication and support between Palestinian and indigenous sovereigntists. Ongoing Israeli attacks on Palestinian areas – through assassinations, the maiming and killing of civilians, continued incursions, curfews and arbitrary detentions- and systematic colonial violence and humiliation was easy for members of MES to identify with. Indigenous warriors and Elders emphasized the right to self-defense, as outlined in the Geneva convention whereby any group or nation of people illegally occupied has a right to resist by force if necessary, recalling the fierce stance of communities at Oka and Gustafsen Lake. Parallels were drawn between the right of return for Palestinians and the right to customary and traditional lands for indigenous peoples as inherent and collective rights despite treaty agreements or political negotiations.
Imperialist globalisation led by the G8 and the transnational corporations, facilitated by the WTO and international financial institutions and supported by national elites, has devastated lives, resources and the environment of marginalized communities in the South and North. More than ever communities are raising their voices at the frontlines of resistance: blockaders in Grassy Narrows fighting against the province and Abitibi clear-cuts and asserting Asubpeeschoseewagong jurisdiction over their customary lands, women in the Narmada movement physically preventing the construction of dams, Palestinian women, men and children living and dying in the spirit of the Intifada, masses of Argentinian people shouting “que se vayan todos” with the growing fervor of a new and exciting political vision of organizing neighbourhood assemblies that have created a network of collective solidarity-economies in the ‘taken factories’, Secwepemc youth and Elders defending the Skwelkwek’welt Protection Center against Sun Peaks Corporation & BC government’s attempts to displace them, Iraqi and Afghani people firmly rejecting an imperialist American occupation, over 5,000 Dalit women in Kerala and Tamil Nadu staging public protests for over one year against Coca Cola which has contaminated their ground water and organizing in village (panchayat) assemblies to terminate the companys’ license, and so resistance grows as repression increases.
The colonial processes of global dispossession of indigenous communities and subsequent criminalization of those displaced are mutually reinforcing currents, and as communities of resistance in the South and the North we have to complement each other in ways that build the collective resistance of each part and of the whole. Sarwat Viqar has written, “Immigrant people of colour and Indigenous peoples have a common ground- that of being forced to negotiate the barriers of militarized borders that confine and oppress them and refuse them any sovereignty or self-determination.” Through these linkages our struggles are reinforced and our organizing methods and visions of the future create a global and comprehensive imagination. Capitalism has understood our communities well and has invented strategies and institutions to undercut and co-opt our efforts. We must understand it as well in order to build alliances and overcome the divisions that have weakened us. We must fight to liberate our organizing efforts from the old institutions that tended to rigidify divisions, while at the same time acknowledging that comments such as “our struggles are the same/ equal” are patronizing and deny the reality of over 500 years of warfare and genocide in Turtle Island, a full-fledged colonial occupation with very different ramifications than the colonial agendas we have fled in the South or are facing as migrants in the North. As a South Asian immigrant, it has been crucial for me to make these links and dialogue with the youth and elders of the Mohawk and Shushwap nations, despite the obstacles and the lengthy process, and to realize that the demands of migrant communities to the Canadian government will be short-lived if they are gained at the expense of indigenous sovereignty.
In our discussions, visions we shared were based on mutual aid that transcended our fight against a common-denominator oppressor and respected the freedom of movement, self-determination, and autonomy of all peoples, indigenous and migrants alike. As an Elder told me “Our assertion of Title to the land derives from our understanding and belonging to this land. It means we have a right to live here with dignity. It does not mean we own the land. Try owning the Earth, the sand, the waters, and it will run right through your fingers. No legal system can say you do not belong here. We are in no place to refuse anyone the gift of life and livelihood. We welcome you here with respect, and we expect the same from you.” I am honoured by her sentiments, as well as by others who have taken time to create networks of dialogue and trust and believe our communities can build support in a concrete way that will strengthen the movement for justice against the centuries-long fight against colonization- South and North.
The writer is an organizer with No One is Illegal Campaign and Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement in Montreal.