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.