Scales of Activism, Allyship, and the Embodiment of Resistance: a dialogue

by Morgan Clare and Sarah Hunt

One of our intentions for this blog is to explore relationships as places where we put our politics into practice. Here, we share a conversation we’ve been having about relationships and allyship, based in our own experiences of what allyship looks and feels like in our own lives.

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Sarah: Recently, we were talking about examples of people being allies in ways that feel good. For me, the first example that comes to mind is being in a class on gender and sexuality during my undergrad. On the first day, the professor reviewed a list of racist, sexist and otherwise problematic terminology, including the term ‘Indian’, and explained the histories of these words. We then discussed why we were not going to use these terms in class and agreed that if students used this language, we could remind each other why they were not to be used. A few weeks later, when one student was making racist comments about ‘Indians’ and being really aggressive towards me, the professor took action without me having to say anything. I felt like the professor would have addressed this with the student whether I (an Indigenous student) was in the class or not, because of this foundational social justice framework. Unlike in other classes I’d taken, it wasn’t put on my shoulders to take the racist student on. The teacher also addressed the problem outside of class so that I wasn’t further targeted or ‘othered’ as the only native person in class. I didn’t need to explain a bunch of historical, political and personal things in order for the teacher to understand why this language was a problem, or how this impacted my ability to come to class. And I felt supported before a problem even emerged. For me, this changed the learning environment, because I felt that the teacher got it right from the beginning.

This reminds me of other situations where people brought an already existing understanding of local Indigenous culture, colonialism, and contemporary Indigenous issues to the spaces we share. In general, this kind of self-education means Indigenous people don’t have to do the work that enables others to act as allies to them. I was at a music festival where one of the activities for kids was making feathered ‘Indian’ headbands. A bunch of friends came up to me throughout the festival, and afterward, to tell me they were going to write a letter or say something to the person in charge of that activity. I felt a great sense of relief to see people taking initiative to address this issue of ‘playing Indian’ at festivals because I am, quite frankly, tired of explaining why it’s racist. So often, people who point out the workings of systems of oppression (racism, ableism, heteronormativity and so on) are made to feel out of place for being the one to disrupt everyday societal norms. We end up being seen as ‘the problem’ instead of the material realities of oppressive systems themselves being problematized. So in this case, it felt good that people had listened to what has been written about this phenomenon, had heard the calls to challenge other non-native people about this, and were taking action. They let me know that the otherwise normalized racism was going to be made visible without me having to be the one to point it out, and that they would have taken action whether I was there or not.

Morgan: Your comments are really powerful and I’m struck by what you said about how people, especially those that are marginalized themselves, who point out problems of marginalization in operation get perceived as ‘the problem’. I also appreciate what you said about the importance of taking responsibility for learning. My own experiences of solidarity and support in relation to disability have been with people who engage meaningfully with radical disabled perspectives and critiques of ableism, and who work to dismantle ableism materially at multiple scales. One example is from my friendship with you where not only do you take initiative to find out about the physical accessibility of spaces whenever we hang out, but you also think about access in a broader way that goes beyond just physical access and that values my disabled embodiment and embodied political perspective. This is in contrast to ableist social relationships that constitute disabled people as burdens who can at best be tolerated ‘in spite of’ our embodiments, and at worst must be exterminated through eugenics.  I think what’s really powerful is that you help to normalize a broad kind of accessibility that is, as Mia Mingus says, in the service of disability justice. In other contexts, I find that access is often understood in a pretty narrow way, as if the inclusion of a wheelchair ramp means that a gathering will be accessible to disabled people. That kind of basic physical access for people with mobility related disabilities is absolutely necessary, but access for disabled people is actually a much more complex, ongoing process and way of relating to each other, not something that begins and ends at the entrance to a space.

Having said that, there are many ways that organizers can as a starting point improve physical accessibility at gatherings. One small but also really significant thing is to have an enforced scent-free policy so that chemically sensitive and environmentally ill people can attend. Disabled people with Environmental Illness and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) experience extreme levels of isolation that MCS activist Peggy Munson says “amount to nothing less than socially sanctioned torture”, and these forms of illness/disability are becoming more and more widespread as a result of the ongoing violence of environmental racism, colonialism, and capitalism. It’s really important that activists commit to building scent-free spaces and understanding this in a political framework rather than a condescending charity model.

At the same time, I don’t think that I should actually feel totally comfortable or ‘good’ as a disabled person who’s a white settler in ongoing colonialism and white supremacy. I think white supremacy and colonialism get reproduced through white people’s insistence that we should always feel comfortable and like we’re ‘innocent’ – that our comfort, perspectives, and experiences should always be centered. So I’ve been trying to think of examples of people working toward complex kinds of disability justice that locate ableism in a wider context of colonialism, white supremacy, and racial capitalism. One example that stands out for me is a disability justice gathering I went to that centred queer and trans disabled women of colour, and that focused on how ableism is bound up with white supremacy, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and cissexism. While antiracist perspectives were centred, what stands out to me now thanks in large part to conversations with you is the exclusion of decolonial and anti-colonial perspectives. Obviously these situations are a lot more nuanced than my comments suggest, but what is reaffirmed for me again and again is the importance of keeping anti-colonial perspectives centred when working for social justice in the settler colonial spaces now known as Canada and the United States. And as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang argue, centring Indigenous decolonization might actually require non-Indigenous activists to confront the incommensurability of our political objectives with decolonization.

Thinking about resistance at the level of everyday, embodied processes and relationships brings me back to some of our recent conversations about the gendered division of ‘public’ and ‘private’ life in determining what counts as ‘real’ political or activist work. Do you want to talk about this at all?

