Decolonization: The fundamental struggle for liberation

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Between June 21 and July 1 -- National Aboriginal Day to Canada Day -- we'll be featuring a series of articles examining and critiquing the uses of Canadian identity, the resurgence of Indigenous movements for justice, and the ways in which activists and thinkers across these lands are addressing these fundamental questions. This is the fourth and final part of a contribution of Robert Lovelace. You can read all the reflections on Canadian identity and Indigenous struggles on this special issue page

 When Terry Nelson and Dennis Pashe visited Iran last fall the Canadian government was embarrassed. Not only had they broken the golden rule that demands subjugated nationals not climb out of the colonial box, Nelson drew the inevitable historical connection when he said in an Iranian Press TV news interview, "we have seen the crusader too."

Breaking the longstanding rules is what decolonization is all about. Making conscious choices to align with political allies who are resisting and overcoming the legacies of political and cultural domination is fundamental to challenging economic oppression. For too long the colonized world has been fragmented in the agony of disassociation and ignorance of one another.

We have seen this internally in Canada and in our relations with Indigenous struggles elsewhere. Our own political leaders continue to ask, "What can the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) do for us," rather than recognizing that the UNDRIP connects us with a worldwide struggle for a decolonized world.

It is obvious that colonial powers get this. Much of the resources that go into the so called 'war on terror' do not go into protecting the average citizen or infrastructure, but rather find focus on maintaining a solid grip on the tools of domination. Surveillance, counter-intelligence and provocateurs are realities in everyday life for activist movements. Neo-colonialists are quick to appropriate the new narratives about rights, diversity and environmentalism and use these to brand the old policies with green, brown or pink façades. The established colonial order is adept at divide and conquer. Identifying everyone with the majority and keeping them in the dark or misinformed is foundational in establishing 'peace, order and good government.'

Identifying the messenger is often difficult. In a recent article entitled 'Native, Jewish Blood Thicker than Water' (QMI June 17), circulated through Sun News newspapers, Ryan Bellerose, an identified Aboriginal activist, denounced the way that Palestinian activists have identified with the North American Indian narrative. He is offended they have appropriated a legitimate discourse for their own benefit, 'inventing' a story that they, like the Indigenous people in the Americas, have had their land stolen and occupied by others.

The article states "…there can be no comparison of the Palestinians' experience to that of Native Canadians. North American Indigenous peoples suffered unprecedented genocide. Our people were obliterated through massacres, disease, starvation and forced assimilation in an attempt to remove us from the pages of history." However, a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv during 2008 reported that Israel intended to keep the Gaza economy, "functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis." Clearly this is a colonial strategy not unlike those used against North American Indians in the past and to force compliance in resource-rich areas of Canada today.

Mr. Bellerose would benefit from reading contemporary Israeli historians who through the study of Israeli archives and records have documented a systematic expulsion of Palestinians from hundreds of villages, farms, vineyards, olive groves, shops and houses. Similar to Canada's false claim of terra nullius, Israel justified this dispossession by referring to Palestine as "a land without a people for a people without a land." These expelled Palestinians did not, as Mr. Bellerose claims, "arrive in the 7th century" but are descended from people who lived in the Holy Land beginning with the Canaanites.

The fact that millions of Palestinians continue to languish in refugee camps, not unlike Indian Act reserves, and are completely dependent on aid is another clear comparison. When Palestinians fight back, police and military respond with overwhelming power rather than challenging the root causes of discontent. The United Nations has repeatedly criticized both Canada and Israel for the same kind neglect and discrimination of indigenous citizens, making Prime Minister Harper's recent call for First Nations to support Israel all the more ironic. Israel continues to expand settlements in occupied territories in the same way that colonial settlement took place in Canada. The water resources of Palestinians are diverted for the use of Israeli settlements and unsustainable development. Either Mr. Bellerose does not understand the complexity of his own history or he is simply constructing a self-serving narrative. Don't just take my word for it; there is more than ample evidence in both Israeli and Arab newspapers as well as scholarly works and countless UN resolutions.

So here is the message in Mr. Bellrose's article, "For too long, we Natives have let an uncompromising and reactionary Palestinian narrative substitute for facts. But today the stakes are too high for that. The Canadian government is currently fighting to remove protections from our waters." The not so subtle advice: Don't get involved with real activists. Don't challenge the Canadian government on this or there is no chance that we will be listened to in our own cause. Don't align yourselves with international struggles for justice or else you will find yourself marginalized even more than you are now.

There are countervailing trends that have unified and redefined Indigenous resistance movements. The philosophical justifications for colonialism have been intellectually challenged by thinkers and doers like Sartre, Fanon, Parks, King, Mandela, hooks, Churchill, Deloria, and hundreds if not thousands more. Aspects of demographics like urbanization, cross-cultural marriage and international migrations have reshaped the original struggles of Indigenous peoples. The expansive nature of capitalism that has energized colonialism is beginning to buckle under its own weight and the environments and resources that it found expendable have now reached limits of exhaustion. The scope of engagement has broadened to more than just the frontline. Decolonization and re-indigenization have become a way of life.

The three most important factors that reinforce Idle No More in Canada are emerging communications technologies, urbanization and growing connections with international decolonization movements. A democratized, instant and accurate news coverage generated by citizen journalists returns credibility to information. Photos, video and tweets convey observed realities to the wide world and generate instant reactions.

Indigenous people now lay claim to urban spaces and the opportunities for reconstituting economic and political power infused with traditional values, which contest the all-American dream. When Idle No More was recognized across borders and around the world by analogous activist movements our hearts swelled with pride. Interestingly, the first messages of mutual support came in pictures and posters from Palestine. While Idle No More began in Canada in response to parochial colonial legislation it struck a harmonic chord with a universal decolonization discourse. And why wouldn't it?

The tools for change are in our hands. Idle No More has catapulted the Canadian struggle for liberation into the international spotlight. What we do as activists, what we say and the courage of our convictions are now part of a greater whole.

To become insular, to fight only for our selves and our own interests will actually undermine our true allies and eventually ourselves. Instead of following timid advice and leaders who have no inclination to climb out of the box we need to follow and becomes the leaders that our descendants will know by name.


Robert Lovelace is an adjunct lecturer at Queen's University in the Department of Global Development Studies. His academic interests include Indigenous Studies, Sustainable Development and Aboriginal education. Robert is also an activist in anti-colonial struggles. In 2008, Robert spent 3 ½ months as a political prisoner for his part in defending the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation homeland from uranium exploration and mining. Robert is a retired chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation. He lives in the Algonquin highlands at Eel Lake in the traditional Ardoch territory.

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