In our thousands, in our millions

Remarks from a panel on Palestine

In our thousands, in our millions

These remarks were given at a panel at Brock University on November 27th. They are not edited but do include an addition about Indigenous people in prison. I’ll return to Fanon next week.

Aniin, boozhoo. Wabanan Anongokwe ndishnakaaz. Adik n’dodem. Obishkokaang n’doonjba. Ojibwe Anishinabekwe n’daw.

As a social worker I am trained to review history and develop strategies. To answer the question of whether or not something happened by looking at the history of a family for patterns and context, by looking at other relationships and other sources of information. And then having assessed the history and the present, I develop strategies to address the current circumstances. That is what I did with my book, and what I do with my writing and speaking.

out of focus wildflowers against a rising sun. text says in our thousands in our millions we are all Palestinians.

The keffiyeh I wear I purchased at one of many rallies I attended the summer of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. That summer also saw a bombardment of Gaza and for a few weeks we spoke at each other's rallies. For those weeks we grieved together.

It is typical of Indigenous people to introduce ourselves by describing our relationships. My name, clan, community, and people are layers of relationship that I exist in. They are a claim of relationship to the land and waters north and west of Lake Superior. But it is important that we all do this, that we reject the settler colonial severing of ourselves from our histories in favour of a single patriotic identity.

Indigenous is, as Troy Storfjell (Sami) has pointed out, an analytic. It is not an identity. It does not even refer necessarily to the peoples who emerged in a place. It refers to the people who are present when colonizers invade and occupy a place. It refers to the relationship between the settlers and those who are already there. So it isn’t a matter of going back 100 years, 500 years, or 2,000 years to see who has dibs.

There were already people living in that land when ideologies developed in the heart of European empires and a political decision was made by the Imperial powers who were in the process of withdrawing or being made to withdraw from their own colonial states, to carve up the newly defeated Ottoman Empire and disburse it among various political and ethnic groups. There were already people there, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. At this point I want to be clear in my distinction between the Jewish people and the violence of nation building, which is a violence that is also at work in Canada and the US. For centuries if not millenia Jewish people, along with Muslims and other non Christians, were targeted for violence and expulsion in Europe and the states that emerged there. The word itself, explained and described so beautifully by my co panelist Abbie, was coined in 1860 by an Austrian Jewish scholar, Mortiz Steinschnieder to counter the ideas of French philosopher Ernest Renan who claimed that the Semitic race was inferior to the Aryan race. Almost 20 years later it was popularized by Wilhelm Marr, a German who founded “the League of Antisemites.” The violence of the Third Reich had deep roots that continue to reach out, back and forth across oceans. Violence against Jewish people cannot be tolerated, but it cannot be conflated with criticism of state violence and indeed, Jewish people in Israel and throughout the diaspora including holocaust survivors are speaking out against Israel, many of whom face arrest for their courage. Imagine being the police officer arresting a holocaust survivor protesting genocide.

In her book Golden Gulag, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, African American, has given us a definition of racism that I find helpful and pertinent. She says, racism specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. Although she is speaking about racism, the principle is useful for examining oppression. It is state sanctioned or produced outside legal structures. It produces or exploits group differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death. Death at any age that could be prevented. This is a valuable metric to consider as we move forward in addressing inequities because it draws our attention to groups, to systems. It draws our attention to power imbalances. It makes no accusations towards individuals beyond our participation with our harms experienced by these systems. And systems can be changed.

In the space of one week, two people I know have been arrested during peaceful protest, on the ground, knee in the back, zip tied arrest. One of whom was arrested during the pre-dawn raids in Toronto last week. They were arrested for alleged hate crimes. The Jewish Faculty Network released an open letter demanding that the charges against those protestors be dropped. They decry what they call a dangerous conflation of Judaism with the state of Israel as part of a campaign to silence criticism of Israel’s massively disproportionate use of violence with such false charges. People are being fired, contracts being cancelled, students expelled. I am aware of this climate, but I speak up anyway. As an Anishinaabekwe committed to justice and collective liberation of all peoples, I have to. Time after time my speaking confronts not just the misuse of power, but the fact that it is held in the hands of a few and used to benefit some at the expense of others.

