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No One Is Illegal, Canada is Illegal! Negotiating the relationships between settler colonialism and border imperialism through political slogans

September 21, 2015

by Craig Fortier

“No borders, no nations, stop the deportations!”

“We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!”

“Land, justice, self-determination! Canada is an illegal nation!”

“No one is illegal, Canada is illegal!”

Photo by David Ball

Photo by David Ball

These are four variations of chants that have been regularly heard during migrant justice rallies organized by No One Is Illegal in the city of Toronto over the past ten years. While these chants do not originate among activists in Toronto nor are they used exclusively in this city, they exist as part of a broad lexicon of political slogans that help to assert a radical anti-nationalist politics within contemporary migrant justice movements.

Rally chants play an important role in sustaining a high level of energy and enthusiasm within political demonstrations but they also bring into the public realm political debates that are happening within movements. As political context, analysis, relationships, and education change, the chants used in demonstrations are also modified, adapted, discarded, or resurrected. The four chants with which I began this article are part of an important public discussion that is taking place among activists on the streets of Toronto (as well as other cities in the Canadian and the US settler states). Specifically, these slogans and the shift in their usage illuminate some of the longstanding discussions and debates within migrant justice movements on the relationship between settler colonialism and border imperialism (Walia, 2013), the differential impact of borders on the lives of migrants, settlers, and Indigenous peoples (Byrd, 2011); and the conditions needed to imagine a radical migrant justice politics that aligns with Indigenous movements for decolonization (Walia, 2014).

The adaptation and use of political slogans in public demonstrations is a particularly interesting space to negotiate relationships of solidarity (in both analysis and practice). For members of No One Is Illegal and other activists within anti-authoritarian struggles, the chants used in their demonstrations are challenged and reaffirmed through relationships of solidarity, accountability and mutuality that have been fostered with Indigenous activists in their struggles for decolonization. Nonetheless, these relationships have also pushed migrant justice organizers to think through the potential conflicts and contradictions of asserting an anti-nationalist or no borders politics in their political slogans, given the context of settler colonialism in which they organize their movements. 

No One Is Illegal, Canada is Illegal!

One of the earliest iterations of an anti-nationalist slogan used by migrant justice organizers in Toronto is the chant: “No borders, no nations, stop the deportations!” Migration scholars like Nyers (2003) and Sharma (2006) argue that the radical cosmopolitanism underlying this chant forms an integral part of a “no borders” politic that calls for the end to displacement, asserts the free movement of people, and commits to supporting Indigenous struggles for land and self-determination. This politics, argues Nyers (2003), emerges out of the experiences, strategies and goals of activists who mobilized “no borders camps” on the outskirts of Fortress Europe, and has since been adopted by migrant justice movements in settler states like Australia, the United States and Canada.

And yet, while anti-nationalist/anti-authoritarian migrant groups have developed relationships of solidarity with Indigenous movements for self-determination, many migrant justice activists have nonetheless struggled to negotiate the contradictions of a “no borders” politics with Indigenous assertions of nationhood and sovereignty (Burke, 2004). For No One Is Illegal-Toronto the use of the “no borders, no nations…” chant sparked significant discussions and debate with Indigenous activists around the underlying principles evoked by this slogan, given the settler colonial context in which it is deployed. This has led to ongoing discussions, revisions, and experimentation among activists in the migrant justice movement with political chants that seek to assert the complex relationships between struggles against settler colonialism and border imperialism.

In a 2005 panel hosted by No One Is Illegal-Toronto, entitled “Decolonizing Borders”, Mi’kmaq scholar Bonita Lawrence challenged the anti-nationalist assumptions underlying the “no borders, no nations…” chant and its influence on the politics of the group. For Lawrence, advocating a “no borders” or “open borders” politics without learning and respecting the immigration protocols of the Indigenous peoples on whose territories you live has the potential to re-inscribe the power structures that legitimize the settler-state and settler society as the arbiters of who can and cannot enter/leave Indigenous territories. These questions were further explored in Lawrence’s influential essay with Ena Dua (2005), “Decolonizing Anti-Racism”, where they call on “no borders” activists to “think through how their campaigns can preempt the ability of Aboriginal communities to establish title to their traditional lands” (p. 136). Instead, they argue that nationhood and its relationship to land is at the heart of Indigenous peoples’ resistance to colonialism. In this sense, an “open borders” politics has the potential to interfere with the ongoing struggles of Indigenous peoples to assert nationhood and resist the erasure, assimilation, and genocide perpetrated by the Canadian state and supported by settler society.

Lawerence & Dua suggest that the anti-nationalist ideology that underlies a “no borders” politics fails to understand the multiple conceptions of nationhood being asserted by Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island. This nationhood is simultaneously spiritual and political, exists prior to colonialism, but is also an interruption of contemporary settler colonial claims to sovereignty and dominion over territories (Simpson, 2014).

