POINTS OF DEPARTURE
Why it’s time to start talking about the relationship between new immigrants and Indigenous communities
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.”