It may be difficult for non-indigenous people to accept that Canada exists as a result of the illegal dispossession of indigenous people... the forced acculturation and imposed redefinition of Indigenous people away from their true selves to serve the needs of the mainstream society; the economic exploitation of their lands; the denial of First Nations’ inherent right to govern themselves; the creation of dependency that has generated psychological and social problems arising from alienation or active oppression.
This is written on the traditional unceded territory of the Stz’uminus Nation. While the appropriateness and meaning of territorial acknowledgements as part of protocol are sometimes contested, I for one am grateful to the Stz’uminus for their stewardship of this beautiful and rich area over thousands of years, and offer thanks with an uneasy heart. In recent years I’ve been unsettled, as I have begun to confront my own role and responsibilities as an occupier of someone else’s lands.
In fact, I’m a fully paid up member of the colonial state. My mother arrived from New Zealand in the 1950s, and my father was born in Ladysmith, a settler town established on this territory in 1904 by coal-mining magnate James Dunsmuir. Both my father’s people and my mother arrived with little besides their labour power, and yet our family has prospered across six generations.
I grew up and still live in a small waterfront cottage, part of a larger spread my grandfather bought in the 1930s that has been broken up and sold off over the years. My mother died when I was nine, but my early memories are of listening to records of traditional Maori songs that her sisters sent to remind her of home - her kiwi roots a product of the same settler colonialism that informed James Douglas’s dispossession of the indigenous families of the colony of Vancouver Island in the mid-1850s. Unlike us, however, my mom had a strong appreciation of Maori culture, at least superficially, and, carvings of canoes and warriors shared display space with the Royal Doulton figurines so beloved of British colonials.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the harbour, the Stz’uminus people were contained on small reserve lands that fell under the direct jurisdiction of the federal government. We did not celebrate their culture, but ignored Ottawa’s unrelenting attempt to decimate it. On the island of Penelakut, its outline visible from our windows, the Kuper Island Indian Residential School operated from 1890 to 1975. Generations of children suffered deprivation, alienation, medical and nutritional “experiments” and prolonged sexual abuse on Kuper Island - some drowned trying to escape.
My childhood coincided with the beginning of the end of the residential school era, and occasionally indigenous children appeared and disappeared from my classes without explanation - I did not think to ask - or were educated in classrooms segregated from the white mainstream. One of my friends, a recent immigrant from the Punjab who was struggling with English, was put with them.
If I had been born across the harbour on the Chemainus Reserve, my life would have been utterly different and yet this massive inequality in local prospects was largely invisible. My own small story, multiplied coast to coast to coast and across generations, make up the history of Canada, a colonial state founded and sustained by violence. But this is on us. Taiaiake argues that the problem lies not just with the state itself, but also with the colonial mentalities that underpin it. Our settler job is to develop a truer understanding of how Canada is founded on and still ruled by violence in important ways, and how we continue to legitimate, accept and support the use of violence.
Alfred, T. (2017, 13 October) For Indigenous nations to live, colonial mentalities must die . Policy Options. http://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/october-2017/for-indigenous-nations-to-live-colonial-mentalities-must-die/
âpihtawikosisân. (n.d) Beyond territorial acknowledgments. Blog post. http://apihtawikosisan.com/2016/09/beyond-territorial-acknowledgments/