Depending on who you ask, I was born in Vancouver, Canada, or I was born on unceded Coast Salish land in the traditional territory of the Musqueam people.
Because there are a host of privileges and responsibilities that accompany someone based on the place and circumstances of their birth, this is not a question of mere semantics. If the land under the city I was born in was never legally ceded to the government of Canada, then there is an argument to be made that I am not Canadian. But because I grew up completely divorced from Musqueam culture and Musqueam heritage, it would be risible for me to claim that my lack of ‘true Canadian-ness’ makes me Musqueam by default.
Which then raises the important question of what/who I am.
Legally speaking, I am Canadian, and I can sleep secure in the knowledge that a land claim that would strip me of my citizenship and its privileges is unlikely to arise or become successful in my lifetime. I am a ‘status Canadian’ – Canadian by the arbitrary act of a system that grants privileges and titles based on little more than a wink-nudge agreement between powerful people. I get to travel the world as a Canadian, I get the protections and rights afforded Canadian citizens, and nobody questions the legal validity of that citizenship (even if they should). But it may, nonetheless, be worth taking a moment to imagine where I fit into a discussion of Indigenous sovereignty, since it’s a topic I follow closely.
My father was born in a British colony that had been bought from the Dutch that had been forcibly stolen from the Carib and Arawak people indigenous to that region of South America. The colony was built by slave labour stolen from people indigenous to the continent of Africa. Owing to the attitudes of the slave traders and owners who settled in that land and established that colony, we may never know where in Africa my father’s ancestry (and mine, by extension) comes from. “Africa” will have to be enough for now; possibly forever.
Because my father was lucky enough to be able to access the British-imported education system and the Roman-imported religious system, he was able to leave the (by then former) British colony he was born in and emigrate to another (by then former) British colony: Canada. A wink-nudge agreement between powerful men in Canada changed the rules for immigration to allow people from certain British colonies to come to other British colonies. Female members of my father’s family had been allowed to immigrate because the powerful men in Canada needed people to work in their homes, and they had made a wink-nudge agreement that the colour of the skin of my aunts and grandmother was no longer a de facto barrier to their being allowed to live in Canada. My father, however, was black and male, so he had to wait. Not enough winks, not enough nudges. Not yet.
But because a certain wink and a certain nudge from certain powerful men happened, my father was able to live and work in the British colony of Canada. A man whose ancestors had been stolen for labour and taken to a place where the land had been stolen was finally deemed acceptable enough, by the shifting standards of the cultural descendants of the slave traders and owners that had taken Africa from him, to contribute paid labour to a place where they had stolen the land of other people. One blanched hand of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (gods, but does bell hooks know how to coin a phrase) washing the other.
My mother’s family emigrated from Ireland and Germany three generations before her birth. They eventually settled and homesteaded in British Columbia on land that was stolen from indigenous people. Despite the colour of the skin of my mother’s ancestors, they were not considered ‘White’ enough – rather, as castoffs who were only allowed to settle here because there was a need for labour and the Irish were so devastated by famine and racism at the hands of the British that they were willing to flee their homeland for the possibility of a better life. The land my mother’s ancestors lived on was given to them by people who did not belong to it. They were, somewhat paradoxically, allowed to live there because, despite not being ‘White’, they were deemed culturally acceptable enough to be afforded second-class status.
My father’s ancestors, had they wanted and been able to, would not have been allowed to emigrate to Canada and build a farm in those days. Wrong colour, sorry.
My mother was Canadian by birth, like me. My father was Canadian by act of government. Both ‘status Canadians’ – granted rights and access by the magnanimity of winking and nudging powerful men. Both carrying the stigma of their ancestry and familiar history. Both patriotic Canadians, albeit by radically different paths that still had uncanny similarities.
I was born, depending on who you ask, in Vancouver, Canada as a result of the collision of these two lives and histories. In my identity is carried the collective history of multiple continents, multiple thefts of land, and multiple winks and multiple nudges by powerful men. Despite the convoluted historical realities, I am legally Canadian. I am a ‘status Canadian’. I am proud of my country, I am proud of my identity. I am ashamed of my country, and I am confused about my identity.
The land I was born in was stolen from the people who belong to it. But it is still my home. I still belong to this land, because there is no other land on Earth that I could claim as mine. I have no connection to either Ireland or Germany. My father is not indigenous to Guyana, despite belonging to that land in the same way I belong to this. We don’t know where in Africa his ancestors may have called home, and if we did there is enough of Canada and Ireland and Germany in me that I wouldn’t belong there either.
For better and for worse, I am Canadian.
A major crux of the conversation about Indigenous sovereignty in Canada is the gap between ‘settlers’ and Indigenous people. I am a settler. My mother’s family settled here. My father emigrated here by a wink-nudge act of a settler’s government. I was born here, and have no other home, but I am still a settler. I have no difficulty accepting the truth of that appellation – regardless of the fact that I was not in the room when the winks and nudges were exchanged, I still derive my status from the results of the resulting agreements. For better and for worse, I am Canadian. I am a settler.
