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Enacting solidarity between displaced and dispossessed peoples: resistance-through-art in the prairies

October 13, 2015

by Zoe Todd

In recent weeks, Mi’kmaq leader Stephen Augustine has called upon Canada to open up its doors to refugees fleeing violence in Syria. According to the Cape Breton Post, Augustine urged a crowd at a pro-refugee rally to acknowledge the model that the Mi’kmaq set when refugees and immigrants came to the Maritimes over a period of hundreds of years. Augustine reminded the crowd that refugees, “need to come to North America and we need to welcome them in the way that Aboriginal People welcomed people to eastern Canada and to Canada in general.” And, as my friend Leila Sidi pointed out to me this week, Harsha Walia articulated, in a public Facebook post, the ongoing solidarity between Indigenous peoples here in Canada and those fleeing violence abroad. Heeding Augustine’s call to ‘open our doors’, and acknowledging the solidarity between Indigenous peoples and refugees that Walia references, means seriously engaging with the inter-related issues of a) Indigenous sovereignty here in Canada, b) settler-colonial governance that seeks to control any and all borders and c) ongoing neo-colonial displacement of self-determining peoples around the globe.

Augustine’s statements on the Syrian refugee crisis are important words to consider. In early September, I posted the following series of questions to my Facebook wall, prompted by the flurry of media attention to the refugee crisis in Syria and the heartrending images of dead toddler Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach:

The attitude that the CPC displays towards refugees is very much intertwined with its approach to Indigenous peoples here in Canada. At the core of both is a white supremacist belief in the right to displace and dispossess Self-Determining people in the name of capitalist, colonial agendas both here and abroad.

What would this place look like if we built solidarity between Indigenous peoples and the refugees fleeing conflicts Canada is involved in abroad? What does it mean to extend loving kindness to the displaced Indigenous peoples of other lands? What does it mean to build solidarity between racialised peoples desperate to find refuge here while also asserting Indigenous self-determination?

Whiteness will always find a reason to dehumanise racialised peoples. How can we respond to this refugee crisis–that many folks are now likening to deliberate, genocidal acts on behalf of the very countries that dispossessed peoples in *this* place–from a place of accountability?

I stand in solidarity with the displaced people trying to get here. What would Canada look like if we centred the solidarity between self-determining, self-governing Indigenous peoples and those people also violently displaced by neo-colonial wars, resource projects, climate change? There is only going to be an increase in refugees in years to come. How do we centre this reality in our decolonial and Indigenous governance discourse?

Though I posed these questions, I am not sure that I can answer all of them—I am not an expert in international political relations; I do not study the Middle East or refugee issues. But even without these forms of expertise we so often turn to in the academy and in public discourse around international relations, I do think that I have a duty, as a Métis woman and a scholar, to consider my own relationship to displaced peoples who seek to come to this country and those displaced persons who already live here.

As I thought about how best to write a piece that examines the inter-relationship between Indigenous sovereignty here in North America and the experiences of refugees and immigrants fleeing state violence in their homelands, I decided to focus on a case study of a collective in my hometown who explicitly centre the relationships between Settlers of Colour and Indigenous peoples in Western Canada in their work. While I cannot answer broader questions about International relations or Canada’s legal humanitarian duties, I can discuss one localised site across which the reciprocity and kinship between Indigenous People, Black People and People of Colour is being negotiated and enacted in my hometown. Through this case study, I hope to show how one small collective of artists, activists and thinkers are working, lovingly and fiercely, to re-frame the narrative of belonging in a city deeply shaped and impacted by settler-colonialism and white supremacy. In fact, the Environics Urban Aboriginal Peoples Survey (UAPS) (Environics 2010: 10) found that:

More so than in any other UAPS city, Aboriginal Edmontonians believe they are viewed in negative ways by non-Aboriginal people. Most UAPS participants feel discrimination of Aboriginal people to be a pervasive problem that majorities have experienced personally, but this is particularly true for Aboriginal Edmontonians.

Experiences of racism in Edmonton are felt all too keenly by Indigenous peoples, and this is something that grassroots Indigenous and POC activists strive to address.

