Elsipogtog and Foundational Colonial Violence
by Eric Ritskes
Change demands moments of crisis and conflict. In these moments of crisis, there are two options: to embrace the change and recognize the necessity of it, or to fight against it, to try and frantically batten down the hatches of the status quo. In light of the recent conflict in Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick, Rex Murphy in his recent article, pulls out the dullest, bluntest hammer to flail wildly away in protection of the settler colonial status quo.
In Murphy’s article he lays out the foundations of violence inherent in the settler colonial state (while simultaneously and willfully ignoring that same violence), where he highlights the only two choices afforded Indigenous people in settler society. Each choice is as violent and potentially deadly as the other. On one side, by evoking the ‘Canadian citizenry’, Murphy is highlighting the delineation between citizens and Indigenous peoples who are outside of this realm. For those who remain outside the realm of ‘citizen’ there is an inherent danger because the rights and protections of the citizen no longer apply. If you are not seen as a citizen, it becomes okay to arrive on your doorstep with guns and dogs, scattering men, women and children into the pre-dawn morning in terror. If you are not seen as a citizen, you are seen as enemies to the citizenry, encroaching on Canadian land, and you become terrorist threats to the state to be dealt with as such. This is what we are seeing play out in Elsipogtog. This is what is played out on a more personal level with the thousands of murdered Indigenous women who have been made missing in Canada. Indigenous people are seen as threats to the citizenry, as outside the state and it’s laws, as violable and murderable at state and personal levels.
Murphy lays out the other choice for Indigenous peoples in Canada. If you choose to play nice, if you choose to assimilate and enter into the citizenry, to lay down your Indigeneity and its accompanying inherent cultural and political rights to the land, you may be welcomed into the citizenry. The danger lies in what is demanded for those who choose to assimilate: all rights as Indigenous peoples must be given up and, in fact Indigeneity itself is erased, collapsed and folded into the multicultural quilt as just another square of fabric.
This is the logic of settler colonialism, erase and replace. In assimilating Indigenous peoples into colonial state frameworks, it is the erasure of their cultural and political rights to the land, their rights to exist as sovereign nations, and their rights to be self-determining. Taiaiake Alfred argues in Wasase that the end game of assimilation is “the terminological and psychic displacement of authentic Indigenous identities, beliefs and behaviours [for the purpose of] the imperial objective of exterminating Onkwehonwe presences from the social and political landscape.”
To go further, it is also an erasure of Indigenous presences from the land itself, because the land is the holder and sustainer of Indigenous cultures, histories, languages, and being – as Leanne Simpson states it, “everything we have of meaning comes from the land – our political systems, our intellectual systems, our health care, food security, language and our spiritual sustenance and our moral fortitude.”
In removing Indigenous people from the land, whether through destruction of it, privatization of reservation lands, forced migrations, or systemic erasure of what is understood as Indigenous lands (everything), it is a move to erase Indigenous peoples and replace them with new, naturalized Canadian citizens. Canadians become the new ‘natives’. Canada becomes ‘our home and native land’ instead of our home on Native land.
The two choices, to be seen as terrorists and enemies of the citizenry or to be erased through assimilation into the colonial citizenry, are not new ones; Haunani-Kay Trask stated, “[Indigenous] existence…is best described not as a struggle for civil rights but as a struggle against our planned disappearance.” Hundreds of years of planned erasure have been foiled by Indigenous struggle and resistance that continues into the current moment. Moments such as Elsipogtog cannot be removed from the historical context, not only of Indigenous resistance across the Americas, but of specific resistance by, in this case, the Mi’kmaq nation (for more on this, see Alanis Obomsawin’s terrific films Incident at Restigouche and Is the Crown At War With Us?)
These moments of crisis are born from long legacies of struggle for survival. Assimilation and violence against Indigenous peoples, which has been historically conditioned to seem normal and inevitable, is once again revealed in the light of sacred fires started by Indigenous warriors.
Medric McDougall states, “We [Indigenous peoples] do not want to be integrated into decaying white society. Why enter a house that is burning down?” So, what other choices are there, instead of following Rex Murphy back into the burning house?
One, to recognize that settler governments and their citizenry will always resort to violence to protect their right to exist on stolen land. Settler violence against Indigenous peoples is foundational to settler existence. We all need to work to protect and sustain Indigenous nations. For settlers, this demands fundamentally re-organizing how we understand our inclusion into the citizenry, engaging with Indigenous sovereignty on its terms, and recognizing that our own existence outside of the colonial mechanisms demands resistance in support of Indigenous nations.
Two, once we recognize the foundational nature of violence against Indigenous peoples, rather than seeing events such as Elsipogtog as aberrations, we must all organize to sustain Indigenous resistance and resurgence. Round dances, flash mobs, protests in solidarity, and other moments of resistance are just that – moments that must be connected and strung together by the chords of daily resurgences, organized and collective (re)education and struggle, and building up a new relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. This takes time, effort, and living out relationships beyond the moment of disruption. It is these lived out, sustained efforts that interrupt the sustained violence of colonialism. Foundational violence isn’t unraveled through containable moments but through the unconfined collective and foundational rewriting of the relationship to Indigenous peoples.
I want to be able to say, “Forget about public opinion” and propagandists such as Rex Murphy but I’ve realized that being able to say this comes from a place of privilege. For Indigenous people in this country and elsewhere, the ‘public’ has always worked to erase them, to assimilate them. You can’t just ‘forget’ that. Instead, we (the public) need to recognize our own foundations and histories of violence and commit to collectively changing these foundations, to commit to a co-existence based on co-resistance.
Eric Ritskes is a PhD student in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and Co-Editor of the Open Access, online journal Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society. You can follow him @eritskes or visit www.ericritskes.com for more information.