«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
White women’s narratives also tend to present a more personal sense of responsibility as a motivating factor for their engagement in solidarity. Of course, it is as individuals that both Indigenous women and white women “choose” to engage in solidarity work, if under different structural constraints. The difference, I argue, lies in the degree to which one invokes one’s membership in a broader collectivity. Admittedly, white participants vary in this regard. But, only a minority of white participants explicitly cite their settler positionality as the factor that propelled them to do solidarity work. When participants do make this link, they tend to be explicitly attentive to colonialism, which suggests that an anticolonial politics can foster in white settler subjects a sense of responsibility and accountability as members of a white settler collectivity. Even so, as I hope to make evident in this and forthcoming chapters, the discursive act of locating one’s self in power relations is always an ongoing and fraught process.14 Peggy is among those participants who link their settler status to their solidarity work. A veteran white woman activist and ally, Peggy’s trajectory into solidarity is reminiscent of my own; she
too had an experience abroad whose profound impact altered her perception of “home”:
It just made me look at Canada in a different… see Canada much more clearly. And that just felt like, that was... Colonialism with Indigenous people is Canada’s original sin. It’s just like where it starts from.... But I do see North American colonialism against Indigenous people as kind of the foundation for a lot of other oppression. And for a certain structure of the state that has to be changed.
She has long acknowledged her settler status, together with that of her ancestors:
My ethnic background is predominately British Isles—Scots-Irish, English, Welsh, there’s a little bit of Dutch, but it’s mainly English. But my father’s family at any rate arrived in North America in the 1600s, at least some branches of it. Some branches of my family have been here for a long time, 13 generations.
In her early twenties and already with several years of solidarity experience, Carla also cites her
lineage, and then correlates her settler status with her solidarity work with Indigenous women:
I think that people who benefit from the privileges from a history of colonialism and ongoing colonialism owe it to themselves and the general population to try and make things better. And part of making things better is being in solidarity with people and trying to make radical change.... My Mom’s side... is fourth generation Canadian; on my Dad’s, I’m closer to seventh or eighth. And I do know he had relatives who came with the Hudson’s Bay Company a couple hundred years ago. So dealing with Native issues for me is in direct relation with me knowing my background, my ancestry, my family’s lineage.
There is also Evelyn, who thought it imperative to educate herself extensively on Canada’s colonial history before doing solidarity work. She remarks on the current state of colonial
I’m living in a society… my existence is predicated on oppressing other people, oppressing all sorts of people, globally as well as locally, domestically. [...] And, there’s lies, politicians are lying. It’s an omission; it’s lying by omission, not telling the whole story and not redressing past wrongs. Verbally… ‘cause I think [politicians are] playing a very… they’re playing an interesting game.... I think they’re still trying to wipe Indigenous people out. The reason that the Truth and Reconciliation thing took so long is because they wanted more of the generations to die off, so they didn’t have to make retribution financial or otherwise. I think the agenda is, “Okay, just shut them out, shut them out, shut them out” and it will all go away. People will get assimilated. So they’re still hoping that the assimilation will happen, and then it won’t be a problem anymore.
After becoming involved in solidarity work, she adopted the term settler to describe herself:
I always identify myself, particularly online, as a settler so that people know exactly where I’m coming from. I think that’s a term that most people are aware of now. And it situates me in people’s minds.... It lets people know that I know that I’m a newcomer, you know, that no matter if I’m third-generation Canadian, I’m a newcomer. I don’t necessarily belong here. And I’m gonna, I’ll accept that. I don’t know how to redress that issue, but...
Even as Peggy, Carla and Evelyn situate themselves, and their respective family histories, in relation to the colonial project, the “problem with ‘privilege’” (Smith, 2013b) is also insidiously present. Personal narratives of this sort (in which a family’s generations of “settlerhood” can be easily invoked) are not equally available to all settlers, which begs a question—to what extent is settler responsibility/accountability (perceived to be) due to one’s personal family history and/or structural location?
Another white participant, Julia, locates herself as a white person who has benefited from the colonial dispossession of Indigenous people and who has a consequent responsibility in the
current political moment, among other things, to educate herself and other white people:
My interest in that group was really around, as a white person, how do I benefit from that colonial experience of [Native] people and how do I perpetuate that and how is it that I’m responsible to make some positive change in that regard? As white people, how do we continue to perpetuate that colonialism now? It’s our responsibility to educate ourself [sic] on that and to educate others. It’s not the responsibility of the Indigenous folks to educate us. They’ve done enough of that.15 When asked about the role of white women as allies in Indigenous women’s struggles, she is just as forthright: “I think first and foremost, it’s that piece of understanding my unearned privilege.... I sit on this land, I sit as somebody who can walk in and not be criticised.” As among those white participants who most freely and repeatedly grapple with their status as members of a white settler collectivity, Julia’s narrative is also complicated at times when she seems to position herself as the exceptional white ally (see Chapter 6).
Another white participant, Sarah, also mentions colonial land theft:
The land that we live on now is not our land. I really believe that that land was stolen, and there are all sorts of agreements that weren’t honoured. So now we’re living on stolen land, so when people come to this country from other countries, they’re also living on land that is not theirs.... At the same time, these are people who are experiencing racism and violence in their own way, but are they...can you say that they’re participating in the colonization? I don’t know. That’s what’s so interesting to me about the way that people can embody power and be victimized at the same time... can both wield power and be powerless.
