Why it’s time to start talk­ing about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween new im­mi­grants and Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties

Sharp - - CONTENTS WINTER 2018 - By Ka­mal Al-so­laylee

Ka­mal Al­so­laylee on the lit­tle-dis­cussed re­la­tion­ship be­tween new im­mi­grants and Canada’s First Na­tions.

IHAD BEEN LIV­ING IN CANADA for al­most 18 years when it first hap­pened. While vis­it­ing a class at the Univer­sity of Toronto as a guest au­thor in early 2014, a stu­dent asked a sim­ple but dev­as­tat­ing ques­tion that made me re-ex­am­ine the care­fully plot­ted nar­ra­tive of my­self as a good ci­ti­zen, a model nat­u­ral­ized Cana­dian. The ques­tion went along these lines: as an im­mi­grant to Canada, have I ever con­sid­ered my cul­pa­bil­ity in the con­tin­u­ing op­pres­sion of Indige­nous pop­u­la­tions? As I reached for my glass of wa­ter, in a hack­neyed at­tempt to buy time, it dawned on me that the stu­dent’s ques­tion was not only valid but one that I had de­lib­er­ately ig­nored. I knew it would come sooner or later, but it still caught me off guard when fi­nally put for­ward by this woke stu­dent. I mut­tered a few words about how I fo­cused on my own jour­ney into Canada and couldn’t in­clude all other points of view, all eth­nic­i­ties. The stu­dent didn’t buy it. Nei­ther did I.

In two decades as a jour­nal­ist and au­thor, I have writ­ten fre­quently about my love of Toronto and my grat­i­tude to Canada for giv­ing im­mi­grants like me a safe home and a new start in life. I may have given lip ser­vice to the “plight” or “ter­ri­ble con­di­tions” of Indige­nous peo­ple, but, to be hon­est, these is­sues never al­tered my per­cep­tion of Canada or mo­ti­vated me to look at how Euro­pean set­tle­ment and cul­tural sub­ju­ga­tion be­came the defin­ing nar­ra­tive of our na­tion. To me that all hap­pened be­fore my time, and the blame lay squarely in the cor­ner of the White Man — the same one who col­o­nized much of the Arab world where I was born and raised and who taught me his lan­guage and cul­ture (in this case, English) al­most as early as I dis­cov­ered my na­tive tongue and her­itage.

While his­tor­i­cally ac­cu­rate, this ex­er­cise in pass­ing the re­spon­si­bil­ity of un­set­tling na­tive pop­u­la­tions to peo­ple of Euro­pean de­scent (and plac­ing it firmly in the past) con­ve­niently al­lowed mil­lions like me who have im­mi­grated to Canada from de­vel­op­ing coun­tries more re­cently to sit out the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion di­a­logue of the last decade. Not our prob­lem, we ra­tio­nal­ize. It gives us a handy ex­cuse to play spec­ta­tors in the col­o­niz­ing-col­o­nized fight­ing matches

that are still rag­ing to this day — see the re­cent “Ap­pro­pri­a­tion Prize” con­tro­versy in the lit­er­ary com­mu­nity — when we new set­tlers have ben­e­fited from the bat­tles that have al­ready been waged. We wouldn’t be here if the west (and east and north) wasn’t won.

What’s even more preva­lent but less spo­ken about among new im­mi­grants is how much we have ac­cepted, in­ter­nal­ized, and per­pet­u­ated the worst stereo­types about Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties that ear­lier set­tler cul­ture passed on to us. Ac­cord­ing to a study from the Cana­dian Race Re­la­tions Foun­da­tion, most im­mi­grants have no real knowl­edge of Indige­nous peo­ple when they ar­rive, yet quickly form a neg­a­tive opin­ion of them.

Un­crit­i­cally, I ac­cepted as truth the very des­ig­na­tions that cen­turies of colo­nial­ism have been lev­el­ing at me as a Third Worlder. By re­cy­cling and di­rect­ing the same views at an­other, less ad­van­taged group, I felt much bet­ter about my­self. I mea­sured my sense of achieve­ment and be­long­ing in Canada by the widen­ing dis­tance be­tween me and the home­less na­tives who roamed the parks near my for­mer down­town Toronto apart­ment as I walked my dog. I made a point of go­ing out on that first walk be­fore the shel­ters let ev­ery­one out for the day. On a su­per­fi­cial level, I could ig­nore the prob­lem if I didn’t see it. On a deeper one, I viewed my­self not as the for­mer sub­al­tern but as a mem­ber of the priv­i­leged (and by def­i­ni­tion white) ma­jor­ity. Clas­sic colo­nial as­pi­ra­tional psy­chol­ogy, and I fell for it.