BFF CollectiveThe Brown, Black and Fierce! (BBF!) Collective is hosting an upcoming festival in Edmonton that will bring together IBPOC (Indigenous People, Black People and People of Colour) to deliver workshops on topics including: art, music, performance, community organizing, anti-gentrification, immigration, appropriation, and working within white-dominant arts communities. The steering committee is made up of five local organizers: Alex Felicitas, Ruby Diaz Smith, Leila Sidi, Jenni Roberts and Aurélie Lesueur. According to their publicity materials, the Collective strives to centre “the experiences and voices of Indigenous people and people of colour (IBPOC). We are inspired by all the talent and power of Indigenous and racialized artists who survive, thrive, heal, and CREATE things everyday.” Zainab Amadahy and Bonita Lawrence (2009: 131) ask, in their critical work on the relationships between Indigenous People and Black People in anti-racist and decolonial work in Canada, “do we not owe it to the coming generations to find a way of supporting each other and the land that sustains us all?” BBF! takes up this question in their work, and their organizing deep in the heart of Edmonton is instructive for anyone seeking to strengthen the linkages between communities targeted and impacted by neocolonial and white supremacist institutions and structures here in Canada.

What I find so exciting about the BBF! Collective, as an urban Indigenous person who grew up in the heart of the prairies [but I want to be very clear that I experience the world as someone who is not racialized and I do not speak here for POC, but rather as an Indigenous person seeking to honour my kinship relations and reciprocal duties to racialized communities], is that the members of the collective tend to the relationship between Settlers of Colour and Indigenous peoples very lovingly and thoughtfully, and they strive to consider and address the experiences of racialized and marginalized peoples in a city that is known to struggle with racism. This emphasis on ‘tending-to’ relationship is enacted by the ongoing acknowledgment that the experiences of Indigenous Peoples and People of Colour intersect, but are also different. It requires working simultaneously across ‘sameness and difference’ to enact strategies that acknowledge the day-to-day realities of different communities. I would argue that through their work, BBF! is enacting what Papaschase Cree scholar Dwayne Donald (2009:6) deems the ‘ethical relationality’ between peoples, beings, and things. Donald (2009:6) defines ethical relationality as:

an ecological understanding of human relationality that does not deny difference, but rather seeks to more deeply understand how our different histories and experiences position us in relation to each other. This form of relationality is ethical because it does not overlook or invisibilize the particular historical, cultural, and social contexts from which a particular person understands and experiences living in the world. It puts these considerations at the forefront of engagements across frontiers of difference.

This tension between difference and commonality is held, thoughtfully, throughout all aspects of the work that BBF! is currently undertaking in Edmonton. And there are challenges to this, no doubt. There is currently no Indigenous member of the BBF! steering committee; however, the committee has reached out to Indigenous peoples like me to help guide their approach to honouring the land, people and stories of amiskwaciwâskahikan. Through their broader organizing in Edmonton, members of the collective work to support Indigenous decolonial actions and organizations, and relationships continue to be forged, tended to and enlivened. It as ongoing and living process of building solidarity, one step at a time.

Last month, I spoke with two members of the Brown, Black and Fierce! Collective to discuss their work. Leila Sidi and Jenni Roberts were kind enough to take some time out of their busy schedules to share their perspective on what it means to work in solidarity, as Settlers of Colour, with people Indigenous to North America. Sidi articulates:

“I think that regardless of the dispossession that I’ve experienced or my family has experienced, I think it’s still extremely important to recognize the similarities but also the immense differences. In particular, the access to privilege that POC settlers have that are not afforded to Indigenous folks here, based on all kinds of factors and all kinds of structural and state violence.”

An awareness of the intersecting relationships and divergent experiences between POC and Indigenous Peoples drives the approach that the collective has taken in their organizing. As Leila notes, the reason that the collective focuses on the experiences of Indigenous peoples and People of Colour is that:

“these are the foremost communities affected by, or rather who white supremacy is situated on the back of. I think it makes sense to attempt to build solidarity and build community within ourselves, to figure out relationships and figure out what we can build together outside of institutions of white supremacy”.

Jenni Roberts, whose family roots extend to Jamaica, explains:

“I think of stories my Mom has told me about the history of Jamaica, where she is from, and stories I’ve heard of African slaves and Indigenous-to-this-land folks teaming up and being so badass and powerful and really overcoming slave owning forces where they were. I know that happened a lot in the South and it definitely happened in Jamaica”.

She illustrates that the solidarity that operated between peoples, which informed both slave resistance and Indigenous resistance throughout not only North America but also the Caribbean informs the work of BBF! today. Solidarity, therefore, can be considered as something that extends not only through space but also through time—historical relationships between People of Colour and Indigenous Peoples inform the work that Jenni does with the BBF! Collective in Treaty Six territory, in amiskwaciwâskahikan, today. In many ways, the past struggles of many oppressed peoples are very much alive in the present as their stories and legacies shape resistance today.

