At the Kinamagawin Symposium, held at Carleton University, the first speaker, Pamela Palmater started her presentation with the sentence that “Identity is non-negotiable!” Considering her sentiment, readings by Susan Dion and Angela Salamanca, Karyn Recollet, Audrey Hudson, Tracey Freidel, and Alexa Woloshyn are salient examples of urban Indigenous youth asserting their identities in environments that range traditionally did not see urban Indigenous identity or actively tried to suppress any notion or urban Indigeneity. Serving a similar role to storytelling, this expression of identity is demonstrated in visual arts, music, dance and protest with overlap in all these categories.
One common observation made my Indigenous youth is that didn’t fit in school and schools didn’t fit them (Dion and Salamanca, 2014, 160). This is in large part due to intergenerational trauma stemming from removing children from family and communities, racialisation, forced migration to rural reserves and settlements and legislation that denied people self-determination. The idea that Indigenous people live in cities is either unimaginable to people, or a problem to be addressed.When identity is non-negotiable, it creates challenges, for those who are already carrying intergenerational wounds in cases where art, culture, history is foreign and identity is not recognised and assimilationist forces have continued for centuries. This is magnified in youth where identities are being developed and rounded-out. Indigenous populations in cities are significant and because Indigenous people living in Canada have a lower median age, their proportion of youth is greater. (Woloshyn, 2015, 3) It serves no-one to ignore or suppress young Indigenous peoples’ identities.
In many Indigenous cultures, storytelling is more than entertainment (Dion and Salamanca, 2014, 162-3). Visual arts, music and dance also “reflect the deepest, the most intimate perceptions, relationships and attitudes of a people. Stories show how a people, a culture thinks” (Dion and Salamanca, 2014, 163). Art exhibits such as inVISIBILITY provide a venue for Indigenous youth to assert identity and the diversity of those identities in other forms of storytelling. Music, such as that produced by A Tribe Called Red which merges settler and foreign musical styles with First Nations powwow drumming serve to reinforce unassimilated personal and collective identities and act as a form of resistance to colonial assimilationist practices (Woloshyn, 2015, 3). This expression of identity coupled with protest is also evidenced in flash mob round dances which project a message of outrage against settler state and corporate incursions and destruction of traditional territories and resistance and support for the Idle No More movement while providing a message that Indigenous people are modern and are a significant part of settler cities. (Freidel, 2015, 886).
For anyone, identity is fundamental and non-negotiable. For youth, it is challenging enough. For Indigenous youth, it is fraught with a settler-colonial history that has wreaked havoc with family and community and a contemporary culture that does not see Indigeneity as a modern urban fact or recognise the diversity within these cultures that have come together. We need more spaces for art, for community, for protest.
Dion, S. and Salamon, A. 2014. “Invisibility Indigenous in the City, Indigenous Artists, Indigenous Youth; the Project of Survivance”. Decolonization, Indigeneity Education and Society, Volume 3 (1): 159 – 188.
Friedel, T. L. 2015. “Understanding the Nature of Indigenous Youth Activism in Canada: Idle No More as a Resumptive Pedagogy”. South Atlantic Quarterly, Volume 114 (4): 878 – 891.
Hudson, A. 2016. “Here we are on Turtle Island: Indigenous young adults navigating places, spaces and terrain”. International Journal of Lifelong Education, Volume 35, Issue 2.
Recollett, K. 2015. “Glyphing decolonial love through urban flash mobbing and walking with our Sisters”. Curriculum Inquiry, Volume 45 (1): 129 – 145.
Woloshyn, A. 2015. “Hearing urban Indigeneity in Canada: Self-Determination, Community Formation and Kinaesthetic Listening with A Tribe Called Red”. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Volume 39 (3): 1 – 23.
If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
Radisson, Quebec. As I grow older, I am starting to appreciate places that are less filled with people. A couple of years ago, I took a trip to the Sault with my previous dog. It was our last road trip together and I will always remember it. We didn’t take 17. Instead we went through LaVerendrye Provincial Park, Val d’Or, Rouyn-Noranda, Timmins, Chapleau and Wawa, then Lake Superior Provincial Park. Off the highway and away from the mines, there was just us, the land underneath. It felt silent even though it wasn’t.
What does the land you reside on mean to you?