Given these concerns, members of No One Is Illegal-Toronto were forced to contend with whether the framing of the “no borders, no nations…” chant contradicts the collective’s goals to support struggles for Indigenous sovereignty. Some scholars, such as Sharma & Wright (2009), argue that all articulations of Indigenous nationhood are nationalistic and must inherently be tied to the oppressive structures of the nation-state. However, through relationship-building with Haudenosaunee, Anishinabek, Algonquin, and other Indigenous nations, members of the No One Is Illegal-Toronto collective have come to understand that Indigenous conceptions of nationhood are diverse and while some include an appeal to state-like structures, many (if not most) Indigenous conceptions that they encountered pre-figure social and political relationships outside of the confines of the state. In this sense nationhood acts not as an exclusionary, hierarchal political structure, but as a means to enact relationships of mutuality with territories, other living beings, other Indigenous peoples, and settler society.

Sharma & Wright (2009) argue that Lawrence & Dua do not consider how various nationalisms have relied upon and reproduced the colonial state and colonial social relationships. However, for many activists, questions of nationalism and sovereignty and how they are understood within a politics of Indigenous decolonization are critical to the practice of a politics of solidarity. Discussions around Indigenous nationhood and sovereignty and the negotiation of (un)belonging for non-Indigenous peoples within and outside of the structures of the settler colonial state are asserted and practiced within the anti-authoritarian current of migrant justice movements in three main ways: (1) through a recognition of the multiple positionalities in which we are situated in relation to settler colonialism; (2) through a political praxis that understands settler colonialism as foundational to the process of displacement and exploitation of migrant labour; and (3) through an imagining of relations of solidarity with Indigenous struggles for sovereignty that exists outside of the nation-state structure. This has led activists to experiment with different slogans and chants that better reflect the affinities migrant justice organizers see between their struggles and those of Indigenous peoples. Given these discussions, “no borders, no nations” has waned in its usage in recent rallies though it still hovers on the periphery of NOII-Toronto’s political slogan lexicon and continues to be regularly used in anti-nationalist demonstrations throughout the Canadian and US settler states.

The chant “we didn’t cross the borders, the borders crossed us” entered No One Is Illegal-Toronto’s political slogan lexicon in 2006. This slogan was popularized during the large-scale migrant justice demonstrations that happened in the United States during the summer of that year. Emerging in the U.S. south (and in particular those states conquered by the United States during the Mexican-American War), “we didn’t cross the borders…” evokes a historical analysis of how settler-state borders were imposed upon Indigenous nations and communities who never agreed to nor have ever accepted such boundaries. It also affirms the importance of migration as a practice of resisting these colonial borders. The chant challenges the legitimacy of settler colonial nation-states by asserting that, in the words of Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez (2008), “contemporary North America is a contested geographical construction, deeply embedded in the politics of Othering and of disrupting ancient Indigenous Territories” (p. 175). “We didn’t cross the borders…”, however, runs the risk of universalization in which all who partake in the chant may claim, “the borders crossed me”, erasing the specific circumstances of dispossession that the slogan was meant to assert in the first place. This creates a situation where activists may inadvertently participate in the erasure of Indigenous presence and the continuation of settler colonial logics by failing to articulate the particular historical circumstance of Indigenous dispossession that the chant originally sought to address. Thus, for organizers in No One Is Illegal, a recurrent debate revolves around the fact that while the borders did cross all of us, individual settlers/non-Indigenous peoples have a particular responsibility to negotiate rather than evade our own complicities in the settler colonial project.

In an attempt to reaffirm these responsibilities, migrant justice organizers began incorporating the chant “land, justice, self-determination, Canada is an illegal nation” into their demonstrations. This slogan emerged during mobilizations against the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 to contest the legitimacy of the Canadian settler-state and to affirm the connections between land, self-determination and Indigenous assertions of sovereignty and nationhood. It was first used in Toronto during the “Indigenous Day of Action” against the G20 and was subsequently incorporated into migrant justice actions in the city. Because the chant is somewhat abstracted from a clear migrant justice politics it has been used in No One Is Illegal-Toronto protests in conjunction with other slogans that are more specific to migrant justice politics (i.e. “no one is illegal, stop deporting people”) or as part of a rotation of chants in demonstrations where organizers believe it is important to make clear links between migrant justice and settler colonialism. Nonetheless, by incorporating this slogan into protests that take place outside of the context of specific struggles for Indigenous self-determination there is the potential for migrant justice organizers to use it in a confusing or appropriative manner. Slogans are most effective when those members of the public who hear them can easily interpret the political analysis that they attempt to assert.