Leila goes on to explain why the relationship between Indigenous peoples and People of Colour is so important, which she argues is because there is power in the solidarity of groups oppressed by white supremacy and racism. As she notes:

“thinking about how the creation of the concept of race has been used historically and currently, how it’s really been used to divide and prevent revolt. I think that there’s a lot of power in bringing us all back together to fight. Everybody knows that it’s too powerful, this union. It has the potential to be so powerful–that tells us something. There’s a necessity there– thinking about all the forms of state violence perpetuated against Indigenous folks, Black folks, and People of Colour”.

So what does this solidarity look like, in practice, in the operations of the BBF! collective? Before discussing their own work, Leila and Jenni point to another local project that took place earlier this summer: a talking circle hosted by Bruce Sinclair and Nikki Shaffeeullah, which is part of a broader project which, as noted in the publicity materials for the event, “is hoped to be a long-term project between First Nations/Metis/Inuit and newcomer/immigrant/POC communities in the Prairies where, through artistic exploration, we seek to build relationships, spark dynamic collaborations and embrace the future.”  Leila and Jenni shared their effusive praise for this event, indicating that it truly did bring communities together to discuss pertinent and ongoing issues.

In the face of what is acknowledged to be a white dominated arts scene, in a city that struggles to acknowledge and address its racist and colonial realities, Leila and Jenni point out that some white allies in the Edmonton arts community have stepped up to support the collective. BBF! does not have non-profit or charitable status, so it cannot currently apply for grants from municipal, provincial or national arts councils. However, allies have stepped in to fundraise for the collective. The members of Not Enough Fest Edmonton (a local manifestation of multi-city music festival that aims to support the presence of women, queer, trans, and non-binary people in local music scenes) have held fundraisers to support BBF! and local organizations have offered logistical support. What this proves is that art-as-a-form-of-resistance can happen outside the institutional frameworks that currently exist here in Canada, and it demonstrates how allies can respectfully support the work of IBPOC without taking over the programming and conceptual space of IBPOC organizers. In its own small way, this local approach highlights the importance of white allies honouring and respecting the goals and needs that IBPOC set out in crafting welcoming, accountable approaches to community-building—something that will be even more important as we work collaboratively to welcome refugees into our cities and communities.

Ultimately, our ability to tend to relationships between communities whose oppression intersects enables concrete responses to be formed to the inter-twined questions of Indigenous sovereignty here in North America and ongoing displacement of peoples around the globe. The tireless work of the members of the Brown, Black and Fierce! Collective in amiskwaciwâskahikan gives us some tools with which to heed the calls of people like Stephen Augustine, to ‘open our doors’ to Syrian refugees, and also the call that Amadahy and Lawrence (2009) issue in their work, for Indigenous peoples and Black People in Canada to work together to dismantle racism and colonialism. One way that this is manifesting on the ground in the prairies is through the attention to respectful, accountable, reciprocal relationships between communities-of-resistance. And it requires, as Leila and Jenni demonstrate, a mindfulness of the shared but also divergent experiences of Indigenous peoples and those who settle here. In its own way, BBF! offers us a study through which to conceptualize and enact the work of welcoming refugees to our territories while also acknowledging the complex ongoing realities of Indigenous sovereignty in a country that continues to deny its nation-to-nation duties and relationships to Indigenous peoples. It starts with building relationships, asserting accountability and working respectfully around the intersecting and divergent experiences of diverse marginalized and racialized groups in Canada. And it looks fierce.


Works Cited

Amadahy, Zainab and Bonita Lawrence. (2009). Indigenous peoples and Black People in Canada: Settlers or Allies? In A. Kempf (Ed.), Breaching the Colonial Contract: Anti-Colonialism in the US and Canada (pp. 105-134). Springer.

Donald, Dwayne. (2009). Forts, Curriculum, and Indigenous Metissage: Imagining Decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian Relations in Educational Contexts. First Nations Perspectives 2(1): 1-24.

Environics Institute (2010). Urban Aboriginal People’s Survey Edmonton Report. Accessed 05 June 2015: http://www.uaps.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/UAPS-Edmonton-report.pdf


Zoe Todd (Red River Métis/Otipemisiwak) is from amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton) in Treaty Six Territory of Alberta, Canada. She writes about Indigeneity, art, architecture, decolonization and healing in urban prairie contexts. She also studies human-animal relations, colonialism and environmental change in northern Canada. She is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Carleton University and a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at Aberdeen University, Scotland. 

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