I have a settler mindset when it comes to land. It’s a 400m2 flat space where the building I sleep in sits. It’s security. It’s my space where I can do what I want when I want respecting my neighbours. It’s a refuge and a home for my feathered animals. It has some sentimental value because it belonged to my grandmother and seeing it when I come home reminds me of her, but it’s still foremost a place where I sleep and I keep my pets and possessions.
Do you think the land connects with you?
I wouldn’t say that the land that I “own” connects with me, but I do have an affinity for the territory where I live. I was born in Ottawa and I live in Aylmer. I’ve lived most of my life in the Ottawa and Rideau valleys. There is a sense of belonging that I have in eastern Ontario and western Quebec that I don’t feel elsewhere. I feel like a visitor even in Montreal or the Adirondacks. I’m not sure if it’s a connection to land or if it’s because this is where most of the people I love live and those that I loved lived.
What things can you do to further your knowledge of traditional land?
Listen, read, empathise.
How does your identity connect with the land you reside on (i.e. 2SLGBTQ, male, female, etc.)?
I don’t know. I am not sure if it’s a lack of awareness or the lifestyle that I lead. I am an office-worker and a student. I don’t know if I would feel the land differently if I had a different sexual orientation or gender identity.
As Jenny Burman (2016) writes, emotion can be a powerful tool within activism. Aside from the example given in the reading, can you think of examples of protest and activism, whether it be on a local, national, or global scale, that have successfully utilized feelings of rage and anger in furthering their cause? Why do you suppose it was successful? Why did it achieve?
I think that second-wave feminism is a powerful example. While it favoured white middle-class women in liberal democracies, it turned the world around. I think about my grandmothers’ loves, born in 1916 and 1920, my mother, born in 1947 and me, born in 1969. My grandmother worked outside the home before her children were born. My mother did not work outside the home from 1969 to 1979 and there was never a time where I was either a full-time worker or student as an adult and I never felt the pressure to be a parent. The changes in expectations that women had for themselves and society has had was nothing short of revolutionary and there are ripple effects today. While I am focussed on labour-force participation, and we are waves away from true equity and equality, the rage and anger around childrearing and labour force participation us unmatched to the point where there is nothing common between my life and that of my grandmothers’.
Can you think of what sort of barriers Indigenous women, girls, and LGBTQ2S+ individuals might face when accessing healthcare and medical services? What do you envision socially-conscious and culturally relevant healthcare services to look like? Have you seen any examples of new services or grassroots initiatives that are seeking to tackle this?
I can’t help that the class prejudices are major impediments to all disadvantaged women, girls and LGBTQ2S+ individuals, racist perceptions of Indigenous people lead to intersections of discrimination. I think of issues of choices of sources of income, education and misunderstandings lead to poorer services, judgment and withholding of information. Were I to be earning my income in a marginal manner and not as a government drone, I might not be seeking assistance in all but the most dire circumstances for fear of divulging information that might put my children in care. As a settler, I have not seen may of examples of culturally-relevant care other than possibly community health care centres that don’t require a health card to receive service.
Based on conclusions from the National Inquiry’s Final Report, what role does community play in the healing process? Look at the Indigenous community in Ottawa, for example; what is one tangible action that has or can be taken to re-value and celebrate Indigenous women, girls, and LGBTQ2S+ community members?
Questions such as these are challenges as a settler. Unless one is in a particular community, it is difficult to know what a particular community can do. As a settler, I feel that it’s wrong to even offer suggestions. I’m going to offer generalities. Youth need to stay in school. People need to be out of the criminal justice system, social welfare system and hospitals. Though all four are agents of coloniaIndigenouslisation, the last three are more challenging to reform. This is not a concrete or tangible action, but more indigenised spaces which are purged of colonial influence to the greatest extent possible. Indigenous people do not need sexist and heterosexist colonial attitudes any more than settler women, girls and LGBTQ2 residents do, but intersectionality makes the cuts deeper.
How can make queer indigenous people more accepted in urban environments in a way that is not met with resistance or lack of cooperation from organisations?
This is a reflection of my liberal settler bias, but I can’t help but think that abandonment of western religious notions would be a start. I would also suggest further decolonialisation. As colonisers, the United Kingdom enacted harsh laws against homosexuality that have remained long after the Brits have gone home. Tag them as settler biases.