Wil­ful ne­glect of this na­ture is no longer ten­able in 2017. One of five Cana­di­ans is born in an­other coun­try, and im­mi­gra­tion con­tin­ues to be the only vi­able strat­egy to meet cur­rent labour short­ages and fu­ture com­mit­ments to an ag­ing pop­u­la­tion. More than half of Toronto (51.5 per cent) iden­ti­fies as a vis­i­ble mi­nor­ity, ac­cord­ing to the 2016 cen­sus. Sim­i­larly, Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties are now among the fastest-grow­ing de­mo­graphic groups, par­tic­u­larly in Western Canada, com­ing in at nearly five per cent of the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion. To en­sure that new­com­ers know and re­spond fairly to the facts of Indige­nous life is an in­vest­ment in the com­ing 150 years — for ev­ery­one.

The Lib­eral gov­ern­ment is act­ing on a rec­om­men­da­tion from the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion and mak­ing new Cana­di­ans pledge to hon­our treaties with Indige­nous peo­ples as part of their cit­i­zen­ship cer­e­mony oath. It’s also look­ing at up­dat­ing the guide to Canada and other lit­er­a­ture that new­com­ers re­ceive to re­flect this land’s rich his­tory be­fore col­o­niza­tion. These are steps in the right di­rec­tion, but more is needed. At a re­cent Banff Fo­rum con­ver­sa­tion I at­tended, Min­is­ter of Im­mi­gra­tion, Refugees and Cit­i­zen­ship Ah­mad Hussen made the eco­nomic case for bring­ing more im­mi­grants to Canada but strug­gled to re­spond to a ques­tion from an au­di­ence mem­ber about in­volv­ing Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in de­ter­min­ing the num­ber of new­com­ers to Canada, among other im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies. It makes sense to me. Let’s give na­tive peo­ple a say in this mat­ter be­fore oth­ers start speak­ing on their be­half.

When the Cana­dian pub­lic and gov­ern­ment opened their wal­lets, homes, and bor­ders to Syr­ian refugees in late 2015 and early 2016, some me­dia com­men­ta­tors used the sit­u­a­tion to draw par­al­lels be­tween the old­est and new­est com­mu­ni­ties in the land. If only Cana­di­ans were this gen­er­ous to their own un­der­priv­i­leged and long-suf­fer­ing na­tive pop­u­la­tion, they ar­gued. The same pun­dits never really en­gaged with the Indige­nous is­sue un­til it mag­i­cally turned into a stick with which to beat gov­ern­ment ef­forts to bring in a mere 25,000 spon­sored refugees (from a pool of about five mil­lion in­ter­na­tion­ally dis­placed Syr­i­ans).

So with a dis­ap­point­ing track record from politi­cians and the me­dia, can the two com­mu­ni­ties talk to each other di­rectly? It seems like a tall or­der, but there are pos­i­tive signs. These in­clude a res­o­lu­tion by the Cana­dian Coun­cil of Refugees to “move quickly to al­low new­com­ers to un­der­stand and af­firm the treaty re­la­tion­ship” be­tween Canada and Indige­nous peo­ples. In Saska­toon, the Open Door So­ci­ety, which pro­vides ser­vices for refugees and im­mi­grants, hosted a con­fer­ence in the fall of 2017 that fo­cused on new­com­ers’ role in the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process with Indige­nous peo­ple. Re­ports of Mus­lims and other im­mi­grants com­ing to­gether with Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties on Is­lamic Her­itage Month or World Refugee Day con­sti­tute a record of a na­tional shift in tone.

Still, I know that I and many new im­mi­grants need to do bet­ter. We must think crit­i­cally about what our move means within the grand nar­ra­tive of im­mi­gra­tion to this coun­try. Our pres­ence is chang­ing the story of Canada, not just in terms of mak­ing it less white but also in how it af­fects the coun­try’s Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. It took me al­most two decades to be­come aware of the is­sues. I hope it doesn’t take as long to start act­ing on them.

Ka­mal Al-so­laylee is a jour­nal­ist and pro­fes­sor at Ry­er­son Univer­sity, and the au­thor of the award-win­ning books In­tol­er­a­ble and Brown.

“Un­crit­i­cally, I ac­cepted as truth the very des­ig­na­tions that cen­turies of colo­nial­ism have been lev­el­ling at me as a Third Worlder — re­cy­cling and di­rect­ing the same views at an­other group.”

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