Sarah: Yes, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I really like how you frame this as ‘the embodiment of resistance’. So much of my own understanding of resistance, social justice and decolonization has emerged at personal and interpersonal levels, yet the work that happens at this scale often goes unseen. Since we’re talking about allyship, I think it’s important to talk about the various scales of activism. I have seen a lot of people claiming to be ‘Indigenous allies’, highlighting their involvement in public actions such as going to rallies, writing articles, or participating in protests. I don’t want to minimize the importance of these, but equating this type of activism with allyship can render invisible the quiet interpersonal work that is also needed in order to be a good ally. And, importantly, it can reproduce the idea that activism only happens at the highly visible, public scale of protests, rallies and actions, where many of us engage in activist work in our daily lives but it goes unseen, unacknowledged and untheorized as ‘activism’.

I also think we need to ask ourselves about the impact of ‘Indigenous allies’ getting more credit for their activism than the unseen, everyday, uncelebrated work of Indigenous people working to sustain our communities (or any ally getting more props than the groups to whom they’re an ally). We might ask ourselves how allies can best work to make visible the groups they’re aligning themselves with, rather than reproducing their own privilege. I’m reminded of this every time I go to a loonie twoonie fundraiser or an event to support local youth, where Indigenous people are coming together to better their communities on a local scale. You don’t see this broadcast on the news or show up in articles crediting the great work of these parents, grandparents and friends. Yet this is the everyday work of sustaining Indigenous communities and making small scale changes. It is very political, in my mind. How would we have survived without this unseen labor? And where are the allies when we need to make 150 salmon sandwiches?

Morgan: Making those sandwiches is important work and, like you said, it doesn’t get recognized as political in dominant value systems. I think allies also tend to draw on these kinds of value systems when constructing their own involvement in these struggles, so they don’t always do this kind of work. I agree that a lot of important activism happens at the scale of everyday life and we need to recognize things like preparing food and doing the dishes as important political activities in communities.

A lot of sick and disabled people struggle with the daily activities required to socially reproduce our lives/ourselves/our communities. We’re also usually marginal to formal labour markets (one of the reasons why the state and capital have largely abandoned social reproduction for disabled people), and we can’t withdraw our labour power as a form of protest. Often political struggle consists of helping each other to survive day in and day out, trying to organize informal networks of care to keep us alive (there are also many disabled people who don’t have access to necessary care and who die out of sight of other activists). I think of times when I can’t get out of bed due to chronic pain and illness and people bring me food, meds and ice packs and will just be there with me while I’m ill and hurting. It’s powerful when allies can really be present and supportive of disabled people in these moments instead of trying to pretend that our difference doesn’t exist because it’s easier or more comfortable. I know it can be difficult for people to face disability in this way, like the actual materiality of disabled people’s bodies that are ill and unruly and that challenge myths about independence and bodily control because ableism teaches us to fear and avoid these things at all costs.

At the same time, I think it’s important to recognize that disability is not a monolithic thing, with all disabled people having the same experience and positionality. Taking ableism as a singular and autonomous system to organize around can obscure how ableism is reproduced in/through a wider web of power relationships.

Sarah: For me, this raises the question of speaking and acting from within multiple places of privilege and oppression at once, while acknowledging colonialism as the framework in which all other forms of power operate here on Turtle Island. For myself, it’s also important to acknowledge that ‘Indigenous’ is not a homogenous category. Despite the attempts of colonial systems to turn us into a monolithic group under federal law, Indigenous people have always been culturally and politically diverse, and individually we also occupy our own complex subject positions. I’m Kwagiulth as well as being Ukrainian and English, I have a university education, I live in an urban center, I’m physically abled (a new term to me, thank you), and have to account for all of these dynamics (and more) in how I understand my responsibilities.

I find it’s through conversations like this one we’re having now that I have learned how to speak from within the complexities of my identity and history, while forming mutual allyships with friends across these dynamics. This makes me think about the limitations and barriers of identity politics (which may be a topic we revisit another time) that I encountered in my undergrad, and still encounter in some politicized spaces. Being in spaces or groups that are formed only around one axis of identity (like ‘gender’, ‘race’, sexuality and so on), the complex embodied and shifting nature of power is lost. And I find it requires a lot of ongoing work to push back against the force of these discrete identity categories. Like when I’m at an Indigenous event, but it’s totally heteronormative and makes two-spirit people invisible, it requires constant work to question who ‘counts’ as Indigenous. Within the overlapping communities we all identify with and belong to, I wonder how we can avoid these kinds of exclusions in the first place, building our role as allies to one another into our everyday worldview and actions as we create community together.

As you talked about earlier in approaches to normalizing access, I see this as an example of working at the scale of interpersonal relationships to account for the shifting and relational nature of power and privilege. In my own daily life, I have experienced a lot of support from allies who are there for me when grief or sadness overwhelms me. Doing work on colonial violence for over 15 years now, I sometimes unexpectedly get triggered or talking about violence just gets to be too much. And I am thankful to have friends in my life who, again, I don’t need to explain everything to but can just talk about what I’m feeling and they just sit with me. Maybe part of what they’re doing is recognizing that I don’t need them to try to change the situation (unless they can wave a magic wand and get rid of widespread brutality, which would be most welcome!), but that I just need to be cared for and heard. Maybe part of it is not trying to understand or identify with what someone else is going through, but being a witness to what someone is experiencing. Does this resonate with what you were saying earlier about people normalizing conversations about disability and access rather than avoiding their own discomfort?

