Why South Asian Settler's Need To Reconcile With Indigenous Communities
TW: Cultural genocide, Sexual violence & abuse
It’s been a heartbreaking start to Indigenous Heritage Month in Canada.
Last week, the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found buried on the grounds of Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia.
As South Asians living and benefiting from stolen land, we must educate ourselves on the history and cultures of Indigenous peoples in Canada and North America from a decolonized, decentralized perspective. For those of us feeling enraged still, this is the only way we’ll see reconciliation in our lifetime.
For context, it’s estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced to attend residential school between 1831 and 1996.
Yes, 1996. That’s 165 years of colonially-conspired cultural genocide.
This means the implications of the intergenerational trauma related to this ‘dark side of our countries past’ are ongoing and ever-present today. A quick Google search is all it takes to unearth the abuse that took place in these schools, as one of the survivors of Kamloops explains:
“Meals had to be eaten in perfect silence. Students were woken every morning at six and faced being dumped onto the floor by supervisors if they didn’t immediately leap out of bed. Students had their pants pulled down in front of the whole school to receive strappings for chewing gum, wetting the bed or forgetting to wear a hair barrette. Shirley Sterling, who would document her experience of the Kamloops school in the semi-autobiographical My Name Is Seepeetza, described children being strapped for improprieties as simple as leaving a towel in another room.”
Ultimately, the residential school system was designed to ‘kill the Indian within.’ It was created by the Catholic Church and funded by the white-European settler government.
If all of this wasn’t enough to make you realize the weight of Canada’s injustices towards Indigenous communities, just remember that both the Holocaust and South African Apartheid were inspired by the systems implemented in Canada’s residential schools.
Some of us may have learned about residential schools in that one social studies course in grade six that was meant to cover all of Canadian history. But even now, our collective knowledge has only touched the surface of what really happened. One thought that has plagued me since learning about Canadian history in school is how we as a country continue to market ourselves and take pride in our inclusivity and diversity today without first making reparations to the original keepers of this land.
While Canada often likes to live in the shadows and condemn America’s white supremacy, we are just beginning to face the depths of the white supremacy baked into our own economic, social and environmental structures. But for now, let’s focus on cracking the surface of plexiglass that keeps immigrant-POC-settler history divided from Indigenous trauma.
As Melissa Chung notes in her incredibly insightful research paper, The Relationships Between Racialized Immigrants And Indigenous Peoples In Canada: A Literature Review, “there are three pillars to white supremacy in the United States— that is slaveability/anti-Black racism, which anchors capitalism; genocide, which anchors colonialism; and orientalism, which anchors war. Though the pillars of white supremacy may not be as overt in Canada, this can be attributed to a multicultural discourse that masks the way Canada is structured through colonization and racialization.”
Chung, being Métis and Hong Kongese herself, brings up another excellent point around the intersectionality between immigrant-settler and Indigenous experiences in Canada. Although Canadians have been focusing on anti-racism in the last year, we cannot simply lump Indigenous peoples into this conversation without addressing their ongoing struggle to decolonize first. After all, the root of racism is still colonization.
When it comes to the needs of our Indigenous communities, the work is even more radical than being just anti-racist — it’s total decolonization.
And that’s where you, I and everyone else who has settled on this land come in.
While many Indigenous communities still lack access to necessities (like clean drinking water), immigrant populations are afforded access as soon as their permanent residency or citizenship clears. On average, 250,000 immigrants have come to Canada each year since the Immigration Act of 1869. Our country has sold this idea to foreigners that we are a just society where you can heal from persecution or war and exist in harmony with people from all walks of life. How utopian of us, eh?
