The crowd’s sporadic banter wound down to hushed murmurs, then to pin drop silence. A woman dressed in a feather crown and armed with a round drum had stepped into the middle of the group. Eying the crowd, she declared emphatically that this land was the unceded territory of the Coast Salish peoples before she began beating her drum and singing.
It was Canada Day, July 1, 2015, and Audrey Siegl, a Musqueam First Nations activist, was leading a group that would march through the streets of Vancouver to protest what the vainglory of fireworks and flags of that day obscured: genocide, conquest and ongoing colonialism.
In July 2017, while Canada funnels billions of dollars into celebrating Canada 150 — the country’s 150th anniversary of its illegal founding — Indigenous people like Siegl will lead the resistance against this celebration as they have for the past 500 years. And like the past five centuries, it will be both Indigenous women and their connection to their land that will anchor the continuing anti-colonial struggle in a country that casts itself as a bastion of progress, multiculturalism and inclusion.
What is Settler Colonialism?
“It’s scary being an outspoken and visible brown girl in Canada,” Siegl stated in a phone interview with teleSUR.
“I just want to smash shit up some days when I see all the continuing injustices.”
While many countries throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America broke free from colonial rule in the mid-twentieth century through a number of liberation movements, Canada, along with the likes of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Israel, remain settler colonial states that continue to marginalize their Indigenous populations.
As Sherene Razack wrote in her book, “Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society,” a settler state is one that was established by Europeans on non-European soil and one where its origins “lie in the dispossession and near extermination of Indigenous populations by the conquering Europeans.”
In Canada, while settler colonial violence in the past against its Indigenous population — who are called First Nations, Metis or Inuit — was enacted through more outright, brute force, today, they are suppressed mostly through negotiation and law, Marxist author and academic from the Dene Nation, Glen Coulthard argues.
Indeed, for while the state launches one "reconciliatory" campaign after another, and as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau poses for photo-ops in the midst of one crisis after another, Indigenous people continue to be the most disenfranchised group in the country.
A Brief History of 500 Years of Resistance
But ever since the first flags were planted on the continent now known as North America, by European settlers hellbent on exterminating the original peoples living there for millennia, Indigenous movements have been steadfast in their resistance, both taking up arms and using nonviolent methods. While they have faced a number of setbacks, many victories have also come through these struggles.
In 1885, less than two decades after the country of Canada was officially formed, the North-West rebellion took place, a five-month insurgency against the Canadian government, fought mainly by Metis militants and their First Nation allies in what is now Saskatchewan and Alberta. Although it resulted in the further subjugation of the Metis and the Plains tribes, and the hanging of its rebel leader Louis Riel, the rebellion, and Riel, went down in history as martyrs of Indigenous resistance.
In more recent history, the Oka crisis was a 78-day armed standoff that began on July 11, 1990, between the Mohawk nation of Kanesatake, the Quebec provincial police, and the Canadian armed forces near the town of Oka, Quebec. The Mohawks were defending their sacred lands, that they had been fighting to have recognized as their own for almost 300 years from developers that were planning to turn it into a golf course.
Galvanized by the Mohawk resistance, Indigenous peoples from across the continent followed suit, engaging in a number of solidarity actions, including many blockades.The golf course expansion was ultimately canceled, and the land was purchased by the federal government, but it was never transferred to the Kanesatake community.
Most recently, the Idle no More movement, which began as a mere hashtag on social media in 2013, ultimately culminated in a countrywide mobilization against the repressive policies of former Canadian Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It was spearheaded by Theresa Spence, the leader of the Attawapiskat, a small Native band in northern Ontario. At its height, it saw thousands of Indigenous people and their allies take to the streets in protest of a number of bills proposed by the Harper regime.
Of Land, of Sovereignty and Against Gender Violence
Today, issues of land, sovereignty and gender violence continue to afflict Indigenous activists across the country.
While the Canadian government officially launched an inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women last summer after years of grassroots pressure by Indigenous communities, families of the victims were so dismayed at its progress that some groups are even calling for a boycott or a reset of the process.
For many of the victim’s family members, the process is exemplary of the Trudeau government’s dealing with Indigenous issues — all rhetoric, with little to no action tied in bureaucratics.
Colleen Cardinal, whose sister and sister-in-law were both murdered more than a decade ago, is extremely disappointed by the proceedings of the commission.
“I don’t believe in the inquiry,” she told CBC. “I want to … but there’s so much work to be done.”
On the frontlines of resistance to pipelines across the country, also stand Indigenous activists. When Trudeau approved two major ones last fall — the Kinder Morgan project and the Enbridge Line 3 project — Indigenous groups, alongside environmental groups, vowed to ramp up their resistance.
“Their permits are illegitimate, I believe they will be thrown out in court. This is just the beginning of another phase of this conversation,” Tsleil-Waututh spokesperson Charlene Aleck had said at the time, referring to the fact that Kinder Morgan’s proposed path crosses unceded Indigenous territory. “This issue is as black and white as the killer whales they endanger. This is about our survival and the protection of our home, this inlet and the planet. They are making a big mistake, we will not allow this pipeline to be built.”
For Seigl, who works with Vancouver’s most vulnerable in the notorious Downtown Eastside, often reduced to “Canada’s poorest zip code,” these bigger issues hit close to home. “The inquiry and land destruction, I’m dealing with these things in my own life,” she said.
Seigl’s mother recently passed away, one of the hundreds of victims of the deadly opioid overdose crisis wreaking havoc in the province of British Columbia. But Seigl knows that the powerful synthetic opioid, fentanyl was not the cause of her mother’s death — the culprit was a lifetime of being beaten down by the colonial system as an Indigenous woman was.
“From the day she was born, they started to kill her,” said Seigl. “She didn’t die from fentanyl. She was murdered.”
Liberation Through Land and Women’s Leadership
As the fight against the extraction industry and its pipelines, as well as the thousands of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women continues, for Tori Cress, an Onkwehonwe activist living in the Wahta Mohawk territory in the region known as Muskoka, Canada, “(a return) to the land and women’s leadership” will be the ultimate tool of victory.
“So many grassroots women leaders (that have worked) against fracking, are being targeted and becoming homeless,” Cress told teleSUR.
“(Indigenous sovereignty) will mean a returning of our land — that’s where our culture lies,” she explained. “We need real land reforms and the right to create our own economies on our own territories.”
Cress said that in popular mass movements on the continent, such as the historic Women’s March, Indigenous women, who face strikingly different struggles, are often deftly ignored. “I don’t have the same rights that Canadian women have,” she said, explaining why she did not attend her local march. “I don’t have rights on my own land.”
For Cress, then, Indigenous liberation, or sovereignty, will mean leadership that is willing to stand on the frontlines. “We need bodies on the line with us. We need people willing to get arrested with us,” she stated.
“We need officials to stop being afraid to stand up for the people.” And, she added decisively, “We don’t need anyone to speak on our behalf.”