Morgan: Yes! This resonates deeply, especially what you said about just needing to be cared for and heard sometimes (by people who you don’t have to explain and teach everything to) and how “maybe part of it is not trying to understand or identify with what someone else is going through, but being a witness to what someone is experiencing”. Listening and witnessing in this way are important and you put this really beautifully. It also makes me think about how to approach my own collective responsibilities and the role in this of listening and witnessing. I think it’s also important to be a witness in the more formal sense of the word. I think it’s important to learn when to be silent and when to speak when called on to be a witness to important events and issues. Annie sums this up well in the title of her other blog: “Noisy and Quiet: when’s it a time to speak up and when’s it a time to shut up and listen?”

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As we think about how to strengthen and deepen our relationships of responsibility, these conversations with one another can help to define what that responsibility looks like in action. As our examples hopefully show, it is at the level of relationships and friendships that we can begin to enact relational responsibility by being witness to one another and by taking action to normalize access, confront racism or otherwise act as allies to one another. Part of our responsibility becomes engaging in self-education so that we can better recognize the norms that allow certain bodies and lives to be valued over others, and so that we can engage in embodied resistance and activism. Colonial power in general depends on normalizing the invisibility of certain people and groups, so by being witnesses for one another, maybe we can begin to challenge that invisibility in these spaces between us.


Different spaces: whiteness and some pitfalls and possibilities of settler solidarity work

To follow along on our thread here about allyship, this post is a reflection inspired by many conversations, interactions, workshops, other blogs, and words shared by many people over the years (thank you) and also in part by my experiences and conversations started and had at last year’s Unist’ot’en Action Camp, where I was very privileged to be visiting Wet’suwet’en territories and spending time with people and families who are protecting their lands from encroaching, neocolonial corporations and industry. I am deeply grateful to everyone who has shared their knowledge with me and the Unist’ot’en and the guests at camp who shared their land and/or their knowledge with myself and with the other visitors during the week we spent there. The 4th Annual Unist’ot’en Action Camp just wrapped; please check out the Unist’ot’en’s website here.

I write this as a person who identifies as a white settler. This to me means that I am a person with European ancestry who benefits from white skin privilege and who is also a settler on Indigenous territories. The combination of these parts of my identity means that I hold a great deal of privileges. I also have places where I experience oppression. Here I strive to make clear some of the pitfalls and possibilities that I and other people who share my social location are likely to encounter, especially when attempting to be “in solidarity” with Indigenous people and people of colour.

I am writing this not only to provide critiques of the possibilities for white people in working against colonialism and racism, but in order to reflect on the work that I am currently doing in my own life in order to do that work better. I recognize the trap of ineffective critiquing, whereby any movement or action is frozen through the fear of “doing it wrong”. I write this with hope that these issues are things that can be addressed and discussed.

Clearly, not at all settlers are white and there are multiple ways that people came to live on the Indigenous territories currently occupied by “Canada”. My writing here is focused around white settlers because that is what I identify as, while recognizing the tendency towards a binary white-Indigenous conversation that does not acknowledge that there are racialized and mixed-race settlers as well as people who came to “Canada” by way of slavery, indentured servitude, in exile, or as refugees. This writing is only one part of a much larger conversation about all people living in “Canada”, with a wide variety of identities, though hopefully some parts may be relevant to not only white settlers.

The following are examples of ways that I have, and have seen other white settlers, take up space in ways that are harmful or that recreate oppressive dynamics.

Taking up space

a). Taking up of cultural space

There are certain things that for me to do or perform as a white settler are not acts of solidarity but instead of appropriations of cultural acts or space. Ceremonial spaces are all too often assumed to be open to anyone and there is a tendency of white people that I have myself enacted, that of expecting to be able to access any space that I wish to be in, without any thought of what my being there might feel like for other people. It is important to take into account the very recent and still-lasting impacts of the­­­­­ legacies of the banning of ceremony and language and the abuse that was perpetrated by white people at residential schools against Indigenous children for speaking their language.

Additionally, there are many spaces made for someone like myself, who identifies as someone seeking to work as an “ally” in many struggles. This can include being asked to participate in panels, conferences or to write about my work. Many times, my voice may be elevated above those who I strive to work in alliance with. It is a constant practice to think about who is being centered and why. Is it easier for other white people to hear what I have to say, rather than an Indigenous or racialized presenter or speaker? Sometimes it is my place to do the speaking, like when the topic at hand is white people or white supremacy, but when I am receiving cultural kudos for being an “Indigenous ally”, this can be a dangerous example of taking up of cultural space, space that is more appropriate for someone who is directly impacted by the issues that I claim to work in solidarity with to speak, receive acknowledgment and be considered an expert on their own experience. [I’ve had a few conversations about this with Sarah, who is currently working on another blog post on allyship with Morgan – check back again for more thoughts on this from her perspective as an Indigenous person.]

b). Taking up of literal space

“How can you miss our brown & golden in this sea of pink. We’re not as many as you. But we’re here.” – Chrystos, “Maybe We Shouldn’t Meet if there are no Third World Women Here”

Due to the impacts of genocide, white supremacy, racist immigration policies and continued racism and colonialism, white people numerically are often the largest group in towns, cities and provinces in “Canada”. In the city where I grew up, so-called “Victoria, BC” on Lekwungen, WSANEC and Esquimalt homelands, despite these lands being historically home to Lekwungen, WSANEC and Esquimalt people since time immemorial as well as the early communities of Chinese, South Asian and black settlers, white settlers’ numbers exceed these and other communities’ numbers. Some of the reasons for this include the ongoing genocide committed against Indigenous people by white people (in the forms of smallpox, environmental destruction, residential schools, the prison industrial complex, and the list goes on) and the enforcement of racist immigration laws such as the Chinese head tax by the Canadian governments and supported by many white citizens. This numerical majority of white people in many places in Canada means that people of colour and Indigenous people are often outnumbered.