Why is important that indigenous voices, particularly the voices of women and girls, are heard in the genocide convention?
I’m deliberately going off on a tangent for the next two questions because they touch on why I chose graduate studies at SICS. If one is to look simply at crime and court data, Indigenous women and especially girls are both well above female settler rates of victimisation. Indigenous women and girls are both under-policed and over-policed. It seems that despite the MMIW Inquiry and Report, women and girls are seen as property for urban settler men to abuse and dispose of at their will. Resistance is often met with encounters with the legal system. With the exception of Starlight Tours and other abuses at the hands of police, the state does not generally commit the genocide. However, by refusing to investigate violence and lost person reports, refusing to hold perpetrators accountable, dismissing complaints and blaming victims, the state allows its agents to do the work of systematically removing people and destroying culture.
How can analysing their experiences intersectionally help to improve the lives of indigenous women and girls?
As someone who uses public data from Statistics Canada on a daily basis, the inability or unwillingness to look at circumstances from multiple perspectives, the quality of the analysis is weaker. In Kimberly Crenshaw’s case, GM definitely had large numbers of black men working in their assembly plants and white women in offices. They could argue that they neither discriminated against black people or women. It wasn’t until that it was demonstrated that black women were excluded from factory work due gender discrimination and were excluded from administrative work due to racial discrimination. It is similar in crime data. Males tend to be accused of and victims homicide in 85% of cases. Indigenous people tend to be accused of and victims homicide in most cases. It is not until you add the gender layer to see that rates for Indigenous females as accused and victims are astronomical and for girls, it’s enough to keep you awake at night. Without looking at the intersections of ethnicity, sex and age, so much is missed.
In my work on our State of the Criminal Justice System dashboard, we were always trying to obtain data, broken down by ethnic identity, age group and sex. There were far more buried stories in the data with multiple slices rather than the one or two that StatsCan provides.
Based on what I have learned from recent academic study of First Nations and Métis cultures, who you are depends on who your people or family are. For my mother’s family, they’re Dutch who settled in Canada from Friesland and Amsterdam in the first decade of the 20th century. I have or had family in numerous communities from Ottawa to Wawa along Highway 17. I’m related to everyone with my grandparents’ surname. My dad’s family is a closed book. All I know about them is that they’re from between Low and Maniwaki Quebec, and that my mother insisted that my paternal grandmother was Algonquin....
... My grandmother and father would not entertain any discussion of family history. What I have learned from the few people I know who are members of First Nations and from professional and academic study of Indigenous people, culture and social issues is firstly, there is not one way to be Indigenous in the city. Also, I’m not connected to any Indigenous culture, therefore it’s a challenge to make a claim that elements that makes me who I am, such as identity, perspective, context or experience conforms or diverges from urban Indigeneity. That is not to say that challenges to preconceived notions and are also not having an impact on me. It’s just that even at half a century on the planet, I am still not sure who I am. Who I think I am is a product of conscious and unconscious biases so, it will change from one day to the next and hopefully that positionality is progressive and dynamic.
Today, I am a middle-class Canadian living with a beagle in a house that belonged to my paternal grandmother in western Quebec. My positionality is in large part shaped by my race, social class, employment and national identity. I was born in Ottawa, lived most of my life in rural eastern Ontario and western Quebec. My mother’s family was working class, and my father’s family was extremely poor. Most of my work career has been with the federal government, 20 years with the Department of Justice and three years with the Department of National Defence. Academically, I studied Social Work at the University of Windsor between 1989 and 1992, but completed my undergraduate degree at Carleton in Political Science in 2018. As such, my contact with Indigenous people has been incidental to professional and social contexts that have nothing to do with Indigeneity. Ottawa is a unique environment and Indigenous people I know are generally suburban professionals.
I’ll admit that Indigenous issues and urban Indigeneity were simply not issues for me. While I am empathetic, white privilege allowed me to not always see what is in plain sight. While I have been aware that colonialism and racism has led to devastating impacts on Indigenous people, I did not have the investment, vocabulary and focus to see Indigenous issues and interests as being unique and important or why Indigenous people raise certain issues. Today, I view urban Indigeneity as something unique, but something that I feel like I am scratching the surface of what I know and understand. I want to be an ally, but I don’t know how to do so without being certain that the support is wanted or effective.