I also want to distinguish between settler colonialism and immigration. Immigrants come to a place with the intention of becoming part of the existing political system. Settlers come with the intention of imposing a new order upon the people and that is what happened in Israel. I understand the desire for a place of safety, for a return to home. But rather than integrating with the existing social order and collectively creating an independent state, they created a state that displaced and enacted violence on the people already there. We cannot use the language of safety to enact violence.

Through settlement of occupied lands with controlled migration, governments assert political presence and secure borders. After the war of 1812 Canada and the US had what was then the world's longest border and the best way to secure a border is to move people alongside it. Canada and the US did this by giving away thousands upon thousands of acres of land but in order to do this they had to remove the Cree and Lakota, the Blackfoot and others. In his book Clearing the Plains, James Dashuk (unmarked, Canadian) describes the policy of starvation enacted by the MacDonald government in the late 19th century. When I went to Iqaluit we visited the welcome centre and I read about the cold war settlement of what is now Nunavut. The establishment of a US military base and the subsequent movement of Inuit off the land. They went from igloos to ipads in one generation because Canada and the US needed to assert a social and military presence in the far north. That’s not hyperbole or my opinion, that’s what it says on the display that I read.

Settler colonialism can also be thought of as a process of disconnecting people from their histories. Disconnecting us from place and relations so that all we have for an identity is our race or religion or our citizenship in a state. It separates us into categories of identity and then attaches rights to those identities. If we are going to push back against the inequities created by those categories we must reconnect our histories and our lineages, the relationships we inherit from our parents, including the ones we may not want to think about. Ancestors whose legacies we can either champion or transform.

Through my father my children and I belong to Lac Seul First Nation. That is of course a legal statement. It is where we are registered as Indians and is 2,000 km away.

My mother’s family are German and Ukrainian migrants who came to Canada among the wave of refugees fleeing postwar Europe.

I carry the lineages of those who emerged in this place as well as those who came here seeking safety from other regimes. So I have to believe that we can work together against systems of injustice, that we are all survivors of colonial violence and that our survival depends on that solidarity. It is not hyperbole for me to say that as Palestine goes, we all go.

There are still 32 long term boil water advisories in 28 communities across Canada. These numbers of course are controlled by definitions and don’t reflect the realities of life on reserve. The boil water advisory in Six Nations was lifted but only 17% of those who live there have direct access to the water from the treatment plant, the rest rely on cisterns or wells both of which are subject to contamination. My own reserve of Lac Seul is currently under a boil water advisory. Neither of these communities are counted in the government’s listing of reserves with advisories.

In Palestine, even before the most recent eruption of colonial violence, 90% of the residents of the Gaza strip did not have reliable access to safe drinking water. The Israeli state demolishes rainwater collection cisterns and diverts water resources. More than 98% of the water that would flow through the Jordan River has been diverted largely by Israel for their own agriculture leaving little for Palestinian farmers but the sewage that gets dumped into what water remains.

We are therefore, not just watching a genocide unfold in Palestine, but also an entwined ecocide. The destruction of people and land and waters because what else can it be but ecocide when the destruction being rained down on Gaza, an area the size of Mississauga, is rendering the land uninhabitable and the water undrinkable? The Israeli news outlet Haaretz acknowledges that Gaza city will soon be uninhabitable, something that Israeli leadership has said was a goal. Homes, schools, hospitals all destroyed. Neighbourhoods. And now an entire city.

Indigenous people know this pain all too well. The land and waters of our communities destroyed and poisoned. Our men and women are sexually assaulted, imprisoned, or killed. Our children taken and held hostage in residential schools, held hostage in the child welfare system. Held in these places as guarantees of our good behaviour in the hopes that they would be returned to us. Returned to us years and decades later, changed irrevocably.