The underlying problem of using the “land, justice, self-determination …” chant in migrant justice demonstrations is that participants within the demonstration and members of the public who witness the action may misinterpret the meaning of the slogan as asserting the desire of migrants and settlers themselves to claim land and self-determination on these territories (in the vein of “whose streets? our streets!”). This is made especially apparent given the settler colonial logics of elimination (Wolfe, 2006) that have historically structured most left-radical movements in Canada and the United States (Sakai, 1989). In this sense, activists can fall into the trap of what Philip J. Deloria (1998) describes as the long history of the “Indianization of misrule.” Deloria uses this term to articulate the ways in which radicals and those settlers resisting the domination of the elites in the early stages of colonization often moved toward appropriation of indigeneity in order to establish their claims to a new social order.

Photo by David Ball

Photo by David Ball

To deal with these limitations, migrant justice activists in Toronto have adopted a variation of the “land, justice, self-determination …” chant: “No one is illegal, Canada is illegal!”, popularized during 2005 at the rally during the International Indigenous Youth Conference in Vancouver, Unceded Coast Salish Territories. This slogan potentially asserts the inter-connected resistance against border imperialism and the settler colonial state in a more clear and succinct manner. By simultaneously rejecting the illegalization of migrants and the legitimacy of the Canadian settler state, it has the potential to point to an ongoing discussion within migrant justice movements on how to integrate a decolonizing politics into rally slogans without falling into the trap of the “Indianization of misrule.” The slogan, however, is imperfect and open to multiple interpretations and criticisms; in particular, it might be argued that it does not effectively deal with the problems of interpretation and the potential erasure of Indigenous peoples’ struggles detailed above. It is also important to point out how some Indigenous activists are wary about the slogan “No One Is Illegal” in general, in that it could be argued that all migration to Turtle Island that does respect Indigenous immigration protocols is “illegal”. 

Conclusion

In presenting a brief history of these political slogans and their use during protests in Toronto I hope to reflect on one of the ways in which migrant justice activists bring their internal discussions and debates on the potential conflicts and contradictions of their emerging analysis into the public realm. This can be an important practice of negotiating decolonial politics among broader settler society if activists are attentive to the potential dangers of reaffirming the logics of settler colonialism within their anti-nationalist politics. With this in mind, activists in migrant justice groups like No One Is Illegal are confronted with recurrent questions as to how their anti-nationalist slogans are asserted, interpreted, and lived out within the context of settler colonialism. Such questions include: (1) Does the slogan negotiate the rejection of nation-states without limiting the ability of Indigenous peoples to assert nationhood? (2) Does the slogan avoid conflating the multiple and contradictory ways that borders impact migrants, settlers, and Indigenous peoples? (3) Does the slogan connect migrant struggles and Indigenous decolonization without problematically incorporating Indigenous struggles into a broad and generalized anti-state politics? While it is clearly important to work these issues out in the slogans used during demonstrations, it is even more important to develop practices that can turn these chants into tangible material, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual acts of decolonization. This often requires more listening than it does chanting.

(Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the “No on is illegal! Canada is illegal!” chant was developed by NOII-Vancouver. It has been changed to properly reflect its origins. Many thanks to Harsha Walia for pointing out the error.)


Works Cited

Altamirano-Jiménez, Isabel (2008). “The Colonization and Decolonization of Indigenous Diversity.” In Simpson, Leanne (ed.) Lighting the Eight Fire: The Liberation, Resurgence, and Protection of Indigenous Nations. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 175-186.

Burke, Nora Butler (2004). “Building a ‘Canadian’ Decolonization Movement: Fighting the Occupation at ‘Home’. Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement self-published pamphlet.

Byrd, Jodi A. (2011). Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Deloria, Philip J. (1998). Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Lawrence, Bonita and Enakshi Dua (2005). “Decolonizing Antiracism,” Social Justice 32(4): 120-143.

Nyers, Peter (2003). “Abject Cosmopolitanism: The Politics of Protection in the Anti-Deportation Movement” Third World Quarterly 24(6): 1069-1093.

Sharma, Nandita (2006). Home Economics: Nationalism and the Making of ‘Migrant Workers” in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Sharma, Nandita and Cynthia Wright (2009). “Decolonizing Resistance: Challenging Colonial States.” Social Justice, 35(3), 120-138.

Simpson, Audra (2014). Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press.

Walia, Harsha (2013). Undoing Border Imperialism. Oakland: AK Press

—-    (2014). “Decolonizing Together: Moving Beyond a Politics of Solidarity Toward a Practice of Decolonization” in Kino-nda-niimi Collective (eds) The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, The Future, and the Idle No More Movement. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, pp.44-51.

Wolfe, Patrick (2006). “Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native” Journal of Genocide Research 8(4): 387-409.


Craig Fortier is a PhD candidate in Sociology at York University. He has participated in movements for migrant justice and in support of Indigenous sovereignty for over a decade in Toronto, Three Fires Confederacy, Haudenosaunee, and Huron-Wyandot territories. He is currently completing a dissertation in Sociology at York University studying how radical anti-authoritarian movements learn, imagine, and practice processes of decolonization.

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