«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
I distinctly remember the first time I heard about the disproportionate numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women1 across Turtle Island2 (North America)—at a gathering hosted by the University of Toronto’s First Nations House some dozen years ago. The speaker was Lubicon Cree3 scholar-activist Robyn Bourgeois whose informative talk on the colonial discursive construction of Indigenous women as disposable provoked my anger and activist impulse (responses that I scrutinize more closely in this thesis). Not long after, I became a nonIndigenous ally member of No More Silence (NMS)4 a group of Indigenous women and nonIndigenous allies dedicated to raising awareness about this issue. In the intervening years, public awareness of the problem has increased exponentially (although insufficiently), thanks to decades of organizing by Indigenous “warrior women” (Bourgeois, 2014). But at that time, the matter rarely appeared on the public radar. It was certainly new to me. That talk at First Nations House became a defining moment of my life, but also of this thesis, inspiring me to apply my activist energies to anticolonial endeavours, which in turn propelled me toward exploring the nuances of intersubjective relations at a specific site—the “solidarity encounter” between Indigenous women/feminists and white women/feminists5 in what is now called Canada.
In this introductory chapter, I discuss my reasons for undertaking this research, situate my study in the relevant literature and introduce some recurring terms and concepts. I also provide an overview of the study’s principle lines of inquiry and design, and of the chapters that follow.
Finally, I summarize the findings and suggest how this research might contribute to our collective thinking about the paradoxical proposition of non-colonizing solidarity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in a context marked by ongoing colonial inequalities.
The Problem/Paradox of Solidarity
Education scholar Susan Dion (2009) asks, “What would it take to transform the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada?” (p. 11). My participation in NMS was grounded from the start in this urgent question. Immersed in the realm of Indigenous/nonIndigenous political solidarity, I became familiar with the anticolonial analysis that undergirded (or was supposed to undergird) most activist imaginaries. I heard the constant refrain by Indigenous voices that would-be non-Indigenous allies take direction from the Indigenous actors in our midst. I became well-versed in widespread Indigenous critiques of the quintessential saviour mentality that seemed to drive many (especially white) non-Indigenous allies. I got the gist of these critiques, but lacked a deeper understanding of how the attitudes and behaviours of well-meaning non-Indigenous allies damaged attempts at political solidarity. In other words, I wanted to get clearer on how colonialism is enacted (and embodied) in such commonplace activist spaces. I wanted to be able to explain the relationship between the micro and the macro, that is, how everyday encounters between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people could reproduce colonial power structures between the same groups. I also, quite frankly, wanted to better understand—and check—the insidious operation of my own “good intentions,” which as scholar-activist Andrea Smith (2013a) points out, so often shore up white privilege.6 Thus positioned as a white settler woman engaged in solidarity, I began my inquiry into the ways in which white settler colonial power relations are articulated (i.e., reproduced and contested) in the solidarity encounter, taking particular note of how the white settler woman subject negotiates her dominant positionality. That said, a caveat is in order: this study is not about white settler allies failing to get solidarity right or lacking commitment, but rather is about taking a careful look at the pernicious nature of white/settler liberal subjectivity in a context of ongoing colonial inequality. This also means conveying the “messiness”7 of intersubjective relations in the solidarity encounter. Notably, throughout this intellectual journey, I have tried to remain anchored in actual practices of political solidarity via my ongoing participation in NMS, which has helped to remind me of the importance of solidarity work despite the challenges.