Canada says that Israel has a right to defend itself. And it has to say that, not only to justify its own existence but because Canada’s policy on the export and brokering of military items says that the minister of foreign affairs, currently Melanie Joly, must deny permits for the sale of military goods and technology if those things “could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws, acts constituting an offence under international conventions relating to terrorism or organized crime, or serious acts of gender-based violence.” In the US the Arms Export Control Act has a similar requirement.

So Canada has to say that Israel is defending itself or it won’t be able to allow the sale of military goods and technology to Israel. It has to vote against over 60 UN resolutions upholding Palestinian rights. Canada helped to realize the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and has been a long-time supporter of Zionist politics even while giving sanctuary to and applauding literal Nazis. That sale of military goods and technology goes both ways. Israel leads the world in cyber security, the tracking and surveillance of Palestinians providing a laboratory for the development of this technology for export to countries like Canada, Colombia, India, and Mexico. Anywhere that wants to control an unwanted, Indigenous population.

Canada and the US are also in favour of a two state solution, much like the solution they enacted here with reserves for the Indigenous population and land for everyone else. Reserves whose land is held for us by the Federal government, not even owned by the people themselves. Reserves that can be depopulated passively through the bureaucratic genocide of the Indian Act.

Although it was never part of the Indian Act, the pass system in place from the late 1800s to the 1940s controlled Indigenous movement of reserves. Controlled and deliberately impoverished communities like historic reserves and contemporary Gaza have been described as open air prisons. And I understand the pushback on that term because the people within Gaza are not criminals, but that assumes that people who are in prisons deserve to be there, deserve to be cut off and controlled with violence. As Shree noted about the construction of innocence to absolve some, criminality too is constructed to blame others, to remove people from society, to remove us from land. And Black and Indigenous people, like Palestinians, are constructed as dangerous. Imagined as criminals simply by existing.

One of the calls to justice from the TRC was to reduce the number of Indigenous people in prison. At that time we accounted for 30% of the prison population. Today we are over 40% of that population. In some provinces, Indigenous men account for approximately 80% of the prison population.

This is why Anishinaabe activist Fawn Pochel says that Land Back means an end to carceral systems because those systems exist to remove us from land.

Early treaties like the Two Row, like the Peace and Friendship treaties, like many others offered a one state solution. A way for us to live together in this place without interfering with each other’s way of life. Later treaties were understood this way by the Indigenous people who signed them, that we would continue to have the ability to travel and hunt on the lands we have always known. The diaries of the treaty commissioners for Treaty 9 in northwestern Ontario acknowledge that this is what the people, some of whom were my own relatives, believed and they admit that they did not correct this misunderstanding because it served the Canadian government for them to stay silent. In this two state solution we are rendered wards, our underlying title to the land and even our human rights under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People subject to the interests of the state. We can’t say no, no matter what they do to our land and waters we have no right to refuse. That is what Canada and the US and Israel offered Palestinians. A two state solution in which the rights of Indigenous people exist on the sufferance of those who are citizens and their political institutions.

We don’t need heroes. We don’t need our own MLK or Mandela as Piers Morgan suggested. We are our own heroes. We save ourselves, and that salvation comes through solidarity, it comes by recognizing our common interests and identifying our common goals. It comes from the shared knowledge that we are all suffering underneath settler colonialism and that our liberation, along with that of the land and water, is collective. Land Back, like the call that Palestine would be free isn’t a call for ownership or expulsions, it is a call to free the land. To free the land from the violence of colonialism and thereby free ourselves. We need to think about what collective liberation looks like, then seek out the people and movements that bring us to that place. The resistance to colonialism here and elsewhere succeeds or fails with us. All of us. In our thousands, in our millions. We are all Palestinians.

If our hearts break, let them break outward into action ~ Rasha Abdulhadi