It’s strange how immigrants to this day come here and hold misconceptions about our Indigenous communities as well. I remember hearing incredibly negative beliefs about Indigenous people by various members of our community as a kid. Sentences like: They’re poor and all addicted to drugs and alcohol. They keep taking from the system without giving anything in return. And, they need to stop begging for support from the government and start doing things for themselves. Knowing what little I did about our Indigenous people’s history, I questioned how immigrants who had not gone through the Canadian education system had come to these conclusions. Were these preconceived ideas presented to them before they even step foot in this country? When I think about how our multitude of Immigration Acts offered settlers more than The Indian Act ever offered Indigenous peoples, it’s 100% possible.
The indoctrination of harmful rhetoric has created a divide and fundamental misunderstanding between South Asian’s and Indigenous peoples since at least the 1930s — when residential schools were in their peak attendance.
I think it’s essential to critically assess how the pillars of white supremacy mentioned above have perpetuated this divide.
If we start with slaveability, I’m sure it’s confusing to be from the Indian subcontinent and hear a different group of people than ourselves be called “Indian.” Growing up, the label ‘Indian’ has always been a reminder of the colonization of South Asia (as recounted by my family), which naturally made it harder to center Indigenous peoples as ‘Indians’ in any conversation or classroom. The use of this dual terminology is a subtle but just effective enough way to keep South Asians focused on the growth, development and most importantly establishment of ourselves in North America (through capitalism).
However, this subconscious divide is a tactic of distraction in a selfish, capitalist society. Yes, South Asians have been enslaved and subject to enslavement and genocide for decades — and Indigenous people have too. Yes, South Asians have been forced to flee their homes out of fear of persecution — and so have Indigenous peoples. But what makes these seemingly universal ideas heartwrenching and truly incomparable are the reasons why each community had to do so and, in some cases, are still doing so.
Plus, when we trace back South Asian history, we can also see that genocide and orientalism are the common threads that both trauma bond our communities and still manage to divide us further through war. That’s exactly what colonizers wanted our role to be in the grand hierarchy between Black and white people. Living on this land means we are the passive people of colour put in place to distract from our countries deep-rooted white supremacy. Holding the door open for immigrant communities creates a false narrative on the outside that we are a generous country. It also shoves our very recent history deeper into the past than it actually is.
As the most educated generation in modern history, we’re able to appreciate that our cultural identities are not so two-dimensional as colonizers perceived. We’re able to acknowledge further that just because we or previous generations come from different motherlands does not mean that the cultures we’ve experienced on this land aren’t shaping us right now. Many of the concepts that we benefit from, such as trading goods, treaties and tax benefits, stem from the colonization of Indigenous intellectual and cultural properties.
It feels morally inconsistent for South Asians and POC to advocate for white people to do for our communities what we are not willing to do for our Indigenous peoples.
As Chung states, “The only way forward for building political, social, and other collaborative relationships between Indigenous peoples and newcomers in Canada is for activists, academics, and others to attempt to break down pillars of white supremacy and approach relationship building through a decolonized anti-racist framework.”
One good thing to note about the past year and a half is that we’re starting to see the first signs of acknowledgement on why ethnic minorities and Indigenous communities need fair treatment amongst each other and, more importantly, from the white folks who benefit the most from these deep-rooted colonial systems. Our generation is not shying away from calling out governments and policymakers worldwide to reform and reconcile with the pillars of white supremacy.
As well, it only took our government twenty-five years after the last residential school officially closed, to finally announce that September 30th, 2021 will be the first, annually-observed National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. But Canadians across the country know that’s not enough, and the children being taught more about Indigenous genocide than we ever were in school will know it too. At this stage in the game, these kinds of injustices aren’t just something you know of anymore — they’re something you feel.
If you’re a South Asian Canadian reading this and you want to help, you can start by reading and advocating for the Indigenous rights and needs outlined in the Call To Action report by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee of Canada. Right now, our Indigenous communities and their allies are advocating to search the grounds of the other 139 residential schools (that we’re aware of, not including the ones run by provincial governments and by the Church) to ensure that the spirits and remains of all the children whose lives were taken are returned to their communities. Let’s do our part to hold our leaders accountable and see this through.