In this vein, Dion (2009) reminds non-Indigenous Canadians to stop “remembering to forget” (p. 52) and to no longer “continue to position Aboriginal people as figures of the past, as people of a make-believe world” thus jeopardizing any “possibilities for accomplishing an equitable and just relationship” (p. 5). Idle No More (INM),8 the Canada-based grassroots movement of Indigenous peoples and allies that emerged in late 2012, has certainly reinvigorated public debate around the vital importance of redefining Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations (The Kino-nda-niimi Collective, 2014; Wotherspoon & Hansen, 2013).9 Moreover, the responsibility of the non-Indigenous population in Canada to redress the injustices realized against Indigenous peoples has made it onto the public’s agenda with regular frequency since INM’s arrival— injustices around issues ranging from First Nations education; environmental concerns such as resource extraction; the missing and murdered Indigenous women; and, as Anishnaabek scholar Leanne Simpson mentions, the elephant in the room, the unresolved matter of the land.10 Even as I write, renewed debate about the merits, limitations and possible parameters of a public inquiry (steadfastly refused, I might add, by a Harper-led Conservative Government) into the matter of missing and murdered Indigenous women echoes across social and conventional media alike. An unequivocal demand from Indigenous sources is for non-Indigenous settlers to not only acknowledge the gravity of the issue, but also support Indigenous communities in addressing its root cause—the colonial dispossession of Indigenous lands and resources through gender-based violence (INM Collective, 2014; Smith, 2005a). By definition, working to end these murders and disappearances requires working to end white settler colonialism in Canada and hierarchical Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations.
Indigenous calls for non-Indigenous involvement in dismantling settler colonialism come from a variety of ideological quarters, including from scholar-activists such as Taiaiake Alfred (Kanien’kéha11) whose well-developed critiques of reconciliation discourse suggest strong doubts about the possibilities of Indigenous/non-Indigenous political solidarity (Alfred, 2010).12 My experiences at a variety of events from public rallies to more intimate settings such as NMS meetings attest to Indigenous calls for non-Indigenous political allies to back the former’s assertions of nationhood and autonomy on Indigenous terms (Indigenous nationhood movement, n.d.; see also Walia, 2012).13 These terms would involve, as Sylvia Maracle points out, a new conversation in which Indigenous people are not seen as deficient.14 Indigenous peoples are above all demanding (and fostering) a new set of social relations between Indigenous and nonIndigenous (white settler) peoples where the latter do not position ourselves as superior (see also LaRocque, 2010). The problem of solidarity rests on a paradox: how can hierarchicallypositioned subjects work together to foster equitable relations in a context of ongoing inequity?15 It is the roots of this paradox—the effects of the inescapable “colonial present” (Gregory, 2004) on solidarity relations—that require a more careful look, which is precisely what this thesis sets out to do.
Situating the Problem: A Review of the Literature
Both the paradox of solidarity, and the concomitant demand to reconfigure Indigenous/nonIndigenous social relations are, of course, direct consequences of Canada’s fraught colonial history, itself the subject of much scholarly literature (Dickason & McNab, 2009; King, 2012;
Miller & Upton, 1991; Miller, 2000; Ray, 2010). As Lynne Davis (2010b) points out, “there has been considerable writing on Indigenous/non-Indigenous relationships in general, as well as numerous historical analyses... and a number of guides on forming partnerships between Indigenous communities and the corporate sector” (p. 4). There is also a growing body of scholarship on Indigenous/non-Indigenous political alliances, solidarity and coalition-building, as I discuss below. My research can be situated at the intersections of these and several other literatures, including Indigenous/feminist thought and anti-racist/critical race feminisms (particularly the subset of critical whiteness studies). I have also drawn on postcolonial feminist literature for my theoretical framework (see Chapter 3). I centre my work, however, within a burgeoning literature by Indigenous women/feminists on Turtle Island that, among other things, theorizes their colonial encounters with the mainstream (white) women’s movement.16 Thus, I begin with an overview of this literature especially as it pertains to political solidarity.
Indigenous women’s/feminist theorizations of the colonial encounter
That is the madness, the psychosis, of racism; the mistress accords herself distinction as a certain type of woman while erasing the womanhood of other peoples.... Sojourner Truth told you already, ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ She asked the white feminist movement on our behalf, a hundred years ago, and the white women of North America have yet to face the answer. She served up the question; we need do no more.