What complicates this conversation, however, is the confluence of ‘settler’ and ‘White’. In much the way that racism in the United States is plotted on a ‘Black/White’ axis, the struggle for sovereignty here is plotted on axes labeled ‘Indigenous’ and ‘White’*. Looking at the issue from a systemic level, the colonial system that makes Canada possible is white supremacist and white descended, and it is entirely reasonable to recognize it as such. However, the reality of Canada is that it is a country literally built by people who were neither white nor ‘White’. Chinese, Hungarian, Ukranian, Italian, Caribbean, Indian, Japanese, Métis, Indigenous, Aboriginal… Canada owes its existence to the efforts of people who fell outside the social category of ‘White’ (at least at some point).
And into this paradox comes the fact that my father owes his status as a Guyanese and a Canadian to a white supremacist colonizing ideology. Add to this the fact that my mother’s people weren’t white enough to be ‘White’ when they first came here. Victims both of the same settler colonial mentality that makes me a Canadian born on Musqueam land. Born Canadian to an African man and a German/Irish woman.
I was discussing the idea of patriotism with two friends who are African immigrants. They both, as is typical of immigrants, believe that newcomers have a duty to adopt the practices and traditions of the land they have moved to. Not total assimilation, mind you, but rather a recognition that you are a welcomed guest and that you have an obligation to repay the invitation with such courtesy. My father believes the same. I’m sure my maternal great-grandparents did too.
I am a ‘status Canadian’. I am not an immigrant to Canada, but I am a settler. I am not White, but I do derive a great deal of privilege and protection from a white supremacist system that has taken much from Indigenous people. My question to my friends was this: whose practices and traditions should I adopt? As a Canadian by birth, I am not an immigrant and owe no duty of courtesy to my hosts. This is my home. I have no other. According to that model of belonging, I have no obligation to anyone. I am, however, also a settler. I am a (welcomed?) guest living in the territory of Coast Salish people. Do I have a duty to adopt their practices and traditions? Do my immigrant friends also have that obligation? To which nation must they ally themselves?
Inasmuch as I am here because white colonialists stole my father’s ancestors and made them work stolen land, I am a victim of white colonialism. Inasmuch as my mother’s family was here because they were allowed to settle on stolen land, I am a participant in and beneficiary of white colonialism, and part of the same settler system that Indigenous sovereignty protests against. I owe my status to the theft of land from Indigenous people by colonizers and settlers, and in the same token the theft of land and labour makes me a hereditary victim of that same process.
When lines are drawn between ‘Indigenous’ and ‘White’, am I not simply written entirely out of the equation? I am not Indigenous, but I was born here and have no other possible home. I am not White, but I carry with me and in me the products of white settler colonialism. It is not a question of being ‘a bit of both’, as I might consider myself when discussing ‘Black/White’ racism, but of being ‘neither one nor the other’.
As much as I want to add my voice to the chorus of people demanding justice for Indigenous people, I am in a very uncomfortable position. I am nowhere on the ‘Indigenous/White’ axis. I don’t exist on that continuum. I am not an immigrant, which would (in some ways) be easier – if I were, I would have made a voluntary agreement with the nation of Canada. As someone who was born here, I made no such agreement – the agreement was made on my behalf before I was born. I am not White, which would (in some ways) be easier – if I were, I would embrace my own heritage for its flaws and faults and advocate as an ally. I am instead a non-white settler who owes his status and privilege to the same system I protest against, and who represents both criminal and victim in the historical theft of the land and labour of non-white people.
I am still, obviously, working my way through these ideas. I think this kind of reflection also extends to people whose parents are immigrants from European countries, albeit with a different historical context than that of my father’s family. This is definitely not a ‘poor me’ kind of piece – considering the number of problems it is possible to have, a bit of existential jiggery-pokery is a really light burden to bear. This has just been on my mind since I started really tuning in to conversations between my fellow settlers and Indigenous activists and adovcates.
*Obviously it is more complicated than that. There are identities like “Aboriginal” and “Indian” and “Native” and “First Nation” that make any attempt at classification an exercise comprised entirely of smoke and mirrors. And winks. And nudges.
Is the idea of lands belonging to peoples a bit colonial, and perhaps a conceptual flaw? The quality of education on the subject in the US is…. shall we say…. craptacular, so forgive me if I’m remembering this wrong, but I remember reading that some of the land negotiations that occurred were thought by the natives to be permission to hunt (maybe farm?), and the colonists thought it was ownership, which may or may not have been a concept to the natives. The idea that it isn’t “their” land doesn’t make it anybody else’s either.
Wiki says the Musqueam are the oldest residents of Vancouver we know of, so they probably didn’t displace anybody, but it might also be beneficial to explore the origination of territorial rights. Whatever ethical framework, I certainly don’t know what it is however I either assume there is one that comports with skeptical humanism or we don’t have a conversation, forms the basis to First Nations claims to the land might also have place for the descendants of colonists. I’m not sure if a nth generation First Nations child born in the hospital room next to yours has any more right to that land in a woo-less framework than you do, and along the lines of your thoughts, certainly you don’t have a right to land in your “ancestral homes”.
