Decolonization and Colonial Identity

Today I had an interesting and challenging conversation with a member of the 3903 First Nations Solidarity Working Group about decolonization and indigenous solidarity.  It built on an event I attended recently called “Building Indigenous Solidarity”, the notes  of which I’ve promised to post online (and I will do that soon). The conversation was part of my attempt to understand the possibilities for collaboration and mutual learning between the Palestinian and Canadian first-nations solidarity movements. They may have something to learn from each other, but minimally, they disagree on a lot.

Palestinian solidarity is based on Palestinian unity. Today that unity is based on the BDS campaign and the three demands. In the past it was based on other formulations of the basic rights of Palestinians, sometimes directed towards Palestinian people as a whole, and sometimes as direct support of individual parties. PFLP, probably due to its international-marxist ideology was probably the most proliferous in terms of creating solidarity groups overseas. However, you cut it, all the groups agree that Palestinian unity is the basis of Palestinian sovereignty – the idea of a single nation, of one-person/one-vote. This idea is much older than the Palestinian revolution – it dates back at least to the rejection of the Peel commission in which Palestinians would be granted political representation only in unity with the Hashemite kingdom.

Indigenous solidarity in Canada, as best as I currently understand it, can’t be based on indigenous unity because such unity doesn’t exist. And even if it does exist, indigenous identity is not a basis for sovereignty in the Canadian context – there is no demand for political representation of a single indigenous “nation” in Canada, sovereignty comes from the individual nations. And there are a lot of nations, and while they mostly have good relations, there is no basis of unity between them that settlers can stand in solidarity with. The best we can do is “we are all treaty people”, a slogan that works ok in Ontario but distinctly does not work in BC – where most indigenous nations do not have treaties with the colonizer.

Step back – the whole logic of colonization is dualistic. One is either the colonizer or the colonized. This is not based in individual motivation, but in the objective lifeworlds of the native and the settler. As white, and as british-Canadian, it is easy to identify as a “settler”. I mean, it is not easy, but has for a long while been clear to me to identify this way. This identity, I feel, gives me certain responsibilities – responsibilities to remedy the colonial injustice of the past in a way that is relevant and productive in the present. A responsibility, I feel, to stand in solidarity with the anti-colonial movements that stand the best chance of success, that threaten to set a good example. In other words – I am comfortable with the dualistic logic of colonization. I am comfortable with it because a study of history reveals colonization to be a seemingly unending process, a process which produces only backlashes that perpetuate it. The dualistic response to colonization that opposes not some particular colonization but colonization as such is an anti which stands for decolonization as opposed to recolonization.

Zionism is a good example of a failed reaction against colonization. In reaction against the (supposed) exile of the Jews from Palestine, Jews sought their return – remedying a perceived injustice of the past. But it did not remedy any injustice, partially because the exile was probably more historical fiction than fact, but much more importantly because Zionism was no more the “national liberation” of the Jews than it was the colonization, dispossession, and exile of the Palestinian people. Palestinian anti-colonialism is adequate to the problem of colonization in a way that zionism is not,  especially since major Palestinian groups have acknowledged the right of Israelis to remain in Palestine after the destruction of the Zionist entity so long as they renounce their colonialist politics. To this day, every Fatah communique ends with the words: “till victory, till victory, till victory”, the three victories referring to the liberation of Palestine, the liberation of the Arab World, and the liberation of the entire world from imperialism and colonization.

Canadian indigenous solidarity, on the other hand, is not (as I currently understand it) dualist. As it has been explained to me, I should not identify as a “settler”, but as someone with particular responsibilities and relations to this land based on my history here and my families history here – but this history is too complex to simply call myself a colonizer and a native the “colonized”. When I asked about the common experiences of colonization experienced by indigenous people in Canada, such as residential schools and the 60s scoop, I am responded with the claim that these experiences are experienced differently by different people – and that they don’t found a single anti-colonial politics. I am accused of participating in the “politics of sameness”, whereas a “politics of difference” could recognize all the complexity of the differences between different indigenous experiences and not privilege any of them.

For me, what it comes down to is – I just don’t think this will work. I don’t think a mass politics based on “the politics of difference” can happen. I think organization has to happen close to people’s needs, and it has to be based on peoples ability to understand the simplicity of a hostile situation, and to experience moral outrage at overwhelming phenomena. The residential school system was such an outrage, and in reaction to it a politics of confrontation could be employed against Canadian colonization of indigenous land. But, I am constantly reminded, indigenous Canadian societies are as diverse as non-indigenous Canadian society. But I just don’t think that is very interesting, I don’t think difference is political, I think democracy is political and democracy is based on the idea that we share interests in common – the interests that divide us, unless reformulated as a politics of individual liberty, I do not believe to be inherently political.

There is hope in slogans, perhaps. The new cry is “we are all treaty people”, and I am given a flag to pin on my shirt. If the slogan could be grounded in a basis of unity, signed onto by indigenous civil society, and were connected to some concrete demands, perhaps a politics could be built out of this. Not to oppose the politics of difference, but to contexutalize complexity within the need for simplicity. Not to call all politics dualistic, but to recognize the role of dualism and conflict in a politics which is more subtle than its method. Not to expect people to have done all their research before beginning, but to allow them to grab onto important and revolutionary values, values which can liberate them and the colonized peoples of Canada.


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