Even in spaces deemed “progressive” or “radical”, the over-representation of white people can mean that they are heard most often, that the focus of the speaker or facilitator will turn towards the interests or understanding of white people (i.e. “translating” certain ideas so that they can be understood by white settlers), or that the questions, comments and ideas shared will come mostly from white settlers or will concern mostly white settlers.

Additionally, and perhaps the most fundamental of settler dilemmas, is that of ongoing occupation. As much as white settlers may want to “act in solidarity” with Indigenous people, there still remains the fundamental issue of invasion and ongoing colonial occupation and settlement, which all of us who are settlers are still participating in, despite our desire to act as allies.

c). Taking up of experiential space

“But I have had it hard, too!” is a common refrain amongst white people, especially when confronted with discussions of white supremacy and privilege. I know that I personally have done this; I can remember clinging strongly to my identity as a queer person, as it helped to assuage some of the white guilt that I felt. I was not able to accept the full responsibility of white privilege and so it comforted me to find that I too had an “oppressed status” to revert to. For me, it created a barrier between myself and my white skin and settler privileges, because I felt I had almost a “pass” due to my being queer. While it is true that understanding the forms of oppression that I experience can absolutely contribute to my ability to act in alliance with others experiencing different forms of oppression that my own, when I was using queerness as a shield from acknowledging the oppressions that people around me experience, I was not able to access the transformative potential of joint struggle.

Additionally, it is deeply dismissive to immediately have to respond to another person’s sharing of their experiences of oppression by attempting to prove that I “have had it hard, too”. We all have places where we experience privilege and oppression and just because someone is sharing their experience of oppression does not mean that I must immediately “prove” that I too experience oppression or that I cannot possibly be part of the oppressor group. Instead of responding immediately or allowing my own guilt or fear of being part of the systems that have created this oppression for the person describing it, it’s critical to first listen to what the person who is speaking is saying to me and to let their truth sit with me a while before responding, especially if my response is coming from a place of guilt, fear or defense.

It is critical to recognize what having forms of privilege, like white, class or male privilege, means. White privilege is a huge determinant of many things, including health, wealth, and life chances and is not something that can be ignored. Additionally, white settlers have long been beneficiaries of racist and colonial policies and practices (such as the Indian Act, the Canadian government’s interpretations of the treaties, resource extraction on Indigenous territories, the scooping up and adopting out of Indigenous children, and on), and have access to education, health care, and other resources that are underfunded or not provided at all to Indigenous people and communities or racialized immigrants and refugees.

Space for reflection

This conversation, as I mentioned earlier, is part of a much larger conversation and one I know I will be engaged in throughout my life, so there is no definite end or answers here. However, I do want to provide links to several statements that scholars, authors and activists have put forward as things to think about and keep at the forefront of any supposed “solidarity” or “decolonization” work, from three articles that have greatly influenced my thinking and actions.

In “Listen, take action and stick around: a roundtable on relationship-building in indigenous solidarity work”, Zainab Amadahy compiles thoughts from a table of people doing anti-colonial work. An activist involved speaks to the foundational importance of looking at decolonization; “[p]retending that the indigenous struggle is just one of many struggles is a problem. It’s fundamental to any efforts to achieve justice in this country.”

And in “Decolonizing together: Moving beyond a politics of solidarity toward a practice of decolonization”, author Harsha Walia suggests that the notion of leadership is a key principle in Indigenous solidarity organizing. Accordingly, settlers must be “accountable and responsive to the experiences, voices, needs and political perspectives of Indigenous people themselves.”

In the same article, contributor Jaggi Singh states that the only way to oppose complicity with settlement is to actively oppose it. This only happens in the “context of on-the-ground, day-to-day organizing, and creating and cultivating the spaces where we can begin dialogues and discussions as natives and non-natives.”

In this struggle, often the questions of what will happen to settlers and what will decolonization look like for settlers are centered. In “Decolonization is not a metaphor”, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang suggest that instead of focusing on “what will happen to settlers”, it is critical that decolonization struggle be accountable to Indigenous people and communities.

Speaking For, Speaking Beside: thoughts about consensual allyship

This past weekend, I attended the local Pride parade for the first time in about 6 years. I was happily surprised to see that some things had changed at the festivities, namely the heightened visibility and inclusion of two-spirit and local Indigenous communities. At the front of the parade, I found my cousin walking proudly in her button blanket along with a number of other people wearing regalia. And behind them, several Indigenous youth-serving organizations had joined together to create a float for two-spirit youth and their supporters. Babies, youth, adults and elders drummed, walked and sang together, creating a great presence of Indigenous folks in the parade. At the festival site following the parade, a local elder gave a welcome at the beginning of the celebrations, and then a drum group offered some songs.  This was all new to me. One of the reasons I had stayed away for so long was the lack of inclusion of two-spirit people and acknowledgement of Indigenous territories in previous years’ festivities.

It was this historical lack of inclusion that left me unsurprised at what unfolded in the midst of all this. A queer group with a social justice framework that puts on local events brought a banner to Pride saying the event was taking place on unceded Indigenous territories. According to friends who were involved, they were told by a festival organizer to take the banner down because it was political, and ‘Pride isn’t political’. As the group members spread word of this, they decided to hold the banner up anyway, making it visible for people as they entered the festival grounds. Unexpectedly, the festival organizer had a change of heart and said they could put the banner up afterall. Yet the damage had been done. Acknowledging that Victoria is on stolen land was too much for the Pride organizers (or one organizer, at least), despite their increased attempts to recognize Indigenous protocol and history, and to increase two-spirit visibility.