Speaking of descendants, one of the horrors of the old testament is the thing where punishment for crimes is passed on for several generations, anything that would be a punishment for the innocent descendants of colonists seems like it would be unethical, but then there’s how we handle the unwitting purchase of stolen property, but then the perpetrators of the theft are long dead. This may be a case where there is no ethical solution. I share your “so what does that mean of me” about being beneficiaries of past injustice.
As to the racial aspect that affects you, I can’t comment much, as an adopted white infant, I replace your Africa with “Europe” and can understand that part, but it’s otherwise too dissimilar.
FWIW, I’ve dodged the whole issue (until my visa runs out) by moving to Japan while my wife teaches English. On that matter, I feel similarly to your father and your friends, I’m trying to learn Japanese, I bow to people when culturally appropriate, take my shoes off, etc. I don’t think it’s a matter of opinion that I would be a colossal douche not to. While one might get a pass on some customs, ignoring it entirely is colorblind racism for culture. It’s a much smaller adjustment, but even between English speaking countries, travelers and immigrants should make some attempt not to be jackasses, though this is no guarantee that they won’t be, and the residents should be understanding, or not, as circumstances dictate.
I’ve followed you since free thought blogs, and I’m sorry if you’ve lost readers, the issues you write about deserve an audience, and I doubt it’s news that white folks never talk about this one in particular.
Thanks for the comment, Brad.
My (admittedly poor) understanding of the relationship between people and land, according to Indigenous peoples in Canada, is that there is no meaningful separation between the two. I use the phrase “the people who belong to the land” here as an intentional rhetorical device, although it might be more accurate to say “the people of the land”, since there is no “belonging”, just duty. This understanding makes the theft all the more monstrous, since by stealing land, colonizers also stole the very identities of the people. What is interesting is how common that concept is among a variety of disparate peoples across the globe. Owning land is aberrant, not the default.
But what follows makes the land claims all the more murky, because they don’t claim to OWN the land (as far as I know). They claim to BELONG TO or BE OF the land, which carries with it a number of implications that lie well outside the European-descended legal framework. To fight it in the courts is to capitulate, at least in part, to the settler colonial system that took away the land in the first place.
It’s complicated, and the answer to all complicated situations is careful though, reflection, and listening. This piece represents some step within that process.
Im having difficulty understanding why you consistently refer to yourself as a settler. Maybe this is an issue of semantics, but as you mention, you are a citizen of Canada by default because of decisions made by other people before you had legal existence. To me, being a settler involves an element of choice, if I decide to re-locate to Peru it could be said that i have settled there, however when I am brought into the world in a place, there was no choice made by me about where that was. How many generations do your relatives have to be in a place before their descendants are no longer considered settlers? The “natives” of any one place are only considered that by rights of their being there before who ever came after. But they themselves must have at some point re-located from another place. Using this logic “native” Scotts aren’t in fact native, (being descendants of a successful Norse invasion) nor is any one else besides those that live where ever Homo Erectus made the jump to Homo Sapien. Now i realize this is taking the logic to an extreme I have no doubt you did not intent, but to my mind no one is a settler in any land as soon as they are born there. Or am i misunderstanding you?
Thanks for your comment, Nathan.
The term “settler” finds its origin in the scholarship of settler colonialism, so it might be worthwhile to familiarize yourself with that area of thought, and then see if you still disagree. If you do, we can certainly discuss it.
EDIT: it took me like 45 minutes before I figured out which Nathan this comment was from. Hey dude.
Referencing wikipedia … did you go to Laurier or something? A reference to settler colonialism in the blog would have been helpful in guiding me away from the colloquial use of the term :p If we are going to be technical, I think (and i could be wrong) “settler” was first used to describe someone who moved to a previously unpopulated area, before ivory tower intellectuals created the term “settler colonialism”, by the settlers themselves at time before the modern view of colonialism even existed. Irrespective of the genesis of said term, now that I understand your frame of reference let me change direction slightly. You being a supposedly sovereign person have the right to self-determination, and with that a right to self-definition. By voluntarily using that term to describe yourself (regardless of the fact you fit the definition), it seems you might somehow feel indirectly responsible for what happened to the indigenous peoples of British Columbia. Or am I, yet again, misunderstanding you?
Bottom line is we should be discussing this over beer.
When is the next time your going to be in Ontario post August you suave almost-doctor?
I’ll be back in Ontario from the 22nd of December until the 29th. I would very much welcome a beer with you during that time, if possible. When you say August, you mean August 2014? I am not sure what my plans are that far into the future.
To answer the “responsible” question, I don’t feel personally responsible for things that happened before I was born by people who are not me. However, insofar as I still benefit from the actions of those people, and insofar as the system I benefit from continues to harm Indigenous people, I do have some responsibility for critiquing and changing that system (or, if the radicals are to be believed, abolishing the system entirely). My use of the term ‘settler’ to describe myself is reflective of my recognition that I participate in and benefit from an unfair settler colonialist system, and that I am indeed part of the problem even though I have not explicitly chosen to be so.
And it wasn’t “ivory tower intellectuals” that I learned the phrase/subject from. It was Indigenous activists.