I’ll also own that my positionality as a privileged, educated individual living on unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin land is problematic. It does make any attempts at being an ally appear a little shallow. I feel privileged to be Canadian. It is not only the name of the country where I live, I identify with what it claims to stand for. I want to believe that we are a fair and generous state. I work for the state. I’m proud of the work that I do. I see colleagues who also are proud of their work and feel that they are serving Canadians. I’d have to admit that I have blinders and have had other blinders. My current employment as a researcher in a team of criminologists have attuned me to gross injustices to that racialise Indigenous people and place them in the criminal justice system disproportionally as victims of crime and as those accused, charged, convicted and sentenced to crime. The data, once seen and analysed cannot be unseen, but I work for part of a state that allows for this criminal abuse and other parts of the state allow for economic exploitation and environmental damage, and others deny Indigenous people access to adequate education, health and housing
I am more than what I am and what I do, but in the context of urban Indigeneity, race and class matter. I live on Algonquin land. I work for an employer who maintains the Indian Act and am comfortable with my oblivious suburban lifestyle. I cheer for the red team in politics though I am uncomfortable about how my former minister was treated and how the federal government has recently handled disagreement with Wet'suwet'en and Mi'kmaq peoples. I am part of the problematic part of urban Indigeneity and contribute nothing to social, economic and political organisation that makes urban Indigeneity great. This leads to cognitive dissonance between who I think that I am and who I really am. I seem to learn more about ‘who I am’ with every funeral, but my grandparents’ generation is gone and I have one paternal uncle left to learn from. If my mom’s claim was right, then my positionality may change again, but should it?
My house was built on stolen land. I didn’t steal it myself. I’m pretty much certain that the woman who owned the house before me didn’t steal the land underneath it either. It used to be my grandmother’s house and grandmothers aren’t thieves. I bought the house in good faith from her estate. She bought the house in good faith through a private mortgage from an employer of hers who cared enough to assist her pull her and her children out of poverty. I don’t even think that even that person stole the land. Way back in 1800, it is doubtful that Philemon Wright stole the land after he was granted numerous plots on the north shore of what is now the Ottawa River in the former City of Aylmer that were divided, subdivided, traded and sold over the next 220 years.
Long before me, my grandmother, or even Philemon Wright were born, European kings, weary of dividing up Europe, and seeking trade routes to China and other Asian ports tried going west instead of east. Unfortunately, there was land in the way of that path to Asia. In the world that was known to them, land that was occupied by other peoples, peoples that didn’t worship a Christian god, who didn’t have what would be recognised as legal codes, or societies. Sovereignty over unoccupied territory could be asserted by a state or monarch by occupying it. This is the concept of terra nullius. In this land that they ‘discovered’, there were fish, furs, logs, minerals and so much land that empires could be built. So, back in the 15th century, men in Europe weren’t going to be dissuaded by savages on the land that they discovered, so in their wisdom, their pope issued a papal bull called the Doctrine of Discovery. That is to say that when land was not occupied by Christians, then the cultures, laws, beliefs and traditions of the inhabitants were inferior to those of the discoverers, then the land was really unoccupied and could be occupied legally, according to European laws at least.
Not all kings fully bought into the Doctrine of Discovery wholeheartedly. Knowing that he needed allies to fight the French in the Seven Years War, but also wanted a foothold on Turtle Island, King George III of the United Kingdom issued a proclamation that would ‘permit’ British settlement, but set aside lands where First Nations allies would not be disturbed by settlement and settlers. Yet, despite protestations, settlers came. My home is on some of that land that was set aside for Omàmiwinini people. We know them better as Algonquins. Land was given to Mr Wright and it was sold and resold in good faith for two hundred and twenty years. It remains stolen land. It wasn’t sold, surrendered or lost in war to the United Kingdom or Canada. It was taken. If I purchased a car in good faith that was stolen from an Algonquin family, I could face criminal sanctions. Instead, I am rewarded for being a good taxpaying citizen for owning stolen land.
I’m a part-time Master’s student at the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University and a full-time data analyst in the federal Department of Justice. My research interest is access to justice issues for Indigenous people living in Canada. I live on the north shore of Kichi sipi with my beagle Lamont and seven chickens in a suburb on the unceded and unsurrendered territory of the Omàmiwinini people.