Since then, I’ve had conversations with a few people who are mobilizing to call out the Pride organizers on their action to remove the banner. They want to insist that Pride is not just about being queer but that other intersecting axes of power and identity must be integrated as well, and that it is indeed political. This causes me to wonder how non-Indigenous folks who want to support Indigenous communities and decolonial practices might engage in consensual allyship with Indigenous people who have been working to build relationships with the Pride organizers. And what about Indigenous folks like myself who are not from these territories, but are also visitors? What role might someone like me take in deciding what strategies are best for strengthening relationships between queer organizations and local nations? How do we avoid jeopardizing the work of Indigenous organizations and communities that might have led to the otherwise increased two-spirit presence? At the same time, how do straight members of local Indigenous nations work as allies with queer Indigenous people who are not from here, but who live in Victoria and want to create greater visibility at Pride? There are many complex issues that arise in considering the dynamics of creating allyship with one another across our Indigeneity, as well as with non-Indigenous supporters.

There is a danger in allies speaking over or speaking for those whom they’re trying to support. Representatives from local nations were at the events, and could clearly speak for themselves, though they may not have known any of this was going on because the banner was not theirs to begin with. In my experience, consensual allyship requires that we, as allies, first focus on our own relationships with those with whom we are claiming alliance. So for community groups that want to integrate a decolonial framework into their organizing, it’s important to look first at building relationships with peoples of this land, not only elders and chiefs, but also two-spirit youth and other community members. After all, if we don’t strengthen our own internal relationships, how will we know when and how to act as allies?

As we look to increasing communication and understanding for next years’ Pride festivities, how might local Indigenous communities and two-spirit people continue to form the vision for their inclusion in the parade and festival? How might non-Indigenous organizations and individuals support these efforts, while avoiding speaking for and over others? What forms of visibility are important here? What role do banners have in making the vitality and history of Indigenous peoples known? And when are other forms of visibility and inclusion of Indigenous people, knowledge, culture and histories more appropriate? I hope that by next year, as we walk, sing and celebrate alongside one another, we will have learned much about consensual allyship and be able to walk more strongly together.

Sex Work and Self-Determination: in solidarity with the Bedford case

On Thursday June 13th, the Supreme Court of Canada will begin hearing a case on the constitutionality of Canadian prostitution laws. As sex workers and their allies take to the streets, I feel compelled to reflect on some of my reasons for supporting the decriminalization of sex work. My arguments are framed, in part, in response to the view advocated by some Indigenous women that colonialism is at the heart of Indigenous women’s involvement in sex work, and as such, it should be abolished by arresting johns, pimps and, in some cases, sex workers themselves. In this view, increasing the breadth and force of law is seen as a way to crack down on sex work, as it is seen as inherently violent. This stance is taken by a number of Indigenous activists and organizations across Canada, and unfortunately there seems to be little dialogue between people who hold this view and those of us who see a different solution to the violence faced by Indigenous sex workers. Because I want to be clear here – my work is all about ending violence as well. Addressing intergenerational, widespread, normalized violence in our communities has been at the heart of my life and work for as long as I can remember. This includes the disproportionate rates of violence experienced by our relations working in the sex trade.

And so, here are some of the reasons why I, as an Indigenous woman, support decriminalization of sex work:

1. Canadian law is violent. As Indigenous people, we know this more clearly than anyone. Police, social workers and other state officials have used the law to remove us from our lands, remove our children from our homes, and lock up our loved ones in schools, jails, and hospitals. At the same time, laws against murder, abduction, sexual abuse and other forms of interpersonal violence have failed to stop these crimes from being committed against us at overwhelming rates. Why do we continue to seek answers to violence within a violent system? I fail to see how laws prohibiting various elements of sex work (communicating, benefiting from, or running a bawdy house) do anything but strengthen the hold this violent system has in our lives.

2.  Relatedly, Canadian law is not about healing. It is a punitive system. While a courtroom may be a place where a victim can have their truth heard, it is also a site of power in which the ‘truths’ of some people are valued over others. I have heard this repeatedly from women and girls who have testified as witnesses in cases where they were raped or assaulted. Often the court process itself can be retraumatizing or entail further violence, such as when witnesses are harassed about their credibility (as is often the case for Indigenous youth and certainly for sex workers).

3. Canadian law is carried out by police, lawyers and judges who use their discretion the application of law. The legal system is created within, and used to sustain, a racist colonial society. Indigenous people are disproportionately brought into this system as offenders. Canadian jails are filled with Indigenous people. In 2011, our relations made up a quarter of the youth age 12-17 who were locked up. I have no doubt that laws which prohibit aspects of sex work are being, and will continue to be, enforced in ways that are biased against Indigenous people.

4. It is argued by some that patriarchy and colonialism are at the root of sex work, and therefore sex work should be abolished. Can’t the same be said of marriage? Aren’t Indigenous women violated, raped and murdered by intimate partners, including spouses, at three times the rate of Canadian women? If our streets, workplaces and are homes are all shaped by patriarchal colonialism, I see no reason to support abolishing sex work without arguing for the abolition of every other gendered activity in which we are violated. Instead, it seems more useful to agree that colonialism structures our lives as Indigenous women and then choose to center our agency, choice, mobility and relationships in resistance to this structure in all aspects of our lives. This includes centering Indigenous women’s agency, choice and mobility in sex work.

5. Violence against Indigenous girls and women has been justified by stereotypes about our sexuality since colonialism began. This is not unique to Turtle Island; it is true for Indigenous people all over the world. We know the whore stigma all too well. As Andrea Smith, Lee Maracle, Naomi Sayers (read an interview here) and others have documented, this can be seen in the ways that violence against Indigenous women has been blamed on our own supposed immorality. But in trying to distance ourselves from these stereotypes and the stigma around sexuality and sex work, we have distanced ourselves from sex workers themselves. This is a violent strategy that only leaves sex workers more isolated from our families and communities. I cannot support this strategy. Instead, I put my energy toward mending relations with sex workers as vital members of our communities.