—Lee Maracle (1996, p. 138) Scholar, writer and activist Lee Maracle (1996) (Stoh:lo/Métis) voices a common assessment of Indigenous women/feminists regarding the contemporary state of relations between themselves and the mainstream (white) feminist movement17 in Canada—that white women have historically positioned, and to a large extent still position themselves/ourselves as superior vis-àvis the Indigenous female Other (see Chapter 3). Although Indigenous women’s/feminist scholarship generally has not focused on white women/feminists or the terrain of encounter between Indigenous women and white women—Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s (Geonpul) (2000) work being a notable exception—dispersed throughout are mentions of obstacles to political solidarity between Indigenous women and white women. Specifically, Indigenous women hint at the ways in which the white, colonial impulse operates in these encounters, and how certain feminist theoretical formulations can facilitate these operations. While I do not engage in the broader discussion underway about the contours of Indigenous feminisms,18 many of the allusions to Indigenous/non-Indigenous women’s solidarity increasingly appear within this literature.19 It is also important to situate Indigenous women’s/feminist literature in relation to the vast body of scholarship spanning the past several decades by women of colour20 that enumerates the ethnocentric and universalizing tendencies of white feminist thought and practice.21 (As I mention below, a considerable portion of this critique has concerned how to work effectively across differences among women.) Many Indigenous women express indebtedness to women of colour for having forged a path toward liberatory praxis (Maracle, 1996; Settee as cited in Rebick, 2005; St. Denis, 2007; Sunseri, 2008; Turpel, 1993).22 As Maracle (1996) notes in her ground-breaking exposé of Indigenous feminism, women of colour have played an essential role in feminist history.23 She notes that “othered” groups such as “Black, Asian and Native women” share a struggle against racism and the discursive power of whiteness given that racism is an “ideological rationale” of colonialism (Maracle, 1996, p. 89). In short, these groups cite similar race-based impediments to solidarity and require similar gestures or actions from white women to overcome those impediments. In fact, a main contribution of women of colour scholarship— the notion that differences of identity, belonging and power among women must be accounted for in feminist theory and practice—finds echo in the more recent writings of Indigenous women/feminists. Additionally, Indigenous women and women of colour both ask white women to face their complicity in racist structures and to work to dislodge white supremacy. That is, the theoretical advances of women of colour—including intersectional or interlocking oppressions (Combahee River Collective, 1997; Crenshaw, 1991; Razack, 1998); the myth of common oppression and sisterhood (hooks, 2000); and the race to innocence (Fellows & Razack, 1998)— also apply to Indigenous–white relations.
Even as Verna St. Denis (2007) credits “feminists of color” with having provided her “an opening to feminist scholarship,” she clarifies that “some Aboriginal women maintain that the processes of racialization do not solely define their identity” (p. 48). To employ an intersectional analysis is to reveal the specificity of Indigenous women’s concerns about white feminists/feminisms, concerns that flow from the historically-derived modes of oppression to which they have been subjected.24 In noting this specificity in Indigenous women’s/feminist scholarship, I pay particular attention to how Indigenous women centre colonialism in their work and urge settler women to do the same. This thesis considers why settler women continue to find it so difficult to operationalize this advice, as individuals and as a social movement.
The legacy of “whitestream” feminism25
Aligning with postcolonial feminists such as Gayatri Spivak (1985) and Anne McClintock (1995), Maracle (1993) describes the birth of feminist movement among Euro-American women: “Nationalism and racism infused life into patriarchy and bent the direction of feminism before it was ever fully conceived. The women’s movement in Europe, and most particularly North America, was exclusively white and centreed on achieving white male status for themselves” (p. 126). Influenced by, and contributing to, the racist, colonialist and classist discourses of their time, Euro-American feminists sought entrance into modernity based on white male subject terms. Indigenous scholars’ critiques of contemporary encounters with white women/feminists, demonstrate the legacy of these origins—the primacy that mainstream white feminist theories still give to the white female subject and gender-based oppression and the concomitant erasure of the Indigenous woman subject, both recipes for problematic praxis.