Having the wherewithal to name the “elephant in the room”—the unresolved matter of stolen land16—is surely a move in the right direction in considering one’s structural privilege.
However, Sarah arguably sidesteps her positionality by quickly turning to a current conversation underway in solidarity circles about how best to theorize the status of racialized peoples (e.g., some refugees, second-generation Canadians with ancestors from the Caribbean) vis-à-vis the Indigenous Other.17 While other white participants such as Dawn may mention colonialism, as I discuss below, it is not necessarily in connection with their membership in a white collectivity.
As I mention above, Indigenous and white participant motivations for doing political/solidarity work are not entirely divergent; for example, virtually everyone mentions directly or infers the pursuit of social justice as a main reason for their political engagement. Participants in both groups express anger, passion and a desire to act. A more complicated story is told, however, when one accounts for how emotions can be wielded to different (political) effect by differently positioned subjects. Over half of white participant narratives contain intertwined evocations of emotion (anger, passion) and notions of “caring,” often followed by a stated urgency to act. Like Heron (2007), whose study participants also expressed a desire “to go and do something” (p.
39), I find such passages particularly indicative of the complex layers of white settler investments in solidarity work.18 They reveal the propensity and risk of conceptualizing one’s implication in colonialism as (merely) personal: one’s structural location in an oppressive collectivity recedes from view. And, analytical critique and genuine outrage can easily slide into the desire to “help.” In an astonishing parallel to my own story (see Introduction and Chapter 2), Alicia recalls being “totally floored” when she found out about the high rates of violence against Indigenous
I thought, “How could I have never learned this before now? How could this be that it’s such a pervasive problem according to this pamphlet, yet I’ve never learned about this, no one’s spoken about it?” I’ve realized that there was a huge issue in my back yard, in my own country and I had no awareness of it.... It was almost like my own ego, huge ego: “How can I possibly not know about this? I know about things, I’m aware, I’m with it. I get the whole social justice scene.” I read [the pamphlet] and I was shocked.
Julia notes an increase in her consciousness about Indigenous issues when children from a nearby Native reserve were bussed into her school in Grade 3: “Suddenly they were blamed for everything that had ever gone wrong.” After commenting on the injustices she saw to a teacher, as she remembers, “I got smacked.” Noting this “pivotal moment” in her life, she adds, “And I’ve always been somebody who questions things and didn’t take things for just whatever was sitting on the surface. Anti-racism and that sort of thing is a big part of who I am as a person.” Darcie echoes these participants’ (and my own) passion in explaining why she was drawn to
solidarity work with Indigenous women:
I think that that’s what solidarity means to me. It’s having a real desire to try and better the world. [...] I don’t really know if there’s one factor that really drives me [to work in solidarity with Native women]. I just know I get really upset or I respond very passionately to the lack of awareness among most of the Canadian population, most of settler society, of what I see as a fundamental injustice and I just think that needs to be addressed if we’re ever going to move forward as a society.
Alongside a highly developed anticolonial critique, Sarah describes her emotional response to
the situation of Indigenous women in Canada:
So already racialized peoples in this country are subject to brutal racism and violence, but with Indigenous women, there’s this added genocide. The colonization that is still continuing to happen—not “sort of,” it is. When I’m looking at and thinking about that in my country there are children that don’t have access to water—that’s genocide, that’s continuing. That’s a whole other level to me. It’s something that I feel, when I look at injustice, that seems to be the greatest injustice of all, and it makes me angry.
First, I agree that the desire to redress social injustice “can and should be read as conscious resistance to social injustice” (Heron, 2007, p. 41). Second, the white participants I quote here have certainly taken great strides in understanding the “relationship between knowledges, social responsibility and collective struggle which one would expect to find in anti-racist pedagogy” and, I would add, anticolonial praxis (Moreton-Robinson, 2000, p. 131). However, personal outrage can keep the white settler woman subject in the realm of the personal, individualizing her engagement in solidarity work. Rubina, an Indigenous participant, helps clarify my point.
She calls on white women to be emotionally engaged, which is not to be conflated with
It’s different to be emotionally engaged than to be emotional. Does that make sense?
Like, when [white] people hear about the residential school system for the first time, the “Indians” have to caretake the emotions again. When people hear about the missing and murdered, for us it’s like, “Yeah, 500 of my sisters are missing or murdered. What the fuck’s wrong? Whatever. Let’s move on. Forward ahead!” We have to stop and turn around and comfort the… Oh, my god! I’m sick of having to hand the tissues.
The problem, as Rubina points out, when personal outrage overshadows the white settler woman’s political analysis, her self-interests are at risk of taking centre stage (see also the below section “Indigenous women and white desire”). Just as angry as Darcie or Sarah, in responding to why she does this work, Indigenous participant Wanda appears better able to retain the focus on Indigenous women “who died [and who] need not be forgotten. [My involvement in solidarity work is] about those women.... Native women are being exploited in this country and they need to be heard.” As Heron (2007) explores in relation to development work, even when social justice figures centrally as a motivating factor, the white subject does not necessarily develop/sustain an anticolonial critique or avoid typically colonial behaviours.
Social justice motivations do not guarantee effective (non-colonizing) solidarity, but can instead serve a charity mode of solidarity and white settler subjects’ desires to reproduce themselves as innocent and self-determining (see Chapter 6). Despite, or perhaps because of, how they emphasize their personal location in colonial history, many white participant narratives reveal individualistic modes of investment that can lead to solidarity tensions.