6. Abolitionist rhetoric reeks strongly of the savior complex. Sex workers are constantly portrayed as the most down and out group of people in all of society, in need of being saved from their awful lives. Indigenous people have been similarly portrayed in this light, which was historically used to justify the government’s control over our communities in the Indian Act, including supposedly taking responsibility for educating us in residential schools, replacing our systems of governance with a federally-created band system, and having a dirty hand in every aspect of our families and homes. History has proven that the hand of the government will not ‘save’ us. And as sex workers reiterate over and over again, they do not need to be saved. They need to be heard. They need control over their own lives, work and choices. As an Indigenous woman, this call for self-determination is something that rings true for me as well. You can read more about the needs of Indigenous sex workers here in this joint statement from the Native Youth Sexual Health Network.

7. The violence that Indigenous sex workers face while working cannot be isolated from all the other forms of violence they might experience as Indigenous people. Challenging the normalization of violence against Indigenous people, especially two-spirits, girls, and women, means addressing our humanity. This requires broad social change, education, listening to each other, and creating reciprocal relations of responsibility. The law cannot do this for us.

8. Sex workers are a diverse bunch. There is no one solution to creating safety and autonomy for all sex workers, given the very different social, economic and geographic realities in which they live and work. This means that even if sex work is decriminalized, not all sex workers can call on the police for help (a vast understatement), and indeed many sex workers, especially Indigenous and other racialized people, will continue to feel the unequal oppressive power of the law in their daily lives. Rather than advocating for more legal intervention into Indigenous peoples’ lives and homes, diverse community-specific solutions are needed to increase choices for sex workers. From what I have heard from sex workers, the way to support this is to advocate for less criminalization of their work.

As someone who hasn’t worked in the sex trade I cannot, and would not, speak for sex workers. But as a Kwakwaka’wakw woman who has worked in alliance with sex workers for more than 15 years, I think it’s important to vocalize my support of decriminalization as connected to broader struggles to address violence. On Thursday, and the days that follow, I will continue to conduct anti-violence work in our communities in solidarity with the sex workers and their allies who are taking this case to the Supreme Court. This is an important case that all Indigenous people should be concerned about, as an integral part of our broader struggles for self-determination.

A Responsibility of Talking to Each Other (Part 2)

“Why should white settler people oppose and work against racism and colonialism?”

In re-reading my previous post, I got to thinking, “do I even really outline my reasons for why I’m doing this program, in the big picture?,” such as why I feel passionate about anti-racism and anti-colonialism? I think that’s an important place to start, or continue, so I am going to write some reflections on that here.

These thoughts are incomplete and I wish to balance my desire to post and engage in dialogue with recognition of the weight of what I am writing about and my continual ongoing learning process. I also recognize that it’s all too easy for me to give up and remain silent.

These thoughts are all from and influenced by people in my life and authors, scholars and teachers and a wide variety of sources, some of which I have listed here and here, some of which I’ve no doubt not acknowledged or forgotten, but would gladly search for if anyone would like further information, resources or links. This post is also inspired by other Anne Braden Program participants’ writing at the Braden Journal.

Killing in the name 

“Killing in the name of!/ Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses/Well now you do what they told ya/Those who died are justified, for wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites.” – Rage Against the Machine

In the past, I found it easier to look at racism and colonialism as something that was “bad” but not as something that benefited or privileged myself, my family and other white people. Coming to see and understand white supremacy and white privilege as the flipside of racism has helped me to think differently about larger systems of oppression, both historically and now. White people have long been the beneficiaries of racist violence, invasions, wars, massacres, land grabs, enslavement, policies, laws, organization, and nearly countless atrocities committed in the name of assumed superiority, domination, racism, colonialism, slavery, hatred, profit, greed, often under the guise of words like “development”, “betterment”, “help”, “progress”, “liberation” and “civilization”.

A common theme in our readings has been the creation of whiteness in order to solidify groups of people with immense differences, such as working class or poor Europeans and wealthier, ruling class Europeans. “Whiteness” as a concept served to give a new identity to a large group who previously had not been unified under one such title. This enabled people with more power, usually upper-class or ruling class Europeans, to give out privileges such as stolen land, voting rights, better jobs, and freedom from slavery, based on this shared whiteness.

So, people who had previously faced persecution, such as people from Ireland and Southern and Eastern Europe, were now being lumped together under “whiteness” to ensure a critical mass of people protecting the rights and interests of the wealthy and privileged white elite – and now the relative privileges accorded to all white people. Fanning the flames of colonialism, racism and anti-immigrant sentiment by white elites ensured that solidarity between poor and working class white people and Indigenous people, slaves, and workers of color did not flourish and that power seized by violence, genocide and theft was maintained.

Collective stake in liberation

“If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Aboriginal activists’ group, Queensland, 1970s

Just as there has been white affirmative action for centuries, there has also been manufactured white solidarity. Has this allegiance benefited all white people? Yes, whether it be from the allotments of “free” land, stolen from Indigenous people, freedom from slavery, or jobs overseeing those who are enslaved and all of the contemporary ways that white settlers continue to prosper due to their position in this racist and colonial society in what is now called “North America”. This also occurs at different degrees as huge gaps divide those in poverty from the wealthy. These privileges also depend on a brutal dehumanization of people of colour and Indigenous people in order to flourish. What are the possibilities if this manufactured solidarity based in white supremacy was replaced instead with solidarity based in interconnected struggles for liberation and a recognition of collective humanity?

I can remember a classroom discussion years ago about how colonizers must close off their hearts in order to colonize. This has stuck with me as I go through this work, in remembering the impact that doing and living racism and colonialism has on even those who benefit from it. How much of white peoples’ collective humanity has to be continuously eroded in order for these dehumanizing systems of oppression to remain in place?

The possibility of different worlds

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” – Arundhati Roy, from “Come September”

Some of the most meaningful and important relationships that I have in my life are with people of color and Indigenous folks, such as the people acknowledged above as those who have contributed so much to how I think about and understand the world. I can’t adequately describe the importance of these relationships, which racism, colonialism and white supremacy suggest are not important or valuable. In fact, these systems actively work to disrupt possibilities of connection and relationship-building, through various means, including formal or informal segregation, fear-mongering, and a promotion of racist ideologies.

Systemic and institutionalized racism and colonialism continues to silence, kill and imprison millions. But as long as there has been oppression, there has been incredible resistance. The resistance to colonialism, racism and oppression that is led by Indigenous communities and communities of color, by individuals and collective groups, has the potential to create or renew worlds that offer entirely different ways of relating to one another, that do not lead to the destruction of all life on this planet and that include the possibility of dignity for all people. This is the kind of vision I want to work and organize in support of and as a person for whom so much of the violent creation of “North America” was designed to benefit, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to work in support of these other possible worlds and the long-standing and on-going struggles led by the people and communities most impacted by racism and colonialism.

Beyond #

I’ve been thinking lately of the things we have no words for. As a writer and academic, this is a scary thought to linger on. But as a Kwakwaka’wakw person, it makes sense that the English language was not designed to capture and describe my reality. Although the arts provide powerful tools that allow us to open ourselves up to emotional experiences, I am not an artist. And so I continue to wrestle with words that were never intended to describe the landscape of my ancestors’ lives.

Over the years of working on violence, I frequently find myself getting frustrated as I write, talk, read and listen. How many times, in how many ways, can I talk about the prevalence of sexual abuse? How can I bend the English language to capture the enormity of loss and grief that extends across Turtle Island, as we mourn our lost loved ones? Recently, I found myself giving up on writing a particular article. Enough. Who cares if I write these words on this computer screen and submit it to this journal? What difference will it make anyway? Words become meaningless if they don’t move people enough to make embodied, emotional and material change. That’s the only way the normalization of colonial violence will shift. We need to be moved deeply, pushing back against the newsflash sensationalism that ordinarily numbs our reactions to everyday colonialism. Weak emotive reflexes have become a way of life. But as I shut off my computer and go for a walk, I remind myself that there is a cost to giving up. It means colonialism has won, once again, in silencing efforts to change colonial norms. Resistance and survival go hand in hand. And so I must return and struggle once again with putting words to something unimaginable.

As I write, I’ve been reflecting on moments of transformative change in my own life, trying to find words to describe them. How can embodied learning be shared with one another when it necessarily falls beyond the English language? In a society increasingly concerned with hashtags, tweets and sound bites, how do we move one another?

And how do we connect meaningfully with people who aren’t able to be at events or who can’t come together with others who share their interests? I’m thinking here of youth who are living in isolated communities, as well as people whose movement is restricted due to limited access to social spaces, social anxiety or illness. Again, how do we move one another across barriers of time and space, so as to motivate changes in one another’s learning?

I recently had the privilege of speaking about the annual women’s memorial march alongside four other coastal Indigenous women. In turn, we each shared personal stories and historical information with the 100+ people in attendance. In the quiet, dimly lit hall, we stood in front of photos projected on the wall above us, and paid testament to realities of loss, trauma and resistance that are at the heart of what it means to be an Indigenous woman today. As each woman spoke, she would often well up with emotion catching in her throat. Searching for words, or the strength to share those words, she would falter. And as this happened, the rest of us standing behind her reached out and laid a hand, or two hands, on her body. Touching an elbow or a shoulder, or wrapping an arm around her back, we stood together, moving silently, sharing our strength. It was remarkable, the feeling of moving together in support of one another. And slowly, I could feel each of us gather our strength, clear out the blockage of words in our throat, and move on with this communal resilience.

It was powerful.  A lesson beyond words. Something that still swells in my heart many days later. I know that the next time I’m standing alone at a podium speaking about violence to a room full of strangers, I can call on the strength of these hands on my back. My body will remember.

And now, here in my living room, I search the English language for ways to share this lesson that my body so vividly recalls. For me, this is where real change happens. Beyond words. It can’t be captured in a tweet or a hashtag or this blog post.

In a society that increasingly relies on the branding of social movements in order for them to matter at all, I wonder how we can integrate this kind of embodied personal change. How do we get at what we mean by colonialism, love, violence, healing, mourning, loss, renewal? What does the hashtag #INM have to do with changing norms around colonial violence, beyond making something a speck more popular on twitter? When does a tag, a website or a t-shirt become a substitute for deep personal change? And what happens when a social movement, like the issue of violence in our communities, is not affiliated with such media?

We know the answer far too well. And this should haunt us all. It should linger in our most tender places of knowledge, the ones we have no words for.

A Responsibility of Talking to Each Other (Part 1)

I am writing this as I travel to San Francisco to start the four and a half month Anne Braden Anti-Racist Organizing Training Program For White Social Justice Activists.

I decided to do this program to put a focus on my own work as a white settler person dedicated to supporting anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles. I have been involved in a variety of different kinds of social justice organizing since I was a teen. With the guidance and encouragement of many people, I began to grow more of a focus on anti-racism and anti-colonialism in the past few years. For me, the course of action to take has not always been clear but as I have been reading and listening, I have heard it said many times that there is a need for white people to talk and work with other white people about and against racism and colonialism, with and under the leadership of the people most impacted.

With the Idle No More movement taking place currently, there have been incredibly powerful discussions of how people who are not Indigenous to these lands can act in support of ongoing Indigenous resistance and long-standing movements towards justice. With all that is happening within this movement right now, it seems a strange time for me to be leaving the places that I have previously been living, where the Idle No More movement has been taken up by local organizers in a variety of creative, meaningful and continually inspiring ways. I hope that what I learn in this program can contribute positively long-term to movements against racism and colonialism.

Talking to myself

I had the privilege of taking the Indigenous Studies program at Camosun College and I was, in the program, often reminded of the importance of people like me (white settler) talking to other people like me. All too often, when I would tell other white settler people that I was taking an Indigenous Studies program, they would respond with a paternalistic answer about “helping Natives”. Soon I was quick to correct them, that it was actually me and my community in need of a lot of help.

Already the readings from the Anne Braden program are reaffirming my thoughts on why I am doing this program. Anne Braden, for whom the program is named, writes in “A Time to Organize” about her work to bring white people into the struggle against white supremacy. And, in her essay, “The Tip of the Iceberg”, Barbara Smith talks about the importance of white would-be allies engaging in political organizing. The readings are further encouraging me to explore where my role lies and what it means to take responsibility for not just myself.

Talking to each other

A friend once asked me, “Do you love your own people?”*… I wasn’t even sure what she meant. I could only think of Nazis, White Pride and other hateful, dominating forms of “love” for other white people. Until that point, I had not thought of other white people as people that I needed to love or take responsibility for. There are so many histories, actions and attitudes that I didn’t want to accept as my responsibility to acknowledge, own or begin to work towards changing.

But who, if not me, if not us? Who can take responsibility for this and, under the leadership of the people most impacted by racism and colonialism, join the struggle against white supremacy rather than hide beneath its comfortable (for most white folks) form?

To be continued…

*Carol Bilson, thank you for asking good questions always.

Two Spirits, One Struggle: honoring Dolan Badger

As I sit down at my kitchen table to write this first blog post for The Becoming Collective, it feels appropriate that my mind is on the recent death of two-spirit community leader Dolan Badger. With the spirit and voice of the Idle No More movement rising up across the land in these last few months, I have felt inspired by the strength of collective mobilization around the rights and self-determination of our diverse Indigenous nations. Yet in the wake of Dolan Badger’s murder, I have wondered if there is a place for people like Dolan–those members of our families who are gifted with two spirits–in the philosophy of Idle No More. Dolan’s death has caused me to question how colonialism lingers in the form of homophobia, transphobia and shame around our sexuality. I wonder how the unfolding resurgence of Indigenous rights, self-determination and cultural strength will address these forms of colonial violence.

Dolan Badger, photo taken from his facebook page

Dolan Badger, photo taken from his facebook page

Dolan was involved in HIV and AIDS outreach in Vancouver and Edmonton, and was a youth worker with the Burnside Gorge Community Centre in Victoria, before recently moving back home to Whitecourt, Alberta. In his own life, Dolan faced racist and homophobic violence, as he shared in a newspaper article “Discovering two spirits”: “Growing up as both gay and aboriginal was difficult. I felt that I had to stay away from the two aspects of my life that defined me because I was constantly bombarded with slurs, racist insults and derogatory remarks.” As he describes, Dolan came to identify as aayahkwew or two-spirit, a gender identity distinct from male or female that wasn’t based in the Western gender binary but in Cree concepts of gender. In this embodied way, Dolan worked to reinvigorate Indigenous worldviews by insisting on his gender identity as distinctly Indigenous, undermining the imposition of colonial gender norms. While colonialism has involved imposing categories such as “Indian”, “woman” and “gay” on us, two-spirit, and the specific expressions of similar concepts in Indigenous languages, is a category that is distinctly Indigenous: in Dolan’s case, a specifically Cree expression of gender and sexuality.

At an embodied level, the Indian Act and residential schools worked to fracture Indigenous cultures and communities by imposing Western concepts of race and gender on the bodies of Indigenous peoples. Suppressing gender roles that fall beyond the gender binary (outside categories of “man” and “woman”) was central to colonial dispossession, yet these categories continue to be reinforced in much Indigenous activism and scholarship. Dolan’s own words speak to the ways that racism and homophobia work together, and his life attests to the vibrant ways two-spirit people actively resist both at the same time by proudly living as two-spirit, aayahkwew and other Indigenous expressions of gender and sexuality.

For me, as an Indigenous activist working on issues of violence in our communities, standing up against the legacy of violence perpetrated by the Canadian state must include taking a stand against the policing of our sexuality and gender roles. This means standing up against homophobic and transphobic violence, and looking at how two-spirit traditions  continue to be sidelined in the gender politics of our communities. While I’m heartened to see Indigenous women at the forefront of many Idle No More actions across the land, I yearn to see two-spirit people positioned in the same way: as the strong leaders they already are.

This collaborative blog is about the relational nature of change, creating new knowledge and reviving old knowledge, honoring connections, and working collaboratively in our learning and community-building. In this spirit, as we head out to Idle No More actions across this land, I believe we need to honor Dolan’s leadership, both as a role model who centralized Indigenous knowledge within his two-spirit identity. In his daily life, he, like many other two-spirit activists, artists, knowledge keepers and community workers, took up responsibilities that lie at the heart of Idle No More. He worked for the betterment of our futures and communities in his work on HIV and AIDS. As we stand up against colonial oppression and claim our rightful place as Indigenous nations and individuals, we and our allies should be concerned with making the kind of violence Dolan faced unacceptable. Just as we stand up for girls and women who have been murdered or abducted, for our stolen children, and for our land, we must stand up for Dolan and all our two-spirit relations.

At the next Idle No More event, I will be raising my hands in his honor, along with all of our relations who left this world too soon. Who will join me?